Category Archives: Interview

Talking with Composer Jason Graves about ‘The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes’

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Jason Graves about his work on The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes, the third game in The Dark Pictures anthology (the previous entries are Little Hope and Man of Medan). His works include (but are far from limited to):  Dead SpaceAlpha ProtocolTomb RaiderThe Order: 1886Until DawnEvolveDungeon Siege and Far Cry Primal.

The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes was released in October 2021 and sees five characters having to make their way out of a subterranean Akkadian temple crawling with vampiric entities.

Enjoy our conversation about House of Ashes below!

As you composed the other games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, how does House of Ashes compare to its predecessors? What served as your inspiration as you created the music for House of Ashes? 

Each game in The Dark Pictures Anthology has its own stand-alone story and characters. House of Ashes takes place in a few different time periods in Iraq. I’m a big fan of the game and its music being as closely linked as possible, so the score for House of Ashes is very “desert-y,” for lack of a better word. I tried to keep things as simple as possible and strip everything back in terms of instrumentation for the different time periods. So things would feel a lot more pure and classic in the Mesopotamian time period and more filled out and complicated for the current 1990s.

I’m really curious about the Akkadian Temple the characters find themselves in. How did you create music to reflect the atmosphere of the temple ruins? How did you come up with the sound for that environment, in other words?

That was actually the base for the entire score – it’s where everything started and how I tied the entire score together. I literally began with the Prologue – the very first scene in the game. I had an idea to use these bending string sounds, like classical strings but moving around a lot more. I own a bunch of string instruments – violins, viola, a cello and a contrabass. So I tried some experiments recording myself playing all the string instruments multiple times, as if I were moving from seat to seat in a classical string section. Only I was playing every part so many different times it would take 20-25 takes of multiple “me’s” to complete a short phrase on all the instruments.

How much access did you have to early builds of the game as you created the music? I know other video game composers I’ve talked to have mentioned playing through early builds of the game and I was wondering if you did anything similar. Were you given any specific directions for what the game’s music needed to sound like?

I worked very closely with Supermassive Games Audio Director Barney Pratt throughout the entire process. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years now. There’s a lot of conversation that happens before anything is actually written and Barney shares everything that Supermassive works on, whether it’s just prototype animation, scripts, storyboards or initial ideas.

I don’t technically play through the game for The Dark Pictures – honestly it’s more because of all the different story and character branches that these games have. It would be a full time job just playing through them! I prefer to have gameplay captures that I loop in the background as I compose. It gives me the best of both worlds – I can hear how the music is working against a specific scene as I compose and also turn the gameplay off if I want to be more thematically focused and concentrate on just the music. 

What kinds of instruments are included in the mix for House of Ashes? Any notable or unusual instruments? Did the pandemic affect the recording process at all?

Most of the score is live and I performed all the instruments myself. There’s a lot of string-based writing in this score that simply couldn’t have been properly reproduced with MIDI. Barney and I floated options of recording professional musicians but honestly, a large part of this score was based around experiments I made while recording myself (x24) and trying different things.

The score definitely would have had a completely different sound if I were to approach “just another live string recording.” Part of that was a result of the pandemic – there simply weren’t musicians or recording studios available at the time. But I would like to think we would have opted for the same option we chose, regardless of the pandemic, just because it felt like that was the direction the score needed to go in.

How much time did you have to score the game? How did composing for House of Ashes compare to other projects you’ve worked on?

It was actually a fairly compressed schedule, for video games, at least. If memory serves, there were about 2 months to compose the entire score. But it was definitely one of the more challenging scores I’ve worked on, mostly because it was essentially three different scores in one, all broken up evenly into thirds.

As soon as I had finished the Prologue, which was the more ancient, Mesopotamia-era version, all with its own very specific instruments and sounds, it was time to write the music for the 1990’s-era Iraq, which was a completely different set of instruments and sounds. And as soon as that was completed, it was another completely different direction for the music (story/plot spoilers aside). The final third of the score needed to sound different and unique yet somehow related to the music that preceded it.

Usually I can “hit my stride” about halfway through the production of a score, when the unique combination of sounds and textures have solidified and I find my musical footing. Everything comes much easier then – all the creative hard work has been completed! But House of Ashes was a bit of a different beast. As soon as I started getting comfortable it was time to change everything up and rewrite the script. But, honestly, I think that kind of push is the very reason the score sounds the way it does. 

