The SOCOM 4 Score

SOCOM 4 is the most exotic score I’ve composed, one that represents a striking step away from the usual tone of the shooter videogame genre. Though I was attracted to the idea of scoring a big military game with a unique sound, I wanted to ensure that fans of the classic SOCOM series would recognize the musical identity of the franchise. But, I also wanted them to experience new music for this new adventure.  SOCOM 4 has a distinct tone that sets it apart from the other games, so its score had to stand apart as well.

As with all the other projects I’ve ever tackled, my first task was to figure out the style, instrumentation and language I would be writing in.  There are three primary factions in SOCOM 4 so I decided to represent each with a different type of music: Traditional Eastern instruments represent the local insurgents, Western Symphonic writing represents the heroic main character while Electronic Music signified the private military company Clawhammer.

TRADITIONAL EASTERN MUSIC:

At the start of the game, the main character, Ops Com, is dropped into a hostile environment in a foreign country.  He must battle Naga, local guerilla insurgents, on their home turf. To begin writing music for SOCOM 4, I needed to look no further than the videogame’s exotic location for inspiration.  Southern Asia has a wealth of musical traditions.  Of those beautiful and ethereal sounds, none are as exotic as the gamelan orchestra.

Some of the most fascinating musical sounds ever created can be found in the gamelan.  Native to the region, particularly Bali and Java, the gamelan orchestra is a distinctly tuned set of metallic and wooden percussion instruments.  The timbres of these instruments are similar to Western mallet instruments such as marimba or vibraphone, but are much more rich and expressive.  With every note, dazzling overtones fly off each resonator like sparks dancing from a flame.

Gamelan music is unique not only because of the tones generated, but also because the entire ensemble is tuned to particular scales.  Western music, whether classical or pop, is nearly always performed using a scale of twelve equal steps: those old familiar notes on a piano.  However, Eastern music frequently uses other pitch sets.

The gamelan is tuned to two distinct scales: sléndro (five notes) and pélog (seven notes).  For each of these scales, the octave is not divided evenly, making them different from five or seven note scales you can play on a piano.  Because of this inherent unevenness, these scales have a few pitches in common with the major and minor tonalities we are accustomed to, but ultimately take Western listeners to completely new soundscapes:

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Gamelan music serves many traditional functions.  However, whenever a gamelan is found in Western music, it is generally used to create a serene tranquility.  Javanese gamelans, in particular, are frequently associated with meditation.  Balinese gamelan music generally has more energy, but still results in slowly evolving beds of sound.

I wanted to play against this expectation.  In SOCOM 4 the gamelan is used to inspire terror, dread, adrenaline, confusion, panic and fear.  Taking advantage of the clash between Western and Eastern scales, I put the gamelan at war with classical instruments. Exotic Eastern scales clash violently with the Western major and minor scales our ears are accustomed to.  The slightly de-tuned pitches grind in dissonance while melodies seemingly drift in and out of harmony.

The result heightened the tension in the score in a subtle but powerful manner.  This conflict of musical styles perfectly represents the story’s central battle between Western and Eastern military forces.

None of my research into gamelans prepared me for the experience of actually writing for and recording one.  Working closely with gamelan expert Pak Djoko Walujo, we brought the entire Cal Arts gamelan ensemble into the Warner Brothers Eastwood Scoring Stage.  Here, my crash course in gamelan really began!

After just a few hours working with the gamelan, my mind adjusted to the Asian scales.  Shockingly, those old familiar Western scales began to sound alien after just a few days feverishly composing gamelan music!  I hope this same readjustment happens subconsciously to gamers around the world as they dive into SOCOM 4.

The gamelan doesn’t represent a single character or arc in the game, but is woven throughout the score.  Virtually every single cue features the ensemble.  The other-worldly tones lend the game a tense exoticism that is completely unique.

The gamelan sets the music in Southeast Asia, however the game does not take place in a specific country.  Therefore, I was free to also incorporate instrumentals and musical styles from nearby countries, including China, Japan and Vietnam.  The Chinese erhu and zhong hu drift hauntingly above Japanese taiko drums, shakuhachi and biwa.

During my time scoring “Battlestar Galactica,” I researched taiko music in depth, and drew from that experience for SOCOM 4.  Collaborating with Rev. Shuichi T. Kurai, we once again filled the Warner Bros. Scoring Stage with an Asian ensemble, this time recording nagado daiko, shime daiko, odaiko, uchiwa and many other drums.  The sound of the ensemble was absolutely thunderous!

