UNDER A MICROSCOPE - EMusician

UNDER A MICROSCOPE

As in every walk of life, from superspies who destroy and assassinate to electronic musicians who sample and sequence, evolution is truly where it's at.
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As in every walk of life, from superspies who destroy and assassinate to electronic musicians who sample and sequence, evolution is truly where it's at. For perennial Ninja Tune artist Amon Tobin, that means leaving the cozy confines of his orchestrally endowed, jazz-break-infused sample symphonies for the hyperdestructive action of video-game soundtracks. Although electronic musicians such as Paul Oakenfold and Chris Vrenna preceded him, Tobin's score for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory joins one of the most successful franchises in game history.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, produced by French video-game publisher Ubisoft, have sold 9.7 million copies to date. The third game in the series, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is now available on Sony PS2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube. Set in 2007, the game is like a more frightening version of the edge-of-your-seat TV series 24. But instead of focusing on the fearless men and women at the Counter Terrorism Unit, Chaos Theory sees the National Security Agency in a fight against international digital warfare. The game's star is NSA black-ops agent Sam Fisher, and it's his job to obtain any intelligence needed by the government, which means he must kill or be killed. And like a splinter cell — almost invisible to the naked eye — Fisher can leave no trace of his existence.

As Chaos Theory's storyline goes, Japan creates an Information Self Defense Force (I-SDF), which violates international law and in turn creates rising tension among Japan, China and North Korea. North Korea and China blockade Japan from shipping across the Korea Strait, which devastates the Japanese economy and leaves Japan in the position of asking for U.S. assistance. Coining the devastation Black Gold Day, the I-SDF finds reason to believe the blockades were a result of information-warfare attacks.

BUILDING LAYERS

Although not as terrifying a task as Fisher's, Tobin's job was to heighten the intense action of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. His Ninja Tune albums — including Permutation (1998), Supermodified (2000) and Bricolage (1997) — have relied on mixing sampled acoustic instruments and orchestral sounds with heavily treated electronic production. His music is dense, epic and elastic — like dumping composers Igor Stravinsky, Lalo Schifrin and Bernard Herrmann into a vat of bittersweet chocolate with emulsifiers by GRM Tools and Steinberg. How does he do it?

“I approached [Chaos Theory] more like a film soundtrack than a game soundtrack,” Tobin explains from his Montreal home. Although Ubisoft never interfered with his creative process, Tobin's game production differed greatly from his usual working methods. Whereas Tobin usually focuses on the end product, for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Ninja Tune, 2005), the individual elements took primacy over the completed track.

“For each song, I made a series of tracks, all five or six minutes long, and each track would be for a certain level of the game,” Tobin explains. “The track would be split into four layers of different intensities. For example, when the character is just creeping around, you only hear one layer of the music, maybe the bass or light percussion. When a guard spots the character, there would be a transition into the second layer of the track. So the track builds as the game intensifies.

“Say you are playing track 5, ‘El Cargo,’” he continues. “What you would hear when you are sneaking around are the ambient noises. Then, as things get hairier, the tougher elements of the track are triggered until you hear the full track at the most intense action moments. The trick is that the transitions have to occur instantly because the player can decide at any moment that he is going to quicken the pace of the game, or the mood will change as the action changes. The game has to adapt, so the music has to adapt. It was very challenging to make music that would not be too repetitive but that would create a certain level of tension until the next level appeared.”

Day to day, Ubisoft's designers e-mailed QuickTime files to Tobin, which he would import to Steinberg Cubase SX3, allowing him to practically score to film just like the big dogs. “I would make an arrangement with different layers that would work independently and with the other layers so they are able to interlock at any time,” he says. “The programmers then took each layer of my music and assigned it to a certain set of events in the game. For my CD, I combined the different layers that I had broken down from the full arrangements and reassembled them into complete tracks.”

Surprisingly, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is not a radical departure from Tobin's earlier albums — except for its feeling of impending doom expressed in queasy bell sounds, chopped-up bass riffs, scattershot rhythms and a general air of foreboding. The tracks sound more compressed, and section transitions are far more abrupt and obvious, but Tobin's signature of acoustic instruments warped and wrapped in dizzying textures is still present. Claiming a largely fictional cast of musicians (excepting bassist Nacho Mendez), the Chaos Theory liner notes for each track reveal clues about the hardware and software used to create Tobin's thriller soundtrack: “Ruthless” proclaims, “Lesley [sic] cabinet emulation from strings and guitar”; “Theme From Battery” heralds, “Vocals to strings using a combination of GRM harmonizers, Mutronics filters and Mellotron”; and “The Clean Up” notes, “Doppler-assigned controller linked to LFOs.”

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?

Tobin worked in Cubase SX3 and relied heavily on plug-ins from GRM Tools, Audio Ease and Waves. But he put his Roland VariOS sampler into double digital duty. “More than a sampler, the Roland is a real-time time-stretching, pitch-shifting machine,” he explains. “It lets you do something that Kontakt does: You can replay the notes of a sampled instrument in real time, and it will keep the quality of the sound and the time intact, but you can change the melody. It is not the system that most time stretching uses, which is to separate the samples to space them out farther from each other so you don't get that frr-frr-frr sound when things get stretched. Roland VariOS really stretches the sound so you don't get the breakup. I use the Roland for time stretching and pitch shifting and Kontakt for laying out sounds.”

