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Heavy Metal Affliction - The making of the Forza Motorsport Score Pt. 1

John Schommer
Thursday, February 18, 2016


How do you listen to Forza Motorsport? No doubt, each of us has our own way to take in what the Turn 10 audio team has created to enhance the driving experience. Behind every portion of the game you will find very specifically composed music, also known as the score. Working closely with Turn 10 Audio Director Nick Wiswell and Audio Lead Chase Combs, composers Michael Nielsen and Kaveh Cohen created the sound and feel that is the perfect complement to heart of Forza Motorsport 6, the cars themselves.


Cohen and Nielsen have been close friends and composing partners for going on 20 years. They have written innumerable scores for everything from advertising to movie trailers and game scores. They are also both car lovers, so they know what it is that inspires a love of cars and driving.


This two-part series introduces us to Cohen and Nielsen, their cars, and what goes into creating a score for the Forza Motorsport series. Let’s get started with what Nick Wiswell had to say about the process.



Heavy Metal Affliction: First off, what drove the change in the production of Forza games with music soundtracks to composed scores?


Nick Wiswell: I’ve never been a fan of just adding licensed music to a game just for the sake of adding music. It’s basically saying, “Here are some songs that we like to listen to when racing.” Music is so subjective a subject that you will struggle to please most people with this plan, unless it’s part of a wider initiative like the radio stations in Forza Horizon that are linked to the festival that is at the core of the game.


HMA: How do you think having a composed score versus a soundtrack affects the feel of Forza Motorsport games?


NW: Our custom soundtrack is designed to deliver and enhance the experience and emotions we want the player to feel when they play the game. That starts in the home space, builds through the race, and ends in post-race. I do not think a licensed score can hit the same beats as well and when needed, as you are tied into the ebb and flow of the song and not the game.


HMA: How did you come upon Kaveh and Michael?


NW: We had an idea of the type of music we wanted for the game, and Chase Combs, the audio lead here at Turn 10, found that several movie trailers that were released at the time all had the sound we were looking for. After some internet searching it turned out that Kaveh and Michael were responsible for the music in all of these trailers, so we reached out and started our relationship with them.


HMA: Did you have a concept of the score before handing them the keys or did they just run with it?


NW: We created a lot of detailed documentation of all the emotional beats we wanted to hit, and how the music needed to be composed in order to be implemented into the game so all the transitions would be seamless. We also had an idea of the different types of music we wanted in the game, but the final spec was a collaboration between myself and Chase here at Turn 10, plus Kaveh and Michael.


HMA: How hands on was Turn 10 in the development of the score?


NW: As music was being composed, we gave feedback on things we liked, and where we thought things were not hitting the goals so we could iterate, it’s a very traditional creative model that has been used for many years in all forms of media. As we all had a good understanding of what was required, most of the changes were minor, and it was a very constructive process that lead to a score we are all very proud of.



With that background on the Turn 10 side in mind, take a look at what Kaveh and Michael had to say about composing the score. Michael Nielson comes from a pop and rock music production background and has always played the guitar. He can find his way around any instrument with strings. On the digital side of things Nielsen says, “I also play the computer.” Kaveh Cohen got his start in composing scores for documentaries and animated series. Cohen’s primary instrument is the piano although he can write for all kinds of instruments.


Heavy Metal Affliction: Do you each have defined roles in how something is composed? Do these roles evolve piece by piece?


Kaveh Cohen: We don’t have defined roles but certainly, after 20 years of friendship and writing together, we’ve developed a very symbiotic writing methodology that plays to each other’s strengths when deciding who does what.


HMA: When writing a score are you telling a story or is it more like bringing the subject matter alive through music? Maybe sometimes it is a bit of both?


Michael Nielsen: I think the story in Forza is the journey of the player. So the music isn’t so much telling that story, as [it is] really trying to enhance the emotional experiences while playing the game. For instance, race music, I was trying to get a sense of filmic drama. So I wrote it as if there were moments that the racer was behind trying to catch up, others that the racer is all alone in front, and other moments that someone is trying to take over.


HMA: What do you think Kaveh?


KC: I think it’s definitely both. Great film, television or game music can stand on its own as a great listening experience as well as complement the visuals. For me personally, part of the process is getting to grips with the story and its characters, their back stories and relationships and then filing these elements away in my head as I begin to approach the score and how it will support and hopefully enhance the story and subject matter.



HMA: How iterative is the process? Do you create a draft then improve on it and flesh it out? Just start at the beginning and build it out?


KC: Our process is relatively linear - going from conception to a finished piece. For Forza, the composition process itself, especially given the hybrid nature of the score, involved a lot of sound sculpting and programming alongside composing for the orchestra. So we wrote from the ground up composing, programming, sculpting, and engineering until each piece was done. The only additional step was recording and integrating the orchestra.


HMA: How involved are clients typically? Is it different in every case?


MN: Clients are usually very involved with input in the beginning. The beginning of the project is where we really work to make sure that our vision and the clients are aligned. Then there is a nice trust that gets established. Then, any of their earlier comments become a little reminder voice in your head. For instance, an early version of a particular race cue had synth sounds that, for lack of a better word, “revved” up and down. I had to rework that idea because it was clashing with the cars off the starting line. The musical approach always comes back to Kaveh and I. We are there to shape the musical landscape, and it help to have a bit of freedom to explore that without being too locked into something.


HMA: How does composing a score for a video game differ from composing for a movie?


MN: A movie is primarily a linear experience. Games are far more unpredictable. So, you really have to be aware on a macro level how all of the music interacts with the other music. You might be jumping from one place to another based on the player’s decision. The composer doesn’t get too much of a say in that! The other nice challenge with a Forza game, is that many people will be playing it for hours on end, and continue playing for months… years, even. So, it’s important to keep that in mind when scoring. You have to keep it musical and interesting, and try not to be too repetitive.



HMA: Are there further differences when composing for advertising campaigns or other brief components?


KC: Absolutely. In motion picture or game advertising which we do a lot of, you don’t have a lot of time to establish an idea and expand upon it. You’re tasked with grabbing and maintaining the viewer’s attention and telling your story in a short span of time, and often with intensity!


HMA: How does a score compare to a song in its composition?


KC: Songs typically have an intrinsic structure and quite a lot of repetition. In a score, you have the opportunity to not only establish a tune but to develop it and expand upon it. It’s a much larger canvas. A score cues’ behavior is often dictated by what’s going on on-screen so it can be unpredictable and fluid.


HMA: What is your take on a song vs. a score Michael?


MN: A song typically will be highly structured with lots of repetition. There’s usually a strong sense of familiarity with songs too. You can often sense what is coming next. It’s nice to play with that. Changing out a chord in a familiar progression, or messing with the structure can yield some cool results. In comparison, a score is a more fluid beast. In Forza, I tried to add enough structure to make things a bit familiar, but then you can break away from that to pull in a different emotional direction. In a “homespace” in Forza the lack of structure was something I would use to give that feeling of suspended in time. Suspended in time with your dream car.


Next week, Cohen and Nielsen will tell us about the specifics that went into making the score for Forza Motorsport 6 and their personal experiences with cars that made them the perfect choice to work with Turn 10. Wait till you see what these guys drive, you will be impressed.