The taiko ensemble set a powerful rhythmic foundation for the gamelan’s other-worldly phrases. I also needed a percussion soloist, so I brought in “Battlestar Galactica” percussionist M.B. Gordy, to record featured nagado daiko and shime daiko parts.  The combination of the large taiko ensemble, with an overdubbed soloist gave us complete control over the size of the percussion in SOCOM 4.  Sometimes the music required a massive battery of drums, and in other pieces, just a single instrument was perfect.

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Working with the large Asian ensembles was a thrill.  However, I knew I would also need other instruments for melodic and thematic cohesion.  I was thrilled to collaborate with virtuosic soloists of specialty Asian instruments, most of whom had already contributed to my scores for “Battlestar Galactica,” “Dark Void” and others.

One of the central soloists in SOCOM 4 is Doctor Osamu Kitajima.  I first collaborated with Doctor in the “Battlestar Galactica” episode The Hub, and he would go on to play important solos for the remainder of the series’ final season.  In fact, the reason I first started writing for him on “BSG” was because I was researching Japanese instrumentation to use on SOCOM 4!  (This gives you an idea just how long I’ve been working on this videogame score.)

Among his many musical talents, Doctor plays two unique instruments: the biwa and the koto.

The biwa is a Japanese stringed instrument that was originally played by wandering storytellers, Biwa Hoshi.  (For more details, I discussed the history of the biwa at length in my blog entry for the “BSG” episode The Oath.)  The instrument has since fallen out of mainstream use and is very rare, even among contemporary traditional Japanese musicians.

The biwa has a remarkably percussive sound.  Because the strings are struck with a large plectrum, the biwa can produce a slap considerably louder than any actual pitch generated by the strings.  When played aggressively, the biwa virtually becomes another percussion instrument.  Snarling cracking sounds from the instrument rise above even a densely packed mix of heavy percussion:

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Played softly, the percussive effect is diminished and the instrument offers a melodic voice, perfect for menacing stealth cues:

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I explored writing for the biwa during the final season of “Battlestar Galactica.”  Fortunately, SOCOM 4 provided me an opportunity to work with Doctor on an instrument besides the biwa.  For this score, he also performed solos on the koto.

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The koto is a Japanese harp, but it differs from its Western counterpart in some striking ways.  The strings pass over a bridge, like they do on a violin.  By placing a hand on the strings on the other side of the bridge, the player is able to create a vibrato by moving the strings after plucking them.  Such an effect is utterly impossibly on a traditional harp!  The vibrato is a sound that instantly takes listeners to the Far East:

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Like the gamelan, the koto is frequently associated with tranquil music.  I had a wonderful time subverting this association, using the koto in increasingly aggressive settings.

In traditional ensembles, these instruments are generally played solo.  However, I frequently combined them together in larger ensembles.  I also found great sounds by combining them with yet another plucked string instrument from Japan: the shamisen.

The shamisen is often described as a ‘Japanese banjo’ because its timbre is relatively similar.  However, playing styles are actually quite different.  The instrument is played with a large plectrum, although much smaller than that of a biwa, and is capable of generating aggressive percussive patterns.  (For more details, check out that entry for “BSG” The Oath again).

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Like the biwa, the shamisen has a wide range of characteristic sounds.  It can create gentle melodies and accompaniment figures:

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The shamisen can also perform blisteringly fast lines.  Mike Penny provided the shamisen solos for SOCOM 4, and brought considerable energy and creativity to the parts:

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One of the most important melodic soloists in the SOCOM 4 score is a performer returning from “Battlestar Galactica.”  Martin St. Pierre played erhu and zhong hu.

Frequently referred to as the ‘Chinese violin,’ the erhu (and its tenor counterpart, the zhong hu) is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow.  Unlike a western violin, the bow is threaded between the two strings.  The neck is connected to a small, hexagonal resonating body, much smaller by ratio than a violin’s body, giving it that uniquely thin tone.  And the strings are elevated further from the neck, encouraging the player to perform with more slides and portamento.

The sound of the erhu is an incredibly distinct, almost vocal quality.  In SOCOM 4, I used it for a wide range of emotion, yet it always retains a uniquely haunting timbre:

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Martin’s erhu is featured as a soloist, often offering a wailing, ethnic variation of the orchestral main theme.  But, I also frequently tucked the erhu behind orchestral violin lines, sometimes in ways that make it virtually impossible to hear.  However, it always lends a distinctly Asian quality to the Western orchestra.

