Sarah Schachner on scoring Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the craft of popular music

Sarah Schachner is among the leading composers of modern video game music.

Having composed the soundtracks to some of the largest action games of the last decade, her credits include multiple installments of the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed franchises – including the recently-released Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Her work in media also extends to film and television, having scored feature films such as The Lazarus Effect as well as television shows like Chef’s Table on Netflix.

Sarah’s creative output doesn’t stop in the realm of visual media, either. She has also composed music in a three-part suite commemorating NASA’s Cassini Mission, and has collaborations that run the gamut of popular music with the likes of Mike Dean and Travis Scott.

We recently had the honor of speaking with Sarah about her career and process when working across so many different musical contexts – see the full interview below.

Coming from the world of games and film composition, does your creative process change when switching contexts to something like popular music? Are there any strategies that you picked up while working in commercial music that have translated to your media work or vice versa?

I love combining sounds and instruments that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together, or taking inspiration from one genre and bringing it into a different context. When working on a big game project, I’m pretty much doing the music in a vacuum where I’m the artist. When I’m working on a song where I’m not the primary artist, I get to play more of a support role, contributing my taste and sound with their vision.

Getting to work on a pop song is like a breath of fresh air after months and sometimes years of creating hours of music for a single scoring project. It’s a different headspace, but it’s good to have varied experiences that keep music fun and exciting.

Was there any sort of learning curve transitioning from film and game music into pop?

I tend to bring a pop sensibility to my scoring with hooks and riffs so in my case, it’s a similar skillset. I blend acoustic instruments with synths and modern production and that approach lends itself well to popular music. Sometimes I’m asked to do a specific thing on a song, but I often end up finding other interesting directions to push it in. It’s good to allow room for surprises when collaborating.

There’s a phenomenal YouTube video of you playing every instrument in a medley cover of the HaloCall of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim themes – most notably cello, violin, and what appear to be actual skulls. Do you normally record your own performances in your music?

That skull you’re referring to is a donkey jaw and can be used as a percussive instrument. I track and overdub myself all the time at my home studio. I play a lot of string instruments and collect obscure regional folk instruments for their interesting tones and textures. I’m really drawn to the spontaneity of improvisation, so a lot of what I track of myself is performance-based. I’ll record long improvisations with live instruments and then go back and find interesting parts to work with. I take the same approach with my modular synth, since the best stuff comes from accidents that happen in the moment.

With all of the props you have around your studio, do you often incorporate found sounds into your work?

Manipulating audio and sampling my own source material is a big part of my process, so anything laying around the house is fair game. On big projects that require a whole new sound, I like to record sound sources early on with myself and other soloists on unusual instruments to essentially build a custom library of audio and concepts to work with. Sometimes I’ll use an instrument not for its intended purpose, but more as sound design. Scraping the resonator of a banjo for instance makes a great top frequency layer for a variety of sounds.

How was it working with 070 Shake on her debut album? Where was the creative intersection between the two of you when working on tracks?

I actually only met her in person after the album was finished. I had been collaborating with Mike Dean during that time and he asked me to write something on “The Pines.” I used a rustic bowed instrument I have from Kazakhstan called the Kobyz, and a Mongolian cello. We were going for a kind of an off-kilter Kashmir vibe with the string breakdown. I loved the song the second I heard it, and was so excited to be involved because I’ve been a big fan of Shake ever since she first started posting stuff on SoundCloud.

You began working with Mike Dean after bringing him on to collaborate on a portion of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare soundtrack. How did this collaboration come about, and was it the spark for your subsequent collaborations?

I was a big fan of Mike’s work and we had mutual friends at Moog. I had them reach out to see if he had any interest to collaborate on something for Call of Duty. That week I was over at his studio to talk about the project and what I’d be looking for. Initially, it was just going to be a multiplayer menu theme or something, but we were having a lot of fun and it quickly evolved into doing a handful of open-ended longer tracks for the audio team to chop up and use throughout the multiplayer mode. I had already been working on Call of Duty for a year at this point, so this collaboration at the end totally recharged my creative life force and was definitely the jumping off point for more work together. Aside from what’s on the official soundtrack, there are some other unreleased tracks that we’ll be putting out soon!

