The soundtrack for Aliens: Fireteam Elite is finally available, a year after the game’s release. Composed by Austin Wintory, the score for Aliens: Fireteam Elite draws from the rich musical aesthetic of the Alien franchise while reflecting the game’s more action-heavy tone. Wintory himself counts Jerry Goldsmith, the composer who worked on the first Alien film, as a major influence and inspiration. It’s no small wonder, then, that the music for Aliens: Fireteam Elite fits seamlessly with all that came before it.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is far from the first high-profile game under Austin Wintory’s belt, as the composer is well-known for his outstanding work on the hit game Journey, among many others. Wintory’s work for Journey even earned him a Grammy nomination, which was an exceptionally rare feat for video game composers at the time. Despite the initial delay in its release, the Aliens: Fireteam Elite (Original Soundtrack) album may have arrived at the perfect time, as the Grammy Awards recently announced a “Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media” award for 2023.
Austin Wintory spoke with Screen Rant about entering the Alien universe, honoring his idols, and his feelings about the new Grammy category.
Austin Wintory On Aliens: Fireteam Elite
Screen Rant: The last game we talked about was Journey, which was structured in a way that allowed the music to be really front and center. How do you write for a game like Aliens: Fireteam Elite, knowing that you’ll be competing with alien sounds, gunfire, and general chaos?
Austin Wintory: I simultaneously do two kind of contradictory things. On the one hand, you take great care to bear in mind the sound effects, voiceover dialogue, and also the fact that the player is very likely to be on a voice chat through Discord or on Twitch or something, because it’s very much a co-op game. And so, designing the music from a sonic standpoint to understand its place in the hierarchy is really important. In the case of Fireteam, I worked really closely with Derek Reyes, who is the audio director, on the finer point of the mix, and really tried to find ways to balance it all together. So on the one hand, there’s that.
On the other hand, because there are so many variables, and some are not only completely and totally out of your control, but beyond any form of predictability – It’s one thing to think about, “Okay, we know when the player walks into this environment and hits this switch, it’s going to unleash a really loud sound effect,” and we can account for that in music. But it’s a whole other to think about them playing with their friend online, and talking into a microphone, and periodically screaming when they get ambushed and calling for help, or yelling at each other, or all these other things that have a tendency to bury the music. You don’t know when those are going to happen or if they’re going to happen.
So, in contradiction to my first point, I sometimes will also kind of write the music plugging my ears and covering my eyes, as it were, to the future realistic gameplay scenario, and just do everything I can to make the music – both from an interactivity standpoint and a compositional standpoint – stand up on its own legs, have its own merit, hopefully, and be solid. And then kind of, in a way, hope for the best. So, it’s sort of weirdly both of those things because we take immense care, but there’s also a certain amount of inability to predict it that requires you to just make sure that your component is solid, and if it pokes through and the player likes what they hear, then fantastic.
When I was playing the game, and I noticed I would kill aliens and little string stabs would play. I thought it was such a cool thing, and it really immerses you in the world. Is that something that is your idea as a composer, or is that something the studio comes up with?
Austin Wintory: Hilariously, a lot of people have commented about that sound, and the honest answer is that I cannot remember whose idea that was to begin with. I worked on the game for a long time before it came out, and us chatting on the occasion of the soundtrack coming out is solidly a year after the initial game’s release. So, from today to when I was first hired, it feels like a hundred years ago. I don’t know when it was. 2019, I guess. Three years ago. It’s not that crazy, but it’s also plenty of time for me to start to lose my grip on some finer details.
When I was first hired, the audio director was a guy named Michael Kamper. He transitioned to another job at some point in the middle, and Derek, who I mentioned a moment ago, took his place. I had the great pleasure of working with two different fantastic audio directors on this project. And they had already done some groundwork before I was hired, and for the life of me, I can’t remember if this was something that we worked on together in the very earliest days or if it was something that they actually played around with before I was even hired.
