How an all-star musical lineup changed video game soundtracks forever

Halo 2
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Most people associate Halo 2 with the birth of Xbox Live, but Halo 2 did more than simply change the world of online multiplayer; it changed the world of video game music too.  The Halo 2 soundtrack is one of the most ambitious and successful video game soundtracks that has ever been released, spanning two volumes of music that have shipped over 100,000 copies worldwide.

The music in Halo 2 was written by some of its biggest  fans – and we don't just mean the series' co-composers Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori. An A-list line-up of some of the world's biggest bands, artists and producers, with a combined total of six Grammys and a billion albums sold between them, all wrote music for the game. The work of Nile Rodgers, Steve Vai, John Mayer, Incubus, Breaking Benjamin and Hoobastank was a giant love letter to the Halo series and their way of showing the world the impact Halo: Combat Evolved had on their own lives.

From the top 

Halo 2

(Image credit: Xbox)

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(Image credit: Future / FromSoftware)

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The first Halo had an incredible impact on a lot of people, of course, as well as on Microsoft itself. As a launch title for Xbox, Halo was the catalyst for Microsoft shipping millions of consoles and establishing itself, despite much scepticism, as a genuine competitor  to console giants Sony and Nintendo. Realising how important the game was and how much it had connected with fans all over the world, Martin O'Donnell, then Bungie's audio director, wanted nothing more than to release the soundtrack. Microsoft, somehow, said no.

"We worked like crazy to finish that score," O'Donnell tells us. "I said, 'We need to release this music as a soundtrack. It's a big deal.' And then the brakes just went on. They [Microsoft] were like, 'Oh, we don't do things like that… we have to look at the market for it'. After we had shipped the game and we were riding the success of it, I just kept coming back to it, saying we should ship the soundtrack!"

While O'Donnell and the Bungie team were passionately fighting for the release of the Combat Evolved score, they weren't aware of what was happening behind closed doors. Somebody else was interested in releasing a Halo soundtrack: three-time Grammy award winner, record producer and musician Nile Rodgers. Rodgers is responsible for some of the biggest music releases in the world, his career progressing from his time with disco legends Chic to collaborations with artists such as David Bowie, Madonna and Daft Punk. He'd been trying to contact O'Donnell for months. 

"I got called into the boardroom with the Microsoft guys and they were like, 'We want to talk about the Halo soundtrack, and we want to introduce you to Nile Rodgers'," O'Donnell recalls. He knew better than to turn it down, and a meeting was duly set up. "Nile stood up and was like 'Hey, Marty! I need to meet you!' and I was like 'Hey! I need to meet you too!'

"And I swear, everyone in the room just started to disappear. At this point we just started talking about music," O'Donnell says. "Nile told me about his experience hearing the music in Halo for the first time and how he'd been looking for me. Apparently, there was this wall between me and Nile in terms of Microsoft. But once Nile and I got in a room together, we were like, 'Okay, we can do this'. He was just so passionate about it."

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

(Image credit: Microsoft)

"Green Day had just come out with American Idiot, which was a brilliant, brilliant album, and they had written a whole piece for Halo 2."

Rodgers was interested in Halo because he had just founded Sumthing Else Music Works, a record label specialising in the licensing and distribution of video game soundtracks. In June 2002, Sumthing Else enjoyed its first release: the Halo Original Soundtrack. As most of the music in the game was interactive, O'Donnell and Salvatori reassembled many of the pieces so they could be in a suite or enjoyed as a standalone experience. Fans loved it. With over 40,000 copies sold, its success helped to establish Sumthing Else as the flagship record label for video game soundtracks, and the label went on to release over 200 other scores from series such as Gears Of War, Uncharted, Resident Evil and Assassin's Creed.

Not since the 1995 release of GoldenEye 007 had a first-person shooter captured the attention of so many players. Yet, despite the success of Combat Evolved, the Bungie team were still coming to terms with the sheer number of people the game had connected with. Actors from Star Wars and stars such as Justin Timberlake visited Bungie for studio tours, during which they would share their memories of the game and tell the team how much they loved Halo. "We all thought Halo was gonna be a big hit, but a big hit in the video game world is way different than this ridiculous cultural blockbuster it became," O'Donnell says. "None of us anticipated that." 

A sequel to Halo was never initially planned, but it was inevitable that fans would soon be expecting one. The Bungie team set to work on developing concepts and bouncing ideas backwards and forwards, but without a concept to work from as source material, O'Donnell hadn't settled on a musical direction for the game and was pretty open to ideas. That blank slate was manna from heaven for Rodgers, who was keen to utilise his network of contacts and get some of these big-name Halo fans to write music for the new game. 

O'Donnell laughs when he recalls the calibre of the names that Rodgers was reeling off. Some of the initial names that were suggested included the legendary rock guitarists Jeff Beck and Steve Vai, but he even suggested the pop star Pink. "Nile came and said, 'Look: there's all these guys who are just really loving Halo, and for Halo 2 I can get you anybody you want. I can get you all sorts of people.' It was so mind-blowing to me," O'Donnell says. 

