Game Music Spotlight: BioShock Infinite Composer Gary Schyman

by Matt Helgeson on Mar 19, 2013 at 09:24 AM

Gary Schyman is an accomplished composer both in and outside of the game industry. Recently, we got a chance to speak with Schyman on his musical education and background as well as his upcoming collaboration with Irrational Games on the BioShock Infinite soundtrack.

Did you take to music early? When did you become involved with playing music as a kid?

My brother started to take piano lessons and my mother rented a piano when I was 12 years old. My brother took his lessons and didn't care about it but I completely just attacked the piano and played and practiced every day for hours and demanded piano lessons. Twelve years of age is somewhat old to start although I studied percussion when I was seven or eight but I just loved playing the piano; I studied it and played for many, many hours each day.

You studied composition at the University of Southern California. Talk about that experience and how does it inform your work now?

USC has a fantastic music school and the composition department there is really one of the best on the west coast. When I decided to study composition, that was really my first and only choice. At the time they did not have any classes for composers that were interested in scoring film and television other than a class by composer David Raksin who was a famous composer of the '40s, '50s and '60s. It was just a great all-round introduction and learning experience about all the basics of composing from orchestration to counterpoint, you name it. They had a really first-rate department and I had the opportunity to study with some wonderful composers there. I use what I learned there every day as I write music.

I read on your biography that you studied under the composer George Tremblay. I wasn't familiar with him, but I read up and found out that he was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg and an acolyte of 12-tone composition techniques - which still today sound fairly edgy to listeners. Do you ever work elements of 12-tone into your work or is that still too experimental? Or have a lot of those things sort of filtered into modern soundtrack music?

Studying with George Tremblay was a fantastic opportunity. He was indeed a twelve-tone composer and all he taught was how to write music in that style, but the discipline of how he taught music was very valuable to me. I'm not able to use twelve-tone style for most of my scores. Incidentally there is one cue in BioShock Infinite that was based on George's style of composition; he had a very unusual and unique style of composition within the twelve-tone genres. But twelve-tone is not particularly radical, I've used aleatoric material and lots of it since the original BioShock, and even before, and that material is more radical than George's relatively tame twelve-tone technique.

Those sorts of dissonant atonality have been in film and television music for decades. It's not uncommon at all when something scary or frightening comes up. Twelve-tone is a particularly hard style of music to use for me anyways in film scores. Jerry Goldsmith is famous for using twelve-tone in Planet of the Apes. He successfully used it in that score from the late '60s. It's just part of the vocabulary; I think it's useful to understand it but it's very confining and gives a very specific sound so it's not easy to use in most scoring situations.

Your biography also says you worked for Mike Post, who in many ways must be considered a legend of TV scoring. What was that experience like?

Yes, I worked with Mike Post and his partner Pete Carpenter in the '80s and scored a bunch of the classic television shows of that era, The A-Team, Magnum P.I., and The Greatest American Hero. It was a great opportunity. We used an orchestra with a rhythm section so it had a pop music influence. That was their unique niche in music of that period; it was something that they sort of pioneered and it was great. It was an opportunity to write orchestral music and have it recorded almost every week during the television season. It was all traditional paper and pencil and everything had to be recorded live. There was no MIDI or samples...there were synthesizers, very early synthesizers, but they were played by a live musician right on the stage with the rest of the orchestra and they were performed as the pianists. Often the pianist either played piano or synthesizer and you just indicated on the score what you wanted to play.

Was your first professional work on TV and films?

Certainly the work with Mike Post and Pete Carpenter was amongst my first work. Prior to that I worked on a television show called This Is The Life which was music for Lutheran Television. I did about sixty half-hour episodes all recorded live with small groups of three-to-seven players at A&M Records. I'm not a Lutheran but I was very happy that they hired me for their shows!

How did you come to be involved with game composition originally? What was your point of contact to the industry?

My first experience of writing game music was actually in the early to mid-'90s scoring for Philips Interactive when they had their own games console, CD-I. So I scored three or four games at that point as a friend of mine was a producer for Philips Interactive. The cool thing about CD-I was that because it was on CD, you could record stereo music files (as opposed to just triggering in game synths with MIDI) so I was able to record an orchestral score as my first project for them and it was one of, if not the first orchestral scores for a video game. But really that was just an anomaly in my career. I was scoring a lot of Movies of the Week and television series in that period.

It was really around 2004 when an agent of mine reached out and I found an opportunity at THQ to send in some music. They were looking for a Bernard Herrmann style score. Herrmann was one of the great film composers from the '40s, '50s, '60s and even the '70s; he wrote some of the classic sci-fi movies of the '50s. They were making a game called Destroy All Humans! and it was set in the '50s. They wanted to play the music serious but it was a tongue-in-cheek game. I had been asked earlier in my career to write in the style of Bernard Herrmann so I sent them that, and they just loved it and ended up hiring me because I had really done orchestrally exactly what they were looking for. So my first real contemporary game score was Destroy All Humans! And that eventually led to scoring BioShock because the audio director Emily Ridgway went on from Destroy All Humans! to being the audio director for Irrational Games which made the original BioShock.

Do you approach game projects differently than you would other media?

Yes and no.  There's a lot of overlap between the two but films do not have interactive requirements and games usually do. Game music often needs to loop and be layered to add intensity that reflects the player's decisions. On average about about 25 percent of what I do for a game is identical to scoring a movie. In other words, scoring the in-game cut-scenes or scripted events is just like scoring to picture. Everything is locked and the music plays against the images and events the same every time. But a lot of game music accompanies gameplay that is often not entirely predictable. The developer can choose to trigger music upon a certain event or action that the player takes but after that it is often up to the player as to how the action unfolds. So the music needs to reflect that. Really the art of game music is often creating interactive music cues that sound as good as if they were scored to the player's actions. The art of it is both the composer and the developer properly implementing the music. 

 Ken Levine is one of the most respected game creators in the industry. How involved is he in the process of creating the score? Does he have input or specific ideas in terms of the direction?

Ken has never studied music and he doesn't ask for a specific style but he wants you (and I think he asks this of his entire development team) to come up with good ideas. He has an extraordinarily sharp intuitive sense of what works and what doesn't work for his games. I think he's brilliant. If you send him something and it's right he'll love it and if it's not, he'll tell you. He was very involved, he listened to everything, and he was involved in every creative detail of making BioShock Infinite. Once I found it, he was very excited about the style of the score, but it took a while and he had to feel it. But when he does feel something, he's right...he has that fantastic intuition about what's right for his projects.

How has the back-and-forth between you and Irrational gone in working on BioShock Infinite? Talk about your working relationship and process.

I worked day in and day out on the project with the music director Jim Bonney. Basically Jim was defining or giving specific direction to me about what music they needed for the game. Once I received that direction then I would write music and send that off to him and he would listen and say if he had some thoughts on it and then it eventually went off to Ken.

After some early experimentation, Ken felt that a traditional orchestral score was wrong for the game. Because we wanted to use small string ensembles I decided the best approach as I was writing was to record the music with live instruments, like a string quartet or up to 10 players, before we would play it for Ken. That's when Ken understood how it would sound in the real world. That worked very, very well.

Do you score specifically to certain gameplay sequences or cutscenes?

It's really both. There are not so many cutscenes in BioShock Infinite. There are certain scenes, scripted events that operate as if they are cut-scenes - essentially they are scored like a cut-scene.

How does the music for Infinite differ from the music in the first two BioShock games?

From the very beginning we wanted a different and unique score. It's a different location, new characters, [and] a different time. It takes place in 1912, for instance, as opposed to the 1960s, so everything about it required a different approach. As I mentioned earlier, we decided not to go orchestrally with it. The early 20th century music design was out. In almost every respect, it is a unique and different sounding score. It's a simpler score in some respects (although it gets quite complex at times) but if you think about the setting of a 1912 straw-hat, American-style city, it was really considered a simpler time so I used these smaller string ensembles. And also the critical element is you have this character named Elizabeth, and a lot of the music relates to her and some of the emotional things that she's going through. In some ways, it's more of an emotional score because it's about the relationship between the two key characters in the game. In every respect, it needed a different score and that was what informed me as I composed it.

BioShock Infinite's time period, 1912, seems like it would present some challenges, just because I don't think many people have a really good reference for what music from that time period sounds like. Did you draw on period influences or just go your own way?

I agree. One of my first conversations with Jim Bonney was that the music of that period would not be very useful in scoring because it doesn't speak to our contemporary emotional music styles and modern sensibilities...the popular music of that period and even the classical music of that period really would not work as well as a contemporary game score. So it informed the score because of the simplicity of some of the music during that period, but really I went my own way and chose music that felt right for the characters and the specific needs of the game.

You've worked at some legendary studios in the past - Capitol Studios in L.A. for BioShock and Abbey Road for Dante's Inferno. Talk about those experiences?

I have worked here in Los Angeles at a lot of studios. L.A. has fantastic recording studios. As a matter of fact, next week I'm recording at the Sony Sound Stage, which is the Abbey Road of L.A., probably the best recording studio in Los Angeles. There's a long history of recording film and television music here and we have a variety although we have certainly lost a few of the big stages as less orchestral music has been recorded for films and television shows. Certainly television has essentially gone non-orchestral. The style of the score may be orchestral but they don't usually have the time or the budget to use a live orchestra.

Abbey Road was an absolutely fantastic place to record - it's truly one of the great recording studios in the world, and you have world-class musicians in L.A. and London. From my point of view, the two best places in the world to record orchestral music (or even as in BioShock Infinite with small ensembles) are Los Angeles and London.

We really have fantastic recording studios here. Capitol Studios is a fantastic studio, it's not huge, you can't get a large orchestra in there but you can get a maybe 30/40/45-piece orchestra in there and it's got a great sound, especially for strings, a very beautiful sound. They've recently updated it. Sony is just a big, big room, similar to Abbey Road in some respects; it's got a wonderful sonic quality. Similarly Abbey Road has this big hall sound, lots of natural reverb when you record in some of these big studios.

Talk about the tracking for BioShock Infinite. Where was it done? Did you use a full orchestra or smaller groups, or a combination of both?

I recorded BioShock Infinite mostly at Martin Sound, which is a medium-sized studio here in L.A. It's not famous but it's a great old studio. Originally, we were thinking orchestrally and as I experimented with it we all realized that was the wrong approach so pretty much the approach that I ended up with was small string ensembles plus percussion. I used as few as three musicians at some of the sessions and never more than ten string players. We wanted that intimate tone of solo instruments playing together and it really gives a wonderful quality to the score. It just feels unique and it feels right for that time period as well.

Are your scores mostly live instruments or do you use a lot of synths and software instruments as well?

I love working with live instruments, there's nothing like the sound of real musicians and what they bring to the table. It's the best part of what I get to do. I also use lots of samples of live instruments and synths. My scores often contain a mixture of both - live orchestral elements or live instruments mixed in with the samples and synthesizers. This is an era of hybrid music so you're using all of the above. Sometimes you're sweetening the orchestra with samples and synths and sometimes the orchestra is sweetening your samples and synth sounds.

 What are some of the future projects you have coming up, in games or other media?

I'm working on two games right now. Unfortunately I'm not at liberty to tell you what specifically I'm working on. I'm also working on a movie right now that I'm excited about. So I've got two games and a movie in the pipeline.