Those of you who have an interest in composing video game music will be no stranger to the name Jason Graves. He´s worked on major releases such as; Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886, Tomb Raider, and Dead Space. And now he has one more title to add to that prestigious list...
To celebrate the release of new virtual reality game ´Lone Echo´ we caught up with Jason to talk about his approach to composing, and the challenges that composing for VR can present.
Hi Jason, how did you get into composing?
I was always drawn to music. My parents have a picture of me sitting at a piano when I was four or five, wearing these huge, olive green, 70’s headphones. I’m pretty sure the headphones weren’t actually plugged into anything. I guess I was going for the look!
So I majored in music for undergrad and graduate school and began working in Los Angeles before I was out of USC - I was recommended by the head of the program to work for a previous student. LA taught me to work fast and on tight deadlines, which proved very helpful once I was composing for games.
What is your favourite project that you’ve worked on?
Now that’s just an unfair and completely impossible to answer question! Okay, so I’ll cheat and name a “best of” string of titles. Tomb Raider, because of the amazing team and inspirational game they created. Dead Space 2, because of all the unique musical opportunities EA afforded me and how much I learned. And lastly The Order: 1886, for so many reasons – two weeks recording at Abbey Road, one of the most visually stunning games I’ve seen and a development team that is insanely talented and made me a part of their family.
Are you much of a gamer yourself?
I used to be! Nowadays my “gaming” time is spent watching/playing the projects I’m working on. It’s just like that meme that was circling around a few years ago - “Want to play games... too busy making games.”
What do you work on first when you’re composing a new piece of music?
Usually a combination of theme and instrumentation. My basic focus is on establishing a unique sonic palette that musically enhances the gameplay. I normally start on piano, experimenting with different chords and melodies. Once I have something worth exploring I’ll begin sound mining, looking for interesting or unique textures.
A big part of this is determining what sounds NOT to use, and I’ll often find myself painted into a corner with a fairly sparse set of instruments to choose from, which means I’ve arrived exactly where I want to be.
Could you run through the fundamental hardware within your set-up?
Microphones. Lots of microphones! That’s where my process usually starts. Anything and everything I can perform and record myself is the first thing that goes into the music. Being a drummer and guitarist makes me fairly dangerous on lots of instruments. I can play a mean bucket of dirt and my ‘pencils on a viola’ chops are improving by the day.
I’ve got stations around the studio with different groups of mics for different things, all wired into preamps and ready to make music. They run through various outboard compressors (Distressors, API, BAE) into a 64 channel MADI-powered RME system. Also, another 8 digital RME channels for my four Bricasti units, which I am able to recall and control like a plug-in inside Cubase.
I have four computers networked via Vienna Ensemble Pro, lots of RAM and solid-state drives. There are three different sets of speakers and two pairs of headphones for critical listening tests, all controlled through the amazing Crane Song Avocet.
What are your go-to virtual instruments when composing and why those particular ones?
Heavyocity is always on my tracks in one way or another. I really think they are the best in the world at what they do and everything they release is that rare combo of instantly usable and infinitely tweakable. I’ve owned everything they’ve made since their first product, Evolve.
U-he is another incredible developer. Each of their synths focus on a completely different sound and interface. Diva and Zebra are put to use quite a bit, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Bowdler and his fantastically amazing sounds as The Unfinished. If I’m ever using u-he, Omnisphere or NI synths, his presets are the first, and usually only, ones that I count on. I can’t recommend him enough. Every time I get another batch of presets from him it’s like I own a new synth.
And, of course, Kontakt is probably 85% or more of every session I have. I’ve been sampling my own orchestral instruments for more than ten years and use Kontakt exclusively. I also really love some of the more unique releases from NI, like Una Corda and Reaktor, which both give you plenty of fresh places to start and the ability to make the sounds completely your own.
Congratulations on your recent soundtrack project for the virtual reality game LONE ECHO. Can you explain this game to those of our readers who aren’t familiar with it?
Thanks! It was a real privilege to reunite with Ready At Dawn since working on The Order: 1886 together. Lone Echo takes place in the future on a mining facility near the rings of Saturn. You play Jack, an android tasked with assisting Captain Olivia Rhodes as the sole human being. The world is incredibly immersive, even by VR standards, and the story will draw you in from the first chapter.
For Lone Echo, I crafted a score based around the amazing vocalist Malukah, acting as a musical surrogate to Olivia. Everything else is analog synth-based. This felt like an appropriate musical palette choice, given that Olivia’s completely surrounded by technology and isolated from human contact.
Do you approach scoring for VR games differently to scoring for conventional video games and if so, how do your methods differ?
The composition process isn’t so different. It’s the delivery and implementation of the music that can change drastically from project to project, depending on how deep into the rabbit hole the developer wants to get with the VR aspect of the music.
That can mean anything as simple as sending long, stereo files of tracks to bypassing all reverb effects and delivering dry, mono stems that will be placed in the virtual world and effected from there.
The soundtrack for LONE ECHO incorporates the synthesized heartbeat of the A.I. android that you play as the main character, where did that idea come from?
That was a brilliant idea Ready At Dawn came up with. I wasn’t even aware that the heartbeat was going to be a thing. They literally called up and said, “Hey, we’ve got this sound we’re using for Jack’s heartbeat. Would you be interested in trying something interesting with it? No biggie if it’s completely useless.”
I used the heartbeat exactly as they sent it, aside from a little bit of delay to make it fit into the musical space a bit. It became, please pardon the terrible pun, the HEARTBEAT of the score and I used it throughout all the more quiet, intimate places.
Finally, what advice would you give anyone wanting to get into composing music for Video Games?
I suggest trying to compose music every day. Give yourself a deadline of some sort and see what you can get accomplished. Listen to as much music as you can and learn from it! We’re all standing on the shoulders of musical giants, past and present, so it makes sense to learn from their mixes, orchestration, and techniques. And keep yourself up to date on technology: mixing, recording, arranging - you could literally spend a full-time career just learning all this stuff. I’ve been chasing that carrot for 20 years now. Better get started!