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Biography: Meet Bungie’s Martin O’Donnell

Martin O'Donnell

When you hear it, you know where it comes from. I’m talking about some of the greatest soundtracks you’ll hear in video game history that come from an equally great series — Halo. The man behind the music has an enormous amount of experience, from television jingles to the games you play today. Meet Bungie’s Martin O’Donnell in Arcade Sushi’s newest entry in our Biography series.

Martin O’Donnell was born on May 1, 1955. Growing up, his life consisted of music from piano lessons to wanting to start a rock band in junior high. You’ll find that later on it’s no surprise he’s the man he is today with the influence he got from his parents. His father worked on making films while his mother taught piano. This led him to study classical music and composition at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. In the early 1980s, he received his Master’s degree in music composition with honors from the University of South California.

Martin and Michael

Expectations drove O’Donnell out to Chicago for a teaching job, but plans didn’t work out for him. Instead, he went off to work for film and television. During this time, a colleague of his got in touch with him and asked him to write music for his film. Since he didn’t have a recording studio of his own, O’Donnell reached out to his friend Michael Salvatori who did. To compensate for using Salvatori’s studio, he offered to share the profits with him. This was the start of a constant partnership between the two of them.

Both Salvatori and O’Donnell quit their days jobs soon after. They made the decision to start up their own company called Total Audio. O’Donnell worked on jingles for commercials such as Mr. Clean and Flintstones Vitamins. He worked on commercials for both TV and radio for 15 years before wanting to move on. The move that followed was what we know him by today — soundtracks for the video game industry.

Riven Soundtrack

What really started it all for O’Donnell was a visit from his friend’s son. His friend, Dick Staub, has asked if his son Josh would be able to see the studio. O’Donnell learned from the visit that Josh’s friends in Washington were working on a game called Myst. As soon as he heard the theme music for the title, he was blown away by how legitimate it sounded. He decided to pursue a relationship with the developers and landed a job as their sound designer for Myst’s sequel, Riven, four years later.

When the developers for Riven weren’t working on it, they were playing other titles. One of those titles was Marathon, which was made by Bungie Studios, a company based back in Chicago. When the work was finished for Riven, O’Donnell went back to Chicago and got in touch with Bungie in order to land a job there. Not surprisingly, his offer was accepted, and Total Audio began working on music for Myth: The Fallen Lords.

O'Donnell in Bungie

After the production of Myth II, Bungie wanted to continue business with O’Donnell for other projects like Oni. In 1999, contracts were re-negotiated which resulted in him joining the Bungie team permanently. The atmosphere was positive initially, but just 10 days later, Microsoft bought out the company. Luckily, O’Donnell was part of the group that was able to stay. While he continued work with Bungie, his partner Salvatori kept up with the business end of Total Audio.

His next big project was on the first of the series we know him through today. For Halo: Combat Evolved, he wanted the music to sound “big”, “exciting” and “unusual,” with an old school feeling to it. He actually came up with the Gregorian chant melody in his car! It was his decision to make it so it could be lengthened or cut short at any time since he was unsure how long the presentation would be at E3 2000 when the game was revealed. The music that became the signature piece was recorded and sent off for review all in the same night.

Martin O'Donnell Pomp and Circumstance

From then on, it was all uphill for Martin O’Donnell. His work continued on through the Halo series and into the upcoming Bungie title, Destiny. His music has won many awards and is appreciated by every type of gamer out there. He continues to help out at Total Audio as the co-owner and president, thus making him a very successful and busy icon in the world of gaming. At Arcade Sushi, we’re anticipating the release of his latest work in Destiny, and we’re positive it’ll be something to remember!

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