We talk to animation and video games composer Gareth Coker

We talk to animation and video games composer Gareth Coker

BAFTA nominee Gareth Coker is a British composer and producer working out of Los Angeles. He is most famously known for his melodically driven scores, eccentric soundscapes, and attention to detail and execution in how music emotionally grips the gamer as they are playing.

Gareth's scores have won multiple awards, including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Award for Outstanding Music Composition, the SXSW Award for Excellence in Musical Score, multiple Game Audio Network Guild awards. Along with this he has also received nominations from BAFTA, GDC, and IFMCA, amongst others.

Some of his most recent work includes Immortals: Fenyx Rising (2020), Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020), Darksiders Genesis (2019), to name a few. Gareth has also written multiple soundtrack albums for various Minecraft expansions (2016-2019), and contributed to Insomniac Games' VR title The Unspoken (2017), and upcoming projects include HALO: Infinite (2021), ARK II and ARK: The Animated Series (2022).

We recently caught up with Gareth find out what his top VST plug-ins and instruments are, how the pandemic has affected his work, his studio set-up and more... 

Hi Gareth, could you start off by telling us about your musical background and how you got into composition? 

I got into composition not really deliberately, but through playing in a jazz band in school. That led to having to learn to improvise. Improvisation is certainly related to composition, and I enjoyed it and from improvisation I started to develop my own tunes. One of my music teachers heard what I was doing in the practice room and thought I should have a go at applying to music school.

I applied to the Royal Academy of Music and to my great surprise, despite having no experience writing for orchestra and very little experience composing in general, they picked me and thus I started taking composition seriously! I started my career properly in 2009 doing all kinds of various jobs, student films, trailer, mods for games, and then gradually got the opportunity to work on Ori because the director found my profile on a site called ModDB (a site where game developers make mods for games). And I guess here we are in 2021 several games later!

"Many of the recording orchestras have been able to figure out how to record orchestra socially distanced, so we can continue to bring them on to be a part of our works."

This past year has obviously been a tricky one for many people, yet it’s also meant more people have started to create music during lockdown. How has your work been affected, if at all?

I have to be honest and say that my job hasn’t really been affected at least in terms of the actual mechanics of it. The one thing that I miss is being able to travel and see the world. One of my main sources of inspiration is getting out there and experiencing new things, new places, new activities, and obviously that has been made a lot more difficult due to the pandemic. So it’s helped me find new sources of inspiration, I’ve been reading a lot more than I used to, I got a LOT better at cooking (which I think has many overlaps with composing!).

I find it a lot easier to write when I have a lot of other things to fall back on if I’m not really feeling like composing, so there was a small adjustment period when the lockdown started in terms of getting ‘in the zone’ to write music.

In terms of game work though, I’d say almost nothing changed other than shifting schedules due to many companies having to fully adapt from working in the office to working from home.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to work during the pandemic and feel immensely for the musicians whose work has been decimated by it and wish they would be given more support. I am glad that many of the recording orchestras have been able to figure out (for example) how to record orchestra socially distanced, so we can continue to bring them on to be a part of our works. Recording music remotely isn’t particularly new to me, but I much prefer being in the studio and feeling that chemistry with the musicians. Hopefully there’s a chance it can happen before the end of the year.

What projects have you been working on recently?

Most recently, I finished the score for Immortals Fenyx Rising which was a fairly gargantuan endeavor into Greek Mythology. I’m just currently finishing the DLC for that game which is set in China and has been a fun flavour change. I’ve also just started diving into more music in the ARK universe which now consists of DLC for ARK 1, the game’s sequel ARK 2, and the TV series. It’s a massive playground for a composer and I’m grateful they keep bringing me back!

 

"One thing that is very important to me is being able to play the games that I work on. It allows me to understand the feel and flow of the game and exactly what the player is experiencing."

We love the incredible soundtrack you composed for Ori and the Will of the Wisps released last year, it’s magical! Could you explain to us a bit about the writing process for that?

Thank you! Truthfully, a lot of the groundwork had been done for the score in the game’s prequel, Ori and the Blind Forest. My goal was to take the original game’s DNA and expand on it appropriately for the second game. A couple of things that greatly aided that were the fact that we had far more characters in the game which allowed for development of new themes, and also the game takes place in an entirely new geographical region which allowed me to sonically explore even more than I had done on the original game. 

One thing that is very important to me is being able to play the games that I work on. It allows me to understand the feel and flow of the game and exactly what the player is experiencing. Something different happens with the brain when a controller is in your hands controlling the character versus just watching someone else play through it. It creates connections for me that allow me to write what I think is better music for the game.

