Interview: Composer James Hannigan on RuneScape’s orchestral renaissance

Veteran video game composer James Hannigan talks us through his orchestral music for RuneScape, reimagining classics like “Harmony”, recording the Philharmonia at Abbey Road Studios, and hearing his work on vinyl.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

In the wake of Laced Records and Jagex teaming up on physical and digital soundtrack releases, it has been fascinating digging into the musical world of long-running MMO RuneScape — a truly epic game (actually two concurrent games) with a vast player-base and still more updates to come after 18 years.

First, we interviewed Jagex’s music leads Stephen Lord and Ian Taylor, the people responsible for RuneScape’s soundworld, about what it takes to maintain two MMOs, musically speaking.

We then published the second half of that chat where Lord and Taylor revealed why 2018 was the year to finally open the RuneScape soundtrack vaults and release tracks onto streaming services and physical formats including… vinyl?!

Finally, we caught up with BAFTA Award-winning composer James Hannigan to talk about his original compositions for RuneScape, his orchestral reimagining of classic tracks like “Harmony”, and hearing his material pressed to wax as part of RuneScape: The Orchestral Collection.

Hannigan: Origins

James Hannigan

James Hannigan is a BAFTA-winning video game composer who has worked on series including Harry Potter, Dead Space, FIFA, F1, Theme Park, Command and Conquer, The Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, and many more. When it comes to game music, he’s bought the t-shirt and been around the block. 

In terms of his influences, Hannigan professes to be an omnivorous and fairly agnostic music fan: “I don’t support bands, composers, or genres like they’re a football team — music isn’t a competition. I like to see the value in all kinds of music. “I have a particular fondness for jazz, including ‘30s and ‘40s big band and ‘60s-through-’80s stuff by the likes of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett. Equally, I like electronic music ranging from Autechre to Vangelis.”

As a classical fan, Hannigan has devoured everything from baroque Bach to the 20th Century’s Stravinsky (by way of Beethoven). “Loosely related to RuneScape musicwith its vaguely medieval and folky flavours — I’ve also found a lot of joy in sacred Renaissance music, especially choral works from the likes of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, which are sublime.” Influences on his soundtrack work include heavyweights Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and Bernard Herrmann; as well as relative newcomers with distinctive musical voices such as Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell.

Arriving in Gielinor

RuneScape concept art

Production art by Jagex’s David Barker.

It was Hannigan’s work on another major fantasy IP that led to him venturing into the realm of Guthix and co: “As a longstanding fan of the fantasy genre and MMOs, I discovered RuneScape in its early years, but didn’t have the slightest inkling I’d be contributing music to it later on. I worked with Jagex’s now head of audio — Steve Lord, an audio director at EA at the time — on the game Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and we stayed in touch.”

Once Lord moved to Jagex in mid-2011, he started a conversation with Hannigan about orchestral music for the MMO, which would supplement the soundtrack of the 2013 relaunch-of-sorts RuneScape 3 (now simply known as RuneScape, in contrast to throwback version Old School RuneScape, which retains MIDI-generated music.)

“The Village” was one of Hannigan’s compositions recorded for the launch of RuneScape 3 in 2013:

“I don’t recall there being a definite brief as such, as it was more of an ongoing conversation. We discussed existing RuneScape pieces that might work well in an orchestral context, and I also began writing some new music — the process was pretty open-ended and flexible.

“One of the beauties of RuneScape is that it’s a living game, always growing and evolving. For any composer working on RuneScape, it’s not like working on a film or traditional video game with an immovable release date — the game needs content on an ongoing basis.” He points out that this is reflected in the game’s Guinness World Record-breaking status as having the largest number of original tracks of any video game (at the time of writing, RuneScape is coming perilously close to containing 1,500 music tracks.)

He was also able to engage with RuneScape and Jagex’s brand of quirky humour: “There’s a light, fun side to RuneScape, and that’s reflected in some of the game’s upbeat, joyful music. The recent ‘Adventure Calls’ trailer is a good example of this, as it has comedic elements woven in alongside themes of adventure and friendship.”

“I hope that the music for this particular trailer manages to convey the many sides of RuneScape. It can be all too easy to get lost in the seriousness and darkness of the fantasy genre, so it’s nice to keep things grounded and human, and inject some humour where possible.”

Reworking 9 to 5

Still the game’s music lead after ~17 years at Jagex, composer Ian Taylor started adding MIDI tracks to RuneScape around 2002-03; he and others went on to add well over a thousand tracks to the game(s). So, when Hannigan came to the project some ten years later, there was already a mountain of material to potentially give an orchestral makeover.

According to the composer, rearranging existing material isn’t necessarily easier than composing a fresh piece, and the process has its interesting wrinkles. “The original “Harmony” was composed for a sound card, so I tried to find a way to be faithful to that, but also make use of the resources we had — in this case the Philharmonia Orchestra!”