I wanted to give a big thank you to Jason Graves for taking the time to speak with me about The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes. I hope you enjoyed the interview!

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Composer Interviews

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Talking with Jeff Cardoni about Heels

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Jeff Cardoni about his work on the first season of Heels. Cardoni’s previous work includes (but is not limited to): CSI: Miami, Silicon Valley (TV series), The Defenders, The League, and Wilfred.

Please note this interview took place before Heels was officially renewed for a second season. I hope you enjoy our discussion about the show!

How did you get started as a composer in general?

Basically, same as everyone else. My parents forced me to play piano at a very young age. I didn’t know that I wanted to do it at that point. I played piano from six till I think 14. And then I switched instruments. But that’s how it all started.

So with Heels, how did you get connected to that show? And what did you think of its premise being about wrestling?

I heard from a mutual acquaintance and they said, “Are you trying to do Heels? Are you in the mix on that?” I’ve been saying forever that I wanted to do a sports drama. That’s my dream. That’s a project I’ve been looking for forever. So we had a mutual friend, the music supervisor. I texted the music supervisor and asked them about it, which got me a script and a chance to do a demo for it. So I indirectly searched it out.

So they liked the demo?

Yeah, I got lucky. I just read the script and wrote a piece of what I thought it would sound like in my head without seeing any video. But the piece I wrote got me the gig. And then it’s in the show. It’s the end of the last episode. So it made it through the whole process, which never ever happens. It’s never happened to me.

Did you know anything about professional wrestling before working on Heels?

Not enough to be an expert on it. You know, I knew a little bit. My brother used to be really into it when I was a kid and you know, with WrestleMania and all that stuff, but I didn’t watch it all the time or anything. No. So I kind of learned a lot in doing [the show].

For the show. Were you given any directions for how the show would sound? Did they have a specific sound in mind for Heels?

No, zero, it was the exact opposite. I wrote the demo, which ironically was called “Crystal Belongs in the Ring”, and I didn’t know that Crystal actually gets in the ring at the end of the last episode. So it turned out to be very fitting. That’s kind of what I in my head thought drama about wrestling would sound like because it’s in the south. And I just felt like guitar and piano and acoustic sounds are kind of Americana and, you know, relatable to everyone. So I thought it should be pretty grounded. I also did a solo album that came out right around this time. That was string quintet and electric guitar. I just wrote stuff that I wanted to do. It turns out that kind of became the sound of the show, guitar strings, piano, nothing, nothing very synthetic or electronic. I just thought it should be kind of, you know, as divided as the world is now with political things. And I think that sports is one of the things that can unite people, no matter what they believe. So I thought that this sound should be kind of relatable to everyone.

It definitely took me by surprise. Knowing it was about wrestling. I was I always think of more hard rock sounds for wrestling. So I heard this and I was like, oh, and then I click through a few more tracks. I’m like, Oh, this is different. And why also keep forgetting this is about a smaller promotion. And not necessarily the big, glitzy glammy the ones you see on TV

Right. I always felt like the music would be more about the family drama. That’s kind of what the score plays with. Moreover, we don’t really score any the wrestling until I think the fifth episode. I always felt that all the hard rock and all that big stuff will be covered in a song anyway, so I didn’t think the score needed to [do that]. And plus, I feel like it would just make it very one dimensional because, some people think of wrestling and you think of aggression, and I just felt like that’s already there. You don’t need to do that with music. So it’s trying to add another sound with a little more depth to it.

I’ll admit, that didn’t occur to me until partway through listening. I thought, “Oh, I’m thinking of the wrestling not the music in the wrestling show.”

Right. And there are some episodes we didn’t even see the ring. That’s what honestly was attractive to me more than the wrestling itself. It didn’t really matter what the sport was, you know, it could have been about hockey, it could have been about football. It doesn’t matter if you like football because you care about the characters. And I felt like that’s what this show had. A lot of really good characters.

And that’s what I mean, I guess that would be an easy trap to fall into is if you made it too much about the wrestling.