O'Donnell considered some of the ways he could use the artists that Rodgers was suggesting, and decided that someone like Jeff Beck or Steve Vai "would be spectacular." And with that, Rodgers set off on an epic quest to get one of the biggest guitar legends in the world to write music for a video game soundtrack. It just so happened that three-time Grammy Award winner Vai, who has recorded and performed with acts such as Whitesnake and Ozzy Osbourne, was on tour with G3, the long-running series of virtuoso guitar shows established in 1995 by Vai's former mentor, Joe Satriani. As luck would have it, one of those dates was close to the Bungie studio. 

"Nile called me and said Steve Vai was coming to town," O'Donnell says. "He said, 'Book a studio, I'm gonna fly out there and Steve Vai's going to lay down some tracks.' I couldn't believe it!" O'Donnell didn't realise it at the time, but the studio session that he had just booked would make video game history. 

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

(Image credit: Microsoft)

"Rodgers is responsible for some of the biggest music releases in the world, his career progressing from his time with disco legends Chic to collaborations with artists such as David Bowie, Madonna and Daft Punk."

Steve Vai shredding over the top of the Halo 2 soundtrack, Nile Rodgers directing him by energetically mouthing a cappella guitar renditions of the Halo theme, and Marty O'Donnell supervising the session in awe, is a sight to behold. Over 500,000 people have watched that studio session (courtesy of a video that O'Donnell uploaded to his YouTube channel) to witness the creation of what became the Halo Mjolnir Mix, an epic guitar reworking of Halo's choral main theme and arguably the most iconic track from the series.

It's clear from the video that everyone in that room was having the time of their lives. Rodgers has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest stars that have ever graced this planet, but describes working on the Halo 2 soundtrack as one of his fondest memories. "I have become very, very close to the Halo team," he says. "It's hard to express my deep love and admiration for Marty and the entire music team [at Bungie]. 

"The really great moment was when I went out to Seattle and I was working with Marty on the Mjolnir Mix. Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen happened to be doing one of those G3 gigs. I called Steve up and said, 'look, I'm working on this project and I want you to come over and read the first violin part and some other stuff and we'll feel it out together and see what happens.' Marty was so open to the concept. Steve came over, soundchecked, and we just ended up having such a great time."

One of the most remarkable things about that studio session is that many of the guitar parts that made it into the final cut of the Mlojnir Mix were some of Vai's very first takes. Once the studio session had finished, O'Donnell set to work on picking out the best bits from the session and sending it over to Salvatori in Chicago.

"I remember playing it to the guys at Bungie after it was all done. They loved it but I was like: 'Is this gonna work for Halo?' It was a new approach. But it was such a cool track, so we were like, 'Well, we've gotta figure out a place to use it!' And you know, the fans really loved it."

When you listen to the original Halo theme, it's difficult to find much to improve on. It's rare that a piece of game music manages to resonate with so many people on the same level as Koji Kondo's music from The Legend Of Zelda or Nobuo Uematsu's work in the Final Fantasy series. Adding guitar to a piece that's predominantly built around vocals, violins and cellos could have been a risky endeavour but it worked so well that it ended up shifting the sound of the Halo 2 soundtrack.

"When it comes to any of the guitar-based, hard-driving stuff, the Mjolnir Mix was the first of that. And once we saw that that could work, it shifted the direction of some of the other pieces," O'Donnell says. "I think by the time of the studio session we had already done the announcement trailer for Halo 2, which was back to the epic orchestra thing, and we decided to just keep combining those two approaches, blending them together." 

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

(Image credit: Micrsoft)

There was more guitar to come for Halo 2, even after Vai had recorded his session. Incubus, who were at the peak of their success having celebrated their first platinum release in 2000, wrote a  suite of music for the Halo 2 soundtrack, comprising four prog-rock songs that were known as The Odyssey. While three of the tracks only appeared on the Halo 2 soundtrack, the fourth, Follow, is played in the Arbiter mission where you chase the Heretic Leader in a Banshee. O'Donnell admits that trying to place Incubus' track in the game was "a bit of a puzzle. Could I take this music and make it adaptable so it fits into a level and accompanies gameplay?

"I got a few guys within the studio who pushed back and they were like, 'Marty, this doesn't sound like Halo. There's too much guitar.' They used the British term 'guitar wankery'. So, I was like, 'Well, OK, maybe, but it's fun, a little bit risky and it's a different colour for Halo 2'. So I ignored those people! I just went ahead and did it the way I thought was cool."

He carried on. Hoobastank, who have sold ten million albums worldwide, and Breaking Benjamin, who have three platinum records, also wrote music for the game. Hoobastank wrote a nu-rock track called Connected that featured as the second track on volume 1 of the Halo 2 soundtrack. It was recorded in a rather unconventional way: Rodgers immediately fell for the acoustics in the venue's bathroom.

Green Day, one of the biggest bands of the era, also contributed music to Halo 2, but it was deemed a step too far for a Halo game – even one whose music had already wandered so far off brief. Rodgers and the team wanted to feature music that conveyed what Halo was about, rather than choosing big bands just to help shift copies of the soundtrack. 