Ian Taylor’s original composition “Harmony” — the first he wrote for RuneScape:

It was certainly a challenge: “When it came to adapting existing pieces, I had to think about how to retain the spirit of the originals whilst trying to offer something new and of myself; and bear those things in mind whilst making good use of the orchestra. There will always be someone who says this or that piece is not enough like the original (or too much like it!) but you can’t please everyone all of the time.”

“The goal wasn’t to transcribe tracks in order to replace them with a straight orchestral cover, but more about re-imagining them so as to complement and add to the existing catalogue. I was given a certain degree of license to expand on the pieces: change the form and structure; write new harmonies and countermelodies; and so on. Plus, I got to write quite a lot of entirely new music, too.”

“With “Harmony”, I played with the form of the piece and added some new colours and textures along with a new motif — a kind of brassy fanfare — which I hope gives it a new twist.”

The full orchestral reworking, filmed at Abbey Road Studios:

“I try to keep things simple when I can, as one of my musical mantras is: ‘If something is worth expressing, express it in the simplest possible terms.’ The mere act of recording a live orchestra injects a kind of musicality into a piece that’s often hard to achieve with samples alone, so I kept this version of “Harmony” relatively simple to let the essence of the performance shine through and bring it to life. I find it’s quite easy to clutter things up with too much detail, and this is one piece where I felt it especially important to avoid doing that. I’m a bit of a minimalist, and like to leave things out if they don’t have much of a role to play, or if they hinder how accessible a piece can be.”

Flesh and blood versus ones and zeros

The argument about whether live musicians are better compared to digital instruments is, of course, a bit of an academic one — although we at Laced With Wax nevertheless like to ask composers about it to provoke a response.

Some composers insist on live playing wherever possible; others are happy with the flexibility (and relative low cost) of using 100% computer-generated sounds. In any case, the biggest factors as to whether the choice is even available are the intent of the game designers, time and budget available. Some listeners to a soundtrack, especially in the midst of playing a game, can’t tell the difference, and/or don’t care; some, especially detail-oriented music fans, can tell and do care.

As well as being a seasoned composer, Hannigan has for years organised industry conferences where the various sides of the debate have been covered exhaustively — he’s thus especially well-equipped to see both sides. “As a synthesiser fanatic and electronic music fan, I don’t think of ‘live’ music — or any particular musical paradigm for that matter — as being superior. Today’s digital sample libraries are pretty comprehensive, and they’re extremely useful for either mocking up orchestral music before recording the real thing, or simply for producing finished music.”

“Sunlight” was written produced by Hannigan himself, rather than played by a live orchestra:

“As a composer, you should seek to appropriately exploit the resources that are made available, depending on your musical goals. For instance, if you’re writing music for orchestral instruments — violins, flutes, timpani, etc. — using the real thing is obviously a huge bonus!

“It’s always wonderful hearing an orchestra perform your own work. It’s also pretty terrifying, as you’re never really sure how something will turn out until you actually hear it played. When preparing music for RuneFest Live [a performance of RuneScape music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the annual fan event in 2018] things were a little easier because I had at least heard everything played at the orchestral recording sessions.”

“When a group of musicians play together they collectively seem to operate as one musical entity — it’s really quite incredible how energetic and dynamic the resulting sound can be as they play off one another. Add the adrenaline boost that naturally comes as part of a pro recording session or concert, and these musicians are capable of some truly incredible feats — the virtuosity of orchestral players never ceases to amaze me. Few people realise this, but in the majority of high pressure recording sessions, these musicians will be playing music they have never seen before, so their sight-reading skills have to be impeccable.”

“Sound cards, samples, synths, and acoustic instruments are different musical beasts, and you often need to factor that in when you write. The way you intend to record music can often affect the writing process itself, and it can even lead you to place more of an emphasis on, say, whether to notate the music for musicians from the outset, or whether you choose to work with MIDI if you don’t plan to record anything live. For me, it’s usually a bit of both: sometimes I work with a MIDI sequencer like Cubase, but there are times when I will use scoring software such as Sibelius from the very beginning, as it can save time later on.”

James Hannigan

Hannigan quickly hides Spider Solitaire as Jagex’s video documentary team pop in to say ‘hi’.  

“If I’m writing for an orchestra, I try to steer clear of composing for samples, or only composing the sort of music I can successfully ‘fake’ with mock-ups (although the temptation to do so can be overwhelming!) There are certain things that sound great with a real orchestra that you can’t easily mock-up with samples, so it’s quite easy to find yourself spending a lot of time on the ‘audio’ aspects of mocked-up tracks (as opposed to musical) that will ultimately be replaced anyway! The team at Jagex understand what an orchestra can do, so this wasn’t an issue when it came to RuneScape; they put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of freedom, for which I’m grateful.”