One constant amid the spooky sounds is Tobin's fondness for swirling, echo-laden textures that often make it sound like hero Sam Fisher is falling down an elevator shaft. The reverb tails are long and luscious. “It used to be expensive, and you needed a serious hardware reverb to get that tail that disappears without too much grain,” Tobin says. “Now, you can achieve that with programs like Audio Ease Altiverb, which uses impulse responses where someone will fire off a gun in some cathedral and then the reverb for that sound can be applied to whatever sound you put it with. I used those in ‘Ruthless’ as well as the tail end of all the reverbs and delays. The different layers in the tracks had to have transitions before the second sound came in so that the next layer could come in without being jarring. I made these dissolving transitions with a combination of tape delays with big reverbs and highpass filters so you'd end up with these nebulous, almost melting sounds. I used the transitions from the tracks themselves because they were so lush. The end bit of ‘Ruthless,’ with all those massive sounds, is all four elements of the track playing at once — the drums, bass, strings, et cetera — the big finish.”

TRUTH, JUSTICE AND PLUG-INS

“Theme From Battery” is rich with radar blips, a ghostly vocal loop, plucked upright bass, chattering percussion and strings swirling in a Middle Eastern mood piece, as though the Splinter Cell supersleuth is battling enemies between Beirut and Tel Aviv. Tobin's love of GRM Tools figured prominently here. “GRM Tools is a government-subsidized company in Paris that dates back to the days of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, who started sampling with tape loops in 1947,” Tobin says. “GRM has these amazing plug-ins; they will mix compression and EQ on an x-y grid. You can move the cursor around, and it will change the EQ but compress the frequency that you are targeting. They have other plug-ins, like Reson, that take vowel characteristics out of the sound, and then you can make chords with single notes. You can make it go ‘A-E-I-O-U.’ I used that for the vocal loop, and I do that a lot with bass sounds and strings, as well. The formant filters like GRM uses are powerful, but not too many people use them.”

The rain-drenched effects, prismatic sounds and exhilarating breakbeats of “The Clean Up” recall the chase scene from Ronin, the 1998 Robert De Niro and Jean Reno spy caper filmed in France. The “Doppler-assigned controller linked to LFOs” comment in the credits explains the track's strobing effects and wide stereo panning.

“The Doppler in GRM is a stereo pan that emulates a much wider stereo field than regular stereo, just by the way it moves,” Tobin explains. “It is almost like a circular motion. I tried to make a small arc on either side of the stereo field so the Doppler would go backwards and forwards but never all the way around. The Doppler would move back and forth, and it was triggered by an LFO so that every time the controller kicked in, it would set off the Doppler and send the sounds as far back as it could go in the stereo field.

“Also, I have been working on putting a Doppler with vocals,” he continues. “I applied it to the peripheral noise in ‘The Clean Up.’ I found that if I applied a mono Doppler effect to each side as far left and right as possible but have them arcing backwards and forwards, you get this fluttering effect; they become out of phase with each other and give an allusion of being wider stereo panning than it actually is or is even possible.”

WORK SETS YOU FREE

Working outside of his comfort zone presented Tobin with unique challenges. He had to reconstrue and revamp his production habits, eventually tightening his entire songwriting process. “I wasn't just thinking of my own tracks,” Tobin says. “I had to think about how each track would be heard in separate sections. I got really interested in these little idiosyncratic tricks for making sounds stand out among other sounds, like not absorbing all the energy of your track with frequencies you can't hear. I made that mistake in the past; I would have some huge rumble that nobody could hear that was taking all of the energy out of the track. There is a certain amount of headspace to represent all the sounds. And the more you put in there, the quieter each sound becomes because they are all sharing the same energy. It really pays to get rid of things that you can't hear, just simple things like cutting the bass from 30 to 50 Hz. Everything will become a lot louder because you don't have this unheard lumbering bass sucking everything out of the mix.”

Along with his recent DJ mix Solid Steel Presents Amon Tobin (Ninja Tune, 2004), Tobin will follow up Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory with his current project, which he describes as “forming new rhythmic patterns and beats in a hybrid of different types of rhythms that I really love.” But for a while, it would seem that Tobin can chill. Surely, the extra cash earned from his Ubisoft gig was more rewarding, financially and otherwise, than the usual promotional tour of darkened halls and beery clubs.

“Sure,” Tobin says with a laugh. “The payment was pretty good for six months of work. It allowed me to make my music without giving any concessions, and it also gives my music the opportunity to be heard by a much wider audience. Not having to change what you do is really pretty unusual for a game soundtrack. Ubisoft wanted my sound; I didn't have to adapt to a preconceived idea. I had a lot of freedom. Hopefully, the kids will get brainwashed into liking the music and go out and buy all my albums!”

TOBIN'S SECRET ARSENAL

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz computer
Steinberg Cubase SX3 software

Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Mackie 32•8 32-channel 8-bus recording console

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Native Instruments Kontakt software sampler
Rane TTM 56 Performance DJ Mixer
Roland VariOS sampler
Technics SL-1210 turntables (2)

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Audio Ease Altiverb reverb plug-in
Clavia Nord Lead synth
GRM Tools VST plug-ins (Doppler, Reson, FreqShift, FreqWarp)
Waves IR-1 V2 convolution-reverb plug-in

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
API 2500 discrete 2-channel stereo bus compressor
Mutronics Mutator stereo analog effects unit
TC Electronic FireworX multi-effects processor

Monitors:
Dynaudio BM15 two-way near-fields