Right? I mean, honestly, I just got lucky because we had time. And I just kind of wrote what I thought in my head, watching the show about wrestling, and it just happened to work out. I mean, it could have gone horribly wrong. They could have gone the other way. And it could have been all about the aggression, in which case, I’d be looking for a job. But no, it worked. It felt very organic. It felt like a lot of times when you come on a project, late, there’s already this preconceived idea of what they want. They’ve been temping the music and trying things. So we had the benefit on this where I got to just write things. To my surprise, when I finally started seeing cuts to the picture, my music was in it and it was working. So that was just lucky. It’s one of those happy occurrences that doesn’t happen all the time.

So you were mentioning about “Crystal Belongs in the Ring.” I was reading in the the email they sent me for this interview, they said that that became like the base of the score itself.

Yeah, there’s just a couple of little motifs in that piece that pretty much became almost the whole score of the whole show. And every time there’d be some scenes with Crystal, I would just take the little piano theme and use that as kind of her theme. It really just set up this big match at the end, where she has to jump in the ring and actually wrestle. And it was just a really happy coincidence. You know, even when I named the cue “Crystal Belongs in the Ring.” I just based that from reading the first script when she had nothing to do with it. She was just a valet, and I didn’t know her arc was going to be so big and, and nobody told me that Crystal’s going in there. You know, it just kind of happened.

So just a really good happy accident.

Absolutely. You got it, you got to enjoy them when they happen.

Besides Crystal, are there any other character or idea-specific themes in the soundtrack that focus on specific people?

Yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s a theme for the family that’s in a lot of the cues. There’s not one specifically for Ace or Jack because they also have their own theme for the wrestling as well. So I kind of just tried to play a lot of the family drama with a more generic kind of theme for the family itself. Then there was a little tune for when they’re talking about their dad. A couple of those moments were for Ace, he saw his dad pass away in front of his eyes. So it’s haunted him for life.

Yeah. Um, I have an idea of what the answer will be but I need to ask anyway, did any music from real life professional wrestling companies influenced the sound at all?

No, not on my end.

I was just curious because I know that wrestlers have many themes and I didn’t know if they influenced that at all.

Well, I did not write the themes for when they walked in the ring. I know Ace’s song was written by the show-runner Michael Malleus. And I think Jack’s song was co written by the Director Pete Siegel’s son, Sean Siegel. So they probably emulated something or they’re influenced by something, but I’m sure the hard rock songs informed what they did there.

Okay. For some reason I thought all that would have been done by you too.

It depends. Sometimes the songs don’t fall on my plate. I did the theme song for the main title, but there were also a lot of musicians in the production. There were a lot of opportunities where they got to showcase some of their stuff. And Alexander came out with a new album as well. So I think he had some music in there, too. And then I did, I did do a lot of Stacie songs. A lot of the acoustic guitar songs that are on the soundtrack, I produced them for her.

About how long did it take to score each episode? Like how long was that process?

Well, this was all just long, not because it took long, but because the production got shut down, because Stephen [Amell] got injured. Last Christmas, I think they shut down for a month, he hurt his back because they were doing all the stunts for real. Between that and COVID, I think I started working on it in September, and I don’t think I got the first show until January or right before Christmas. So we had the luxury of time. It wasn’t a normal TV show where you look at the episode and you have a week and then you have to turn it around. It was more organic, which was nice. It’s kind of nice to have some time to really think about stuff. So as far as how long it took, I mean, it took an abnormally long amount of time, but not because w were holding it up just because that’s how it played out.

Since you had the time was it like was it scored all at once? Or was it still episode by episode?

It was episode by episode, but they were never finished at once. So I’d send some music for one, and then I started working on two. But really none of them were finished until the very end. By then it felt like we were making an eight hour movie. And something that I did in a later episode might have made it into an earlier episode, or we just had the time to experiment, and to try things. I dealt with the editors, and we’d be talking about episode and they’d say, we got a scene, we’re doing this, let me send you that. And I would do something and sometimes it will work. Sometimes it wouldn’t.

But we had a chance to try a lot of things before the show-runners and director and everyone got their hands on it. I can’t remember a show with fewer notes or changes than this. I mean, there were episodes, we’d get like one or two notes, and they were little small things. But there were very few “that’s not working for me. Let’s try something else there.” And I think that’s only because of having the time to do things, because I think when you have the time, then I’m looking at this scene and I’m trying to do something that that goes along with this scene, very little of the music had anything to do with picture cuts or anything like that or on on screen action. It was mostly more about what they’re feeling inside that time.

It sounds like it was like a relatively easy process because I’ve talked to several composers without having a ton of notes or otherwise constraints. And I haven’t heard of a show like this before where there wasn’t really any expectation laid down.

It was a dream, honestly. I mean, it really takes filmmakers that want you to bring something to the table. They’re not so precious, they’re open to being surprised, they’re open to see what you bring. Because there’s nothing worse than if you’re a composer for a show or a movie, and it’s got a bunch of other great scores temped in there and they say, “This is what we like”, then you’re already boxed in, you can’t really do anything. So I much prefer the other way where you can do anything. And sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you don’t. But at least when you finally get it, you got there from taking the journey together with the people, from being creative together instead of trying to do your version of what they liked before.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack that you liked the best.

I have a good one. There is a cue at the end of the third episode, it was called “Buckle In”, I think, and it’s just this long montage. It’s three and a half minutes long. It’s just a single guitar piece, but it really worked. Because they put it at the right spot. And it just felt like it kind of helped the emotion without being boring. I’m so sensitive, especially with music that’s emotional to not be too melodramatic. It’s definitely playing to the emotions, but I never felt like it was sappy or over the top or cheesy. So I felt like that was a pretty good indication of simplicity works the best. There’s mistakes all over the place. But I think the mistakes kind of added to the charm of it. And so that was a happy accident. And then the theme song just meant a lot to me, because that was a really fun adventure, because it wasn’t supposed to be us in the beginning. I wasn’t supposed to do it. And it’s cool how it came around.

So how did it happen that you did end up doing it?

Well, I think as they were getting into the show, the network wanted to have a big artist do the theme song, like a known song or something. So they were having a lot of artists submit things for it. But as it was going on, every time I see a cut, there would just be a big black thing. That’s a theme to come in the mixer. So I was like, “damn, I want it, I think it should be part of the score, because I think it would really help tie the show together.” So I wrote something, and I just started putting it in there. And they kept getting it back with my thing in there. And eventually, I don’t think they were necessarily finding what they wanted from a song. So then eventually, someone said, “What’s this that’s in there?” And it was mine. But they wanted a singer. They wanted vocals on it. So then music supervisor John Leahy reached out and he said, “Would you consider collaborating?” Absolutely. I was like, “Hell yeah, Sign me up.”

And so he hooked me up with Ben, and we kind of did it in a few days. Yeah, I mean, when I first heard his final vocal, I was just like, goosebumps everywhere, because he brought something I wasn’t expecting. And he was awesome. You know, he just really went deep and brought his own personality to it. That’s the great thing about collaborating is when you you think you know what it should be until someone else brings their point of view and just takes it somewhere way better. That’s why you have to keep an open mind and not be closed off from those accidents, and Ben surprised the hell out of me. Not, that it wasn’t gonna be great, but he just took like, the verse, what I thought was the verse turned out to be the chorus and the bridge, and he just, it was just awesome.

One last question. Were there any moments that were harder to score than others?

Man, I hate to say this, but no. Honestly, I can’t think of any. I mean, there were a couple scenes where I’m not a singer, but I put my vocals on some of the cues. There’s a cue called “Fireflies” where there’s vocals on it. And I was just doing that when I was messing around when I was doing my original batch of music for the picture and even that made it in the show and I was like, I can’t believe they’re gonna put my voice out there. You know, there’s tons of effects and it’s pretty ethereal. So even that work, you feel like, “let’s get a better singer” but it kind of it just felt like that. I brought me to the table on this, you know if you might hate it, but I felt like it was the best. The best version of what I would do naturally to anything I’ve gotten to work on. Yeah, you know, so for that it feels super. I’m super proud of it. And it feels pure. You know, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but it wasn’t me trying to be someone else.

It really does sound like the perfect storm of stuff that came together.

Yeah, it really was. And I didn’t meet these people in person. You know, it was all zooms until the very end until the premiere. I hadn’t met Michael Waldron. We talked on the phone and stuff, but I never met him in person. So this is surreal.

Is the show coming back for season two?

We don’t know yet. But it doesn’t get Netflix level viewers, you know, and this show, honestly, this show got the best Rotten Tomatoes of anything I’ve ever worked on. It’s like 99%. And I feel like if somehow you can get it in front of a bigger audience, it’s going to blow up. So I hope it gets a chance to do another season. But I don’t know. They haven’t canceled it. But I don’t know.

