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Interview: The Orchestral Music and Interactive Sounds of Civilization V

Michael Curran, Civilization V Logo, Geoff Knorr

Last month, 2K Games released Sid Meier's Civilization V for the PC. A major aspect of the game experience was its critically praised soundtrack by extensively trained musicians Michael Curran and Geoff Knorr. For the first time in the series, the original score was recorded with a full orchestra — the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague — to give new depth to the civilization themes while maintaining their cultural characteristics. In addition, numerous steps were main to make the soundtrack as interactive as possible.

In this interview, lead composer and sound designer Michael Curran joins composer and orchestrator Geoff Knorr to discuss the making of the Civilization V soundtrack. They reflect on how they combined the original compositions, licensed tracks, sound effects, and voice acting to offer a truly interactive in-game experience. In addition, they discuss what the score's orchestral performances offer to the game and how, through a special edition soundtrack and a new concert tour, they serve as a stand-alone experience.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Michael Curran, Geoff Knorr
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Geoff Knorr, Kelley Gilmore

Interview Content

Chris: Michael Curran and Geoff Knorr, thank you for talking to us today about your impressive interactive soundtrack for Civilization V. First of all, could you each introduce yourselves and discuss your background, education, and previous works?

Michael Curran: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. I lived in NYC from age 22-37 playing music in bands — mainly rock and jazz improvisation — but have been based in the Baltimore area since 1995. I studied piano performance, music theory, and arrangement at Peabody Conservatory Prep, Berklee College of Music in Boston, and UMBC here in Baltimore. I graduated from UMBC with a degree in Visual and Performing Arts/Filmmaking.

Some of my previous game audio credits include Sid Meier's Civilization III: Conquests, Sid Meier's Pirates! for PC and Xbox, Sid Meier's Railroads!, Sid Meier's Civilization IV (including Warlords, Beyond the Sword, and Colonization), and Civilization Revolution.

Geoff Knorr: I was born in Framingham, MA, but my family moved to Marietta, GA when I was one. My dad had my sisters and I start piano lessons around age seven, but it wasn't until I took up the cello in sixth grade that music started to become something I truly enjoyed. I composed my first piece in eighth grade, but my major concentrations through much of middle and high school were actually cello and baseball. It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I decided to pursue composing music, mainly because I didn't think I was good enough to make it as a cellist! I ended up studying music composition and recording arts and sciences at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

My entry into games is fairly recent. As divine providence would have it, I was interning at a Baltimore recording studio and Firaxis came to that studio looking to record choir for the Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword Expansion Pack. I was able to provide the music transcription and score preparation as well help find singers from the Peabody Institute for the recording session. Afterwards, I kept in contact with Michael Curran and Mark Cromer, two of the audio guys at the time at Firaxis, in case a place opened up for me — which did happen in October of 2008. Civilization V is my first large video game project — most of my prior compositional work has been in concert music. Even today I am trying to stay active in both music for media and music for the concert hall.

Strings of the FILMharmonic Perform Civilization V

Chris: Since its origins 20 years ago, the Civilization series has significantly built on the foundations of the original game, both in terms of audio and otherwise. Michael, having previously been closely involved with Civilization IV, how would compare the soundtrack for Civilization V with past soundtracks? Could you summarise what features are conserved and what are new?

Michael Curran: Civilization games have always included music of different cultures and time periods in one way or another. The biggest question, when considering a design for music in a Civilization game is: what to include? The range of choice is as great as music itself — from the beginning of human history and including all cultures and civilizations that ever existed — even music from before musical notation existed (or is known to exist).

In Civilization IV, the design for the soundtrack was to have playlists for each era and focus on western music as it evolved from the medieval period. We also wrote some music to play during the "ancient" and "classical" periods, but nothing culture specific. For the leader screens, we wrote cultural specific music for each of the leaders in the game. We had era specific music in the soundtrack so we wrote era specific music for these leaders as well. This "leader music" was completely separate from the soundtrack, which was mostly licensed.

For Civilization V, we wanted the soundtrack to more equitably represent all of the various cultures that exist in the game, and we wanted the leader music to be integrated with that soundtrack. So, we created two separate soundtrack playlists — War and Peace — for each of the four world regions, namely Europe, Asia, Middle East/Africa, and The Americas prior to European colonization. We wanted the music to be orchestral — "cinematically styled" - that would support the mood of a game for both when a player is at peace with his neighbours and when he is at war.

