Q&A | Sarah Schachner on soundtracking Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Music’s always come natural to Sarah Schachner. Having started out on the live music circuit, the Philly-born multi-instrumentalist and modular synth artist and programmer now lives in LA, where she’s developed a steady workflow composing for film and videogames. She’s contributed to soundtracks for blockbusters like Iron Man 3, The Expendables 2 and Now You See Me, and – on the gaming side – has worked on big-time titles like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Need For Speed: The Run. Most recently she was shouldertapped to score Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Sarah chatted to Sarah about working on CoD, her favourite gear and software, and how she puts a tune together.

What first drew you to music-making?
I started learning piano and violin very young, before I can even remember what I thought about music, but expressing emotion through music has always felt more natural to me than any other form of expression. I enjoyed studying classical music growing up, but lost interest with how rigid it all was. I always wanted to change the notes or try new stuff, which was of course frowned upon. Luckily I found an amazing piano teacher who introduced me to jazz theory and improvisation, and was a big inspiration for me.

Was there a job or moment you’d describe as your big break?
After having worked on a number of film and game projects in more of a supporting role, Assassin’s Creed Unity was the first project I received composer credit on – outside of additional music – so I suppose it would be that!

Are you a gamer yourself?
I don’t have too much time to play, but when I do, it’s usually a first-person shooter. I have a tendency to get bored if I can’t blow something up every five seconds.

What’s the process for soundtracking a game like Call of Duty? Do you work with a large team, or in conjunction with the developers? How long does it take to pull the music side of a project like this together?
I worked on Call of Duty for a year. Anywhere from six months to over a year in some cases is typical for a game like that. In terms of process, I had creative conversations with the developers in the beginning to determine the overall direction and key emotional themes for the score. 90% of the time it was me alone in my studio composing and producing, sending material in every week or so for feedback. Once the music was composed, we went down to Nashville to record the live orchestral parts. I worked closely with Sony Interactive Entertainment who was onboard overseeing score production, and assisting Infinity Ward with audio implementation into the game.

CoD: Infinite Warfare is the first of the franchise to be set in space. Did this shape the way you approached the soundtrack?
The space setting was a chance to do something a little different than the direction past CoD’s have taken. I went for a more intimate sound with a small chamber orchestra and a focus on solo instruments. The goal of the score was to capture the loneliness felt in space and the emotional burdens associated with leadership and war. Because of the futuristic setting, I found a contrasting blend of organic sounds and cold mechanized sounds.

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Any key musical references?
For a lot of the heavy combat music, I incorporated polyrhythms that you might hear from bands like Tool and Meshuggah.

Any high- or lowlights from the composing and recording process?
After spending months on end alone at the computer all tangled up in your own head, you can easily lose sight of the bigger picture and initial inspiration. It’s an amazing feeling to be in a room full of talented musicians playing your music. We had some extra time on one of the string days, so we had them – gently – hit their instruments with pencils and sticks in various rhythmic patterns. Everyone had fun with it!

You’ve also done a lot of work on film soundtracks. Can you explain some of the differences in your approach to the different formats?
Creatively, the process is very much the same in the beginning. After watching the film, or talking in-depth with narrative directors on a game, I’ll come up with a main theme – or a free-form thematic suite – before anything else, focusing only on the emotional essence of the story and characters. Once that is established, the rest falls into place.

Still from CoD: Infinite Warfare

The biggest difference is that film is a linear format of storytelling, while games are interactive and generally non-linear. Working on a film is great because you have a lot of control over how the story is told musically. There is more room for subtlety and depth when it comes to thematic development when you’re scoring to picture. In a videogame, because there are so many moving parts and complex technical systems all working together, the role of music is more about energy and mood to match what the player is doing at any given time so they feel as engaged and immersed as possible. Finding ways to tell a narrative story while satisfying all of these technical conditions is what makes scoring games an interesting challenge for me.

Do you work from a home or a full studio? What software and gear do you use most?
I have a home studio. It’s great not having to wear pants all the time or commute anywhere, but then again, you never really leave work! For synths, I currently have a Eurorack modular, a Jupiter-6, and a Moog Voyager that get used all the time. I have a whole bunch of string instruments – orchestral, ethnic, electric. I’m always on the lookout for weird or unusual stuff, because I like to come up with ideas on real instruments and then process the audio through software plugins or sampling apps. I compose in Cubase and I’m into anything that gets me out of linear piano mode in my head.

Do you usually play most of your own music, or work with other live musicians?
I generally play everything, but recently I’ve had more opportunity to work with live musicians on projects like Call of Duty. When I do have the pleasure of working with other musicians, it usually ends up being some hybrid of their performances and my playing and/or production.

Do you ever perform live, separate to your work as a composer?
I used to, but haven’t in a while. I spent the first 25 years of my life totally focused on writing with bands and playing shows before I decided to pursue film and game scoring. Sometimes I miss it – and I plan to release music outside of my composing – but at the end of the day, writing in the studio is where I prefer to be.

Sarah Schachner is an LA-based composer and performing artist. For more info, visit www.sarahschachner.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.