The first music I did for the project was for the E3 2017 trailer. After that the process was a gradual ramping up process, finding themes and colours for the game, and then most of 2019 was spent fully on the writing process. In December 2019 we went to Air Lyndhurst studios in London and recorded for 4 days with orchestra and choir, with another pick-up session in January. I’ve always wanted to record at AIR and Ori was also the right score to record there. All in all, the soundtrack was 3+ hours of music and between that and the original game, I feel like Ori’s got quite the collection of music!

 

How much of the soundtrack is real orchestral recordings and how much is virtual instruments? Following on from this, which virtual instruments did you choose to use over the orchestra, and why?

If memory serves me correctly, almost all the orchestral samples were replaced, and only on a few action cues we might have layered in some samples with the orchestra. Sometimes the samples just have a character that you don’t want to lose (or that the client has gotten used to). Vocals and choir were all live too. Having a choir in particular was a first for me, and it’s a massive upgrade from samples. You think choir samples are good and then you hear the real thing and there is just no comparison.

The part where no orchestral instruments are used is tonal percussion and the plucked instruments. They are constantly providing some kind of pulse in the game and the way they are written is extremely ‘sequenced’, so recording them live wouldn’t really add much to it, especially as in many cases they are quite often heavily affected to create interesting pulsing sonic textures.

One of the elements of the DNA of Ori’s music is the constant subtle movement in the music, because Ori is a game… about movement! A lot of time is spent on this aspect of the soundtrack even though it isn’t always heard up front in the mix, it’s always there bubbling away in the background. 

Composer Gareth Coker in the studio

What does your studio setup look like? Any favourite bits of hardware you use?

My setup is fairly simple in terms of how it looks but there’s a pretty beastly PC powering it all. I only use one computer, I don’t run a massive template as I find it creatively limiting. Everyone is different! I build my templates per project as I go. I use one big 43” monitor running at 4K without scaling which has been a revelation for me personally. I use a small ASUS Zenscreen for monitoring video.

My favourite hardware is the ROLI Seaboard Rise 49, it just allows me to do things I didn’t think were possible with a keyboard and really can make you think about making music in a different way. It also works wonders with MPE patches which obviously is what it was primarily designed for!

And how about software? What VSTs and sample libraries do you use the most and why do you favour those?

I mostly use libraries from Spitfire Audio, Orchestral Tools and ProjectSAM, but every developer has their own strengths and sometimes the right ‘sound’ for a project might not be from my workhouse libraries. I still have some old favourites such as 8Dio Adagio Strings which I still feel has a certain sound/feel that is absolutely right in some situations. Also, ProjectSAM Symphobia’s core non-effects sounds are still top notch and I find myself using them for sketches frequently.

Other favourites are Omnisphere which is in every project. I’ve started making my own sample libraries in Omnisphere. It really is an eye-opener when you put your own sounds in there and start fiddling around with granular synthesis. I’m a big fan of u-he’s stuff too.

A left-field developer whose work I really love is Cinematique Instruments, really interesting and highly characterful libraries. And lastly I can’t not mention the amazing Slate & Ash. They built a custom library for me on Ori and the Will of the Wisps, but their releases AURAS and CYCLES are absolutely incredible.

I also love Wavelet Audio Ashen Scoring Cello - relatively new to the scene, but this cello release is extremely innovative and has a fabulous sound.

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Zero-G Ethera Gold 2.5 - I have used it since version 1, but with each update it gets progressively better.
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Gothic Instruments Dronar Master Edition - I'm a big fan of this also since it's early release, but this 'Master Edition' packages it up nicely
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Best Service Dark ERA - Love all of Eduardo Tarilonte's libraries, but this is probably his best, closely followed by Forest Kingdom 2.

We can’t wait to hear more of your work in the future! Have you got any exciting projects lined up?

Halo Infinite I would say is pretty exciting! I have something else that is very far out but I absolutely can’t talk about it yet or I will get in big trouble.

Finally, as a video game composer, do you play yourself, and can you tell us some of your favourite video game soundtracks?!

Yes, absolutely, I actually believe that playing the game is imperative to being successful at this job. Favourite game soundtracks include but not limited to and in no particular order: The Bioshock series, Hellblade, Dead Space, Remember Me, Silent Hill 3, Assassin’s Creed 2, Shadow of the Colossus, Deus Ex Human Revolution.

Thank you for having me!

Thank YOU Gareth!

Keep up to date with Gareth's work by following him on Twitter (@GarethCoker)