Once again, some great "classical" orchestral music can be found in these playlists — compositions by Copland, Holst, Mahler, Grieg to mention a few — and we wanted to retain this from Civilization IV, as long as it fit the mood we were trying to create. The mood was most important to us — we had a very specific idea of what the soundtrack should sound like, and the leader music was being written to match that vision. In Civilization V, we integrated this leader music into the playlists in a very cool way, and expanded the depth of the playlists in doing so.

Chris: Once again, the majority of the background music featured in Civilization V is licensed. Geoff, given you were principally responsible for organising this area, could you elaborate on which music you selected for which purposes? What do you feel the use of licensed music brings to the game overall?

Geoff Knorr: The actual task of selecting all the licensed music involved many others besides myself. Michael and Ian Smith, another sound designer at Firaxis at the time Civilization V was being developed, listened to hours and hours of music and found many of the tracks in the first pool of choices � an enormous array of music. Once this pool had been established, Jon Shafer, lead designer, Dorian Newcomb, art lead, Michelle Menard, associate producer (also a trained musician) and myself were invited to listen and make comments and suggestions as to whether each individual piece would be a good fit for the direction of the game. Gradually, misfits were removed and final war, peace, and other playlists for each of the four regions — Americas, Europe, Middle East/Africa, and Asia — materialized.

The bulk of my organizational work on the licensed music came very late in the project when we were working with 2K licensing on obtaining the rights to use the music we had selected. Some of the pieces we had selected were unusable, due to a whole assortment of reasons, so alternate pieces (suggested by various licensing contacts, such as Naxos) were evaluated. I did much of this evaluation and was responsible for making sure the actual in-game music reflected what 2K had obtained the rights to use. Considering there is upwards of 15 hours of licensed music in the game, it was a lot to keep track of!

The FILMharmonic Performing Civilization V Music

Chris: The majority of the original music in Civilization V was created to represent the various nations and leaders of the game. Considering specific examples, how did you depict cultures around the world in an authentic way, in terms of both selecting melodic material and embellishing it?

Michael Curran: We decided to base all the leader music on existing melodies of each civilization in the game. We looked for melodies that would be well known, and then tried to alter them, often only hinting at the theme. In the case of non-European civilizations, we used ethnic instruments to further authenticate the culture and music of that civilization. For the Catherine set, I chose the Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets. The dark choir and percussion add a distinct Russian feel to the well known Prokofiev theme. For Askia, we used a Kora, which is a plucked string instrument of West Africa, and Marimba against the lush strings of the orchestra to set the mood in the Gambian folk melody that I used.

Geoff Knorr: One of the first steps was simply reading the character descriptions, looking at the preliminary concept art, and reading a little about the real history of each leader. I think the goal of the leader music was to support the personality of the leader and musically embody the culture that each particular leader is representing — so we needed to know who we were composing for. Also, the first piece you hear in-game is your civ's peace music, so using the music to build a sense of national pride for your civ from the start of the game was something we sought to do. When we overhear of players commenting that they play certain civs because of the musical theme for that civ... this is exactly what we were after!

As a way of ensuring this "national pride" within each piece, the design team decided early on to use real, well-known, celebrated melodies within each civ's culture as the inspiration behind each civ's leader music. Michael and I spent quite a bit of time listening and searching for these melodies. The Internet was an invaluable resource. We would often play the melodies we were considering using for each other to help make the final decision.

Once the melodies were chosen, we also researched the common instruments used in the music from each civ's culture and sought to use those instruments in combination with the symphony orchestra. The design team decided to use a kind of refined cinematic, ethnic style for the game. Thanks to an ethnomusicology class I took while at Peabody, I knew that to be truly authentic in our pieces would have been impossible, given our engrained Western sensibilities and backgrounds — but we did seek to be respectful (and fun too!) in giving a true flavour of each culture through our musical and instrumental choices.

Chris: The music for Civilization V emphasises the distinction between peacetime and wartime featured in the game. How did you emphasise these contrasts with the themes for the various empires and what effect did it have?

Michael Curran: For all the leader music, both "peace" and "war", we tried to keep the theme recognizable to some extent, but I know that for some of my pieces, the themes were considerably more hidden in the war variation. I generally started with the peace theme and tried to find things in it — that could be retained in the war variation. In Bismarck, I was surprised at how dark I could get the Ode to Joy theme, without really changing it that much. Same for Napoleon really — the melody is still recognizable under the driving beat of the war theme.

Geoff Knorr: The general feel of the wartime pieces is either more aggressive or more melancholy, or both at different points in a leader's war music than in the leader's peace music. Most of my war pieces also mangle the melody more drastically than the peace pieces. There are a few exceptions though, such as Suleiman's war music and Oda Nobunaga's war music, both of which use fairly direct quotes of the source melodies because the melodies themselves are darker and more militaristic in nature.

