Now that Age of Mythology is in stores, it’s hard to believe that we started working on the
soundtrack well over two years ago. Where did all the time go? Well, between August 2000 and
September 2002, we wrote, performed, and produced 75 pieces of music using something like 81
different instruments. We were also lucky enough to record a full orchestra and choir, design an
entirely new music playback system in the game, and work with one of our longtime music-industry
Time well spent, for sure!
I guess the earliest work done for the music of AoM (or RTS3 as it was then known) consisted
simply of talking and listening. Kevin McMullan and I did a lot of conceptualizing, both in regard to
how the music system would function and what we wanted the tunes to sound like. From the start,
there were two important but vague ideas – we knew we wanted to have an interactive score that
would change based on events in the game, and we knew we wanted the tracks to have a live,
Good thoughts, but what did they mean? In particular, the definition of “interactive score” gave
us trouble: how could we make a soundtrack feel responsive rather than just arbitrary? A game
like ours is complex and non-linear enough that it was difficult to approach the problem. Another
issue was that, as writers, we wanted to maintain control of the flow and structure of the music as
well as what instruments we could use; some of the solutions that might otherwise have done the
trick fell flat in these areas.
We realized what we wanted while attending a game-conference presentation on the subject.
The speaker that day talked about getting around some problems by crossfading between
different versions of the same piece of music. Something about this notion clicked for us, and we
excitedly left the discussion to go outside and talk about how this could work in AoM.
It seemed like an easy premise: we would create three different mixes (or moods) of each song
and let the game pick whichever one seemed most appropriate. If a player got in a fight, for
example, the music would shift to a more exciting version of whatever track happened to be playing
at the time. If the fight were lost, the game would know to switch to a more somber mood. The
crossfading idea was key because it let us paint the music in different colors without changing the
shape of the canvas, so to speak. Ideally, the transitions would also be seamless, which we hoped
would get rid of some of the arbitrary feel that we wanted to avoid. All of these thoughts were
crammed into a design document and handed off to the programmers – with any luck, they’d be
able to make some sense of it. In the meantime, we were ready to start writing and recording.
Our games all have musical bookends (the main title theme, the loss theme, and so on) as well as
incidental pieces that play during cinematics. While these each present their own unique
challenges, most of our time and effort is spent on the “core music” – those ten or eleven tunes
that you hear in the background every time you play the game. Knowing that this would be the
case, we dove into those tracks straight away.
When we first started writing in the summer of 2000, it was not immediately clear to us what the
boundaries of our new sound would be. “Chocolate Outline” and “Hoping For Real Betterness”
were the first tunes recorded, and both of these suffered some degree of criticism for being “too
modern.” After making some changes, however, we started to see how the sounds could come
together and before too long we were knee-deep in music. “Adult Swim” and “Eat Your Potatoes”
came and went without any drama, and we started to think of the latter tune as a benchmark of
what we wanted to achieve with the remaining material.
Early in the fall, we took a trip to nearby Denton, TX to visit a store called Voyager’s Dream. The
owners were gracious enough to let us record samples of some of their numerous exotic
instruments, and this new library of sounds became a rich source of inspiration. “Flavor Cats (In
the Comfort Zone)” was entirely based around a recording of a xylophone-like instrument from that
session, and different bits and pieces would continue to surface through the completion of AoM.
Things chugged along for the rest of the year, and we were able to get both “Suture Self” and “In a
Pile of Its Own Good” in the can before we broke for Christmas. These two were interesting in that
they were co-written; typically we each work on our own tracks and then solicit the other’s opinion
when they’re more or less finished. Friend and programmer Mark Terrano added a recorder part
to the B-section of “Pile,” joining a list of guest musicians that already included artist Bryan
Hehmann (didgeridoo on “Hoping For Real Betterness”) and producer Chris Rippy (guitars on a
couple of different tracks.)
As the New Year rolled around, we realized that we needed to try out our interactive system and
“proof-of-concept” it for the design team. To that end, we created very empty, spacious versions
of “Chocolate Outline” and “Hoping For Real Betterness.” This mainly involved a lot of erasing:
“Hear those drums?” “Yep.” “We should lose them.” “Okay.” After a time, those were finished
and we focused our attention on the “fighting” moods. These were more problematic. How do you
make something seem more intense? The most obvious choice would have been to increase the
tempo; however, this would have caused the tracks to get out of synch with their standard and
quiet counterparts. We decided that the best approach would be to add extra percussion and
orchestral flourishes to the existing tunes.
