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Game Music Spotlight: Black Ops II/Mass Effect Composer Jack Wall

by Matt Helgeson on Oct 19, 2012 at 09:15 AM

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Jack Wall has worked on some of gaming’s biggest properties, from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 to Treyarch’s upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops II. We recently spoke to Wall about his work in video games and approach to crafting the music for Black Ops II. We also learned about his surprising history in rock music, where he worked with such artists as Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, and Jesus Lizard.

You have a pretty interesting background, you started engineering in rock music for people like John Cale and Patti Smith. What were those days like and what did you learn that prepared you for what you do now?

Those days were a lot of fun! I am working on a project now where I’ve basically been making a country album – well, it’s more like “alien country” - working with amazing musicians playing songs I’ve written. I have to say it brings back a lot of great memories working with artists like John Cale, Dr. John, David Byrne (with John Cale) and Patti. 

Quick story: I was recording a Patti Smith concert in Central Park for something she was either archiving or wanting to release. Some guy comes up to me and says, “Patti told me to get the tapes.” Not ever seeing this guy before, I said, “Dude, I don’t know you. I’ll be delivering the tapes to Patti myself, thank you very much.” The guy gets pretty indignant and I just waved him off. After I finished breaking down, I walked the tapes over to Patti’s trailer and handed them to her myself. The guy followed me and ended up being legit, but it just made me think about how stupid it would have been to hand these strangers her tapes! I also saw one of my heroes, Jeff Buckley, at the show watching Patti. I had to hop off of the recording platform and tell him how awesome he is. His passing was such a sad thing for me.

I learned so much from being an engineer. I got to watch great producers and engineers like John Leventhal, Larry Klein, Kevin Killen, and Flood working their magic. I got to work in the room with Trent Reznor on Pretty Hate Machine way back when and with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell back in my early days as a second engineer. I worked in Manhattan during the ‘90s when artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson were in their heyday – either directly or hearing the birth of their music just down the hall. These sorts of experiences can really prepare you for doing something on your own and not being overwhelmed by it. 

But it was really John Cale that gave me the confidence to move on with my career as a composer and producer. He trusted me with production tasks I hadn’t done before and simply expected what I did to be great. Soon I felt that I needed to step up my game and not just work with creative people on their material, but make my own. Video games became my outlet. 

I saw that you engineered for Jesus Lizard on an EP that I think Andy Gill of Gang of Four and John Cale produced…Jesus Lizard had a pretty wild reputation. What was that experience like?

Amazing! Those guys were so fun. It was a great experience for me to go to Chicago with John and hole up for several weeks and work on that album. It’s funny you mention them because a friend of David Sims recently contacted me to tell me he said “Hey.” I have to get back in touch with those guys. David Yow was pretty nuts and just a great performer. Made me think I’m a better writer/producer than a performer.

You’re a composer now, did you ever play in bands or as a solo artist in rock music?

Yes, I did and I still try to play when I can. I played in various bands until I became a composer. I like composing more, but occasionally I get a bug. Some people I’m involved with now for a video game score (the countrified space alien music I previously mentioned) have asked me to put a band together to perform those songs sometime early next year. It would likely get broadcast over the net. We’ll see what happens. It would be great to play with such amazing musicians: Joe Travers from Zappa Plays Zappa, along with Craig Stull who played on the Firefly soundtrack, and even my friend Bear McCreary who lent a hand with his accordion. They were some fun sessions!

How did you begin to transition out of producing and engineering into soundtrack and score work?

Well at some point, my wife Cindy was my girlfriend who designed video games. Did I mention I love nepotism? She is also an amazing musician who had a band called 2.5D on Capitol Records. I was called in to help produce their demo and we hit it off and became writing buddies. She and I got a commission to write for a video game score and that was the beginning of how I started composing.

How did you first make contact with the video game industry?

During the day, Cindy worked for various game developers, and at the “New Media Group” at the flagship PBS station in New York City, Channel 13, as the lead designer when I met her. Her group was in charge of creating games that were educational in nature. One of her colleagues went off and started a game company in San Francisco, called Postlinear Entertainment. We started writing the scores to all of their games. I think we did about 4 or 5 for them. That was the beginning. Cindy went off and did other things and I kept at it. Postlinear was one of those companies where it seems that everyone who worked there went off and did really cool and great things. Some of them are still my clients to this day. 

Do you exclusively work in games now or do you still do film work?

I’d love to do more film and television. I think games and TV are in some sort of golden age. I watch way too much TV. I love the stories being told and the creative ways they are handled – not to mention some great music! Breaking Bad, Smash, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Love all of it!

[Pictured above: Jack Wall conducting an orchestra at Abbey Road for the Black Ops II soundtrack]

You worked with BioWare on Jade Empire and the first two Mass Effect games. Talk about those projects.