Michael Curran and Geoff Knorr Overseeing Recording Session

Chris: In terms of musical developments, one of the biggest changes was the decision to record the original music with full orchestra. What inspired the decision to use full orchestra, specifically the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague under Andy Brick? What do you think it brought to the experience compared with the mostly sequenced Civilization IV?

Michael Curran: I've been wanting to record with a live orchestra since I began writing music for orchestral instruments. MIDI has always been the standard tool of the game composer, but that's beginning to change. Live orchestral music for games is becoming more and more common these days, and I think that the fans are aware of this, and expect this kind of attention to the music. The Civilization V soundtrack was designed to be orchestral, and the time just seemed right. I asked for it, and 2K agreed. They had worked with Andy Brick before and he recommended the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra.

We recorded almost two hours of music with live orchestra and choir, and that amounted to about half of the original music in the game. Still, in a game like Civilization, there is so much more music needed as compared with movies or other games, that MIDI sequenced music is just necessary. I don't see it going away anytime soon.

Chris: Geoff, you were the sole orchestrator and copyist for Civilization V. What were your main considerations when orchestrating the music for Civilization V, both functional and artistic? How did you maintain the worldly character of the game's score in the process?

Geoff Knorr: My goal in orchestrating Michael's music was to essentially translate his MIDI mockup done in Digital Performer to the musicians of a real symphony orchestra. There are many differences between sequencing an orchestra with sampled instruments and working with a real orchestra. They really are two similar sounding, but vastly different languages — both having their unique subtleties, like any language.

Of course, everything had to be notated — notes, dynamics, phrasing, playing techniques — but additions and subtractions to which instruments are playing also had to be made, so that what actually came out of the orchestra would sound similar to the MIDI version. With an entire symphonic palate to work with, I was also able to add subtle orchestrational differences to repeated phrases, strengthening the musical interest of repeated musical material.

Having actual ethnic instruments playing along with the symphony orchestra was paramount in giving the soundtrack its worldly feel. There are also some subtle phrasing details we were able to obtain with the Prague FILMharmonic, such as having the strings slide between certain notes (two examples being Songhai and Chinese music) — a technique much more common in non-Western music.

Chris: Geoff, you are no stranger to orchestral productions, previously having performances of your concert music by professional orchestras such as the Hartford Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. Did these experiences prepare you for working with the FILMharmonic in Prague or were there major differences given the focus was score recording?

Geoff Knorr: My previous experiences with professional symphony orchestras were vital in preparing me for multiple tasks with the Civilization V music with live orchestra. First is the art, and it truly is an art, of score and part preparation. There is an established canon of symphony orchestra music, and symphony players are used to seeing music notated and presented on the page in a way similar to the way that canon is notated and presented. When their parts are properly prepared, both musically and in regards to the actual formatting, they are able to focus more on musicality and less on deciphering the composer's intentions. My work with professional orchestras taught me, and continues to teach me all the subtleties of this.

Secondly, I was also familiar with common orchestra terminology, helping our feedback and interaction with the orchestra during the sessions to be focused and intelligible for the musicians and conductor. There was a language barrier (English to Czech and back), but we of course had a translator familiar with the orchestra as well. However, if I work with the Prague FILMharmonic again in the future, I am hoping to learn a lot of Czech before the sessions, so I can communicate even more directly and (hopefully) more effectively with the orchestra.

Geoff Knorr Orchestrating Civilization V

Chris: The two headlining orchestral compositions on the Civilization V soundtrack are the "Opening Movie Music" and "Civilization V Theme". Michael, what were your major visual and musical inspirations when creating these works? How did you ensure they were simultaneously effective as a contextual and stand-alone experience?

Michael Curran: The musical style for the soundtrack had been established by the end of 2008, having written the Washington, Bismarck, and Napoleon themes already, and we had begun researching music to license for the rest of the soundtrack. I began writing the "Civilization V Theme" music in early 2009 while doing this research. Most importantly, we wanted this menu music to set the tone for the player and establish the mood of the game. We wanted it to evolve, but without any real resolve or final destination. The game is open ended for the player, so we didn't want it to evoke any particular culture or gameplay style. Anything can happen in a game, so I wanted it to remain somewhat neutral — neither too peaceful or too war-like. A sense of mystery and epic potential was important for me, and I hope that I achieved that.

