Behind the Scenes of the Tales From the Borderlands Suite

By Jared Emerson-Johnson

Hi everybody—thanks to all who participated in our poll last month!

As promised, here is my behind-the-scenes account of the making of the live orchestral suite for the finale of Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands series.

The first thing we should talk about is the fact that this live suite wasn’t part of the original music plan. We had our menu music for the first four episodes, composed before the release of the debut episode, and it worked great. It was atmospheric, and evocative of the barren desolation of Pandora, and it felt right for the characters at the start of the story.

As they often do, the dramatic stakes increased as the story progressed; and, as we approached the last episode, I really felt like it might be worth creating a revised version of the menu music, to better support the growth in the story, and to showcase just how powerful the drama had become by that point.

The flow of the narrative in the first episodes is all about building up Fiona and Rhys to a point where they are finally ready to throw caution to the wind, and to accept their roles as capable vault hunters.

With this in mind, I raised the idea of recording a live orchestral version of the existing menu music to the season director Nick Herman, and the Executive Producer Adam Sarassohn. They were excited by the idea. It had begun.

Let’s pause for a moment to discuss, in more depth and detail, how the idea of doing a suite of selected themes first came about. We knew that we wanted to give the final episode of the series a somewhat grander feel in the menu, so that players really felt excited, and like the story was coming to a climax.

My initial proposition was deliberately modest. I knew the music budget was often tight, and wanted to be sure my proposition was realistic (and not so greedy that it might shut down the entire idea before anyone had a chance to really consider it). I first suggested we just record the existing main menu track with live orchestra exactly as was. We would just go through, make sure all of the parts were clear, send it over to Dynamedion, and get the thing recorded.

The more we spoke about it, though, the more we realized that if we were going to do anything, we might as well take full advantage of the opportunity and get a little bit more crazy. As it turned out, Adam Sarassohn, producer extraordinaire, was able to free up a bit of money in the budget to extend the available duration to 5-6 minutes. Now we had some options!

I knew that was ample time to really develop and play around with the main theme, but there was room to bring in a couple of other important themes from the season, and so that’s what we did.

The most important and celebrated themes at that point were the Galatarium theme from the end of episode 2, and the Atlas theme. Both of them were very electronic in their original versions, so it was a fun opportunity to give them a live orchestral treatment.

Now we had 5+ minutes of live orchestra recording available in the budget—more than 3x the length of the existing main theme. Everything as working out much better than my modest expectations! With ideas for the suite already bubbling in my head, I officially proposed adapting the Galatarium and Atlas themes along with the Main theme. Production gave me their thumbs up and I started writing.

The first step in most modern entertainment scoring is to create a sampled mockup of the music—a proof-of-concept to present to the directors/designers/producers—something we can refine before sending it off to the orchestra. We went through a few revisions before landing on something that everyone felt great about.

Here’s a little taste of that progression:

Once we had the final sampled mockup prepared and approved, it was time to get everything ready for the orchestra.

Preparing for any orchestral recording requires a solid team of people beyond just the composer and the musicians. For this session I worked with a phenomenal company in Germany who helped with most of the legwork of preparing for the session, as well as the post production (editing & mixing the recorded material from the live session, etc.).

The first thing that needed to happen once the composition was complete was the engraving of the parts into traditional sheet music. This was handled by David Christiansen, who converted everything that was to be recorded into standard notation and prepared all of the parts.

In the days before the session, David and I repeatedly proofread everything, full scores and parts were printed and brought to the hall on the day of the session.

After all of our preparations, the day of the recording arrived. We recorded the music in Hungary with the Budapest Scoring Symphony Orchestra in a session managed by Dynamedion’s Marcell Kelemen. He had contracted the orchestra weeks earlier, along with the conductor (Peter Pejtsik), the audio engineer (Miklos Lukacs); Marcel also arranged for the time in the recording hall, and coordinated everything that needed to happen on the day of the recording. I cannot stress enough how wonderful it is to have all of these details expertly managed by someone else!

When all is said and done, it suffices to say that everything about this kind of large scale live recording is a team effort; in this case, it was an incredible international team of Americans, Germans, and Hungarians.

There is always a magical moment at the beginning of a live session, before recording begins, when the players are reading over their parts for the first time.

After all of the solitary hours/days/weeks spent fussing over little details of the score—preparing the parts, marking bow changes and slurs, proofreading—to finally hear snippets of the various themes overlapping live in a hall, performed by world class musicians is quite exciting.

This was especially true in this session, since the original versions of the themes had been written months earlier, for the first two episodes of the game.  It was a real rush to hear it all being realized at last.

Once the orchestra is assembled, and the recording equipment is set up and ready, efficiency is paramount. Since everyone involved is only available for a fixed amount of time, the less time spent stopping and fixing problems the better. Any time wasted on correcting mistakes, or clarifying unclear notations directly reduces the number of recorded takes.

This is why proofreading and adding as much clear annotation into the score as possible is so important.

It comes as a surprise to a lot of people, but due to the costs involved, it’s unusual for the orchestra to have any rehearsal time ahead of the recording session. The ultimate goal in all of the sheet music preparation is for each player to understand everything they need to do at first glance. The players rarely have an opportunity to practice the music ahead of time, so it should be assumed that they are reading it cold. Notations like “solo” or “expressive” or “play out” save us from wasting time in the session: having to stop, clarify musical intentions with the conductor, and for them to convey those directions to the ensemble verbally.

In the ideal recording world, the players can simply glance at their part during a short warm up, circle any important passages or information the want to highlight, and move on to recording the thing!

