Composer Profile: Sean Murray | Filling the Darkness With Music

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When composer Sean Murray''s father, actor/director Don Murray, came home one day after working with composer Brad Fiedel on the film Damien''s Island, Sean was taken in by the sounds coming from the Moog synthesizer on the score mockups. With those audio clips reverberating in his head, Sean Murray started to learn all of the themes on the piano.

“That made me much more interested in the role of the score in movies,” Murray says, “and I decided that I wanted to be a film composer.” Working out of his 360-square-foot personal studio, Murray has attacked the scores for such films as Junkyard Dog, Kill Speed, and Hidden Camera; TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Knots Landing; as well as videogames, including his latest, Call of Duty: Black Ops.

How does your approach to composing music change when working on different types of media?
You definitely have more time working on a videogame than a film. A feature-length film will give you anywhere from 10 days to two months to write an entire score. Videogames take a couple of years for a studio to produce. That being the case if you get involved early, as I did on both Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops—you can work at a somewhat slower pace, giving you more time to experiment and get inside the essence of the project. On both games I worked for almost a year on them, so I knew the material pretty well.

What are you recording to?
I''m using Cakewalk''s SONAR X1 for all of my MIDI, audio recording and production. SONAR X1 hosts my extensive plugin array with programs like Kontakt 4, Play, and Reason. I use three more dedicated PCs running Giga Studio. My outboard synths that I use extensively are Korg M1; Roland D-50, JV1080, and R-8 M; Emulator II; Yamaha TX802; Kurzweil K2500 and K2000; Akai S6000; Kawai K5m and an Oberheim DPX1. Yes, I love my synths!

My mixing board is a Mackie D8B digital console using Mackie and TC Electronics reverbs. I run my mixes analog out to my Pro Tools rig for master mixing and stem delivery. The Pro Tools rig is the only Mac computer in my system.

I use Mackie monitors in a 5.1 surround setup. I''ve been mixing most of my scores in 5.1 since 2000.

You just completed Call of Duty: Black Ops. How did you get this gig?
I did my first game, True Crime: Streets of L.A., back in 2003. My brother in-law was a lead artist on the project and he introduced me to the producers. Although they liked my music and my film and TV credits, I still had to audition for the job. I scored a couple of cut scenes, along with a few other composers, and then the entire Luxoflux (one of the Activision developers) studio voted for the composer they liked the best. It was very democratic. Luckily, I got the votes.

From there, I met audio designer Brian Tuey, who went on to become audio director at Luxoflux for the second True Crime: New York. Brian and I developed a great working relationship on that game, so when he became audio director of Treyarch on the Call of Duty franchise, he invited me in to change the direction and sound of the music for Call of Duty: World at War. World at War's score was very popular with the fans, so when Black Ops was ready for music, Treyarch invited me back to score it.

In terms of overall sound design, were you looking to continue musical themes from previous Call of Duty games, or were you charged with creating a new soundscape?
We wanted Black Ops to be a distinctly different score with some threads back to the recurring character Victor Reznof (Gary Oldman), who was the main Russian character in World at War.

World at War had two distinct theaters we were trying to depict. The Pacific Campaign was all about translating, musically, the horror and alien world of a new kind of brutal jungle enemy. The Americans had never met an enemy as ruthless and formidable as the Japanese, and they were scared to death. We needed to capture that fear. The Russian Campaign needed to depict the harsh and brutally vicious character of both the Stalinists and the Nazis. I used neo-Stalinist themes for the Russians and cold orchestral electronica to capture the essence of the Reich.

Black Ops needed to capture the paranoia and brinkmanship of the Cold War. I listened to Cold War Hungarian composers Ligeti and Kurtag for inspiration and stylistic attitudes. The music had to be robust and yet personal to the main characters, Alex Mason and Victor Reznof. World at War used distinct enemies to define the music. Black Ops used the two distinct characters'' psychological states to drive the themes. We were wide open to follow the multitude of physical locations as well, from South East Asia to Siberia and Hong Kong and more.

For this game, you brought in an 80- piece orchestra. Is this your preferred way of working, or do you normally rely on sound libraries and the like?
A large orchestra was needed for both Call of Duty scores to give the music the gravity the franchise demands. Typically, though, it all depends on the scope of the project and the budget. Films with personal stories and emotional themes are sometime best done on a small scale with maybe a few solo instrumental players. I love a good simple, delicate score, as well as the full-throttle music of Call of Duty.

Tell me about your creative thought process when working on this game?
Early on, I gained insight into the project from the gritty and disturbing concept art and PowerPoint presentations. From these and early story outlines, I knew the music needed to be dark, stealthy and sometimes abusive.

When I started working [on this game], it was on early levels of gameplay. I would receive a video and start composing to picture just as I would with a film, but without as much specific punctuation. When a big change in action occurs, I would start a new piece that usually transitions up the level of intensity. I also would keep tempo and key maps of all the cues so that changes and transitions could be mixed and matched as the game developed. I was further inspired when I received scenes with the voice-over work of Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, and Sam Worthington. There is nothing better than composing to fine acting, whether it is live action or animation.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
A major challenge is balancing the creative process with a deadline. Each day I have to set a goal of writing and recording one-and-a-half to three minutes of music with confidence that it will be great. I always thrive on the deadline and feel a competition with it. I find it very easy to stay focused and creative when I get into my studio.

What''s next for you?
I have two films in pre-production—Taxidermist and The Hard Ride—as well as a new videogame that I will announce as soon as the studio makes its press announcement.