Call of Duty Composer Sarah Schachner Makes Video Games Sound Epic
For Sarah Schachner, music has been been a part of her life since childhood. Raised outside Philadelphia, she began studying piano at the age of 5 and took up violin not long after that. Eventually she added more instruments — viola and cello among them — to her repertoire. She played with family members and in orchestra and jazz band.
Schachner always seemed to be making music. And, like a lot of other children of the late 20th century, she played video games, too. But it wasn't until much later that music and video games merged for her in a creative and professional way.
Schachner is a composer and, while she does have film and television credits, she's mainly making a name for herself in the video game world. Most recently, Schachner provided the music for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (a vinyl release of the score is set to come out in January). She was also the composer for Assassin's Creed: Unity and contributed to titles including Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Making music for video games wasn't something that Schachner intended to do. After studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music, she moved to Los Angeles to break into film scoring. Early in her career, she started working on additional music for composer Brian Tyler, who had established himself in film and was moving into the video game world. He brought in Schachner to work on Call of Duty: MW3. "It's kind of funny that it's come full circle back to Call of Duty," she says by phone.
"I started doing music on the games for him and I realized how much I loved working on games," she adds, "so I pursued that."
Video games are a different beast from film. Schachner might be working with few visuals ("You use your imagination a lot"), and the music has to fit the intensity of game play, rather than follow a traditional story arc.
"It's a little bit of a different focus, but at the end of the day, you are still telling a narrative story," she explains. "It's interactive and it's much more unpredictable, whereas with a film or TV show, you know what's going to happen and how it's going to happen."
As in film or television, Schachner's music helps highlight the visual and narrative themes of the game. She uses Infinite Warfare as an example, discussing how it took a different turn from other titles under the Call of Duty banner. "The main themes of the story were the burdens of leadership in war. And then it takes place in space, so there's this theme of loneliness and isolation in space," she says. "It has this intimate sound, but then there is also the gritty, war, combat element."
To accomplish this, Schachner brought together orchestral music with synthesizers. The composer is heavily into synthesizers; her enthusiasm is obvious when she begins to talk about her growing collection. She picked up a Roland Jupiter-6 midway through scoring Infinite Warfare. It's a "happy medium," she says, less expensive and lower maintenance than its more famous relative, the Jupiter-8. "It has this really warm sound for basses and it's great," she says, pointing out tracks such as "Infinite Warfare" and "The Retribution" on which she used the instrument.
But mostly, it's the newer modular synths that get Schachner talking. In recent years, modular synths, often called Euroracks, have gained cult acclaim within the electronic music world. These are small, analog synths, often made by independent companies. They can be pieced together to create custom, patchwork rigs that allow artists to create unique, sometimes unrepeatable, sounds. Schachner used modular synths to help shape the sound of Infinite Warfare.
"When you're writing on the piano or on string instruments, you can get so stuck in your head, just thinking about harmony and melody," Schachner says, "and modular synths are so different from that stuff. [It] forces you to go purely on sound and manipulating sound."
Modular synths aren't like other instruments. Even if you know how to use them, you can't always predict the results. "I think of [modular synths] like an animal, a living creature," Schachner says. "You can't totally control it and you can't really get out of it exactly what you intend to." She likes to record long jam sessions. "Most of the time, it sounds like crap or it's really boring," she says. But there might be one bit of inspiration within that recording. That's how the track "All or Nothing," from the Infinite Warfare score, came into existence. Schachner pulled a synth riff, "one little moment," from a lengthy modular session and built the rest of the piece around it.
With modular synths, Schachner was able to create some of the score's more unnerving moments. She refers to a motif that she likens to the sound of swarming bees. "It was just some staccato notes, but then I put it through this reverb module and I turned the feedback all the way up, so you don't hear the notes, you hear the reverb feedback and it's kind of swarming," she says. "You just hear the overall shape of the sequence, but it's all smeared together and it ended up just sounding like this terrifying sound of bees."
Elsewhere on Infinite Warfare, Schachner built an orchestral-industrial sound. There are strings that rise and fall like the most dramatic movie music. She worked with an orchestra featuring 29 string musicians and a 10-person low brass section, but adds that even instruments like the violin were filtered to give the recordings a less traditional sound. Meanwhile, the synths pulsate and build; on the track "Endure," for instance, the score sounds almost as though it could be played at a club.
In bringing together an orchestra and synthesizers, Schachner melds the sound of Hollywood war epics with sci-fi influenced electronic music. The results are unusual, even a little creepy, but compellingly so, especially when accompanying today's cinematic, richly detail video games.
Sarah Schachner's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare soundtrack is out on vinyl via Iam8bit in January.
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