Part of the way I tend to work is, I send over the music in its most broken-down and granular bits. And I recorded a lot of shrieking brass and things like that as free-floating sound effects that I use in a bunch of places, and that we were able to implement in a lot of places. And that sound is so similar to those, that I found myself going, “Did they leverage my assets for this? Did we talk about this? Did they do this independent of me?” I know it’s the worst answer, but the game went through so many ups and downs of design changes and questions and how we approached the music. It was a really explorational process, and obviously, the pandemic hitting less than a year into it put the studio [into] having to kind of shift to all remote work. So suddenly, everything was all over Zoom calls. It went through enough of the rigamarole that some of the earliest conversations are oddly hazy to me now.
Either way, let’s say for argument’s sake that it was totally their idea. I get no credit, and therefore I can unabashedly say I think it’s awesome. And I totally agree, it’s a very satisfying thing when you’re playing the game and that little kind of yelp accompanies a headshot. I kind of hope I had nothing to do with it so that I can un-narcissistically praise it.
The score itself is so eerie and frantic, and it doesn’t necessarily feel rooted to a major key a lot of the time. Is that style of composing a challenge for you, or something that it took a minute for you to get settled in?
Austin Wintory: The biggest challenge wasn’t so much about the particulars of the aesthetic. The longer I do this, the more I kind of focus my energy on, kind of, making music feel like Silly Putty that you feel confident in your ability to mold and shape into whatever you need it to be. So whether it’s something as meditative as Journey or as kind of furious and insane as a score like this, it’s really the same muscle. You’re just using it slightly differently. It’s like a leg days instead of arm days kind of thing.
The challenge in this case, which is kind of related to that, was how to make something that felt hopefully interesting and unique and cool that had one foot in the ground of existing material from some of the greatest composers to have ever written scores. My all-time grand champion gold medalist composer is Jerry Goldsmith. I make no attempts to hide this fact in chats like these, or my own podcast. I’m a lifelong acolyte of Jerry Goldsmith, and he scored the original film in 1979. The composers of both subsequent films, Aliens, James Horner, and Alien 3, Elliot Goldenthal are also two of the greatest composers in cinema.
And I wanted the score to this to project, very clearly, my reverence for those scores, while not falling into the trap of essentially mindlessly paying homage; which invariably just means you’re creating something that’s guaranteed to be the weaker, more diluted version of the thing that’s already a masterpiece. The best case scenario is somebody says, “Oh, okay, so you basically emulated a masterpiece really well.” The more realistic scenario is, “Oh, okay, you’re no Jerry Goldsmith. You’ve definitely made that clear.” So the goal is to not fall for that trap and to give the lifelong, such as myself, fans of the franchise what I would argue they deserve. Which is something that adds to it, but adds to it in a way that’s aware of why they love it. It isn’t trying to, you know, deconstruct it to the degree of it no longer being sensibly part of that anymore.
It’s certainly not that kind of game either. It would have been very much at odds. The game is so clearly a love letter to the second film, the Cameron film, in the way that it’s just such relentless action. And you would not call it a suspense or a horror game, the way the original film was, or like that incredible Creative Assembly game Alien: Isolation was. That very much was to Alien what we are to Aliens, I would like to think.
And so, the score had to follow suit. Reconciling all that, both philosophically and, quite literally, musically, just note by note, going “Does this feel like Alien? Does it feel too much like Alien? Or Aliens?” How do we pay homage [in a way] that somebody understands what it is, but we’re not just lazily lifting something and dropping it in. You know, like the musical equivalent of an ill-conceived cameo, or kind of the South Park “memberberries” thing, where it’s not actually adding anything creative. It’s just there to trigger a little nostalgia dopamine hit. I was like, “I really don’t want to do that.” It’s kind of pervasive in media right now. Hopefully we can do something that’s a little more interesting than that. But if we abandon it, we’re guilty of an equal but different sin, as it were. I’ve worked in existing franchises before, from Assassin’s Creed to Leisure Suit Larry, but this one was more challenging than any other in that regard, if only because I’m such a huge fan. I guess I was my own worst critic in that way.
You said COVID happened in the middle of this process. While you were recording, how much were you working with musicians, and how much are you doing things at home? I heard some synth, sound-design kind of stuff in addition to the orchestral music.
Austin Wintory: Most of my scores are some blend of medium-to-large-scale recording sessions with folks in a room, things I can cook up myself – whether that’s with synthesizers or sound design – and also, leaning on a roster of musicians I have that are very well-equipped to record at home. And all three of those are things that I use, pandemic or otherwise. So for example, this score features a guitarist named Tom Strahle and a woodwind player named Kristin Naigus who both record from home, and both of whom I’ve recorded with for a decade plus. There was no transition whatsoever in working with the two of them with regard to the pandemic because they recorded exactly as they would have anyway. And we have a long history of doing that, and have a great workflow, and they’re both such a bottomless well of musicality and instruments. They both play hundreds of instruments within the respective families of guitar and guitar-esque instruments, and pretty much anything that you can blow air through is Kristin’s domain. So we always come up with new and interesting – hopefully interesting, at least – colors to play with.
In the case of this one, I used Tom very specifically during the third campaign of the core gameplay, where it starts to take on a little bit more of a horror vibe relative to the other campaigns, as we start to introduce some new enemy types and some new environments. I thought it would be interesting to do some kind of de-tuned baritone electric guitar as a novelty that’s not so normal to the Alien franchise. And Kristin on the other hand, in addition to normal orchestral woodwinds, I had her play a few little flute and oboe things here and there. She also plays these odd instruments like the bass duduk and this one truly bizarre and kind of heinously ugly instrument called the xaphoon. And [she was] playing those and passing the recording through guitar pedals and other kind of effects and plugins and things like that to just make it otherworldly and odd. So that’s the kind of thing that I would normally be doing.
And then, yeah, I couldn’t resist sound designing elements myself. I put a little video online where I showed that one of the little percussive effects I did was tapping on the plastic wrapping that I had around a stack of Post-It notes. The little yellow sticky notes. I got one of those bulk 10-packs or whatever, and when you take one of the little stacks of sticky notes out, it gives a little bit of give in the cellophane wrapping, and it kind of creates a little *ch-ch-ch-ch-* that I used for some of it. People tease me for that, because I put it on YouTube and they’re like, “You’re the best sticky note musician I ever saw.” So yeah, I’m always hopefully coming up with stuff.
I remember there was a restaurant, actually, at the very beginning of the pandemic, that was being built next door to my studio. Amazingly, they survived the [pandemic, because they were literally gearing up to open on April 1st, 2020. So they were basically spending all the money and incurring all the debt, and then couldn’t open for months and months and months past their initial opening date. And of course, initially only in severely limited capacity, and all this kind of thing. Wonderful folks, and they were working really hard, and I felt horrible for them, but I’m absolutely thrilled they managed to survive. Nonetheless, in the early days, them renovating and making a bunch of loud, construction-site-type noises so close to my studio was not a pleasant environment to work in. But at one point, they were drilling on the exterior – we share some walls of our building – and they were doing some kind of work, and it was making the most odd… it was almost kind of a biomechanical whale call that was coming through the wall. It didn’t feel like a drill. It felt like an animal.
I have these piezo mics that you would wear on your neck, they’re contact mics. They record by measuring the vibration on the surface you attach them to as opposed to the vibration in the air, the way a traditional microphone would work. So I went and just held one of those up against the wall, and recorded this kind of droning odd thing, and was like, “This is definitely going in Fireteam.” So there are a lot of places where you hear these kind of weird sounds.