Your score for Assassin’s Creed: Origins contains a lot of modern production techniques that fuse perfectly with the game’s setting. Do you often gravitate towards synthesizers as a tool for writing, or do you find yourself starting with more traditional instruments?

It totally depends. Some days I’m in more of a synth mood, and other days I’m feeling the organic acoustic instruments more. I’ll jump around on different instruments until something inspiring clicks, and then start building a track out from there. It’s never a linear process and I treat everything as a sound source to process or transform.

Sometimes you can manipulate an acoustic sound into something that sounds synthetic. In the main theme of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, many people thought that the repeating riff was a synth or a horn of some sort, but it’s actually a viola with distortion and filters. I like playing with people’s perception like that. I’m trying to elicit an emotional, visceral response with sound.

You’ve now had collaborations that span a huge spectrum of musical styles. When entering the industry, did you always aspire to work in so many diverse creative contexts?

I’m beginning to see the bigger picture of what makes sense for me and where I belong. Growing up, I played multiple instruments writing and performing in a ton of different bands and ensembles, and it was hard to limit myself to just one genre or niche, but writing and creating was always what I loved most. Scoring visual media has been a great path because I get to pull from all of my inspirations and be a part of some pretty exciting projects. It’s been important for me as an evolving artist to realize my music can go anywhere and isn’t limited to any one medium. Playing so many instruments myself allows me to have a sound that naturally adapts to whatever I’m doing, and I’m excited to keep going down this path and see where it leads.

Sarah Schachner performing music from her score for Anthem alongside the The Game Awards Orchestra

Having worked alongside Mike Dean in both video game music and pop, and now collaborating with Jesper Kyd and Einar Selvik on the score for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, how does your writing process change across these different collaborations? Have you found any differences in process that come when working as a team for different musical styles?

On the music Mike and I have done together, it’s a very fluid process. We send each other partial ideas for the other person to react to and build on. There’s a lot of back and forth. On songs he’s producing for other artists, I’ll send him my parts and he’ll do the final production pass. For the game music, I’ll usually give him some loose parameters to do stream-of-consciousness / esoteric stuff. I’ll curate from those freeform ideas and integrate what’s working into whatever I had started and finish out the production on my end, since game music has a lot of specific technical requirements in terms of energy building and structure. He’s such an amazing musician that his improvisations are rich with interesting parts and surprises – it makes it easy to find jumping off points for inspiration.

On Valhalla, aside from the main theme which we co-wrote, Jesper and I each wrote close to three hours of music completely separately with no influence from each other. This happens fairly often on large video game projects and it can result in a disjointed score, but in this case, it fits together really well. While we have our own individual sounds, we have a similar creative process of mixing organic sounds with synths, so it helped link everything together with a unified vision. It was great to get to collaborate with Einar as well, who’s a fantastic Norse singer and artist.

Where did you and Travis Scott complement each other in the songwriting / production process for “WHAT DO DO?”

That particular song had a dark and trippy vibe but was also catchy, which I liked. With the strings, I was trying to continue that inebriated feeling. They reprise Travis’ melodic hook and expand on it a bit while sounding kind of drunk and underwater.

Is there an artist who you’d like to work with on their next album? What artist(s) do you believe are the future of music or pop music disruptors?

There are a lot of artists who I’d love to work with. Aurora, the Norwegian singer, would be cool. She’s got a great voice and she’s weird. As much as I love production, vibe, and sound design, I’m most excited by well-crafted songs and hooks. “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd is a great recent example of a song that is so satisfying and well written. I want to work with people who are creatively like-minded, and it’s very exciting to see rigid genre boundaries loosening and falling away. There’s more fluidity going on between styles.

Hip hop has always been sample-based and there are some parallels to game music with both styles leaning on more of a static energy and vibe, but I love how melodic it’s become as a genre. I’m interested in using the creative process I’ve developed in game scoring, creating smaller performance-based pieces of music that are then treated as a sample, which can provide that unexpected element and depth to a song.

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January 13, 2021

Ronny Mraz Ronny is a Technical Sound Designer at Avalanche Studios in New York City. There, he has worked on the recently released Just Cause 4, as well as the game’s three downloadable content packs: Dare Devils of Destruction, Los Demonios, and Danger Rising. He's also a member of the Adjunct Faculty at NYU Steinhardt where he teaches the class, "Scoring Techniques: Video Games."