"Green Day had just come out with American Idiot, which was a brilliant, brilliant album, and they had written a whole piece for Halo 2," Rodgers says. "It made me feel bad because they had put so much into it but for some reason, Breaking Benjamin just seemed to really nail it with what they had come up with. It nailed the spirit of Halo 2 volume 1. It was just so right. I was happy that the Halo team said we need to go with what feels right artistically rather than just going with them because they were big stars. And it wasn't because what they did wasn't good – what they did was terrific – it just wasn't the right fit."

Halo 2

(Image credit: Bungie)

"I got a call from my label and they said Nile Rodgers wanted to contact me..."

O'Donnell and Salvatori wanted Halo players to experience the music and sounds of Halo as they intended, despite how frustrating that might be for some of its players. On the first five Halo titles, there is no option to adjust any of the in-game audio settings – in direct contravention of Microsoft's certification rules. Thankfully, Halo's success afforded O'Donnell a little more leeway. 

Benjamin Burley, founder and frontman of Breaking Benjamin, has been playing video games for as long as he can remember, ever since he first experienced the pixelated joys of a Commodore 64. Although Burley tells us he spends most of his time playing VR games now, some of his favourite video game franchises are Halo, Elder Scrolls and Call Of Duty. For Burley, working on one of his favourite video games was a dream come true. 

"I got a call from my label and they said Nile Rodgers wanted to contact me," he says. "I talked to him and he let me know what they were looking for so I did my best to facilitate that. I intentionally wrote that song just for Halo 2 and they really liked it."

Breaking Benjamin's track Blow Me Away has become synonymous with blowing the Covenant army into tiny pieces as you tear through room after room in the game's Gravemind level. One YouTube upload of the song currently stands at almost 30 million views. The success of the song even resulted in the band re-releasing it as a single years later. 

"At the time, it was really cool to see a song that wasn't really ever a single for us, we didn't put it on an album so we could promote it at the time, but it took its own leg and people just kinda made it into a single," Burley says. "I think that's really awesome. We can play the song today at a Breaking Benjamin concert and people will sing along to it and really enjoy it."

Rodgers wanted all the bands that featured in the game to have a genuine passion for, and understanding of, Halo. He wanted them to be inspired enough to write music that would connect with Halo fans all over the world and believes one of the reasons the Halo 2 soundtrack was so successful is that their songs were a musical reimagining of their own Halo experience. 

"By having other composers become part of the experience you also now have the vision of people who loved Halo: Combat Evolved and you got to have their interpretation of what the action should feel like," Rodgers says. "That was pretty exciting. So you had not only O'Donnell and Salvatori, but now people who were massive fans; people who were playing Halo for hours and hours and hours on tour buses." 

It's hard to shake the music of Halo 2. The music that we hear during our most formative years – usually anywhere from the age of ten to our early twenties – can stick with us for the rest of our lives. 

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

(Image credit: Microsoft)

As Halo 2 celebrates its 15th birthday, hearing the Mjolnir mix is enough to transport many players back to their formative experiences of Xbox Live. Others will recall the countless sleepless nights playing through the campaign in co-op mode with their best friend sitting beside them. Rodgers believes that no other game has managed to top the Halo 2 experience and that, together, he, Vai, O'Donnell and Salvatori were the dream team. 

"I would have to say that was my shining moment," Rodgers says. "That was my We Are Family or Le Freak moment in video games. Everything just happened to come together. Everyone was all on the same plane. I've never achieved that kind of success, or that kind of clarity, since." 

The Halo 2 soundtrack brings back plenty of other memories for Rodgers too. One of his favourites is the story that Vai told him about a father-son bonding experience during the midnight launch of Halo 2. Vai had gone to pick up the game with his son, a huge Halo fan, and described the experience to Rodgers as being the moment when his son finally thought his dad could pass as being cool. 

O'Donnell still struggles to come to terms with the impact the game and its music has had on its players. He recalls an occasion when he was approached by a fan who shared a story about how much the music in the game had impacted the lives of him and his best friend. "He had tears in his eyes," O'Donnell says. "And I'm like, 'What's going on?' He said, 'My friend died of cancer and one of your pieces was played at his funeral. That's what he wanted.' And I was like, wow. To realise that the game can have meaning and importance way beyond anything we intended, it's a real honour. It's almost too much for me to think about. To me, it's great to have a career in something where you can make something that has that kind of impact." 

This feature first appeared in issue #340 of Edge Magazine. For more great articles like this one, check out all of Edge's subscription offers at Magazines Direct.

Freelancer Writer

Mat Ombler is a freelance copywriter and journalist specialising in video game music. After spending five years of his life touring the UK and Europe in a metal band, he started to write stories about the intersection of games and music which have appeared in places such as The Guardian, Vice, GamesIndustry.Biz, and Edge. Mat will use any opportunity he’s got to spread the good word of video game music and has a regular column with NME where he dives into obscure video game soundtracks. He co-hosts a video game podcast called Load-In with Neck Deep’s guitarist, Matt West, where they invite bands on to chat about their favourite games and soundtracks. You can find it on Spotify.