All that said, digital instruments are often used to supplement orchestral recordings, Hannigan points out: “They may have a particular quality or character that becomes integral to the essence of a track, and it can become almost futile trying to recreate that for its own sake.  

“There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to music production — it’s ultimately all in the ears of the beholder.”

Out of the loop

More often than not, video game music needs to be loopable. With chiptune, and most digitally programmed music, a composer can take this into account and write accordingly — and also trial and tweak cues to their heart’s content.

Live recorded music can be a little trickier to stitch together and insert into the game: “An entire orchestra tends to be recorded all at once, or, if you have the time or need for it, maybe one section or group of instruments at a time [brass separate from strings, etc.] However you look at it though, it can be hard to dissect this ‘baked’ music later on for interactive playback, as once recorded you can’t easily go back and tweak it.”

“Memories of Guthix” by James Hannigan:

“With RuneScape, I’ve had the relative luxury of being able to approach the music as a set of non-interactive, linear tracks. As someone who’s worked on many games that used complex interactive music systems, it’s always nice to get the chance to write purely linear music from time to time! The tracks were written as self-contained pieces full of light and shade, and each with a narrative and trajectory of its own that can be experienced outside of the game — to take the listener on a musical journey into the world of RuneScape. A few of the pieces (like “Memories of Guthix”) do relate to specific things.”

Multiplayer sessions

The Philharmonia recording at Abbey Road Studios

The Philharmonia perform RuneScape music at a recording session at Abbey Road Studios.

In late 2017, RuneScape’s audio team oversaw a recording session at Abbey Road Studios, where the Philharmonia Orchestra and Pinewood Singers performed Hannigan’s original pieces as well as some of his orchestral re-workings of earlier material.

“Not all orchestras and studios are the same... The recording room/hall/stage has a bearing on the final sound you’re left with: some composers like the close-mic’ed, dry sound of a smaller stage because of the control they have over the mix later on; others love the reverb-soaked sound of a large concert hall. Abbey Road Studio 1 has acoustics that will be familiar to many soundtrack fans, having been used for countless films, games and TV productions. ”

Picking which orchestra to work with, and squeezing the most out sessions, are challenges in and of themselves. Hannigan explains: “[When planning orchestral recordings] it helps to consider the nature of the music and to match it up with who will be able to perform it well in the time available.

“To give a vague idea: a four-hour session rarely yields more than 20 minutes of usable recordings (sometimes less), and how much you get can depend greatly on how technically difficult the music is. Ironically, sometimes the simplest music can be the hardest to get right: performing it may require great control and restraint, or the recording can be compromised by extraneous noises (e.g. coughing, creaky chairs.)” Then there’s rehearsal time, breaks, technical difficulties, and problem-solving.

“Born To Do This II”, based on the original version by Sam Jones, is one of the more technically demanding arrangements:

Hiring brilliant players that can sight-read as accurately as Sniper Wolf can shoot is all well and good, but there still needs to be plenty of session preparation: “It definitely helps to give some context before recording, as those involved are considerably skilled musicians or recording engineers, and can help you to avoid having to rely solely on your own judgment every step of the way.  

“Those involved are often seeing the score the for the first time on the day of recording but, of course, it’s beneficial to have a dialogue with the conductor earlier on if possible — get them in to listen to mock-ups, look over the score, and so on. That goes for the engineers too: there can be lots of technical things to prepare like Pro Tools sessions, click tracks, and prerecorded audio tracks.”

Record maker

Tracks from the Abbey Road Philharmonia sessions were added to those from a 2012 recording session with The Slovak National Symphony Orchestra — as well as extra tracks recorded in Hannigan’s own studio — to form RuneScape: The Orchestral Collection, recently released by Laced Records on digital platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes), and CD and vinyl.

RuneScape: The Orchestral Collection available via Laced Records

Hannigan is looking forward to receiving his copy through the post: “I’m really happy about the resurgence of vinyl! Aside from the debate around which format sounds best in a hi-fi sense, there’s a lot to be said for the tactile experience of handling vinyl, and the ritual of taking a disc out of its sleeve and putting it on a turntable. It feels like an event, and it gives the music even more context. Digital files are great and very convenient, but nothing beats the feeling of holding a real album in your hands. But I would say that, as a bit of a collector.” 

James Hannigan is a BAFTA-winning video game composer – | Twitter: @james_hannigan

If you haven’t already, check out our interviews with Jagex’s audio team:

— “RuneScape music leads on their massively musical operation

— “Unleashing the old school MIDI music of RuneScape onto… vinyl?

Here’s a brief documentary about the orchestral recordings: