Between bursts of gunfire and the fog of war in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is something moving and beautiful, though you shouldn’t expect to know exactly what it is. It might sound like a violin, or maybe some modified vocals. It’s hard to tell.
Sarah Schachner, who composed the game’s soundtrack with a library of strings and voices, just might be the only person who knows what exactly makes up the layered sounds of the game’s music. At times, not even people working on the game itself knew what they were hearing.
“Oftentimes whatever we thought it was was something that she had bent into something completely different,” Stephen Miller, audio director at Infinity Ward, told Uproxx before the game’s release. “It had been a vocal that sounded like strings. It’s just absolutely amazing. It made for some amusing times going through and trying to figure out what it is that she’s done.”
AAA video games are advertised with haunting pop covers and rock music these days, but action shooters like Call of Duty rely on soundtracks featuring strings and much more traditional instruments. For Schachner, who also composed the score for Anthem, the makings of a video game soundtrack often come from unpredictable places. You could argue the star of Modern Warfare, for example, is a kobyz, a two-stringed ancient Kazakh instrument made of horsehair and stretched goat hide.
— Sarah Schachner (@SarahSchachner) October 28, 2019
“That has this very raw sound and a lot of emotion to it, a lot of grit to it. So it’s kind of a like a character in this score,” Schachner said. “Its used in a lot of different places and it’s processed and pitched down and used in some spots. That became a pretty big voice for the score.”
In some ways, Modern Warfare is a return to the gameplay that brought fans to the Call of Duty series in the first place. But when it came time to choose a composer for the project, there was no searching necessary. The team wanted something different and, for Miller, Schachner’s abilities were obvious from her earlier work with the Infinity Ward team.
“For this particular project,” Miller said, “we knew that we were going to reimagine what Modern Warfare is. And with that we wanted to make sure Sarah had all of the freedom to find that sound with us,” Miller said Infinity Ward was looking for “new life” when it came to Modern Warfare’s soundtrack, and Schachner’s was exactly what the series needed. There’s always been a rawness to the score in previous Modern Warfare titles, and that was definitely a challenge for Sarah and she knocked it out of the park.”
Making music for video games is very different different than scoring other mediums. Schachner described the machine at play inside an action-adventure game like Modern Warfare, with a character’s actions and movements impacting what the game lets your hear. Video games aren’t like movies, but there’s still dialogue to work around and a lot of gunfire.
“There’s more freedom in that you’re not scoring a picture, you’re not constantly needing to support a narrative and dialogue,” she said. “But it’s a give-and-take of where the freedom is because you have to write to these pretty complicated technical systems, and I think the challenge with games is you kind of want to hide what the system is.”
Schachner said minimalism isn’t really possible in a game like Modern Warfare because of that system, but it does mean there’s a lot of room to experiment.
“You don’t want to be listening and think ‘Oh, that’s that layer. They had to write those instruments in there to serve this function,'” Schachner said. “So you’re always trying to mask the system and have it be as musical as possible. But there’s more room to experiment with sounds. The music tends to be denser, because they tend to take it apart. So you can’t get away with super minimal stuff that you could in a film.”
The layers Schachner creates are often haunting, but they run the gambit of emotions in a unique way. Creating those emotions out of strings and voices takes time, though, and working with Infinity Ward to apply it to the game itself is a process as well. Schachner said it takes constant communication between the two sides, as well as an understanding of what tone the game needs.
“It can be daunting in the beginning, but the most important thing in the beginning is to just capture the vibe, the emotion,” she said. “What’s the core emotion, what are the themes? What are you trying to say emotionally? That’s usually where I start.”
Figuring it out requires creating a literal library of sounds, and Schachner described a yearlong process of experimenting and cataloging to figure out what resonates emotionally.
“For every project I start there’s a period of exploration and recording,” Schachner said. “Then over the course of the project I build up, essentially, a library of approaches or sounds that become key to the score. The string instruments, the folk instruments — there’s banjo in the score, there’s a number of different types of guitars. There’s a lot of processed vocals. It all comes across in experimentation and the things that just feel right and what we’re after are the ones I stick to.”
For Modern Warfare, Schachner wanted to make sure the geography of the game’s locations is heard, though channeled through her own modifications. This is especially evident in the sprawling campaign, which takes gamers to a variety of spots across the globe.
“I think one of the challenges in the beginning was how do we represent the areas that the game takes place — because it’s in the Middle East and London and Eastern Europe — but not be hitting the nail on the head with overt Middle Eastern music or Russian-sounding music,” Schachner said. “It’s using these regional influences in a way that sounds fresh and unique to this world we were creating.”
The solution was as layered as the soundtrack itself. Pitching sounds up or down, modulating instruments and turning strings into haunting vocals are all part of the process. Schachner’s love of stringed instruments is evident in the work — she described it as a crucial part of her “style” — and it’s clear her strings are an ideal match for AAA shooters like Call of Duty.
“Especially in the way that Sarah employs it and modifies it in a lot of electronic gear,” Miller said. “It really is a voice, without any kind of limitations because it can be deep, it can be light, it can be whimsical. It can be anywhere she needs it to be.”