Chris Bleth, the featured woodwind soloist, also returns to my music from “Battlestar Galactica,” where he played on every single episode.  In the SOCOM 4 score, Chris plays a variety of Asian woodwind instruments including Chinese membrane flute, shakuhachi and a Japanese flute called a bansuri.

Each instrument has a distinct sound, and I used each for different scenarios.

The shakuhachi, originating from Japan, has a warm, breathy timbre.  I used it frequently for stealth cues:

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As I wrote, I realized that the shakuhachi was becoming an instrumental representation of the character Forty Five.

Forty Five begins the story in a secondary role, but grows in importance as the story goes on.  She is a commander of her own forces, and a badass in her own right.  She first encounters Ops Com in the field and figures prominently in the story.  She is a realistic and dynamic character and is also the first playable female in the entire SOCOM franchise.  So, she deserved some special music.

Chris also played another Japanese flute, the bansuri.  The construction of the instrument makes it easier to create chromatic scales than on the shakuhachi, so I could use it in more key signatures.  The tone is more piercing, but still warm:

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However, for some action cues, the bansuri and shakuhachi both produced too gentle a sound to cut through the percussion and orchestra.  For these passages, I wrote Chris solos on the dizi, or Chinese membrane flute.

The membrane flutes are similar in construction to the bansuri, with one striking difference.  Garlic is used to adhere rice paper across hole in the instrument, between the embouchure hole and the first finger hole.  When played, this paper vibrates and adds a uniquely aggressive buzzing quality to the timbre:

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I wrote for the melodic soloists in a variety of ways.  Frequently, they were allowed to improvise, lending a given passage their distinct sound.  Sometimes, I would have certain instruments create a background texture, such as the shamisen and koto, laying the foundation for a different soloist to improvise above them.

WESTERN ORCHESTRAL MUSIC:

Despite all the possibilities in these Asian instruments, there were still moments where I simply needed a bigger, brassier sound.  To accomplish this, we also recorded a traditional symphonic orchestra, spending over a week in the recording studios at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California.

Though less distinct and characteristic than the Asian sounds, the swelling brass, cascading strings and fluttering woodwinds added a necessary sense of scale to the score.  The orchestra makes this music epic.

Some of the grandest orchestral writing I did is in the Main Title, which features the full orchestra and the Asian instrumentation together, arranged in a classic “Hollywood” style fanfare:

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I featured the orchestra prominently in missions where I wanted to emphasize the main character, Ops Com, and focus on his emotional state.  The score to these missions still heightens the tension, but also adds a sense of military bravado:

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Before long, Ops Com realizes he’s in over his head and the score to the missions takes on a less bombastic quality.  But, the orchestra returns towards the end of the game to raise the stakes during the final missions.

I was thankful to have a live orchestra at my disposal especially when it came time to score the cinematic sequences.  These scripted moments are where the emotional storytelling really shines, and I used the orchestra to accentuate the dramatic impact.

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At first, I was hesitant to include any orchestra in SOCOM 4 at all, because I was so excited about the Asian instrumentation.  SONY and Zipper convinced me otherwise, and now I’m grateful they did. The orchestral passages are probably the most lyrical and beautiful I wrote for the entire score, and highlight the most memorable moments in the game.

ELECTRONIC MUSIC:

With our unique combination of Western symphonic orchestra and Eastern gamelan and soloists, I thought I had everything in place to write the score.  But, I quickly realized I needed a third family of instrumentation to complete the project.

I knew I could use acoustic traditional soloists to represent Naga, the local insurgent guerilla forces.  However, the game also features a private military company, Clawhammer.  Armed with more sophisticated weaponry, they are more high tech and more powerful.  They needed to be represented with a completely different musical identity.  I chose to represent this heavily-armed group with electronic instrumentation.

To create a unique musical signature for Clawhammer, I turned to three of my favorite musicians: Jonathan Snipes, Steve Bartek and Paul Cartwright.

Snipes (of Captain Ahab fame) has collaborated with me on dozens of projects, including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and The Walking Dead.  He specializes in digital and analog synthesizers and modulators, and consistently brings stunning, other-worldly sounds to my music.