This turned out to be a somewhat painful decision, but we soldiered through it. The payoff came
when we put all three versions of both “Chocolate Outline” and “Betterness” up on the mixing
board. Using the volume controls, we were able to simulate what would eventually be the
automatic crossfading between moods. Happily, it worked. The transitions were seamless and it
was easy to imagine how the system could translate to the game. We gave a demo to the
designers and everyone seemed pleased with the results.
In the backs of our minds, though, Kevin and I had some doubts about the fighting music. While
the subtlety of the transitions was a definite plus when moving between the standard and quiet
moods, jumping to the more intense versions seemed less dramatic than we had hoped. After
some discussion, we decided to stick with the original plan at least until we could hear it in the
game. If it still seemed weak at that point, we would figure something else out.
It only took a few more weeks of desperately shoving violins and snare drums into too-crowded
mixes for us to change our minds. The fighting music just wasn’t going to be as effective as we
wanted it to be if we kept this up; apart from everything else, the orchestra-fied tunes just sounded
bad. Imagine dumping a cup of salt into your bowl of soup to get an equivalent idea of the sort of
aural overload we were creating. It was with some measure of relief that we decided to scrap the
idea and try something new. Since the quiet moods seemed to be working the way we intended,
we decided to simply switch to an alternate set of tunes when battle music was needed. These
tracks would be fast, heavy, and totally orchestral-based; we wanted it to be impossible not to
notice when one of them was triggered.
Kevin and I worked away in our separate studios, each focused on the goal of creating a new
fighting track. We quickly came up with “Meatier Shower” and “Li’l Drips,” and it was immediately
clear to us that this new approach was better. Especially when combined with the battle sounds
that we had been recording, the new changes were sudden, dramatic, and loud…everything that
we had been hoping for. With relief, we set about defining how the rest of the system would work -
when the quiet moods would trigger, how long the battle songs would last, etc. – and with those
obstacles happily behind us, our attention was turned back to finishing the “core music.”
With seven tracks already completed, we made the decision to shoot for four more. From there,
we’d complete the remaining quiet moods and write a few more battle songs - with any luck, we’d
be able to wrap up this phase of the project by summer and move over to something different.
“The Ballad of AceLeBaron” and “Never Mind the Slacks and Bashers” were the first tunes
recorded of the new batch. Whereas “Ace” was a refinement of the direction that the earlier tracks
had taken, “Slacks” featured such new additions as car-key percussion and synchronized hand
clapping. Two more titles drew things to a close: “(Fine Layers Of) Slaysenflite” and “Behold the
Great Science Fi” each served to round out what we felt was our best selection of in-game tracks
We had become quite adept at creating quiet versions of our songs by this point, so we were
able to get started on the last four battle songs almost right away. “The Fire Brigade” and “Oi,
That Pops!!!” were first, though it didn’t take long for “Rot Loaf” and “I Wish I Could Throw
Shapes” to follow. All of these tracks were short and fairly non-dynamic; once we knew what our
goal was, it was pretty easy to knock them out. Good thing, too – August 2001 was drawing to a
close, and it was just about time to start the final mixing process.
In the history of Ensemble Studios, mixing has never been fun or easy. This is the point at which
all of the instruments in every song get balanced for volume and stereo position and we have to let
them go forever. It’s a tedious, subjective job in the best circumstances; throw in two sets of very
strong opinions and a looming deadline and the situation can get tense pretty quickly. This time,
thankfully, things went well. Although the hours were long and there was a huge amount of work to
do, the vibe stayed mostly light. A typical day’s work involved pulling up a given title, hammering
on it in the studio until we were satisfied that all of the issues had been addressed, then burning a
CD and taking the song down to Kevin’s car for a “real-world” test. If the mix held up, we would call
it finished and move to the next one; if not, it was back upstairs for another round of tweaks.
Either way, we were always likely to engage in a round of “CD Distance Rolling” in the parking
garage after the test. Several songs really came into their own after receiving this treatment, and
we were able to fix dozens of little problems that we had been living with for the past year.
So it was that after a couple of weeks, the largest part of the AoM soundtrack was ready to ship.
Although completing the game would take another twelve months, the decision to tie off this piece
as quickly as possible turned out to be a good one. For our department, the coming year was
shaping up to be easily be the most challenging stretch of the entire project; if this phase had
been pushed back even a little bit, we might have been in real trouble.
