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15 Minutes of Fame: Cataclysm soundtrack composer David Arkenstone


From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

There's absolutely nothing like the sweeping vistas of an orchestral soundtrack to help you slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of Azeroth in all its epic glory. One of the composers behind World of Warcraft: Cataclysm's in-game soundtrack, David Arkenstone, took time not only leading up to expansion's launch but again after last night's game launch concert in Fountain Valley, California, to chat exclusively with WoW Insider about painting a new sonic palette for Azeroth.

Arkenstone is one of a team of Cataclysm composers headed by Blizzard's Audio Director Russell Brower that tackled a whopping eight hours of new music for the expansion -- about the same amount of music as was added with Wrath of the Lich King expansion, bringing World of Warcraft's musical tally to something like 36 hours of in-game music. "I think it's exciting for a player to get all this new content at one time," Arkenstone says enthusiastically. "When you have all this music spread out across the word, composers, meshing ... It's hours and hours of music."

David Arkenstone, composer/musician
Contributions to the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm soundtrack include Mulgore, Durotar, Eastern Plaguelands, Feralas, Darkwhisper Gorge, Hyjal, N. Barrens, Nordrassil, Stonetalon, Stranglethorn Vale, Vashj'ir, the Naga, Grimtotem, Tanaris Desert, Thousand Needles, various other pieces, Surrender the Booty (pirates), War March, Cave Discovery, Aftermath, and more.

15 Minutes of Fame: How does a composer get into the groove for something as epic as the Cataclysm soundtrack? Did you play the game, watch trailers, read books ...?

David Arkenstone: I'm such a weak player that I can't just jump around, so I watched walk-throughs and things to get familiar with the area a little bit so that I could nail the music. I would look at the artwork and sometimes there weren't walkthroughs yet. Towards the end, they got walkthroughs for all the zones. I would study those, and then [ask myself] what would underscore this area for me? It was pretty great.

And yes, there was some reading involved, especially on Nordrassil, because I wanted to know all about the world tree. So I sort of got into that. Reading about it and then handling it from a composer's viewpoint ... I went in to Blizzard a couple of times to get some walkthroughs of the new areas. Without new music or hearing what music Russell Brower, the audio director, wanted to change -- I mean, Cataclysm changed just about everything. Almost everything is touched somehow by Cataclysm.

And then I would share the early pieces with Russell and he would say thumbs up or not. Most always it was thumbs up, so that was good. (laughs)

Were there particular musical challenges or parameters you had to work around?

My music is naturally sort of open. It's not always epic – [but] there's a lot of epic stuff in Warcraft.

But the zones are so different. We're doing the same project, so it's not like we were working on StarCraft or something. When you work on Warcraft, it needs a certain sound. Although there aren't a lot of parameters, there are some, you know. There are some sounds you just don't use. Especially with Cataclysm, now that everything's torn up and in flux and on fire ...

So do you currently play the game?

I'm a really weak player. It's so immersive and addicting, and I know myself. If I played, no one would be able to get hold of me. I'd be playing all the time. If I played all the time, I'd never do any music.

How is composing for a video game different from working on, say, a score for TV or a movie?

It's closer to making a record, because there's so much freedom. In a movie, you're pretty much watching a scene and then you're using what's called time code ... Part of the challenge there is that it moves from one hit point to the next, and you have to create a melody or some kind of environment within that.

Composing for Warcraft ... Warcraft is different because you have to be a little more specific. If you're doing music for zones and traveling, it's way more open. The challenge is more to create mood. It's almost like a bed for the player. You have this mood that's created when you see this beautiful artwork; then you get the opportunity to accent that with music -- or support it, I guess.

It's a lot more open, and a lot more freedom, I guess you could say. Once you get onto the mood and you nail the feel that you want, it's very open, and it all fits somehow. It's a really enjoyable way to write music. It comes very natural like that. You're not shackled by having to show 9 seconds for this car chase or love scene -- it's not so specific. You can put a lot more of your own personality into it, I think.

How did you get into creating the soundtrack for a video game, anyway?

I've known Russell for a few years. ... When he got to Blizzard, he contacted me about doing some specific music for an event [in game]. So I started out doing one piece. Then the next I did was the music for the different taverns in the game, because they all had the same one piece of music -- whether it was an orc tavern or a tauren tavern or whatever, it was all the same tavern music that Jason Hayes wrote. So there was a new recording of that, and 11 or 15 other pieces for the different taverns -- the dwarves, the humans, the taurens, everybody. And those were way more specific -- orc music was very dark. They put it all on a CD, and it was pretty cool.

[Later, for Wrath], I did five or six pieces for orchestra. That was the first time I'd used the orchestra, because before that, all the tavern music was pretty much like a Celtic band that I put together.

Can you walk readers through the basics of bringing each track to life?