For SOCOM 4, he created the soul of the Clawhammer sound, combining growling melodic synthesizers with a distorted, chattering rhythmic foundation:

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On some cues, I wrote for the electronic elements to be even more prominent, culminating in one of the biggest action cues of the score, “Countdown:”

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This cue is especially fun because the string orchestra is limited to purely pizzicato or col legno sounds, basically turning them into another percussion instrument.  This helps draw even more attention to the gamelan and electronics.

Snipes’ custom electronics laid the foundation for the Clawhammer cues.  The sound was so different from the Asian instrumentation of the Naga and Ops Com cues, I realized that new instrumental soloists would be necessary to accompany it.  These soloists would need the ability to create wailing, distorted sounds that would blend in with the synthesizers.

As usual, I could count on Steve Bartek’s electric guitar to bring unprecedented oddity.  The lead-guitarist from cult rock band Oingo Boingo, and frequent collaborator on all my projects, Steve has an imagination unlike any other guitarist I’ve ever heard:

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I also brought on my favorite electric violinist, Paul Cartwright.  Fans of my music know Paul’s work very well, for he has been featured prominently on “Battlestar Galactica,” “Dark Void,” “Caprica,” “The Walking Dead” and other scores.

His ability to generate alien tones from a familiar violin is remarkable.  And his solos on SOCOM 4 are among the best he’s ever recorded:

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I used solos from Bartek and Cartwright as counterpoint to the Asian soloists.  Where Naga was represented by dancing bansuris or blistering shamisen, Clawhammer was represented with distorted, angry tones.  Both players used electric amplification and an array of pedals to warp their instruments beyond recognition.  The resultant sounds have more in common with Snipes’ Clawhammer electronics than with any acoustic instruments.

The placement of the electronic cues comes at a pivotal mission during the game.  On my first play through the final game, I was thrilled with how effective this was.  The first few missions are scored with purely acoustic music.  At a certain point, the timbre of the entire score shifts to electronic music, inspired by a turning point in the story.  This was one way of letting the style of the music in combat missions inform the player about story and character in an unobtrusive way.

The combination of Eastern, Western and Electronic styles would present numerous creative challenges.  But, I ultimately found some wonderful ways of putting them together.  The most epic example of this is probably “The Pursuit of Vengeance,” one of my favorite compositions from the game:

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This passage combines gamelan, electronic, western symphony, taikos, Asian soloists (and the kitchen sink) into a single, high energy combat cue.

CHARACTER THEMES:

The early stages of working on SOCOM 4 were dedicated almost entirely to dealing with issues of instrumentation.  After several months of sketching and collaborating with SONY and Zipper, we finally had a clear vision of how to combine Asian, Western and Electronic styles.  It was time to begin writing.

The vast array of instruments at my disposal left me with an embarrassment of riches as I first began composing.  The gamelan orchestra was the most exciting to me personally, since I’d never written for it before.  However, I also relied on the ethnic strings and woodwinds for my melodic writing.  The arsenal of taiko drums alone could fill an action cue with energy.  But I also had a full symphonic orchestra at my disposal, which couldn’t be ignored.  And simultaneously, the electric soloists and custom electronics gave me an entirely different musical toolbox to draw from.

At the beginning of my creative process, the whole thing was pretty overwhelming.  My first few sketches were an incoherent mess of instruments, as I tried in vain to fit every exciting sound into a single piece of music.

After a few days, I realized that I was letting the instrumentation get the better of me.  The sounds of SOCOM 4 would ultimately define it, yes, but they alone could not create it.  With this epiphany, I decided to set aside all my instrumental concerns and get back to basics: characters and themes.

For me, scoring a videogame is ultimately no different than scoring a film or a television series.  I am using music to tell a story.  SOCOM 4 integrates a cinematic story into the single player campaign, and elevates the franchise’s narrative scope.  The developers and I agreed immediately that the score would need a narrative arc, comprised of character themes.

The music is based on several key themes that evolve throughout the course of the game.  Each theme has a smaller fragment or ostinato associated with it.  The two most essential themes would be the ones representing the main character, Ops Com, and Clawhammer.

The Ops Com Theme serves as the de facto SOCOM 4 Main Theme, and is heard prominently throughout the game.  Generally orchestrated in brass or strings, it evokes military nobility:

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This is, by far, the most traditionally symphonic sound in the entire score.  As such, I used it sparingly.  There are actually very few moments when the Ops Com theme is allowed to represent unbridled heroism and patriotism.  In fact, most statements of the theme are shrouded in ambiguous harmonies or ethereal gamelan textures.  This is because Ops Com is a more conflicted and layered protagonist than we suspect at first.