No matter how well notated, there will always be a handful passages that require a bit of rehearsal and polish in the session. We usually start by playing through the entire piece and identifying which spots need a little bit of practice, and then go back and work on them quickly until they’re polished and ready to record.

Once the difficult passages have been prepared, we launched into the recording.

With a longer piece like this one, it often makes sense to break it into sub sections, and to record them separately. This insures that each section gets enough takes, and that we have at least one viable take of each segment.

This was especially useful in this suite, since there are several tempo changes, and big shifts as we move from theme to theme in their different variations.

As you heard earlier, in the sampled mockups, I went through a few different ideas about how to start the piece. Initially, I wanted to launch right into the main theme, to really wow everyone with the big orchestral sound. After testing those early mockups in the menu screen, while it was impactful to start big, we wondered if a slightly more coy tease of the theme would make a stronger impression.

That’s how we arrived at the version that starts with the quick orchestral flourish (to still make that initial impact), but bringing the intensity down shortly thereafter, and teasing out the main theme melody across various solo instruments in the winds and brass. By passing the different sections of the melody from solo English Horn and Bassoon, to the Clarinet and Flute, and building it up by adding Oboe, Trombone, with counter melody elements in the horns, it really felt like something more special.

Giving individual soloists some moments to shine allowed me to lean on their artistry and take advantage of the fact that we had a room full of 60 top performers. I made sure to compose some idiomatic solos for the principal cellist and concertmaster as well.

Early on, when I was first plotting out what would be included in this big suite, I knew I wanted to do a few different treatments of the main theme. Starting with the soloistic, freer version gave it a nice, open, expansive feeling and set things up for a build to the big main version of the theme.

About a minute into the track we arrive at the fully realized version of the main theme with the entire orchestra playing tutti. I considered this one the “straight” version of the theme—almost everyone in the ensemble has something to play, and more than half of them are on the melody. Big and loud and defiant.

In plotting out the suite’s extended form, I knew I wanted to start and end with arrangements of the Main Theme, with multiple variations at different intensities interspersed throughout. I also wanted to have at least two big sections in the middle, where we let the Galatarium and Atlas themes come to the fore.

In their original incarnations, both of those themes are largely electronic and synthetic in their instrumentation, and only make use of orchestral instrumentation sparingly, for effect.

The Galatarium is a long, slow, drawn out build which repeats a simple little motif over simple evolving harmonies. In its original form, orchestral strings are introduced halfway through, to give a sense of drive and forward momentum, but most of the substance of the piece depends on various synths and the driving electric guitar that comes in about 2/3 of the way through the theme and builds it to it’s climax at the end.

To adapt this to make sense and feel right with a full orchestra, I started with the chugging string element rather than trying to mimic the building tension of the original. Since this was meant to be a big, heroic version, I transferred many of the synth figures over to the brass, and let them quickly build tension on top of the strings. After a short solo cello interlude, the brass crashes back in to a final section where the trumpets ring out the familiar ostinato from the original theme. All the while, the winds punctuate everything rhythmically with big ornamented flourishes. The effect of all that is pretty different from the original, but it feels big and fun, yet familiar; and that was the most important feeling I wanted to capture.

The Atlas theme, in its original incarnation, is a subtle quiet thing. Again, it begins with a repeated ostinato in a synth instrument, as tremolo dobro and mandolins come in with a quietly churning melody, supported by orchestral strings.

For the suite’s adaptation of this theme, I started very much the same, but gave the churning melody first to the brass, and then to the strings, with a new rhythmic string pattern rolling along underneath, along with that repeating synth pattern from the original theme. This one feels more like an enhanced version of the original than an entirely new interpretation.

Finally, after the suite’s main declaration of the Atlas theme, there is a short section where the Atlas theme and the Main theme cohabitate briefly in anticipation of the build to the end of the track.

This begins with a major variation on the main theme, that grows in the woodwinds with the strings playing a rising scalar accompaniment until we finally explode into a huge declaration of the main harmonies in the entire brass section before it collapses into the strings playing a fragment of the Atlas ostinato, and then into a sustain, with individual instruments eking out fragments of the main theme.

At last, in a coda that drew inspiration from all of the great adventure themes (favorites like the Raiders March and the finale sequence of E.T.), the whole ensemble builds up to a peak, using fragments of the main theme, and then drops down to and plays a unison figure that rings out the tonic in a way that we rarely ever get to do in the often looping world of video game scoring.

Many modern orchestral scores incorporate a mix of the elements recorded in the live session, and other elements, recorded separately. This suite was no exception. After all, aside from all of the standard orchestral instruments I used in the soundtrack, the score features a wide assortment of folk instruments, synth elements, and the occasional choral section. Once the orchestra recording was completed, we had to integrate all of those parts back into the mix.

In the case of this piece, because we knew the length and complexity of the composition would mean we’d only have a few takes to get it right in the session, we opted to also use sampled percussion rather than recording the percussion section with the live ensemble.

For the curious, this is how all of those elements sound, minus the orchestra:

Once everything was mixed back together, we had ourselves a completed, new suite of live music for the menu! Dropping it into the game for the first time was electric. It really felt wonderful to have given that finale the special attention it deserved.

Tales From the Borderlands was one of my favorite projects. It’s in my personal Top-5-Telltale Games-Ever, and I’m incredibly proud of the score—particularly this piece.

I’m glad the fans of my work apparently agree, and was delighted to see it winning our little twitter poll so handsomely.

Well, that’s about it. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you found it at least partly interesting. At the very least, there were some pretty pictures and fun videos to watch! I had a fantastic time digging back into all of these details and memories. It’s been a good ride! Knowing you’re all out there enjoying the work I do is, without question, The Best Part for me!

~Jared Emerson-Johnson, March 2018