But then, the good news is, the game took long enough that by the time it came time to record the orchestral components, if you kept the ensemble sort of limited, certain places were opening up to modest-scale recording sessions. Obviously, there were really strict protocols. Everyone’s wearing masks, everyone’s getting tested every day, they would disinfect every millimeter of the studio at the beginning and end of every day, and the musicians and to be spaced a certain distance apart, which meant that you couldn’t go above certain sized groups. So I catered the instrumentation to this scenario, and I thought, “What if, instead of anything traditionally orchestral, I recorded a few low brass, and trombones, and a pair of tubas?” I always like stacking the tuba section, I don’t think they get enough love in the tubas. And so, I did that on a separate recording session. And on its own recording session, a group of eight cellos, where we had four spaced apart from each other on the left side of the roomm, and four also spaced apart on the right side of the room, kind of doing a cello call-and-response. Two different pods of cellos. And [I] built the whole orchestral sound out of that, which was pandemic-friendly by the skin of our teeth to record. It was actually the first recording session I had after the pandemic had begun. It was just about a year into the pandemic, and they were just comfortable enough to go forward. And it all went well.
Actually, it was very funny because we had to do it all in a single day. A very, very busy day, and that day happened to be January 6th. So, I had my phone off the whole day because I was working, so by the time I looked at my phone, it was like this whole thing had come and gone, and it was over and done with by the time I even knew it had happened. I was spared the real-time doom-watching on the news, not knowing, “What’s this going to devolve into?” I’ve had a funny, oddly – I don’t want to say dismissive, but I’ve had a very different emotional relationship to that day from everyone else I know, because I read about it as an after-the-fact thing. I had no real-time connection with it, because I was deeply immersed in recording the score to this thing, and quite literally had my phone off the whole day. So that’s an odd piece of trivia that I’ll never forget, associated with this project. In a way I’m kind of grateful for it, because it would have been insanely distracting. Of course, how could it not be, to fixate on the news all day when we were up against the clock and scrambling to finish the game. Just sort of a funny piece of trivia.
Last time we spoke, we talked about how ten years after you were nominated for a Grammy, video game music hadn’t really been represented. Now, there’s an actual category. I was curious if you had any thoughts about it, and if you were excited about this coming up next year?
Austin Wintory: Hilariously enough, the release window in which any album has to have come out to be eligible for the forthcoming Grammys, including that first ever game music category, is today. Today is the cutoff for release for that current window. So, through no actual deliberate effort, and there was nothing choreographed about this… like I said, the game came out a year ago. Ironically, if the soundtrack had come out when the game first came out, it wouldn’t have been eligible for that first game music Grammy. But because it came out today, on the last day of eligibility, it technically is in the pool. Obviously, that’s just one of these kind of funny timings, and God only knows if it’ll actually get nominated.
But I can tell you that since the voting opens in a couple of weeks, inevitably [there is] kind of a free-for-all of musicians sharing their latest musicians to be kept in mind when the ballots show up. I start getting thousands of emails of “Oh, by the way, in case you’re voting in the, like, Best Tropical Latin Album category, here’s my entry.” People I don’t even know just somehow found out I’m in the Recording Academy. It’s a thing that happens every year, and to be honest, I actually think it’s quite beautiful because it’s a bunch of people who are super passionate about the hard work that they’ve done, and honestly, there are a lot of great records out there that I kind of wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. So I don’t mention the kind of self-promotion of these various musicians with any dash of cynicism. I’m glad that they do it.
That said, the thing that I’m most looking forward to is just seeing the list of friends and colleagues who I’ll have the opportunity to vote for in this way. And knowing, unlike in past years, where I have cast votes for game scores in the Visual Media category and I was apparently one of the view voting for these scores by my colleagues and friends who I admire – now I can say with pretty utmost confidence that I’m quite certain that at least some of the people I vote for will end up getting nominated. I’m really quite excited about that. God knows that this weird distinction of Journey being the only one to have ever been nominated is not right. There needs to be others, because it’s such a vibrant and amazing art form, and I’m surrounded by so many colleagues whose work I love to death, and who deserve it arguably far more than I. So, that’ll be fun.
Austin Wintory’s music for Aliens: Fireteam Elite is available to stream on Spotify, as well as on other streaming platforms.