How a British choirboy became a Hollywood composer, and his transition to working on some of the game industry's biggest titles.
More often than not, the hard work of shooting a film is mostly done by the time a director hires a composer. For Stephen Barton, that usually means he has a lot of nearly finished scenes to inspire his music, and not the other way around.
"You sort of get up in the morning," Barton says, "And you say, 'OK! I'm going to write one-and-one today' — the first cue in the movie — or 'I'm going to write the end of reel four.'
"You've got the [scenes] right there. ... And unless they screw you in the edit and change it, it's going to stay two and a half minutes long."
Barton's first experience being contracted for video games was oddly similar, he says. In 2006 he and his mentor, composer Harry Gregson-Williams, were invited to create the score for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But instead of a collection of movie scenes, they were given in-game cutscenes and timed sections of gameplay to compose for.
"There were a lot of sections that were on rails," he says. "And if you die, it just jumps you back to a certain point.
"Titanfall has gone a completely different way."
When some of the team behind Modern Warfare left to form Respawn Entertainment, it set out to make a game that abandoned many of the traditional single-player and story-based elements, focusing exclusively on team-based multiplayer.
The Respawn team essentially abandoned all the familiar narrative elements that Barton had spent his entire career making music for.
But Respawn still wanted Barton to compose its score. It was up to him to figure out how.
He was a professional musician before he was even 10 years old.
Barton was born in England. When he was a toddler, his parents noticed him wander off at a dinner party. When they found him he was sitting at the host's piano. But instead of banging on the keys as most children would, he was delicately plinking out a tune, listening to each note and searching for the right one to follow.
Three years later, at the age of eight, he was a member of the elite Winchester Cathedral Choir, one of 22 boys plucked from the ranks of The Pilgrims' School in the south of England. By the age of nine he had toured America and been to Australia twice. He was a professional musician before he was even 10 years old.
He went on to Somerset, England where he chose to study concert piano at Wells Cathedral School.
"I don't want to say it's a very lonely kind of thing," Barton says, "but you spend seven or eight hours in a practice room a day. I was never really that interested in doing that. I would never practice anywhere near enough. I was much more interested in doing other things, playing with other people without being sequestered away."
In the late '90s Wells built an addition to its campus in the form of a music technology studio. Barton says the faculty didn't quite know what to do with it at first, other than record and mix school concerts. But Barton dove in.
"They had some [equipment]; essentially all the gear that I use today for a living, we had in some way, shape or form in a shrunken-down, smaller version," Barton says. "And I just got really into it. I taught myself a way around it and sort of learned how to mix the programming skills, the production skills."
Barton began writing his own music soon after, and he is among the first generation of composers to learn how to work natively in a digital studio. Instead of an analogue grand piano, his new instrument was something called a music sequencer. When he hit a key on the keyboard he could play any instrument he wanted, drawing from a vast digital library of sample tones. His piano could be an oboe, like his mother played. Or it could be a flute, or a violin.
He soon began composing for other music students at Wells. He says that he felt free outside of the cloistered piano practice room, that he learned to feed off the creative energy of others. He felt comfortable being in a kind of choir again, rather than playing the part of a soloist up front.
After school he went on to write scores for BBC's Channel 4. But he says that opportunities were limited in England. Through an acquaintance, Barton met Harry Gregson-Williams in 2001. Already a successful composer in LA, Gregson-Williams had worked on many movies. He had also composed the score for some of the Metal Gear Solid games. Most importantly, he and Barton shared a background in the English choral tradition. The pair found that they spoke the same musical language, and Gregson-Williams invited Barton to come to LA and work with him.
He was instantly transported from doing provincial work for the BBC to the pressure cooker of Los Angeles and a global stage.
"I bought a one-way plane ticket," Barton says, "because I couldn't afford a two-way ticket at the time. ... I just came out for three weeks and 12, 13 years later I'm still here."
His first gig was as an arranger for Gregson-Williams on Dreamworks' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Since then he's had credits on Man on Fire, the Shrek movies and The Chronicles of Narnia. But Modern Warfare was his first video game.
"Being thrown in at the deep end in LA," Barton says bashfully, "that was better training than you could possibly hope for really. When it's 3 in the morning and the [piece] has to be played to the director at 9 a.m., it sort of concentrates the mind. It's a very good sort of proving ground."
Six years later he would be on his own, writing new music for a new game franchise.
"As a composer, you're trying to be a chameleon."