The opening movie music was written to support the story of the movie. I did write some prototype music based on the script and storyboard, but it wasn't until the movie was almost complete that I began to really compose. I knew that I wanted it to be orchestral and evoke the same feeling as the menu, only more climactic — with more of an ending. I wanted it to be very emotional and filled will hope for the player at the end. I think that the movie actually does stand on its own as a work. Geoff Knorr did the final audio mix of the movie and I'm very happy with how it came out.

Chris: Geoff, you were intricately involved with the opening movie, being responsible for recording and mixing the music. Could you elaborate on the technical demands of these roles? What do you think surround sound mixing brings to the experience?

Geoff Knorr: Just to clarify, I completed the final 5.1 surround mix for the opening cinematic, but I was not the recording engineer for the music recording session or mixing engineer of the music.

The opening movie can be such a powerful personal encounter for the player — the hope in my mixing is that the sound would draw the listener into the story and world of father and son. Since the movie is so centered on the father's dialogue, the surround aspect is not as vitally important as in many movies. Most important in this case is that we hear and connect to that father and feel what his son feels.

The main use of surround was to present the sound of the father's dream sequence, in a three-dimensional manner, and make the orchestra sound epic by having a lush concert hall reverb in the surround speakers. The addition of a subwoofer (the .1 of 5.1) also allowed the use of low frequency rumble to add heightened drama to certain parts, such as our first entrance into the father's tent.

Chris: The music is just one aspect of the audio of Civilization V and you also offered various innovations in terms of sound design. When approaching Civilization V, how did you ensure that the ambient noise and battle sounds were detailed and believable? What progressions were offered in this regard compared with Civilization IV?

Michael Curran: With the ambience we wanted to try to represent the whole picture of what you see in the world. If the player can see a forest, a desert, an ocean, and a river on screen, we want to hear all of these elements as well. In Civilization IV, we just had an ambient soundscape of the tile that you were centered on. In Civilization V, each quadrant of the screen calls a soundscape in addition to the center tile, rivers, and resources. It's really a much more believable experience for the player.

Sound effects for the units and specifically combat audio required a complete re-thinking of how we would approach the audio design in this area of the game. In Civilization IV, we attached sound effects to individual frames in the animations — so that when each individual character in a unit would do something, you would hear a sound effects to go with it. We used volume variation to thin out the sound of what was a massive number of sounds being called, and the result was pretty good. In Civilization Revolution we used a "percent chance of playing" variable to thin it out, which was way more efficient and necessary for the console's performance limitations.

From the Control Room

We knew that we had to come up with a new system for Civilization V because of the number of characters that would be in each unit was so great — up to 15 in a single unit. Double that with a simple unit to unit melee combat, and you would have 30 individual animations calling sounds at once. Aside from being a huge strain on the game performance, it just isn't a very efficient way of doing it.

So we built a "tiered" system for sounds to be called based on the number of characters in a given unit. If the unit had three or less characters, it behaves just as it did in Civilization Revolution — sounds play off the individual character animations with "percent chance" used as a limiter. When the number is four or greater, the tiered system kicks in and stops most of the individual sounds from being called. In place of that, we play a looping "group" sound that contains elements to the two combating units. We continue to call individual impacts, bodyfalls, and anything that screams out for a "synched" sound effect. All of these sounds, including the looping tiered sounds are interactive — changing, depending on the combination of unit types, terrain, and camera position.

Chris: You also coordinated a series of multilingual voice recording sessions for Civilization V. How did the team create appropriate scripts and select suitable actors for this team? How does this feature complement the music in creating a convincing interpretation of each leader?

Michael Curran: I think that the leader interactions are great in this game. For me, it really completes the players' immersion into the world of Civilization. It makes the game much more personal for the player when these leaders interact and respond to your actions. Along with the music and ambience, the leader speech really helps to create a world that is diverse and meaningful. The speech was written by Paul Murphy after a series of meetings with the Art Lead, Dorian Newcomb, and other artists and designers. These meetings were held to discuss and find the appropriate character for each of the leaders.

Once we had determined their character and what kind of voice they should have, we sent the scripts and suggested languages to company called Wave Generation in Montreal. They provided all the unit speech in Civilization IV, so we knew that they could find actors for any language we needed. They handled all the casting and recording of the leaders in Civilization V under our direction.

Chris: Evidently a lot of time has clearly been dedicated to the sound of Civilization V. Looking at the game as a whole, how well do you think the various auditory aspects fit and how important are they in terms of the overall experience? Is this the pinnacle of the series' audio or is there room for even more evolution?

