You know, this studio gets crowded with all the groupies. Over in the corner, a huge stack of
Marshall amps quietly hums, and a battery of lava lamps casts psychedelic shadows on the mixing
console. I lean in close to the talkback mic and hit the switch. “Are you ready?”
Through the glass Kevin nods; anxious, but in the moment and ready for the take. I hear the
playback over the monitors. It sounds good - here comes the tricky part. Kevin lifts up his
instrument, strikes it at just the right moment, and....ahh. The perfect take. He’s been working on
that triangle part for weeks!
It is my hope to give you a good idea of what it’s like to record an Age of Empires soundtrack
in this article, so I suppose I shouldn’t have started with lies. We don’t have groupies or Marshall
stacks, and it doesn’t take Kevin weeks to practice a triangle part. So what is involved in getting
the music from our heads to your ears? Read on...
In an Age game, there are several ways that music is presented. The most obvious is the
loop of songs that streams off the CD while a game is being played, or the “redbook” music.
Researching, writing, and recording this half-hour is what consumes most of the music team’s
time. The Age games provide a neat opportunity for a composer because they’re based on
history and cultures that actually existed. In many cases, there is well-documented evidence of
what these people actually played and listened to. We feel that it’s our job to bring elements of
this historical music into the gameplay. Kevin and I spend a lot of time listening to CDs, reading
books, and browsing Internet sites just to get an idea of how certain instruments are played.
Before I worked at Ensemble, for example, I didn’t know what a Turkish Oud looked like, much less
how it sounded! Now it’s as much a part of my day as coffee and afternoon playtests.
Early in the Age of Kings development cycle, though, I noticed that it was easy to push the
authenticity issue too hard. It felt strange to be playing as Japan while the music sounded like
fourteenth-century Europe, and vice-versa. The compromise was to use more contemporary
beats and structures as the foundation for the music, while throwing in the cultural references as a
sort of aural seasoning.
Since the redbook is the music that people will hear the most, Kevin and I try to make sure
that each track can withstand lots of listens. The trick is to create something that is intricate and
melodic, and yet doesn’t interfere with the game’s sound cues. We spend a lot of time in front of a
keyboard at this stage. Melodies and rhythms are entered into the computer with a piano-like
controller and are translated into simple on/off messages called MIDI commands. These
commands trigger note-length recordings of real instruments, which are called “samples;" the
device from which these recordings are derived is called a “sampler.” With the sampler, Kevin and
I have access to hundreds of instruments that we could never really acquire.
Occasionally, we’ll have the actual instrument that we need in the studio. In these cases, it
usually sounds better to perform a given part on the real thing. This is done in the traditional way:
set up a microphone and hit record. The twist is that the resulting audio signal is converted into
data and entered into the computer. We use the same software to record both audio and MIDI
information until we have a final piece of music.
Once all of the songs have been written and recorded, it’s time to mix. Mixing involves making
sure the relative volumes of all of the instruments are combined in a pleasing way. The music files
are brought up on the computer and played through a device called, appropriately enough, a
mixing board. It’s our job to tweak the knobs and sliders on the board until each song sounds like
a finished product. Consistency is important at this stage; the tracks need to sound like pieces of
the same puzzle. They also need to translate well to a wide variety of speakers, so we spend a
good deal of time burning CDs and listening to them on different computers at work, on the stereo
at home, in the car, on headphones during long flights... You get to know the material pretty well.
Although the whole mixing process takes a small eternity and can be extremely tedious, it really
pays off in the end. A good mix can make all the difference in the world to the listener, whether he
or she realizes it or not.
Something else that we pay a lot of attention to is the running order of the songs. Since the
Age games don’t allow for truly interactive music, one of our goals is to try to keep up with the
general arc of the game. Simply put, we like to have the slower songs play at the beginning of the
game and the faster ones play by the time everyone is fighting. This is far trickier than it sounds,
and it’s something that we have to think about through the entire writing process. Quite a few
iterations of the running order are tossed around until we settle on the final one.
Despite the amount of time that goes into it, redbook actually makes up less than half of the music
in The Age of Kings or the upcoming Conquerors expansion pack. The bulk of the material plays
in the background of the campaign introductions and conclusions. Working on the campaigns
presents a whole new set of challenges because the music is intended to serve both designer
Greg Street’s stories and the performances of the various voice actors that we bring in.
The general process for writing the campaign music is similar to doing the redbook. Since a
given story is always told from a particular place and point in history, we do a lot of research to
make sure that we can bring authentic cultural elements to the soundtrack. The main difference is
that the music has to serve specific plot points and fit the timing of a given vocal take. On a good
streak, Kevin and I can each average about two pieces of campaign music a day.
Somewhere in the midst of all this very serious work, it becomes important for us to take a bit
of a musical break - an excellent time to knock out the “credits” song! Recording the music that
plays in the background of a game’s credits screen is perhaps the most enjoyable part of any
project. We see it as a chance to cut loose and do something out of the Age mold. Kevin and I
used the Conquerors credits as an excuse to return to our garage-band roots, and had a great
time stitching together musical ideas that really had no business being in the same song with each
And with that, I think we’ve covered everything. Recording the soundtrack for a game as huge
as Age of Kings is a long and very involved process, but one that’s extremely rewarding. It is our
hope that our efforts make the Age experience richer for you, and that you hear something that
you ordinarily might not. Thanks for listening!