Assassin’s Creed: Lineage scored in Sibelius

by Daniel Spreadbury on September 29, 2009 · 1 comment

in News, People

A production still from live action short Assassin's Creed: Lineage

A production still from live action short Assassin's Creed: Lineage

Assassin’s Creed II is sure to be one of the biggest video games of the 2009 holiday season: such a big release, in fact, that it is being accompanied by three short live action films, together called Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

Assassin’s Creed was a big hit on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2007, followed by a PC release in 2008. The game fused Knights Templar mythology and vibrant medieval city settings with a modern sci-fi twist to create a unique gaming experience, allowing the player to inhabit the body of Altair, a stealthy assassin who also happens to be an expert free-runner. One moment the player could be walking slowly through the crowded streets of Jerusalem or Damascus, and the next he could be scaling the side of a building and bounding across the rooftops.

Now a sequel is inevitably in the works, this time following a different assassin, Ezio, and is set in Renaissance Italy, some 300 years after the first game. And Ubisoft are pulling out all the stops to make Assassin’s Creed II a true multimedia experience, with live-action films preceding the game’s release.

Those live-action films are to be scored by none other than George S. Clinton, composer of dozens of major Hollywood movies and TV shows. The recording sessions are taking place at Studio X in Seattle this week, so it was an ideal time to catch up with George’s copyist, Robert Puff, who has been preparing George’s score for recording in Sibelius 6. More after the jump.

I first started working for George in 1999, when he recorded the score for “The Astronaut’s Wife” and also the soundtrack for a made for TV movie called “Lansky”. George is quite prolific – that same year, he scored the 2nd Austin Powers movie, although I was not involved with that score.
> Can you describe George Clinton’s working process?
For Assassins’ Creed II, George is scoring to picture using Digital Performer and will be mixing using Pro Tools. He creates very complete and excellent sounding orchestral mockups using his orchestral samples; Gigasampler and some others.
I receive mp3 mockups and DP files, and do “midistration” to generate scores and parts in Sibelius.   George is extremely detailed in his midi (DP) sketches, and really understands how to write for orchestra, so he has already voiced and split out his strings onto separate tracks by the time I get his mockup. In addition to the orchestral tracks, there are a number of prelays on ACII which will be incorporated into the final mix, such as percussion and sound effects tracks created using Spectrasonics RMX Stylus and other software tools.
> How many cues are there in the soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed II?
Good question. I actually have no idea what the final tally will be.  The portion of the soundtrack we just completed is for the Cinematics, which are movies that play inside the game, and also for some amazing preview movies that are going to be released in anticipation of and within the video game. There are 15 of these, structured in 3 Episodes (or reels).
> How much of the final music in the game will be recorded by live musicians, and how much will be performed virtually?
The live orchestra for the Cinematics is horns, trombones and strings, with oboe in a few places. The live orchestra will then be mixed with the prelay percussion and sound effects / synth George did in his studio. The underscoring for actual game play may end up being quite different, perhaps medieval Italian music played live on period instruments or something, or it may go in a more sound design direction, at this point, I couldn’t even guess. Or they may come back to record more of a cinematic feel with the orchestra here.
> Who is directing the recording sessions?
George conducts the orchestra on all of his sessions. The music producer is Mike Flicker, who, if you are a 70′s rock fan, may remember  produced the band Heart to huge success.
> What orchestra is performing, and where are the sessions taking place?
The Northwest Sinfonia (http://nwsinfonia.com/), which is a professional recording orchestra that draws its players from the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and Pacific N.W. Ballet. The recording (is taking place) at Studio X.
> How long did it take you to produce the full scores and parts for all of the cues in Sibelius?
If word gets out, I may have to start charging less! :-)  Actually, Sibelius 6 represents an enormous leap in productivity for me, even over v5. For this project, we recorded the 15 starts in two different sessions. We had about a week to prepare all of the the scores and parts for the stands for each segment – so essentially 1 day to orchestra and prepare each cue.
> Are there any particular features in Sibelius that make it especially efficient for this kind of work?
Well, obviously REWIRE sync is huge for the orchestration portion. I can just open up the DP file, along with any mockup audio or video, then open the Sibelius score and check all the notation details bar by bar in perfect sync with the mockup. For both scores and parts, I’ve been finding that Magnetic Layout has been a huge time saver for this type of project. It’s great to have placement automated – I can freeze and fine tune the placement of a few things and done.  I’m also using several plugins quite a bit to get things turned around quickly. For instance, I just started using a new plugin called Transform Keyswitches on this project (thanks, Bob Z.!) which recognizes all of George’s keyswitches I’ve defined, and converts them to the appropriate text in Sibelius automatically.

