Getting Halo 4 perfect wasn't just a case of fine-tuning Master Chief's ability to make aliens explode - it meant crafting a soundtrack that can stand alongside a set that redefined what we expect from game audio. The goosebump-inducing choral harmony created by Marty O'Donnell is, after Super Mario, the most recognisable beat in video games. To replace it, 343 Industries turned to Neil Davidge, the producer behind Massive Attack and, it turns out, something of a series fan.
"I'd been playing Halo since it first came out," Davidge recalls. "We got an Xbox into the studio while I was working on the album 100th Window." He's played every Halo game since, which put him in good stead when an accidental encounter in Los Angeles connected him to 343 Industries. "It was one of those chance meetings - my management got chatting with this guy who was a music supervisor for Xbox. I'd scored a bunch of movies and wanted to branch out, they wanted composers who had a fresh way at looking at things, and who were also well versed in the electronic aspect of music."
343 was keen to advance the Halo soundtrack, it turns out - "not necessarily revolutionise it and disregard everything that O'Donnell had done before," stresses Davidge. "They wanted to evolve it, to be more experimental, to flesh out a new aspect of the Halo universe with new sounds." Which made Davidge a perfect fit.
"A big part of what I do as a producer, as a music maker, is take organic sounds and process them to create something that sounds real, but has this kind of hyper-real, slightly alien aspect." The result is occasional, and effective, bursts of electronica in key tracks. That hasn't come at the expense of the choral tones, although there's a new edge that sounds different to O'Donnell's original. That's intentional, says Davidge.
Bring to the fore
"I've always interpreted that the Forerunners were seen through the eyes of the human race and seen through the eyes of the Covenant," he says. "What I wanted to do is actually present 'These are the Forerunners'. This isn't our, or the Covenant's view of them. This is actually the sound of the Forerunner race. This is us being right in the heart of it. I wanted to have a more alien aspect to the choral music."
"Of course it was daunting - but at the same time it was like, I think I can do something great here," he tells us. "Not just provide something that's only going to push the action on a little bit further. To do something that really does connect with people, something that is emotional, that is exciting, that is slightly mind-bending at times."
The process of creating the soundtrack required a lot of back and forth between the Bristol-based Davidge and 343 before it was finally ready for recording at Abbey Road Studios. "There would be a list of locations and the pieces that they needed for each of the missions, and a very, very brief description of what the music was supposed to represent, sometimes just two sentences." Occasionally there'd be visual material too, although gameplay footage proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
"It was quite frustrating for me," says Davidge of watching somebody else play. "Of course I wanted to go in there and play myself, but when you're composing to somebody else playing the game it's actually really difficult, and in the end I had to disregard them. It dragged me from the telling of the story with the music. I feel it's very important within game score to do that."