‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Is a Hit With $600 Million Debut, and So Is the Music

The game was scored by veteran composer Sarah Schachner and hip-hop producer Mike Dean.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” has landed in a big way — scoring more than $600 million in sales after three days on the market. Produced by Infinity Ward and published by Activision, the “soft reboot” of the first-person shooter game was accompanied by a soundtrack released a week earlier and scored by Sarah Schachner, who enlisted legendary producer Mike Dean (Kanye West, Travis Scott) to help.

“Modern Warfare” focuses on the gritty realism of current-day terrorism. Players can enlist different perspectives (whether a single player campaign or the online multiplayer) and, in fact, Activision wanted the game to as realistic as possible. “It covers a lot of the types of situations that we see in war right now,” Schachner (pictured below), who also scored “COD: Infinite Warfare,” tells Variety. “ It deals with conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. You play as multiple characters and what’s interesting is that the game’s not from an American perspective. It’s not good guys versus bad guys. It’s not always clear what’s right or wrong. It’s gray. It’s messy. It’s confusing.”

Sarah SchachnerThe Game Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 06 Dec 2018
CREDIT: Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup/Shut

Dean, who’s better known as the go-to hip-hop producer for the last decade-plus, confesses that he didn’t  know anything about the game. “I just made tracks,” he says of the project which took over a year. The musical collaboration resulted in the two coming up with the multiplayer music.

Schachner really wanted Dean on board. As she explains: “The single player takes the most time because it’s this whole story with the most music in it. The multiplayer music gets done at the very end so normally, you’re tired; you’ve been working on it for so long; maybe your inspiration isn’t what it was in the beginning. I wanted to get a different vibe for the multiplayer music, but still relate to the rest of the score. I was thinking of doing a percussion session or adding a different instrument, but then I was, like, ‘No! Mike Dean.’”

Schachner was a fan of Dean’s from his work with West and Scott. “Moog is really to thank, because I asked someone at Moog if they could test the waters [with Dean],” she says referring to the synthesizer favorite of the producer’s. “I didn’t think he’d be interested. I didn’t even think he would respond.”

But Dean became a fan after he saw Schachner on one of the demos for Moog’s new keyboard. As he recalls: “I thought her segment of the video was real cool.” Within a week, she was over at Dean’s home studio in Los Angeles.

While the two were planing on working on just one initial track, it turned into four. “We just kept going,” says Schachner, who generally doesn’t collaborate with others. “I always work completely alone, this was new for me … and it exceeded my expectations.”

As Schachner explains, Dean sent raw ideas to her — “some 808 grooves or some cool Moog 1 vibes” — and she would determine the best fits for the score. Adds Dean: ”I was just shooting in the dark.”

In fact, Dean looked to a classic composer, Hans Zimmer, and asked Schachner: “Kind of like this?” To which she adamantly responded, “No, don’t listen to that! Do you.”

Musically, “Modern Warfare” is far from a traditional orchestral score — it’s jam-packed with mangled shredding, synths, processed vocals, and ethnic acoustic folk instruments, both distorted and pitched down.

Says Schachner: “There are strings, but they don’t sound like orchestra or classical music. For our collabs, I did an open-ended string session with a small group of cellos and basses. I had them play a bunch of metal riffs. They were really close mic’ed and I’m distorting them, time stretching them, just f–king them up.”

“She plays some antique instruments,” Dean adds. “That’s what makes it sound really dope, that layer is unique.”

“I have a lot of ethnic [instruments],” she explains referring to the bows she uses on strings. “It’s a gnarly, raw texture on top of everything. The combination of that with Mike’s synth stuff… made me think of things I never would’ve thought of on my own. It pushed me to be more creative.”

As far as any challenges in the process, Schachner had self-inflicted pressure to contend with. As she elaborates: “I wrote two-and-a-half hours of music. It’s a lot. You need creative endurance. You’re not just writing whatever you want, it all has to serve a very specific need and purpose in the game. It has to do a million things. It’s very technical.”

The beauty of Schachner and Dean’s score is how it’s triggered in the game — integrating to different situations during gameplay. “You can play for 30 minutes and it not be repetitive,” says Dean.

Female composers in the gaming world are more common than in film and TV. Schachner’s take? “Gender has no bearing on the quality of someone’s work, so hiring, or not hiring someone because of it is unfortunate and the focus should always be on the music,” she says. “One way to help level the playing field is to make sure women and minorities are more frequently included in the selection/demo pool for all types of projects — especially higher profile ones that have historically been off limits to women as well as genres that typically skew male. It’s hard to overcome biases and this isn’t something that can be changed quickly, but I’m thankful that things are starting to shift and it’s become an open conversation.”

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