How ‘BioShock Infinite’ Made Old-Timey Modern Music
The video game "BioShock Infinite" came out in March 2013 and has already been pegged as a strong contender for game of the year. The first-person shooter explores early 20th-century America in all of its glory and horror, and it owes a big part of its success to its varied and creative soundtrack.
While many of the songs in "BioShock Infinite" sound like they're straight out of 1912, they have distinctly modern origins. Jessy Carolina, a Brooklyn-based folk singer, worked with audio engineers at development studio Irrational Games to give her finely honed voice a distinctive Taft administration bent.
Before you go any further, though, take a listen to her take on the old standard "After You've Gone," a favorite among singers like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald:
Even though the song would not sound out of place on a scratchy old phonograph, Carolina recorded "After You've Gone" in 2013 — 95 years after its debut, and 101 years after it appears in the game's floating city of Columbia (don't worry: the anachronism is part of the meticulously crafted plot).
"After that session, I got to talking to [Irrational Games music director] James Bonney about music in general," Carolina told TechNewsDaily. "I was asked to come back to perform a few [Creedence Clearwater Revival] songs, a slow rendition of Mozart's 'Lacrimosa' from his Requiem, and an original song of mine."
In addition to Carolina's old-timey tunes, the "BioShock Infinite" soundtrack contains a number of sweeping orchestral pieces, blaring steam organ songs and even a barbershop rendition of "God Only Knows" from the Beach Boys. Protagonist Booker DeWitt, a veteran of the Sioux civilian massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, encounters many of these songs via radio and phonograph, giving them a period-specific tinny feel.
For her part, Carolina had only to focus on making the songs sound great.
"The recording session wasn't any different from other recordings I'd done at a studio," she said. "They did some kind of sound effects to 'After You've Gone' to make it sound warped, but besides that, none of the performances were made to sound 'old-timey.'"
"Sometimes," she added, "I think that people forget that there are musicians that still exist that can actually play instruments and sing with meaning and style without the help of computers."
In fact, at Irrational Games, sound designers used computers to make Carolina sound less polished, not more. Early phonograph recordings could not record or broadcast stereo sound, and had trouble with sound wavelengths below 1,000 Hertz (Hz) (midrange treble) or above 10,000 Hz (high treble).
This is why many old recordings sound metallic or thin to the modern ear. The pops and hisses associated with old-timey music come from dust and scratches on brittle vinyl records. [See also: How To Make Bioshock: Infinite Style 'Old-Timey' Music | Video]
"BioShock Infinite" is not the only game to use old music to convey modern ideas. Although the other two "BioShock" games take place in the 1960s, they invoke hit songs of bygone eras to create dissonance between the jubilant music and the narratives' violent themes.
Similarly, the "Fallout" series of role-playing games takes place in a futuristic nuclear wasteland, but relies on its soundtrack of early 20th-century jazz, folk and standards to convey a wistful sense of Americana. In both franchises, the songs' Progressive Era optimism and euphonious melodies create a sharp contrast with the games' brutal worlds and often nihilistic supporting casts.
Even though these games (as well as TV shows like "Mad Men") have introduced a whole new generation to some of the greatest music of the last 100 years, Carolina believes that the classics never really went away.
"I don't really think there is a resurgence going on," she explained. "I don't believe it ever left. It stayed around because it's good music; it took thought to write; it took talent to perform." [See also: The 10 Most Stunning Video Games]
If new media has whetted your appetite for old music, there's plenty to be had.
"It only takes a little effort to go on the Internet and buy good music," said Carolina. "Or better yet, go to a show! Maybe that's what people have been doing. Maybe they're just tired of hearing what's been popular lately, because most of it sucks."
Carolina self-describes as "not much of a gamer," but said she has seen a good deal of "BioShock Infinite" over her husband's shoulder.
"It's a very beautiful and tasteful game," she said. "I'm proud to have my music in it and proud to have performed in it."