Settle the score
The role that music plays in video games changes depending on the style of gameplay. Consider a first-person game in which the goal is to escape from a high-rise building. As players move up through the first few floors, they might need to rely on stealth to avoid detection.
Here a quiet track could emphasize the feeling of being alone, creeping through darkness toward the next objective. But when the player is discovered, the situation becomes more dangerous. The music could change to heighten that sense of danger, ultimately leading to a climactic sequence where the player finally reaches the roof and struggles toward safety.
But say that same game were a platformer, asking players to jump from floor to floor dodging cartoonish enemies. A better approach to scoring that game might be to mimic the sounds players make when they jump, and to synchronize the music with the player's inputs in subtle ways to emphasize the timing.
Put simply, a game's score needs to adapt to the needs of the game designer.
"As a composer," Barton says, "you're trying to be a chameleon."
"Sometimes you want to change color and blend in with what's on screen. There's other times when things [in a score] are standing out, when you can really hear the music as a separate entity. But conversely that can take you out of the experience. It depends on the project, really."
The development team made Modern Warfare like a Hollywood director might make a big-budget action movie. Though the game had a multiplayer mode, the musical score served first and foremost to support the single-player campaign, a campaign that had a beginning, a middle and an end. Barton says that he and Gregson-Williams wrote that music much the way they would write for a movie.
Gregson-Williams had taken the same approach to his work scoring for the Metal Gear Solid series previously. Working on that project he conceptualized what Barton calls the 'game shell,' or the music that surrounds the experience of the game itself — the menus and the loading screens. With that established they composed a traditional thematic movie score for the cinematic, scripted events in Modern Warfare.
For instance Captain Price, Modern Warfare's cigar-chomping British special forces operator, had his own theme. It played during a flashback sequence in Chernobyl, and again near the end of the game when he was shot. It was there to support the emotions that the game developers wanted players to feel during those scenes, to link them in the player's mind.
"You do try to establish these little waypoints," Barton says. "But [you don't] necessarily build the whole structure out of them. And so that just depends on the game really. Some games can take that, and that's useful. But other times when you even go toward the semblance of a melody it's distracting."
But Titanfall is a departure from the single-player first linear model. What subtle story elements there are in the game take a backseat to kinetic multiplayer gameplay — gameplay that is virtually unending. Barton was on his own, working with a style of gameplay that was new to him. And the tricks he learned from his mentor Gregson-Williams wouldn't help him here.
A different drummer
Respawn pulled back the veil on Titanfall for the first time at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June of 2013. Barton was only introduced to it four weeks earlier.
"I went over to their office and just sort of sat down," Barton says, just like he did for his first screening of Modern Warfare.
"It's really funny, because they said it was very, very rough," says Barton. "Then they played the [E3] sequence for me, and I realized that their definition of rough was clearly very different from mine."
The game blends fast-paced infantry combat with methodical, tank-like robots called Titans pounding away on each other. Players can leap from building to building, tracing acrobatic paths across the map with the help of a jetpack. As a match progresses they can call in their Titan, which screams down from orbit to join the fight. The game is loud, frenetic and, unlike Modern Warfare, entirely lacking a traditional single-player mode.
Without that traditional story, without the cutscenes that were so movie-like and familiar to him, Barton had to rethink how he composed music. All of his work had to exist in the multiplayer portion of the game. His first challenge was finding a sound that could even be heard above the footsteps of a Titan.
"You had to cut away the chaff," Barton says of those first few weeks with the game. "I had to focus on what sounds actually cut through the gunfire and the [giant robots]. For example there [are] no woodwinds in the score. We didn't have a single flute player.
"Clarinets?" Barton makes an indelicate noise. "Great instrument, but just not going to be heard over a Titan unleashing a barrage of missiles or something else. It's lost.
"The problem is that if you have elements like that, all it ends up being is mud, a sort of sheen over the top of everything. So it was really challenging trying to find a palette."
Barton was given a short clip of gameplay, which he put on a loop above his work space. Then he turned down the game's sound effects, and composed many short segments of music as a test. Only occasionally would he turn up the ambient sound of the game to see how it meshed with his music. It took him months to find the right blend.
"I always likened it to making whiskey," Barton says. "It was a distillation. You're getting rid of the shit you don't need and then coming in and really focusing on what does work, what really is part of this language."
He focused his energy on differentiating between the game's factions, the powerful Interstellar Mining Corporation and the rag-tag rebels in the Militia. They each became a character, much like Captain Price was in Modern Warfare.
The backstory for the IMC is that it is a large corporation trying to bring utopian order to a frontier on the edge of human civilization. To support the feeling that it is a large, superior force, Barton wrote 80 different parts into the orchestration, drawing from a small number of instruments. With so many similar sounds, he says the IMC's score becomes like one gigantic voice, always expanding to fill the silences around the game's action.
"The idea was that the IMC would be this big fuzzy wall of distortion," Barton says. "Not an angry distortion, but more of a buzz. It has this feeling that there's a sound in a box and it can't quite get out — it's too big for the box, and it might burst at any point."
Traditional instruments, like violins and trumpets, would eventually have their sound processed by a series of computer effects that Barton applied while mixing the final track. When players hear those tracks he hopes that they can pick out melodies that are familiar, and that they will notice how they're comprised of sounds that verge on the unfamiliar.
The fiction behind the Militia paints them as a smaller, more diverse force. For its score Barton wrote only half as many parts for the orchestra, and then spread them across a wider variety of instruments. The result is a more intimate sound that feels physically closer to the player.
The backbone of the Militia's sound is a battery of taiko and Korean frame drums. To that Barton added many different kinds of guitar instead of traditional stringed instruments. Many lead melodies are created with an unusual electric violin, expertly played by soloist Paul Cartwright whose credits include Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. Since Titanfall's story takes place 400 years in the future, Barton says he felt free to mix and match sounds as he saw fit. He didn't have to take an Asian instrument, for instance, and use it to play a Western melody. He could bring the instrument, and the melody, into the future with him and create in his score a kind of expansion of the Militia's cultural lore.
To match the dynamic multiplayer, the pieces he wrote were much shorter than usual. They could be rearranged to match the flow and the outcome of a given multiplayer round.
"We had to kind of rethink [the structure of] everything a little bit," Barton says. "I was trying to write modules with different kinds of tension levels. We might have something we called a 'Fast Titan Action,' or a 'Fast Pilot Action,' or there would be a 'Medium Pilot Action.'
"We didn't actually go lower than medium. There was no slow."
In a way, Barton ceded control of the overall score to the player. Every project that he had ever worked on before gave him almost complete control of when and how his music was experienced. But for Titanfall, it is the game engine that composes the entire piece of music based on how a player is performing. Barton could only feed it the raw materials.
In finishing the composition Barton had only completed part of the job. After eight months in his LA studio, the final step was to travel back to his native England. There he had found a single facility big enough to hold the giant sound of the IMC, yet small enough that the tiny Militia wouldn't be lost.
Abbey Road Studios is practically a shrine for musicians.
Walk this way
Abbey Road Studios is practically a shrine for musicians. From Beatles albums to Pink Floyd's The Wall, it has developed a reputation for bringing the best out of rock bands. Composer John Williams used it many times for his orchestration, and so too has Barton. He's recorded music for Kingdom of Heaven there, and for the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian. Even the majority of the work for Modern Warfare was done inside its walls.
And now Titanfall has been recorded at Abbey Road as well. Barton says that everything was improved by being there.
"It's just got a sound," he says. "And it's something you can't necessarily stick your finger on, but it's just got a really warm, rich tone. You can pretty much put the microphones the wrong way around and I think it would still sound pretty good.
"It's a pretty magical little place. For sure."
For Titanfall two separate orchestras had to be assembled in London, one for each faction. Barton used Abbey Road's larger Studio 1 for the IMC, inviting the brass to record separately so they wouldn't overpower the strings. Then in Studio 2, he brought together all of the musicians for the Militia in one place for a single session.
The composer who sees himself as a chameleon added a few more colors and patterns to his repertoire for Titanfall. Smaller musical phrases and non-traditional instrumentation all mixed together to create a score unlike any he's made before. It's an experience he's excited to try again. Even though the bulk of Barton's work is still in Hollywood, he likes the collaborative atmosphere of working with game developers. It's so much better for him than a life spent practicing piano alone in a practice room.
"It's a great way to work," he says. "It's one of those things where, if you get stuck and you wake up in the morning and you really don't have a good idea, you can sort of bounce ideas back and forth."
In the end, it will be the players who decide if he was successful or not.
"Titanfall was definitely much more of a process of experimentation. Let's try this out, let's try that. And the proof will be in the pudding."