Exclusive Interview: Titanfall Composer Stephen Barton
Never let it be said that the people at Respawn Entertainment aren’t loyal to their friends. In making their first game, Titanfall, they not only brought back their old pal Jesse Stern — who previously worked with them on 2007’s Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and 2009’s Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — to help write the game, but they also reunited with composer Stephen Barton, who had the music for the first Modern Warfare. Though in talking to Barton, composing the music for Titanfall wasn’t like working on a second Modern Warfare.
You previously did the music for Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which was made by many of the same people who are now making Titanfall. Is that how you got this gig?
They approached me, which was very flattering. I knew they had something brewing over there the last few years, but in a testament to how well it had been kept under wraps, there was absolutely nothing about it online, so just going over to Respawn to check it out for the first time was awesome. We had a great time on Modern Warfare. There was definitely a sense of a new direction, new territory to forge into. And that’s even more true with Titanfall.
When you first approached to do the music for Titanfall, how much of the game did you actually get to see?
At the first meeting, I saw one map that was pretty much built, which was “Fracture,” the map shown at E3, as well as lots of other concept art and ideas. It reminded me a little of seeing Modern Warfare for the first time; that time they showed us the nuclear explosion sequence from “Shock And Awe.” Having played the first two Call Of Duty games extensively, I thought it would still be set in World War II…so that was quite the introduction to the game world. Getting to take the reins of that franchise as it grew in a new direction was both daunting and wonderful.
How was doing the music for Titanfall different from when you did Modern Warfare?
Technically, not that much. I think, with the previous generation of consoles, that we really got to a point where there’s little to no technical limitation on the music, and it’s very much like a major motion picture in terms of what you can achieve. It’s kind of wild to think that we’re not that far removed from a time where the composer had a few simple synth patches out of a SID chip to play with. The biggest difference was that with the blank slate of a new world, we spent a lot of time finding the sound palette and the themes.
Modern Warfare was, of course, seven years ago. Is there anything that you do differently now that would’ve made doing the music for that game easier or better?
That’s an interesting one. There’s always a part of you that looks back at previous cues and you hear every microscopic detail and blemish that might be in there. But there is always a time limitation with every project, even if not a crazy short one, and you have to put down your tools at some point and put it out there. It’s very easy to get obsessed about little mix details that nobody else will probably hear. A lot of what you learn each project is about the process. I think games companies generally are getting wise quicker than film producers to the idea that if you have the composer on early and treat it as part of production instead of a manic post production process, you have time to experiment. We went through numerous different versions of the lobby tracks on Titanfall alone, and spent nearly three weeks total mixing. In some ways it was taking some of the approach you might use on a record, really spending the time to get it right and polish the sound.
Titanfall doesn’t have a typical story-driven campaign. Did knowing this make you more interested in working on this game or less?
Definitely upped the intrigue level for me, kind of like the step from World War II in the early Call Of Duty games to present day in Modern Warfare. The story is definitely all there, just in a multiplayer format, but it’s just as compelling. I was as interested as anybody as to how it would work, and I think it’s particularly successful and I won’t be surprised if it’s the way first-person shooters go from here on out.
One of the things I especially like about Respawn’s approach for the story in the game was it’s very philosophically rooted, it’s observant of how real conflicts tend to unfold. Real wars generally aren’t particularly linear, A to B affairs, with only one important location at a time…neither are real battles, especially not today, and definitely not in the future. There’s this sense with Titanfall that you’re seeing a small slice of a big universe with many, many battles going on simultaneously on the frontier, and that’s only enhanced by the multiplayer aspect of the campaign.
How did a lack of a single-player campaign change your approach to the music for this game?
There’s a lot less in the way of “rails,” fixed pieces of music that start on a given event every single time they happen, so when writing, I was definitely trying to think in a modular way, pieces that could be used in different contexts in each round. Part of the challenge of that, though, is getting it so it doesn’t sound like it’s constrained by being modular, because whenever you sense the music is overly conscious of your actions or blatantly written to fill a particular moment, it can actually be jarring instead of helpful. Experimentation was definitely the key.