As it turned out, we ended 2001 on a fun note. Someone had brought up the interesting idea of
tagging culture-specific themes to the beginning of the game, so we decided to give it a shot. “Of
Norse Not” (for the Norse) and “N. D. Nile” (for the Egyptians) were unlike anything else we had
written so far, and featured such instruments as an Egyptian oud, a conch shell, and an unusual
thing called a Wind Wand (picture a tuned rubber band fastened to a couple of sticks.) The
experimenting carried over to the recording methods as well: one afternoon was spent clapping in
front of a microphone in Kevin’s empty garage because “N. D. Nile” needed exactly that reverb. At
any rate, the two tracks were completed quickly. Though we were happy with the results we had
achieved, we decided to put the Greek version on hold for a few months - it was time for something
We had always wanted to work with an orchestra but never really had the resources for it, let
alone the understanding of how to go about doing such a thing. So the idea stuck around in the
backs of our minds as a pleasant daydream…until the management folks suddenly made it a
priority for AoM's opening cinematic. Once we were committed to that, we decided to really push
ourselves and use the orchestra for all of the game’s bookend tunes and a short marketing piece.
The plan was to compose the music as we had the battle songs, making synthesizer-based demo
recordings as we went. From there, we could pass the tracks on to an orchestrator – a person
who would write out the individual parts for the players and make suggestions about our
arrangements. In our case, the orchestrator (a Seattle-based musician named Stan LePard) was
also responsible for booking the venue, the players, and the recording team; we only had to fly up
for the session. On paper, it looked like we’d have a few months to get everything together. In
real life, all sorts of outside scheduling problems left us with a less-than-comfortable period of four
weeks. Discouraged but not defeated, we started working.
“Have You Met Her Thunder” was the first track out of the gate, one of three variations of the
Age of Mythology main theme and also the soundtrack for the cinematic. “If You Can Use a
Doorknob,” the song that is heard when a player achieves a military victory, followed soon after.
We sent our new pieces to Stan, eager to see what would happen. A short time later, we received
faxes of his transcriptions. It was a great thing to see the work prepared in such a way; neither of
us had had much experience writing our music down. Fueled by this, we quickly knocked out
“Asylumni” (a short version of the main theme intended for use in a television commercial) and
“Gank Sneakin’” (the “economic victory” theme.)
The final two tunes to be completed were the ones that are probably heard by the most people:
“A Cat Named Mittens” (the definitive version of the main theme that plays behind the opening
menu) and “Ma’am…Some Other Sunset” (our “you lost the game” theme.) Interestingly, these
tracks were almost polar opposites - where the former was catchy and accessible, the latter was
darker, even somewhat menacing. “Mittens” adhered to a conventional, movie soundtrack style;
“Sunset” relied on choral whispers and atonal instrumentation. Played next to each other, they
represented the broadest strokes in our orchestral dabbling, and of the six they were probably the
two pieces of which we were most proud.
April 8th, the day of the recording session, was a blur of activity. I don’t think Kevin or I really
believed that it would happen until we arrived at the venue and saw people carrying their
instruments in. Listening to the orchestra tune up struck as hilarious: didn’t they know we were
faking? I must say that it was a great and humbling experience to see all of those musicians
assembled to record our work, one made much more so by finally hearing the music live - a real
dream come true. The time flew by, and the last notes rang out much too soon. All six pieces
were recorded in a matter of hours; an amazing fact when one realizes that none of the players
had seen the score before they sat down to perform.
A choir was scheduled to come in for overdubs later that evening. We looked forward to the
session because we didn’t really have a good idea of what to expect. Although the tracks’ demos
had represented the choral parts in a general sense, we were never able to record the actual
As transcribed in the scores, the text of the music was just a bunch of phonetic syllables. What
you hear in the finished product is not gibberish, however. Greg Street, one of the designers at
Ensemble, gave us a few Greek, Egyptian, and Norse translations for words such as “victory” and
“death;” our job was to put them in places where they would match thematically and rhythmically.
This wound up being a pretty effective device, though I’m not sure that many of the singers knew
what they were saying. Regardless, the choir turned out to be as professional as the orchestra.
The session was quick and successful, and there was only the slightest bit of giggling during the
whispering parts of “Ma’am…Some Other Sunset.”
The entire next day was devoted to mixing. Although the performances had taken place in a
converted chapel, all of the recording gear was housed in a truck parked outside. It was
comfortable enough, but the hours got long pretty quickly. Fortunately Steve Smith, the engineer
behind the console, was able to keep things fairly upbeat with his seemingly limitless supplies of
enthusiasm and rock and roll road stories. And, of course, at the end of the day we walked away
with CDs containing a seventy-piece orchestra playing our music – not so bad.
What remained of the spring was spent tying up some loose ends. A few parts for “Gary’s
Reserve,” AoM’s end-credits song, were recorded at my house while much of the company was
away at a convention. As is usually the case with our credits tracks, we had a blast working on
“Gary;” good taste was promptly thrown out the window and we became unapologetically self-
indulgent. The tune was finished up at the office and quickly became one of the more popular
pieces of music in the game.
