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Dreamworks-Medal of Honor Allied Assault

 

Gasping for breath, all you can make out are the formless sounds of death and destruction spinning in the acrid air… Bullets everywhere… An instant from death… Burning bodies covering the rocks and beach… To your amazement, you feel the ground beneath your feet and your head above water. Relief is fleeting––ferocious waves sweep you off the sandbar and submerge your depleted body––gliding into deeper and darker waters. Paralyzed… contact with reality dissipates… until your head rises above the gray undulations once more––only to catch a fleeting glimpse of a deadly row of bullets kicking up the sea foam in front of you. Pain shoots up your leg… you’ve been hit. Fall face down into the water… rifle and helmet lost… you somehow struggle to shore. Battered and bloody…surrounded by infernal chaos… smoke from endless explosions sting your eyes like an army of mad hornets. Images blur… surroundings becoming more surreal…

No, you didn’t just read a trailer for the latest summer blockbuster war movie. It’s only a brief description of some of what you’ll experience playing Electronic Arts new Sony PlayStation II video game, Medal of Honor Allied Assault. Allied Assault is the latest in the Medal of Honor Series developed by Electronic Arts, a subsidiary of DreamWorks Interactive. Medal of Honor is a World War II themed action adventure video game series developed by DreamWorks Interactive and inspired by Steven Spielberg. In addition to the original Medal of Honor, the series also includes Medal of Honor Underground. Slated for release by December 2001, Medal of Honor Allied Assault takes video game technology to new and unprecedented heights.

When most people think about the background music for a video game, they immediately think of MIDI sequencers, cheesy keyboard sounds, and dated butt-rock guitar riffs played over an obligatory 160 bpm drum groove. Things have changed. MIDI is out-––live orchestras are in. To match the quality and intensity of video games like Medal of Honor, live music was the only alternative.

Composer Michael Giacchino scored Allied Assault, as well as all the other Medal of Honor games. Giacchino’s relationship with DreamWorks Interactive dates back to 1997 when he was approached by the newly formed company to score their flagship video game based on Spielberg’s The Lost World. The Lost World was the first ever completely original orchestral score written for a PlayStation console. Giacchino’s credits include numerous video game, television, and movie scores including Redemption of the Ghost, and the DreamWorks produced Semper Fi.

When it came time to record the score for Allied Assault, Giacchino called on his long time colleague, engineer Steve Smith. Smith had worked with Michael on all the previous Medal of Honor games, as well as many others. Smith, a 25-year recording veteran, received his first break filling in for an ill recording engineer during the sessions for Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Since then, he has gone on to work with bands like The Eagles, Cheap Trick, and Pearl Jam, record hundreds of movie scores, and has won three Grammy awards.

Smith, a long time proponent of analog recording, decided to try something different–-record the score entirely in digital. Instead of using his $500,000 analog board and top of the line analog recorders, he recorded this score with two Mackie HDR24/96 hard disk recorders, and two Mackie D8B digital mixers, the foundation of Open Hand Studios, a Seattle-based mobile recording studio. “It sounded really, really good. I was amazed,” Smith said. “We’re talking about a set-up that was maybe a tenth of the cost (of his old set-up). It would be hard to tell the difference quality wise. And it weighs 14 tons less!”

With new technology, the demand for superior audio quality is a given. Today’s recording engineers also require ease of use and intuitiveness for today’s fast-passed and high pressure recording environments. Smith adds, “The way I approach new technology is ‘how easy is it to use without opening the manual?’ If it has been designed for the recording industry, then I should be able to sit down and get around on it pretty quick. I don’t know if I’ve looked at the (HDR24/96) manual yet!”

  A scene from Medal of Honor Allied Assault
 

The recording took place in St. Thomas Chapel, on the campus of Bastyr University, just outside of Seattle and took three days to record and five days to mix. Smith mixed the recording in 5.1 Surround Sound at Giacchino’s Los Angeles Studio. To recreate the dramatic score, a 72-piece orchestra that included members of the Seattle Symphony, and a 20-piece boys choir were employed. “They’re fantastic players, I’ve recorded at least ten scores with them,” Giacchino said. “This was not only the best sounding (score) technically that we’ve done, but also orchestrally.”

For orchestra recordings, Smith usually employs a Decca Tree––a configuration using three omni directional microphones in a triangular pattern, placed roughly ten to twelve feet above the stage level and just behind the conductor. He also uses spot mics to achieve total control over the mix. Smith adds, “You record a film scoring orchestra different than you would a classical orchestra. With a film score, you use sort of a combination of the traditional classical approach with a multi-mic’ing, multi-tracking, pop recording approach. You mix both methodologies-––sometimes you need to emphasize a certain part of an orchestra to fit a scene.”

Giacchino shared Smith’s views on digital prior to this project. “Previously, I had listened to recordings done digitally on DA-88s and other systems, and (to me) it wasn’t as pure as our analog recordings. This project turned out to be the most incredible one so far,” he said. “There’s no reason not to record this way on every single project from now on.”

Smith explained why digital audio is finally ready to compete with analog, “24-bit is the single biggest improvement, period. The resolution is the part that the human ear really notices. It’s the detail and the air around the instrument that you hear. With analog you have infinite resolution, where you hear the molecules around the instrument, it’s almost like you can see the shadow of the instruments sonically. The same way your eyes can see 3-D and depth. With 16-bit you never heard that, it was always 2-dimentional. 24-bit is kind of like high definition video compared to film, as opposed to old fashioned NTSC video compared to film.”

With about 100 minutes of music to record in three days, the HDR24/96 and D8B proved they were more capable in handling the fast-paced demands of video game score recording. “I’ve become a huge fan of the HDR,” Smith said. “It’s so user friendly. All of the features are right there on the surface. You don’t have to dig down through any menus to figure the thing out.” Giacchino added, “It’s funny, you spend two months writing all this stuff, orchestrating everything, then you put it in front of them (the orchestra), they play it three times, then you’re on to the next project.”

So, after this project, has Smith changed his stance on analog recording? “I’ve been quoted as saying I prefer 15 ips, Dolby SR over digital, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. Laughs. The convenience of digital, with the sound quality of 24-bit makes it really hard for me to be holding on to that analog position.”

 

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