Michael Kurran: I'm very proud of the work that the audio team has done on Civilization V. We have a great game that is fun to play, beautiful to look at, and audio that really completes the experience for the player. For myself as audio lead, I think that we achieved much more than I could have hoped for. Having said that, I look forward to working on the next project; taking what we have achieved and building on it.

Geoff Knorr: The team focused an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and thought into making sure all aspects of the game complemented each other and "fit." The sound and music is certainly an integral aspect of drawing the player into the world of his/her civilization — but it's just one part of the whole.

There is always room for evolution. On the sound side of things, game audio in general is a young industry, and sound designers and composers are always trying to work with the programmers in implementing more sophisticated ways of dealing with interactive audio and music in games.

Civilization V Special Edition Art

Chris: Beyond adding to the interactivity and authenticity of the game experience, the music of Civilization V was also released as a double disc soundtrack. How do you feel the music for the game works as independent experience? Are you proud that the music has been released in this form?

Michael Curran: The music of Civilization V was a very big leap forward for the Civilization series. Having had the opportunity to record almost half of the original music with a live orchestra was a hugely rewarding experience for me, and a great benefit to the game. An extra benefit, of course, was that this music has been released separately as a double CD soundtrack in the Special Edition. The recordings are uncompressed so the quality is considerably better than what was mixed for the game. Also, these mixes have a greater dynamic range. In the game, all of these tracks had to be levelled dynamically, so that it would mix better with all the other audio. I'm very proud of this music, and I believe that is does stand on its own, and that people will appreciate it independently from the game.

Geoff Knorr: Michael and I are so happy to see the music released as a soundtrack with the Special Edition, and are so thankful for the incredible support we've received from Firaxis and 2K Games. We're also excited that one of the ways the music is going to be presented as an independent experience is on the next series of the PLAY! A Video Game Symphony video game music concerts, conducted by Andy Brick. The new series will include a concert suite of original music from the game and premieres in Vancouver on December 6, 2010.

Because the original music is designed to set the general game ambience, and it is not tied to specific in-game events (besides war-time and peace-time), I think it works particularly well as independent experience. Many people comment on film scores being so tied to events on screen that when the screen is taken away, the music becomes less effective and less enjoyable. I do not suspect this to be the case at all with the music Michael and I have composed for Civilization V.

Chris: Now that Civilization V is out, it would be interesting to hear your plans for the future. Geoff, now you have left Firaxis Games, do you intend to pursue further game music productions? Michael, as the continuing audio lead at the company, do you intend to pursue the audio developments of Civilization V on future soundtracks?

Michael Curran: We have some cool projects planned and I'm working on sound design and music for those right now. I'm also working with Andy Brick who is putting together a suite of music from Civilization V to be premiered with the Vancouver Symphony and Chorus in December. Andy is going to orchestrate the suite of music, and will be the conductor at the world premiere and as it tours in 2011. I've learned so much from the Civilization V project, and I�m looking forward to contributing to more great games here at Firaxis.

Geoff Knorr: I'm certainly interested in continuing work on the music and audio in games, as well as for film, popular music, and the concert hall. I hope more projects like Civilization V are somewhere on the horizon.

I'm currently working on the sound design for Civilization Network — a very cool and fun Civ game for Facebook. I'm also teaching a class on game audio at the Peabody Institute in the spring, so I have quite a bit of preparing to do for that! Meanwhile, I'm preparing to be a father — my wife and I are expecting our first kid in February!

Geoff Knorr, Andy Brick, and Michael Curran with FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague

Chris: Congratulations once again on your achievements on Civilization V. Is there anything else you would like to say about the project? In addition, is there any message you would like to leave to fans of Civilization and its music around the world?

Michael Curran: Enjoy the game and go and see the PLAY! concert when it comes to a city near you and support Civilization music! Also a thank you to the Civilization V audio team: Roland Rizzo, Ian Smith, Paul Heitsch, Geoff Knorr, Dominic Cerquetti, Andy Brick, and The Prague FILMharmonic!

Geoff Knorr: Large projects like this always come to a successful completion because of the hard work and dedication of many, many, many people — all of whom deserve recognition and thanks. I'd like to thank Firaxis and 2K for giving me the chance to work on the music and orchestrate all of it, Michael for trusting me with orchestrating his music, Andy Brick for doing a truly amazing job organizing and conducting the recording sessions, the wonderful musicians of the Prague FILMharmonic, my incredible wife who was not only patient through the long work hours of crunch time, but also helped quite a bit with the preparations for the recording sessions, and the entire Civilization V dev team for creating a truly remarkable game.

To the players — enough reading for now — get back to your game... just one... more... turn... at a time.