“I first started working for George in 1999, when he recorded the score for The Astronaut’s Wife and also the soundtrack for a made-for-TV movie called Lansky,” says Robert. “George is quite prolific – that same year, he also scored the second Austin Powers movie.”

Robert has busily been preparing the conductor’s score and all the parts ready for recording this week. “The portion of the soundtrack we just completed is for the cinematics,” he says, “These are movies that play inside the game, and also some amazing preview movies that are going to be released in anticipation of and within the video game. There are 15 of these, structured in three episodes.”

The final soundtrack will be a mixture of live orchestra and so-called “prelays,” which are pre-recorded tracks created using software tools such as Stylus RMX. These will typically include percussion and exotic sound effects. “The live orchestra for the cinematics is horns, trombones and strings, with oboe in a few places,” says Robert.

The players come from the Northwest Sinfonia, a professional recording orchestra that draws its players from the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and Pacific N.W. Ballet, while Clinton himself conducts the orchestra on all of his sessions. The producer is Mike Flicker, who you may remember, if you are of a certain age, produced the band Heart to huge success.

The initial composition for Assassin’s Creed II is done using Digital Performer, synced to video from the live action sequences. George uses a wide variety of orchestral samples built up over many years to produce complete orchestral mock-ups, which he then mixes in Pro Tools.

“I receive MP3 mock-ups and Digital Performer files,” says Robert, “and then I get to work on ‘MIDI-strating’ them in order to generate scores and parts in Sibelius. George is extremely detailed in his sketches, and really understands how to write for orchestra, so he has already voiced and split out his strings onto separate tracks by the time I get his mock-up.”

Robert says that the new features in Sibelius 6 are saving him a lot of time. “ReWire sync is hugely useful for the orchestration portion,” he says. “I can just open up the Digital Performer file, along with any mock-up audio or video, then open the Sibelius score and check all the notation details bar by bar in perfect sync with the mock-up.”

And, of course, for projects on tight deadlines, anything that saves him a step is welcome. “For both scores and parts, I’ve been finding that Magnetic Layout has been a huge time-saver for this type of project. It’s great to have placement automated; I can freeze and fine-tune the placement of a few things, and then I’m done.”

The ability of plug-ins to automate repetitive tasks is also a boon. “I’m using several plug-ins to get things turned around quickly. For instance, I just started using a new plug-in written by Bob Zawalich called Transform Keyswitches, which recognizes all of George’s keyswitches, and automatically converts them to the appropriate text — such as pizz. or arco — in Sibelius.”

Overall, Robert is thrilled with the changes in Sibelius 6. “It represents an enormous leap in productivity for me, even over Sibelius 5. For this project, we recorded the 15 starts in two different sessions. We had about a week to prepare all of the the scores and parts for the stands for each segment – so essentially 1 day to orchestrate and prepare each cue.”

Assassin’s Creed II is set to be released on 17 November in the US and 20 November in Europe. The live-action movies will be released in advance of the game’s street date.

As for Robert, he’s already moving on to his next project. “Composer Colin O’Malley has just hired me to orchestrate and copy the music for a family-oriented film he is scoring called Letters to God, which records on October 12. So it’s back to Sibelius 6 for me!”

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