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Standing Stone Games' long-running MMORPG The Lord of the Rings Online got a new expansion in Fate of Gundabad earlier this month. Aside from all the new content, the expansion added 28 new tracks to the game's music library, and now, we can check them out on YouTube, and read this developer blog post that sheds some light on how all that music was composed. It also shares a bunch of sheet music for those of you who can decipher those runes.
Here are the plain text bits:
Usually at the start of an update I feel overwhelmed by the amount of music I want to write and the blank sheet of paper in front of me; I never quite know if good ideas will come to me. Gundabad was a little different, however.
Composing the music for Fate of Gundabad was first and foremost a challenge of bringing together several past themes and integrating them with new themes, while also creating a gratifying experience that closes out the Legacy of Durin in a fitting manner. For me the road to Gundabad began back in 2018, when we first ventured into the Grey Mountains. (Well, technically it began when we entered Erebor in the Legacy of the Necromancer update, but at that point the Erebor theme wasn’t written with the intention of becoming one of the central themes in future updates.)
Back then I was tasked with creating themes for various dwarven ideas and places: the grandeur of the Grey Mountains, the glory of great lines of dwarf kings, the mystery and long forgotten majesty of dwarven ruins, the hope of finding Thafar-gathol, the plight of the Zhelruka and their search for a new home and, among other things, one very prominent dragon. The result was one overarching theme of hope, three ruin themes, another three for the Grey Mountains, three for the Iron Hills, two for the Zhelruka, three dragon themes, and four Line of Kings themes. At the time I was told to write the Line of King themes with Gundabad in mind.
It wasn’t until 2020 with the Mists of Wilderland and War of Three Peaks that we revisited our dwarven friends and I was able to make use of some of those older themes. In addition to writing a full theme for Durin VII, I composed several different Gundabad themes that were briefly heard in landscape and Legacy of Durin tracks: the main Gundabad theme, motifs for tension, tragedy and Gundabad orcs, Gorgar, Motsog, the Greymaul Rebellion, several side characters, and a theme for the hope of taking back Gundabad.
That is why by the time Gundabad development rolled around, I was pleased to be in a position where many of the themes were already written. This allowed me to focus on secondary themes, shorter motifs, and other Gundabad ideas. All in all there are nearly fifty different themes peppered throughout the soundtrack! One particularly satisfying task was building a theme for Durin I that was based on the Durin VII theme I had previously composed so that they’d feel connected in some way. It was also quite satisfying to take Motsog’s short thematic fragment and build on that to fit the needs of the story.
After I have all of the themes in place I can move into the actual full composition phase. I’ll assemble a list of tracks that I want to write, a list that can be as few as a dozen for a small update to as many as forty or fifty for a major expansion. Due to the nature of how we develop things (the world needs to be created before we can populate it with NPCs and quests), I tackle the landscape explore tracks first; I’m able to go into the game and take screenshots that I can use as inspiration. Next comes the combat tracks, which generally utilize the region themes, and finally I can focus on instances and story moments as those materialize.
I should note here that all of my music is composed directly into a program known as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation); for me that DAW is Cubase 10. (Side note: composing music by hand is my preferred method to write, but there aren't enough hours in the day for me to actually do that for LOTRO music.) Each of my tracks starts out as a string reduction; initially I’m just trying to create something that I think is a fitting characterization of the idea that I’m trying to supply music for.
The challenge when writing music for LOTRO is creating music that feels like it fits the beautiful game world that we’ve created and the wonderful stories that we tell. As someone who’s heavily inspired by film, game, and classical music I constantly try to write music that walks the line of all three. While there are elements of all in nearly every track, combat is often where the more gamey music shines, landscape is where you can hear the most classical inspired music, and story instances and drama are the most film-like. In addition to this, each of piece of music should contain something interesting enough to make the listener want to listen to it over and over again.
Tracking to the Finish
Once the orchestration is complete I can move into the mixing and mastering phase. Each instrument in the orchestra has its own track (some instruments can have several), so I’m often listening through 40 or more tracks to make sure that each piece of music has a balance that I’m happy with. After that I can do some mastering on it before finalizing it and preparing it for integration with the game (or for soundtrack releases).
For those interested in the more technical side of things, here’s what I use for creating the music of LOTRO. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the sample libraries that I use, just the most frequent[...]
I've attached some images for reference. A few of them display my very messy handwriting as I jot down ideas; it's these kind of pages filled with thematic shorthand that I use as reference when composing each track. I've also taken the time to properly notate all 47 of the primary motifs that are used in the Gundabad soundtrack. I encourage you to look at these while you listen to the music so you can see how they're used, especially during the Legacy of Durin story instance tracks where the music is tightly tied to the drama. Each track is very deeply thought out and I hope that this gives you a sense of that effort.
I thank you for reading and for all of the kind words that I've heard about my music over the past few years; I hope it continues to enhance your game experience and support the beautiful landscapes and stories that we've crafted, and I hope you take great enjoyment in listening to the music of Gundabad!