Titanfall is, of course, a sci-fi game, while Modern Warfare was set in the real world. Does that have an impact on what instruments you’ll use?
Definitely. We played around with some different instrumentations, and there’s an electronic backbone to both sides on Titanfall, with different organic elements playing off of that. For Modern Warfare, I was very much thinking about it in movie terms, a sound world that’s well established from everything from Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer movies to the “modern espionage” sound of the Bourne movies.
With Titanfall, it was a blank slate, and one of our main concepts was that the music shouldn’t actually be overtly “sci-fi” in the sense of trying to evoke a decidedly futuristic sound, since there is a familiarity to this future: trees are still trees, buildings have staircases and not Trek-like “turbolifts,” and so on.
Similarly, since Titanfall has giant robot suits, while Modern Warfare was people, have an impact on your choice of instruments?
I think so. Partly in the sense that you want to create something suitably powerful in terms of size and weight, but also being aware that the firepower and weight of the Titan makes it already a rich and dense sound world — even just walking around is louder, bigger, punchier — so I was trying to find sounds and textures that could cut and punch amidst the fray.
You recorded the score for Titanfall at Abbey Road Studios in London. Besides the obvious place it holds in rock history, and the fact that you’re British and it meant you got to go home on someone else’s dime, why did you decide to record there?
An element of both of those, but really I’d had Abbey Road in mind for it for several quite particular reasons. They have an unrivaled collection of both older analog gear and the latest in digital technology, and that was something I wanted to make use of in recording the different sounds for the two factions. They also have two big rooms that can fit an orchestra that sound markedly different, which gave us a subtly different palette for the orchestral elements for each side. I also knew fairly early on that guitar — particularly baritone guitar — was going to feature heavily on the Militia side, and there’s few better places in the world to record amped up guitars than Studio 2 at Abbey.
Looking at your resume, you’ve only done three games: Titanfall, Modern Warfare, and How To Train Your Dragon. Everything else you’ve worked on has been a movie or TV show. Why haven’t you done more games?
That’s just how it has happened. Wherever there is a good story, a compelling universe to write for, be it games or movies, that’s where the fun is to be had. But coming back to the game world after a few years of just working on movies and TV has certainly whetted my appetite. Titanfall was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have, and there’s an immense spirit of creativity in the game world right now. The resources visually and sonically are stunning when you consider how quickly they’ve progressed from being quite basic, and the prospects for games in the next decade are nothing less than immensely exciting.
Given how wildly popular Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was, has that led you to other work? Like did anyone say specifically that they liked your work on that game, and that’s why they hired you to score their movie or show?
Funnily enough, more than once. Very soon after Modern Warfare came out, I got a call from Chris Prynoski at Titmouse, the animation studio in Hollywood who make Metalocalypse, amongst many other things. They were working on this animated reboot of G.I. Joe, and had been playing Call Of Duty 4 at their studio, and asked if I would write the music. We’ve since done a series for Disney called Motorcity, which was fantastic and sadly only went for one season, but it’s a season we’re particularly proud of.
Conversely, do ever get grief for working on games? Like are there film composers who look down on people who also do music for games?
If there are, they’re wisely keeping very quiet, probably to avoid the risk of looking foolish. The game world is definitely the most exciting playground right now for a composer, but I’m sure there is still a cynic or two on the sidelines. They probably don’t know what they are missing, mind you. I think there was a period where people used to think games couldn’t sound as good, or couldn’t somehow be as musically edifying, but there’s really no excuse for a game to not sound incredible musically now. And given that many people have pretty awesome speaker setups for game sound, I think that we’ve almost got the best canvas out there.
Titanfall is out now for the Xbox One and PC. You can read my review of it here and my interview with the game’s voice actor and character model Abbie Heppe here.