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Composer Sarah Schachner On Assassin's Creed Unity's Soundtrack

by Matt Helgeson on Nov 04, 2014 at 08:30 AM

Sarah Schachner is a rapidly rising star in the soundtrack world thanks to her work on the Ubisoft franchises Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. We recently spoke with her about the soundtrack to the upcoming Assassin's Creed Unity.

What's your background in music? Were you musical as a child?
Yes, I started on piano when I was five, and violin at seven. My dad organized a family band with me and my sister when we were very young, playing all sorts of stuff from folk and bluegrass to old blues and eventually evolving into a classic rock cover band. Writing and performing music was a big part of my life growing up. After spending a year at a regular liberal arts college playing in bands, I realized writing in the studio was where I belonged. I then went on to study film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Who were some of the artist that inspired you to make music? What are your influences?
I was obsessed with John Lennon when I was five - so much so that I would creepily tell people I was John Lennon. The Beatles were the first to instill a love of melody in me early on. Around that same time, I can also remember jumping around excitedly in the living room to soundtracks like The Mission and Last of the Mohicans that my mom would often play. I think what you hear and respond to as a child has a big effect on you for the rest of your life. Thomas Newman was one of the composers that made me really want to get into soundtrack work. Also, just growing up playing in all sorts of bands, orchestras, and studying jazz theory; draw inspiration from all over the place.

Did you always want to pursue soundtrack work? How did you get into that part of the music industry?
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn't until early college that I realized soundtracks were what I wanted to do, but writing music was always the focus in some way or another. After Berklee, I immediately moved to Los Angeles and started looking for work assisting other composers which eventually led me to work with Brian Tyler.

How did you come to work with Brian Tyler (Far Cry 3, Iron Man 3, AC IV)? What lessons did you learn from working with him?
I met Brian about five years ago. I had only really done TV work at that time. He gave me the opportunity to do some additional music on one of his first video games and it just continued from there whenever he needed help. It forced me to quickly improve my overall production skills, especially in terms of percussion programming since he is primarily a drummer and a very skilled one at that!

What are the main differences in working in a game versus a film or TV show in your experience?
Writing for games is very different than writing for film or TV and each has its own challenges and rewards. With film and TV, the music is there to guide and manipulate the emotions of the viewer as they watch a linear story unfold but are unable to alter it or interact with it. With games, you are scoring the player's personal journey so that they really feel like they are that character and in that world. Also, you don't generally score to picture hitting sync points like you do in film and television, aside from the short cut scenes or specific parts of missions. The music has to function very differently and is less linear. The combat music has to be able to start and stop and switch sections seamlessly according to where the player goes and how well they are doing. You don't ever have to worry about that scoring film or TV. However, in both film and TV, the picture is almost always changing and being re-cut as you are scoring it, so each medium has unique challenges.

You've worked with Ubisoft on a few projects including Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Far Cry 3, and now Assassin's Creed Unity. What's your working relationship with them been like and what is it about their games that inspires you?
I've loved working with them on each one of those games. Far Cry was one of the most unique projects I've ever worked on and the pirate music for Black Flag was insanely fun. I love that Ubisoft games are so imaginative and immersive. It's pretty much a composer's dream to score any one of their projects. They really care about the music and creating something authentic and special so it's been great.

What was your vision for the music in AC Unity and how is it different from past projects you've worked on?
Well, I've never scored a classical/baroque period project during the French Revolution so that was totally different. Unity was a bit unusual since I was hired to mainly score the systemic combat, multiplayer/co-op parts of the game and Chris Tilton was to focus on the single-player campaign. Neither of us were able to have a full vision for the game in its entirety, but we had to trust Ubisoft's vision in hiring more than one of us. Having said that, I was very inspired by Jordi Savall's beautiful viol da gamba playing. Viols are not easy to come by, but the bowed dulcimer has a very similar raw, emotive sound, so I had one custom-made and featured it in the soundtrack to give the revolution a special voice. Music of the time was very calculated and methodical. I wanted the combat music to have a restrained intensity that was sort of march-like, and not that typical fast ambush action sound you hear a lot.

How much input do the developers have into the musical score? Is there a back-and-forth in creating the score?
They have complete control in how and where the music is used in the game, so while they are very clear on what functionality they need out of a cue, they don't try to control or micromanage how you achieve that musically which is nice. There is definitely some back and forth in the beginning when experimenting and figuring out the sound, but they ultimately hired you because of what you bring to the table as a composer.

You seem to balance neo-classical and folk music elements with some modern touches, is that due to the game's balancing of sci-fi and historical drama?
Yeah, the Assassin's Creed series is known for that combination of period music and sci-fi elements. It's great for me with my varied musical background and my love for analog synths and electronic music, so I couldn't really ask for a better project to be a part of.

Do you plan on doing more game work? Anything in the works?
Oh definitely! As for upcoming projects, I have a sci-fi/horror film due out January 2015 called Lazarus. Science experiments gone wrong and Olivia Wilde is all you need to know.

For more, check out Sarah Schachner's official site and listen samples from the Assassin's Creed Unity soundtrack on her Soundcloud page.

Related Link: Assassin's Creed Unity Preview: Out With The Old

Click the image below to buy the soundtrack on iTunes: