Music and Localization: Fine-Tuning the Universal Language

Music and Localization: Fine-Tuning the Universal Language
May 24, 2017
If music is the universal language, where does localization fit in? How does localizing music differ from localizing language? And what are the primary factors that drive a composer's thinking when creating music for a global audience? Tune in for a lively discussion with renowned composer, Marty O'Donnell. 
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Speaker Transcript
Renato This is Renato Beninatto.
Dougal This is Dougal Cullen.
Michael And this is Michael Stevens from Globally Speaking. And you may have noticed, we have a guest with us today.
Renato With more than six million copies sold in 2017, Halo became the second best-selling game on the X-Box. The only one that has sold more than that was Halo2 which was its sequel.
Michael But, Renato, I wasn’t talking about actually the guest we interviewed, I’m talking about the guest who’s helping us on our introduction here, Dougal Cullen.
Renato Well, Dougal, why did we invite you to this introduction?
Dougal Probably because when Michael first told me he was friends with Marty O’Donnell, I flipped out and was like “oh my God! That guy is amazing, he did the Flintstones theme song and then after that he made all these awesome songs for video games that I loved.”
Renato So, why, Dougal, if you don’t mind, why do you think it’s important for Michael and I to talk to Marty?
Dougal Well, I think sound design and the theme songs are really important within video games and I’m pretty sure that the vocalization is much more complex than just translating the words. I think the voice talents and music is also important.
Michael Right. And one note is that on May 4th 2007 Halo was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame. There were six million copies sold by 2017. It became the second best game on X-Box and it only trails its sequel, Halo 2 in overall sales for X-Box. People have called this game the Star Wars of video games. So, these are the reasons we are talking to Marty. We hope you guys will enjoy it.
Renato No, let’s tell the truth. We’re only talking to him because it is our friend!
Michael Ha, ha, that’s true. We do like our friends.
Renato Let’s go into our conversation with Marty O’Donnell.
Marty My name is Marty O’Donnell I am an audio director and composer. People know me because I’ve done TV commercials like “we are Flintstone’s kids” and I also did the Halo score and the Destiny score. Halo [sings], everybody knows that, if you play Halo.
Renato My God! So, you just did two things that I have absolutely no capacity of doing. Remembering a jingle but then you composed it; and unfortunately, a lot of our audience is outside of the United States, they don’t’ even know what Flintstone’s vitamins are. But the Americans will recognize that. But, Halo! Man! That’s amazing.
Marty Yeah, well, okay so if they are outside the United States they probably still get this. “Mr Clean, Mr Clean” so I did that; and I’ve seen Mr Clean in Italy so I know he exists.
Renato Very good. So, jingles, music travels and that’s one of the amazing things of the business of international business is that there is very little requirement for localization of music because music is the ultimate universal language. But, have you ever faced any experiences where you had to localize music?
Marty No. You know, that’s interesting. No-one has ever asked me to localize music, thankfully. There have been a few times when I’ve done some music that has lyrics in it but we were able to just let it pass the way it was. Sometimes on Destiny I had some music with a choral part that was singing in Latin and Latin is sort of universal to everybody so it’s no big deal.

But, no, music is the thing that really truly is the universal language, and I found that out even… like I said, I was in Italy just recently, a few months ago, and I was actually really surprised that the fans in Italy, and how well they knew the music and how much more emotionally connected they seemed to be than I’m used to in the States; I have some fans who will talk about their connection to the music, but the Italian fans were like really vociferous and demonstrative with how much the emotional part of the music meant to them.
Renato Well, you remember that story recently with that band that they did 1,000 people in Italy playing live just to have – what’s the name of the band – the guys they brought 1,000 people together, they put a bunch of drums and singers and guitars and they played and invited – what is the band…
Michael Go ahead and sing the song, Renato.
Renato I don’t have the talent to sing. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. They wanted these guys to go to a town in Tuscany, and they created a movement; I have Tears for Fears, but it’s not, it’s like…
Michael It’s not Coldplay?
Renato No! It’s a real band! Not Chili Peppers, it’s… it’s a guy with a beard, long hair…
Michael Definitely ZZ Top.
Renato No, damn! I hate when this happens, when we’re recording and I want to remember something.
Michael Look it up on Google. Was it an American band?
Renato Yes, an American band.
Michael Sing the song, just sing the song!
Renato Maybe from the… No, I can’t remember the song. I remember the chorus but I …
Michael Just wanted to get you recorded singing!
Marty Were the 1,000 people all playing instruments and singing?
Renato Yes, yes.
Michael Foo Fighters?
Renato Foo Fighters! Exactly.
Michael Foo Fighters. I typed in; I Googled, Italy, 1,000 musicians. And it’s the very first result.
Renato What’s the song, the name of the song?
Michael Learn to Fly.
Renato It was so beautiful. And then I didn’t know the original song. I did but I didn’t, but then I saw this performance online for maybe 20 times because it’s so good. And then I saw them playing, and it’s not as good as the 1,000.
Michael That’s Dave Grohl, he’s amazing. He does a lot of experimentation. Of course, he was in Nirvana. And, believe it or not, I sat right behind him at a Paul McCartney concert a couple years ago because I worked with Paul on music for Destiny, and we became good friends—well, at least I thought we became good friends—anyway, we were sitting at the concert, and we had really great seats, and right in front of us was Dave Grohl and the other guys who were former Nirvana guys. Sure enough, during the encore those guys left, and the next thing I saw, they were on stage playing with Paul, so it was cool.
Renato But the other thing, and one of the things I remember in the early ‘80s, there was this festival in Brazil called Rockin’ Rio. It was a huge festival, two weeks, live shows in five stages at the same time, a huge event. And Queen came over, and they sang “Love of My Life”, and they said they’d never seen an audience that was so engaged. They thought they were going to have a hard time because people didn’t speak English, and everybody was singing, everybody was participating. And it’s an international phenomenon, really, people learn the lyrics. I learned the lyrics of some Indian music. I have no idea what I’m singing, but I love the song.
Michael Absolutely. Well, music, a lot of times, is used in language learning. A lot of my Hebrew that I learned was through singing songs and because the brain is engaged and you’re memorizing much more easily.
Marty It’s funny, I was watching this show called Border Town, and it’s all in Finnish; you’re reading the subtitles, and it’s a fun show to watch but they’re right on the border; they’re supposedly not far from Russia, and there are characters that are Russian, and when they actually have a scene together, they speak English. And the subtitles go away. I thought that’s interesting because it’s the Finnish production, so that must be the way it is over there; the Finns are talking to each other; they’re speaking Finnish, and then the Russians speak Russian, but if they speak to each other, they speak in English. They even shoot their TV show that way. So, they are assuming, apparently, that their audience is going to not have a problem with it. Unless they subtitle that. Maybe they do, I don’t know.
Renato Let’s bring that a little bit to your experience with music and games. I imagine you get a briefing and somebody says “this is going to be the game” how do you compose the music for a game that is going to be played in multiple places?
Marty Well, first of all, I don’t actually care that it’s being played in multiple places because all I’m worried about is what’s the story of the game, what are the characters, where’s the tension, where’s the climaxes, what’s scary, what’s heroic. I’m thinking about universal emotions. So I’m trying to write music that just scores universal emotions that are going to come through the story and the game or what happens when the player plays the game.

You know, you can make people feel like something awesome is happening; you can make people feel heroic; you can make people feel sad; there is poignant; you can give people sort of a sense of action and adventure and movement. And, of course, then there’s creepy and spooky and scary and all sorts of other stuff.

But, there is big emotions and sometimes you can use those emotions and juxtapose them against other things that are happening dramatically, and that works really well; sort of like as a sub-text to a conversation that might be really kind of like a somewhat boring conversation but you score it with some creepy, spooky stuff, and it changes the feel of that scene entirely. So, yes, that’s what I’m really going for. And, basically, I think those are universal emotions.
Renato How long is the score for a game?
Marty It depends. But, there is a lot of music in some of these what we call Triple-A titles, the Triple-A game can have three, maybe four hours of music that’s all original because the game, sometimes… .and I think some games even have more although I don’t know how worthwhile it is to listen to all that music all by itself because it’s sometimes not very interesting.
Renato So, it’s like you’re actually creating four or five albums for …
Marty Yes. And that’s because some of these games can take the player can spend 40-50 hours playing the game. And more. Some games people are playing them for hundreds of hours. Now, I don’t think the music necessarily holds up all that great for that long, and they’re doing other things with the game like multi-player and some other things. But, some of the games have story elements that can take 12-20 hours to get through and you need to be able to tell that story without being too repetitive musically.
Michael Now, Marty, you do the music piece of it, but you’re involved with a lot more of the game as well. And with these games going international did you work with international talent for voice-over characters and things like that? What exposure, what lessons did you learn there?
Marty Well, when we started working on Halo and the whole Halo series that we did when we were with Microsoft that was like a 10-year period. They had a lot of experience, of course, with localization. So, I learned right away it’s like “okay, we’ve got to talk about FIGS”. I’m like figs? The fruit? What are you talking about?
Michael Yummy.
Marty Apparently, that stands for French, Italian, German, Spanish. So, first you had to… you knew that everything you did was going to be translated into those languages and then Asian languages. Then, we started having South American, Spanish which is different than Spain Spanish. No? Maybe it’s Mexico Spanish?
Renato Yes.
Marty So, there were different flavors of Spanish that we got into. I think by the end, I know the Halo games are translated into – I don’t know – is it 12 or 14 or more, I don’t know, it’s a lot.

So, I’m concerned about casting the right characters for the script, for America, North America. What usually happens is we’re first the North American; we cast and we start recording, and then it’s a matter of working with the localization people to find similar voices that can do the same kinds of characters.

And it’s been interesting because we’ve had a few celebrity types that are Hollywood type celebrities and then in other countries they say “hey, we want to get some of our local celebrities to do the same parts.” So, I might not be aware of where those people are but the people in Italy or France, or Germany are getting their own celebrities to cover some of the same parts.

So, usually, there was a point where I would listen to some of the performances by the localized stuff, and I knew what they were saying in English, and it seemed like the emotions seemed right but, of course, I don’t know anything else, so I really trust the directors who are directing the localized productions. I trust their judgment on all that stuff.
Renato One of the things that we are seeing here today, are you still involved with this process or is this something that you’re not that much working on?
Marty No, I’m still involved in games. I am actually working, I have my own company; it’s a smaller company now and we’re working on a new thing for PlayStation. It’s the PlayStation VR. So, it’s a new technology and…
Renato Tell us about that!
Marty Well, PlayStation VR is a blast. All VR is amazing right now. You put the headset on and you’re actually in a new world. You look around and you hear things all around you. It’s really, really interesting. As a matter of fact, today I was working on the dialogue, of course I’m still working on the English, but what’s fun is that as you sit in this world, this virtual world, you hear somebody talking over to your right and then you turn to look at them and there they are. And now they’re in front of you because you turned. As they walk around and they walk behind you they are talking and you can hear them talk behind your head, and then you turn around and look at them. It’s just very, very different because instead of being a passive audience looking at a flat 2D screen and seeing a conversation on the screen, or even playing a first-person game that’s still flat on a screen in front of you, with VR you are actually inside the scene and the characters are right there.

I had this scene today where the protagonist girl sits down next to me, and she says something very softly, and you can’t help but look at her, and there she is, looking right at you, like a foot away from you, talking to you. It’s really kind of amazing. So, it’s a new experience for people, and we’ll see how it works.
Renato Well, we are curious at how this affects localization because earlier this year we did a—well late last year—a podcast with the forecast of trends in the industry and things that we’re going to see more and more in 2017. And one of the things is this new format of AR and VR—augmented reality and virtual reality—and I wonder, my expectation is that there is going to be an increase in complexity, but I don’t know how that would affect the translation and localization of those files.
Marty Yes, well you know, I think as the technology gets better, one of the things you want to see—and this is starting to improve with the way you can—I’m sure you guys have worked hard on lip-synch issues and making the characters mouths actually move for the language that they’re speaking, but in VR because you can be so close and intimate with a character, you’re looking right at them as they’re talking to you and there could be eye contact, it’s like I don’t know exactly, we haven’t solved the issue of how this is going to be localized.
Renato By the way, the issue of lip synching is very, very hard for dubbing in movies, but when you are dealing with animation there is software that adapts the mouth movement to the actual dialogue. So, when somebody speaks the mouth will open in the way that would look natural. But, that’s very hard with live action, but with animation it’s not that hard.
Marty Right. Well, we did performance capture, so we had our American actors with dots on their face and the whole thing, so we were getting their facial muscles, expressions and everything. Then, we also know what phonemes, how they do certain things and we know that the animation is tracking that but as soon as we switch over to another language there is other software. But, I just feel like that’s all going to get better and better because it’s already so much better than it used to be.

When we made Halo one, even the American actors, characters in the game, the animation, we called it flabby-jaw. Flabby-jaw was like it just read the amplitude of the sound file and just the louder it was the bigger their mouth opened. That’s what Halo one was. So, it’s really gotten a lot different since then.
Michael I recently heard on the Freakonomics Podcast that special effects companies were moving outside of Los Angeles and Hollywood and even outside the US. Marty, have you seen this as a trend in gaming as well?
Marty Absolutely. The fact that you don’t all have to be in the same studio at the same time is really amazing. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages, but the technology, just to have a distributed network of people all working together and sharing assets and having just—it’s the communication; it’s the sharing of massive quantities of data and content makes it so not only can I work from home, but even when I’m working from home in my own studio, I almost feel like I’m working with the guys there because I can… as if it were downtown.

So it doesn’t’ matter if you’re in Seattle or if you’re in Arizona or you’re in who knows where, if you have a decent connection and can upload and download quickly, you could just about do anything. The thing you lose is the sort of synergy of a team working together, and there is stuff that happens face-to-face that doesn’t happen in a virtual space. But, we’re still stretching those boundaries.
Michael So, Marty, for someone listening to our podcast who is interested in gaming and maybe they have a language background, maybe they’re not even from the US, what would you suggest they look into? What do they study, what is a good place to get your foot in the door?
Marty I think it sort of depends what their specialty is, if they enjoy computer science, they should be learning programming languages. If they want to design games, then they should be learning—I don’t even know what—the game designer I like the most that I’m working with right now was a double major in college, physics and philosophy.
Michael Yes, I was thinking physics had to be in that mix on some level.
Marty Yes. I’ve always believed that physics and philosophy is the perfect double major for a game designer. But, you know, if they really enjoy playing games, and they have good language skills, that’s actually a good way to start with a game company, trying to get into the test department and start testing some of the foreign language. If you speak French well, and you’re a commodity here in Seattle, you can go to a game company and say “I’ll be a tester on your French localized version” and you will be very valuable. So, that’s a good way to get your foot in the door.

And, of course, if you’re an artist, just be the best artist you can. If you’re a musician try to be the best musician you can. Then, play a lot of games and make stuff with your friends. Right now it’s so easy for people to get game-creation software. Make a game and actually get some good experience!

End of conversation

Marty O’Donnell

Martin O'Donnell is an American composer known for his work on video game developer Bungie's series, such as Myth, Oni, Halo, and Destiny. O'Donnell collaborated with his musical colleague Michael Salvatori for many of the scores; he has also directed voice talent and sound design for the Halo trilogy.

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