Also completed at this point was the last remaining culture-specific song. “Greek to Me” was a
rare co-written piece, and incorporated such unusual instruments as the steel drum-like Hang and
a banjo played with an E-Bow. What appears in the box is actually the second iteration of the
track – we scrapped the first one halfway through for sounding too much like a gyro restaurant.
Very early in Age of Mythology's development, the decision had been made to tell an elaborate
story using cinematic cut-scenes...something our company hadn’t done before. Eventually
something like sixty of these would need our attention, with a subset of that number requiring fresh
music. The amount of work alone was enough to cause us some concern, but the real catch was a
serious lack of time. Nobody could have anticipated all of the difficulties with creating the cut-
scenes, and that unfortunately meant that we started receiving them awfully close to our ship
date. The only thing we could do was work through the problem the best we knew how.
The summer of 2002 will forever exist in my memory as one long blur of AoM cinematics. After
settling into a somewhat-comfortable routine, Kevin and I could knock out about four of the things
a day. The process consisted of firing up the game, taking notes about whatever scene we were
working on, timing parts of it with a stopwatch, and then heading back to our studios. One of us
would then work on sound effects while the other recorded a music track; after a time, we would sit
down with whatever designer had made the cinematic and plug all of the new content in. This went
on and on until our musical well was just about dry and the game was just about to head out the
door. Somehow, though, after many weeks of blood, sweat, and compromise we were able to just
pull it off. We gave the entire sequence of scenes a careful once-over for bugs and level balance
and happily called it done.
In the middle of all this, we got the startling news that an AoM soundtrack disc would be released
both as part of the Collector’s Edition of the game and as a stand-alone product on Nile Rodgers’
Sumthing Else label. This was quite exciting for us, and we eagerly got to work on the track
listing. Our point of view was that the soundtrack should flow like an actual album rather than a
compilation; to that end, we avoided using huge chunks of our work. We wound up with a nice,
tight 45 minutes consisting of a few orchestral tracks, all of the standard-mood in-game tracks,
"Gary’s Reserve,” and the quiet version of “Eat Your Potatoes.” To our ears it was a good record,
but there was one more step that needed to be taken.
henever you listen to a CD, you’re hearing the work of many people in addition to that of the
artist. Typically, the last person that has his or her hands on a project is the mastering engineer.
Mastering is a sort of catch-all process that ensures that a recording sounds the best it possibly
can; the tracks are made louder and more consistent with each other, the bass becomes deeper,
the treble becomes more sparkly, and so on. We were well aware that our soundtrack needed this
kind of work - it was just a matter of finding someone that could do it.
Well, it didn’t take long. In the entire field, one name really stood out above the others and
appeared on album after album after album: Bob Ludwig. We knew Bob’s work from countless
discs in our own collections, records that represented dozens of artists and decades of recording.
The idea of hiring him was really just a joke to us - an impossible, musician-geek’s fantasy - but we
submitted a proposal to our management team anyway. To our great surprise, the expense was
approved, an August date was booked, and we were soon on our way to Gateway Mastering in
It’s a striking thing to walk down a hall that’s covered ceiling-to-floor in gold and platinum record
awards, but that was the situation we found ourselves in. Bob proved to be an amiable host an
led us on a brief tour of his remarkable studio before we sat down to work…and what work it was.
If the orchestral recording had moved at a locomotive’s pace, the mastering session was like a jet
flying by. The entire disc was finished in about six hours, far too little time for us to fully appreciate
what was happening. Hearing the tunes come out of Gateway’s awe-inspiring sound system was
thrill enough, never mind the fact that Bob was able to bring out instruments and textures that we
had simply forgotten existed. Perhaps the most poignant moment for us came when we signed the
guest book. Seeing our names nervously scrawled next to page after page of the biggest names
in the music industry was definitely something special. An unforgettable day and another dream
It would be a good end to the story, and in fact there’s not much more to tell. Back in Dallas,
things were finally wrapping up and only bits and pieces of work remained; we spent most of our
time wading in a never-ending stream of small bug fixes. In the middle of it, though, we finally had
the pleasure of hearing our version of dynamic music working in the game. The system had been
put on hold for so long that we were beginning to think it would be cut. As it turned out, it slipped
in just under the deadline thanks to the efforts of programmer Bill Jackson.
By September, the only thing left for us to do was create the sound effects and music for AoM's
Ensemble Studios logo intro. Quite suddenly after that, the game was finished. It had been a
roller coaster couple of years for sure, with enough unbelievable highs and panicky lows to keep
us guessing about what lay ahead. Through it all, however, we were blessed and lucky enough to
know this: we’ve got the best jobs in the world.