Crank It Up... Take Aim... Fire!

Ten Questions with Marty O'Donnell
[ 3/1/00 ]

Marty is part of Total Audio which is responsible for the music from Riven, Myth, Myth II and others. They have two major projects in the works with Bungie Software - Halo and Oni.

1. Can you begin with a brief history of Total Audio?

Back in college, Mike Salvatori and I were in "rival" bands. We liked each other's stuff and hung around at each other's recording sessions. When I went off to USC to get a Masters in Music Composition, Mike went and built a recording studio in his house. When I came back from California I got a few gigs writing music for some TV spots and industrial films and I produced them at Mike's studio. We decided to form a company called O'Donnell/Salvatori and went on to produce hundreds of scores for broadcast and film. We became TotalAudio in 1997 after working on sound design for "Riven" and doing all the music and sound for "Myth".

2. Describe how you and Mike collaborate on your various projects.

I1m a keyboard player; Mike is a guitar player. I like to get the latest software; Mike likes to engineer. We both write, produce, and do sound design. I learned the "classics"; Mike learned the "classic rock". I do the selling, speaking and interviews; Mike sits on his butt collecting money (just kidding).

3. Bungie's Halo is very high on many people's the list of most anticipated games right now. Do you think that the hype is warranted?

"Halo" deserves the hype. It just flat out looks and feels incredible. Jason Jones and the gang at Bungie do some of the best programming and game design I1ve ever seen. I feel privileged to be able to work on this project, as well as on "Oni" which will also be great.

4. How will the music of Total Audio contribute to the game?

We'll let the player know how they should be feeling at any given moment. Game music is all about emotion and enhancing the atmosphere of the environment the designers are trying to create. We'll say in music what can't be said in words or action. Of course, we're also doing all the voices and sound effects, which will also help to fully immerse the player.

5. How did you end up making music for video games? Was it a career goal or is it something that you just found interesting?

At the beginning of my career, there basically wasn't much seriously happening in game audio for me. That changed in the early 90's with the advent of the CD-ROM and the ability to produce high quality soundtracks for interactive products. Since I've always loved playing games, starting with "Adventure" in the late 70's, it just seemed like a natural fit for me.

6. How did you get hooked up with Bungie and what are they like to work with?

While we were working on "Riven", I sent an email to Tuncer Deniz (now the editor of Inside Mac Games), who was at Bungie at the time, suggesting that we get together and see what happens. That led to working on "Myth: The Fallen Lords" and the relationship grew from there. The people at Bungie are great to work with and best of all they really want the music/sound design guy to be involved at the earliest stages of production. They even listen to my suggestions (sometimes).

7. How do you divide your time between game soundtracks and your other projects?

It1s really difficult right now. Commercial music has a pretty fast turn around and pays really well. Game audio can be a huge undertaking, sometimes taking more than a year for one project, and as far as the money goes, let1s just say that the per minute rate for music in games doesn1t quite match the TV network broadcast rates. However, we1ve done music for commercials that played during the Superbowl and I still get a bigger charge out of the stuff we1ve done for games. Having our music played during Steve Jobs' keynote address at MacWorld New York for the unveiling of "Halo" was a pretty big thrill.

8. As video games become mainstream entertainment more and more, do feel that groups making the game soundtracks will cross over into the realm of popular music?

Who knows? Probably not much more than movie soundtracks have done, which still would be great for us.

9. Has the rapid advance of technology of the past decade had a great affect on how you work?

Absolutely, and since we1ve started doing games even more so. It1s definitely the "bleeding edge" and sometimes it1s pretty painful. Last year our studio burned to the ground and we had to rebuild with all new equipment. That meant making some choices between what we were comfortable working with and getting the latest and greatest toys. We probably went with too many new toys. At this point we are doing totally digital, hard disk based recording. Being able to produce in 5.1 Surround Sound is a kick!

10. Do you have any predictions for the future of video game music?

Interactive entertainment is a medium that1s still trying to define itself. Think of the movie industry in the early 1930's when "Talkies" were still a new phenomenon. Or TV in the early 1950's when Uncle Milty and pro wrestling were just about all you could get. By the late 30's movies became a fully mature art form, as did TV in the late 50's. I believe we are right on the cusp of seeing the same thing happen to interactive entertainment. The quality will get better and better of course, but also the unique aspects of this medium will help to distinguish itself from the preceding mediums. I think we1re all still trying to figure out how to be artfully interactive as opposed to artfully linear in an interactive context. It might not be there yet, but it's coming.

Thanks again to Marty for taking the time for the interview -Old Skul.