Fans of the series can count on this score to reflect honor, duty and patriotism.  But, this music also adds shades of self-doubt and confusion. As the story progresses, Ops Com is forced to make increasingly tough command decisions.  He finds that the boundaries between his enemies and friends blurs.  So, the most heroic version of his theme in the whole game is right in the Main Title.  From that point on, as he reacts to new revelations, his theme responds with him.  It evolves and takes on added nuance. The music is as much about his inner conflict as it is about the external forces he confronts.  More often than not, his theme is arranged with elements of dissonance and darkness:

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The Main Theme is frequently orchestrated above a pounding ostinato.  In fact, this energetic rhythmic motor is the first music heard in the entire game, introducing the Main Title Theme.  Generally orchestrated in the celli and basses, the Ops Com Ostinato is used as often as a shorthand substitute for the main theme:

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The low strings could aggressively play the ostinato and provide an epic orchestral presence, without interfering with the exotic Asian soloists or the battery of taiko drums.

The secondary theme of SOCOM 4 represents Clawhammer.  Performed almost exclusively on the electric soloists and custom electronics, the Clawhammer theme has a distinctly high-tech feel, perfectly capturing the essence of this advanced private military force with advanced weaponry and resources.

The Clawhammer Theme is built around distantly related minor chords:

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The second half of the first two phrases is marked with a distinct descending minor second.  I used this two-note motive to act as a shorthand Clawhammer Theme, the Clawhammer Ostinato:

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Voiced in analog synthesizers, these two notes effectively communicate the Clawhammer identity without having to take the time to state the entire theme.  Like the Ops Com ostinato, the Clawhammer Ostinato is very useful in subtle orchestration, lurking in the background behind percussion and soloists.

SOCOM 4 SOUNDTRACK CD

The best way to experience all the detail in this score is to check out the limited edition 2-CD soundtrack album from La La Land Records.  Pre-orders for signed copies go on sale tomorrow at 1pm Pacific Standard Time from the La La Land Records website.  There aren’t many of these so they’ll go pretty fast.  Be ready to order as soon as they’re available.  And if you miss those, I’ll be taking part in a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank on May 21st.

SOCOM 4: U.S. NAVY SEALs
Original Video Game Soundtrack
Music by Bear McCreary
(* = CD exclusive)

DISC ONE:

  1. Theme from SOCOM 4
  2. Countdown
  3. Naga Formation
  4. Gold Team
  5. Clawhammer
  6. Razhad’s Tarocco
  7. Rendezvous in the Mountains *
  8. Clawhammer’s Betrayal
  9. Revelation
  10. Leviathan
  11. The Flooded Fields *
  12. Turning Point
  13. Fluid Dynamics
  14. Gorman’s Orders

DISC TWO:

  1. Onslaught at the Bridge
  2. Passing the Mantle
  3. Safehouse *
  4. Means to an End
  5. Uninvited Guest *
  6. Benfaction *
  7. White Tiger *
  8. The Fortress
  9. Battle for Control
  10. Holding the Trigger
  11. The Pursuit of Vengeance

The CD set includes over 30 minutes of exclusive additional music, and a full-color booklet with session photos and detailed liner notes from me and the game’s creators.  There’s also a hidden little treat on the CD for good boys and girls, but I can’t tell you where to find it!  >:)

Working on this game has been a thrilling, challenging and rewarding experience that broadened my musical horizons.  But, I could never have done it on my own.  Big thanks are due to my dedicated music team, especially music co-producer and engineer Steve Kaplan, orchestrators Neal Desby, Ed Trybek and Henri Wilkinson, as well as Jonathan Ortega, Michael Beach, Jonathan Beard, Andrew Harris and David Matics.  I’d also like to thank all the incredible musicians who contributed their time, energy and talents as well as Andrew Craig for the session photos, and Kevin Porter for the session video footage.  And none of this would have come to fruition without Ed Byrne, Mary Olson, Travis Steiner and everyone at Zipper Interactive, and Keith Leary, Monty Mudd, Clint Bajakian and everyone at SONY.

Lastly, special thanks goes to all of you reading this: the fans.  I work on releasing these expanded soundtrack albums because I know you guys enjoy the music, and listen as deeply as I do when I write it.  I hope SOCOM 4 proves to be a worthy CD to add to your collection.

-Bear