It’s great to work on titles that were once just someone’s idea in their head.  Then a great number of people take a major risk on that idea and then create a great entertainment experience with brand new worlds to explore. It was sad that Jade Empire didn’t go on. Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were incredible stories and the kind of games I really enjoy playing through. For Mass Effect 2 I even loved all of the side quests, just immersing myself in the world. Creating the score for that game was probably one of my prouder moments. I felt that it was my baby. My team and I also implemented every piece of music within the game engine the way we wanted it played. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about as close as I’d come at that moment in time to having the music play as I intended it. I thought it felt really good in the end. 

Why didn’t you end up working on the third Mass Effect? Was that a disappointment?

I think when you’ve worked with a team for something approaching five years, it might be time to stretch and move on. Some really great opportunities presented themselves and I ran with them. I would have liked to have finished the trilogy but it felt like it was time for a change. So I took these other opportunities and I don’t have any regrets about that.

In games, a composer’s work being heard is dependent on the quality and sales of the game itself. Is there any score of yours that you’re particularly proud of that you wish more people had heard?

I think Myst III and Myst IV have really held up. They weren’t big-selling games, but I definitely still hear the heart and soul whenever I listen to those. 

Talk about Black Ops 2. Obviously it’s a huge franchise. When you approached the game what was your vision, what did you want to do differently than past games?

When I had my first meeting with the executive producer, Jason Blundell, and the audio director, Brian Tuey, I asked them why they hired me instead of whomever else auditioned for the game. They said it was because I didn’t do what I thought they expected me to do. That gave me some permission and license to try to do something new with the franchise to make it my own. 

They really wanted to create themes that would help to tell the story. The story in this game was going to be of paramount importance. As a studio, Jason told me that Treyarch really felt that they had finally gotten to a point that they could make the game they always wanted to make: a real interactive cinematic experience with a rich story. They loved Mass Effect and the music I did for that series and they wanted to make the characters and the story as memorable as possible. They wanted the music to help them do that.

I felt that the way to do this musically was to try to make some emotional connection with the characters. Rather than the “balls-to-the-wall” approach that you hear in most shooters, it was time to get back to something more emotional. It still needed to be dark to be Black Ops, but it was my thought that to make a three-dimensional character come to life, he/she needs to be more than good or evil. You have to have shades of grey. I’m really excited about that aspect of the score. It took some doing to convince the developers that what Brian and I were doing could work and give the experience of playing the game more depth. Of course, with video games, it’s all in how you play. So I think people will experience different emotions depending on how they play, and it was my goal that the music helps that cause.

I know you’re trying to reflect the ‘80s setting of the game, how does that make this project different from your other work?

I think that my music is really informed by the environment, the story and the art of where you are in the world. It takes on a life of its own based on that. I honestly don’t think Black Ops II sounds too much like any other score I’ve done before. I think there was some similarity between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, but even there, the director Casey Hudson wanted the ME2 score to be more orchestral, so that changed things. 

For Black Ops II, the ‘80s are more earthy and the near future is either more “clean electronic” or “dirty electronic” depending on which level you play. And I felt that each level should have a “sound” of its own. That’s what I went for. I love it when you play a game and the score gives you that. When you go to a completely different environment, I ‘hear’ different instruments; a different palette. However, there are also themes that go across and serve as the connective tissue for the story.

You recorded the score at Abbey Road. Had you recorded there before?

Yes, I recorded and mixed an album there in 2008.

What’s the balance of live instruments, orchestra, and synths on this score?

There is a whole lot of everything. The game is huge. The score is huge. The soundtrack is 48 tracks long. That’s about 17 more tracks than I’ve ever released in a soundtrack. 

Since it’s Black Ops, I wanted to have a fair amount of vocal and instrumental soloists in the score to reflect the fact that it’s just you and a few other guys taking on the world. For example, Azam Ali is an amazing Persian singer who sings in a quasi-Middle Eastern style, but it ends up sounding like nothing you’ve heard before. 

Brian Tuey, the audio director at Treyarch, took one of my tracks with Azam and did a remix of it for the game. The two tracks together are really special. I can’t wait to hear what people think.

This was a dream project for me because I worked with some of the most amazing musicians in the world. The London musicians were so professional. Blending these recordings with synth, percussion and various soloists really accomplished the sound I was looking for.

Did you get to see sequences from the game, how did the process of working with Treyarch work?

Yes, I worked on an almost daily basis with Brian Tuey. We had a good working process where I would go by his studio and play through a level or look at a video playthrough and then spot where music would go in the game. I would then create a spreadsheet of where each piece of music would go, how long it would be, the tonality or energy of it, and the technical aspects (looping, one-shot, or cinematic). Then I’d get to work. There weren’t a ton of revisions, which is good because we made a lot of music. 

What’s next for you after Black Ops II? Any game projects coming up?

I’m working on the reboot of the Lost Planet series, Lost Planet 3. The game looks and feels really good. There are some other things in the too-early-to-discuss phase, but looking forward to a great year ahead.