‘Marvel’s Avengers’: the sounds and music magic behind the latest superhero game

Composer Bobby Tahouri and sound designer Jack Grillo on how they created personalised musical themes for each Avenger

When Bobby Tahouri wrapped up his work on Crystal DynamicsRise Of The Tomb Raider back in 2015, he was asked to take on one of the studio’s upcoming projects, Marvel’s Avengers, right after. He had a great experience working with the San Francisco company, and assumed the feeling was mutual.

The studio’s principal sound designer, Jack Grillo, whom Tahouri had to collaborate with on the past two projects doesn’t disagree, describing to NME that Tahouri was an excellent partner to work with.

Marvel's Avengers Jack Grillo Bobby Tahouri
L-R: Jack Grillo Bobby Tahouri. Image: Press

Marvel’s Avengers is using the latest version of Crystal Dynamics’ internal game engine, and over the years, studio engineers and designers have expanded the audio feature set in order to tailor the specifics needs for the project.

However, Grillo explains that the basic skeletal structure of the audio is the same, which includes aspects such as file structures and gain stages. The implementation pipeline, as well as the studio processes and schedule management, were carried over from previous projects.

While the processes of working on the audio were relatively unchanged, the main difference was the creative side. “While Rise Of The Tomb Raider was darker and more mysterious in tone, which called for the music to slowly evolve over the course of the game, I didn’t change my approach to composing for Marvel’s Avengers,” says Tahouri. In the game, the player can take control of multiple different heroes, so he widened his palette and crafted a unique piece for each one.

Early on in the project, both Grillo and Tahouri decided that it would be best to compose one main Avengers theme, as well as sub-themes for the different characters and various situations. For Captain America, Tahouri used a traditional orchestra and placed emphasis on brass and snares.

Meanwhile, Thor and Iron Man’s soundtracks employed rock music and electric guitars. Tahouri even took the extra step and came up with as many “thunderous” sounds as he could. “I actually went to a junkyard and found as many scraps of metal I could find, sampled them and used them as part of his palette,” he says.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Square Enix

Tony Stark, Tahouri tells us, is his favourite superhero to write music for. Coincidentally, the composer also had a hand in scoring the soundtrack for Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man film.

While he took some inspiration from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tahouri wanted to approach the game with fresh ears and have the soundtrack stand out – it needed to cover a wide swath of emotional dynamics, ranging from epic to intimate.

Additionally, Grillo suggested coming up with a playlist for each hero that could contain their favourite types of music. This would help in trying to figure out what kinds of instruments would fit each Avenger’s personality.

For example, Bruce Banner listens to music to calm himself, and so Tahouri implemented patterns found in Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. This would seem contrary given Banner’s raging Hulk. However, when he transforms, the full force of an orchestra would come into play, and Tahouri used every percussive instrument imaginable to illustrate how intense Hulk is.

As for Kamala Khan, she’s a teenager who’s still trying to find her place in the world and fit in. She’s on the cusp of being part of mainstream culture, so Tahouri imbued her themes with more of an ambient and reflective sound, utilising synth tones and electric pianos filled with delays and reverb.

When she comes into her own as a character, and as a hero, Ms. Marvel receives long string and brass tones that represent her outstretched limbs. On the other hand, Black Widow’s themes had more electronic influences to match her high tech weaponry and tool kit, as well as her stealthiness.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Square Enix

When it came to weaving the music’s flow into the gameplay, there were two implementation styles: linear and systematic. The linear approach was used more for campaign levels and cinematics. There were some sequences that required specific emotional content or exact timing, and the musical direction needed to support the narrative and character arcs.

The systematic one was used to support the combat. Grillo notes that Rise Of The Tomb Raider used stealth and AI awareness to trigger changes in the musical score, but because Marvel’s Avengers is heavy on action in comparison, the studio arranged different conditions to prompt shifts in the game’s music.

Different pieces of music are played based on the character, combat size and level progression. Different instruments are then used based on player behaviour and how well the combat is going. At that point, all that’s left to consider is the number of enemies. “It’s a lot to keep track of and it took a few years of experimentation to find the right combination of triggers to keep the music dynamic and engaging,” Grillo says.

He also provided details on how the sound effects of each hero’s weapons were created. “We recorded and manipulated our own source material to create the handling and movement sounds for weapons and gear items,” Grillo adds. “We also used synthesis to generate sci-fi impact and whoosh elements. And of course, we used a number of excellent sound effect libraries to create explosions or conventional weapon sounds.”

The sound effects for Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, were a mix of the studio’s own recordings and synthesis. Black Widow’s conventional weapons were sourced from authentic firearm recordings, and Iron Man’s suit and weapons used fire and rocket afterburner sounds along with some custom synthesis. Captain America’s shield implements an in-game oscillator and doppler effect that tracks the speed of the shield in 3D space as it returns to him.

Of course, with all of the sound effects going on during combat, the music might be difficult to hear. To work around that, the studio either hides or features certain parts of the music based on the context, instead of using an entire mixed musical piece. Voiceovers also act as the primary anchor – when the Avengers spout their heroic one-liners, certain sound categories are dialed back to make sure conversations are clear.

The dialogue is even used to mix out the percussion elements in the score. Every sound element including combat, environment and character movement use this approach so that the most important sounds will always be the most prominent at every moment. “Music was often on the receiving end of these volume and frequency adjustments, but this approach allowed us to bring the music forward without generating player fatigue,” Grillo explains.

Tahouri also worked closely with senior sound designer Philip Lamperski to create additional percussion sounds that represent each Avenger in all combat scenarios. High ranged instruments such as shakers play fast rhythms when players are retreating from combat. When players take damage from enemies, lower ranged instruments and slower, more aggressive drums erupt.

The percussion system generates percussion on the fly to whatever the character is doing in combat. It tunes in and adapts to players as they perform heroic superpowers, finishers and combos to provide rhythm and variation during gameplay.

Marvel's Avengers
Marvel’s Avengers. Credit: Crystal Dynamics

Tahouri says that one of the biggest challenges when it comes to composing for a multiplayer game, as opposed to a single player one, is making sure that any theme that plays can apply to everyone on screen. “Hopefully, I solved that by making sure instrument choices and sub-themes for each character fit nicely into the overall Marvel’s Avengers theme that I wrote.”

Grillo adds that Tahouri has a natural inclination for heroic and aspirational themes, while also being able to create vulnerable tunes and bombastic ones at the same time. When he was putting together the team for Marvel’s Avengers, he prioritised familiarity when it came to processes and deliverables.

Since many of the production pipelines transitioned smoothly from Rise Of The Tomb Raider, it just made sense for Grillo to bring Tahouri over as well.“Beyond that, I just love [Tahouri’s] work. For this game he created a number of new, unique themes that after a couple of listens, started to sound inevitable, like they were always there,” he says.

Tahouri appreciates that Grillo provides clear direction on what the score should sound like, adding that both of their music tastes and overall musical aesthetics match up pretty well, which definitely helps when working together. “The biggest lesson I learned from him on Rise Of The Tomb Raider, and something that I apply to every project I work on, is to trust my instincts and not overthink things.”

Grillo says he’s proud of the work that was done and is excited for the game to finally reach players’ hands, particularly in context of the shelter-in-place orders and the pandemic. Tahouri echoes the sentiment: “It’s just that it’s an honour to be working on a game associated with such a storied franchise. I hope everyone who plays the game really enjoys it, along with the music that I wrote for it.”

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