I view concept art, then when I think I have sort of a feeling, I watch walkthroughs, sometimes with a developer, sometime on my computer. I try to illustrate the area I am working on, working with different themes and sounds to create the right mood. Then I make a thorough mock-up using sampled instruments and synthesizers.

Though I have a gift I'm very grateful for, there is a lot of "fine tuning" and crafting even after I've come up with something I believe to be strong.

Did you work within certain musical constraints in terms of what instruments you could use or what types of sound the project was looking for?

Part of it's getting a handle on and finding a palette. Like saxophone -- there was no chance I would use saxophone [in this music]. It was more fantasy and epic ... It has to be rich to complement what you're seeing in the game, and the sound effects, and the seamless environments.

Once we had the palette ... I pretty much had an idea going in of what it was going to be. We knew we were going to use the orchestra; it wasn't hard figuring that out. The challenge is making interesting sounds within the orchestra. You have a lot of woodwind, you have strings, you have bright percussion, you have a lot of things, so it's almost like a kid in a candy store.

Who actually plays the music we'll hear? Did you yourself play in the any of the recordings?

I added [some] to the orchestral recordings, but I didn't play in the orchestra; it's more like a bunch of great players [from around the area]. A lot of times, [the composers would come in to] do music in the same day, but maybe it's three of us. Maybe I'll have a few pieces to do, and Russell has some. So nobody's just sitting there, and they'd go from piece to the next piece of music.

For Thunder Bluff, for example, or Mulgore, I knew that I was going to use my native flute in a couple of pieces. So I did the background with the orchestra, and then I knew I was going to put my flute on it, which I did later. So after, I took the track home to my home studio and then I put the flute on it. I did some guitar and some other hand percussion that I put on the tracks for Feralas. Some of it's a hybrid mixture. You can use anything if it fits.

Did you have a set time period that you had to work within, or was it something that could organically grow?

I basically had four months to create 45 pieces of music. It was intense ...! Yet the most fun ever! We started working in early April and went through the middle of July. Every day, all day.

There were definitely time restrictions. Any time you do an expansion or something like that, they have them. You know, Blizzard always says, "When it's done, that's when it will be released." But because everybody's clamoring for it ... No, we had a specific schedule. It wasn't like I could sit around for two months just not coming up with anything.

One thing that we did for Cataclysm at the beginning: Russell just wanted everyone to write without being zone-specific, just to get some unique Cataclysm themes. So we did that. The first session was everyone doing these particular pieces they had written just as general Cataclysm music. Then after that, it was like, "Here's when the orchestra's going to be here, so have some pieces ready." Every three weeks or so, we were in the studio with the orchestra. You didn't have to have more than two or three pieces apiece, but you had to produce something. And fortunately for me, I'm tres prolific; most of the guys are. Because I really got into it, I really loved it -- when you're inspired like that, it's easier to be creative.

How much do you work with the scoring, rehearsal and recording process, in light of performing the music live as well?

After I finish my mockup, it goes to the orchestrators for music preparation. I then the attend the orchestral recording sessions to oversee the performing of my music. The musicians are extremely talented, and usually there is very little for me to do, except be amazed and awestruck by the power of the full orchestra performing my compositions. I really enjoy those moments.

Of course, WoW players haven't had the chance to have become familiar with your new music for Cataclysm; to many of them, you're still "the music at the inns" guy. What guy do you think of yourself as, in terms of World of Warcraft? What are you favorite contributions to the Cataclysm soundtrack?

That is so hard ... I love the music for Hyjal a lot, and Vashj'ir.

And then I like a song I did called "Surrender the Booty." I've always wanted to write a pirate song -- and Russell let me, and I gotta thank him forever. (laughs) There are several pirate areas in Warcraft, so somehow they fit it in.

I like the tauren music I did, too. There are things about Feralas and Stonetalon that are neat because there's not so much orchestra but more flute and percussion. It was all great fun.

What new music and projects do you have coming up next?

I'm working on recording a new record where I'm sort of combining ... I wouldn't call it classical pop but sort of classic elements -- but it's not classical music because there's beats with it and loops and stuff. That's going to come out in February, but the digital part is going to come out in the middle of December. It's called Ambient World and it's a very textural kinds of synth-y guitar record that I did, that's two CDs worth. So that's pretty exciting.

There are so many players out there who are also musicians and compose alternative tracks for the game for the sheer enjoyment of it. What creative directions, trends and particular knowledge or experience would you encourage them to explore? Is there any advice you can give them for moving into working with video games professionally?

People ask me this constantly, and there is no easy answer or path. The bottom line is to only make music you are passionate about -- and if music is all you ever imagine doing, then the road will open, because you won't give up.

Keep up with David Arkenstone's prolific musical creations plus his Winter Solstice concerts later this month at

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email

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