I mean, I mean, I can only assume if it does come back. I mean, I assume you’ll be back for anything that comes up with it.

If it’s up to me, absolutely. I hope so as well. I just hope we find out you know, because it’s like, I feel like we did it, we put it we left it all in the ring, you know, and everyone did like this didn’t feel like another show. This felt like an art project that everyone was doing. It just loved it so much, you know, and we had the time and it just felt like everything was a creative everything you could you can hope for. And I feel like it’d be a real shame if it didn’t get exposed to more people and get another shot. So I mean, I know there’s economics involved. And that’s, that’s above my paygrade. But we’ll see what happens.

Thank you so much to Jeff Cardoni for taking the time to speak with me about Heels. Have a great day everyone!

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Composer Interviews

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Talking with Composer Shaun Chasin about ‘Way of the Turtle’

Late last year I was presented with the opportunity to speak with composer Shaun Chasin about his work on the expansion of the game Way of the Turtle, a charming platformer game that instantly stole my heart the moment I saw some of the gameplay. Shaun has written music for dozens of video games, as well as film and television works. Shaun studied at Berklee College of Music, where he majored in Film Scoring with a minor in Video Game Music. Upon graduating Berklee, he attended the University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program.

At the time of the interview, the music of the expansion was about to be released and we talked about his work on both the original game and the expansion.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

  • How did you originally get involved with Way of the Turtle and what kind of game would you describe it as?

I worked on a horror game in 2015 called Hector, that was with a super-small team with only five of us. The artist on Hector ended up working for Illusion Labs and he became the main artist for Way of the Turtle. So when it came time for them to talk about music he said “I have a guy!” and they brought me on.

  • Was there any gameplay for you to look at? Or did you compose solely based off still images?

There was pretty quickly gameplay to look at. I was playing a lot of [game] builds along the way. They made a PC build that I could play with and run around and see how things are working. This is because a lot of the time you really don’t know how long it will take to clear a level or area, so if you’re designing a loop it’s hard to know if it’s going to get really annoying. You have to think about “What if the players get stuck, is [the music] going to get annoying?” That’s why you have to get a feel for how long things will take. I like to go through as fast as possible and as slow as possible, to make sure it’s working either way.

The same thing happens with [musical] stingers in-game. Occasionally the gameplay will be interrupted for a scene, for example when you get a turtle shell upgrade, the camera pulls back and torches light up. And I wanted to have music timed to the torches lighting up and the camera movement. The only way to work that out and implement it correctly is to play through the game.

  • Did the game being a platform game affect have any influence on the music? As opposed to the music in an open-world game?

I like to think of it as having the qualities of both, it’s like a pseudo-3D game, so you have a lot opening up with the camera turning as you go down a ramp. There’s also some non-linear aspects like at the gopher hub where you can purchase things and talk to the gopher. But there is some of that [platforming aspect] in the game’s music.

For example, the “low health layer” is really inspired by older game music. It’s not necessarily inspired by platforming games, but more like the N64 version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [In that game] there’s a little *ding* that happens that I always found anxiety-inducing as a kid but in a really effective way. So, when you’re low-health in Way of the Turtle you get a similar *ding* sound that comes into the music but also works in rhythm and in time with the music. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have my mindset shifted towards older games.

  • You said in the press release that creating the music for Way of the Turtle was uniquely challenging, how so?

It was that unique combination. I’m used to writing for orchestra, that’s my bread and butter with most projects that I do. However, the fact that [the game] needed something extra, a straight traditional orchestral score would not have worked, is why I needed those extra instruments, like the kalimbas and other instruments like that. As soon as I started tinkering with a lot of smaller sounds, little things that made the orchestra feel quirky. This helped it become its own sound.

Once I got that sound together, the rest of the score wasn’t that challenging and I was able to exist in that musical world. It was the first couple things that had a lot of back and forth and I didn’t think I was going to get it. Eventually though, we got into a sound where I was “okay, this is what the game sounds like.” From then on we were able to blast off in a certain direction.

  • Were you getting a lot of direction throughout the process?

There was a lot of direction at the beginning [of the process], with a ton of feedback and revisions. Once we got locked into a sound, most everything got in on version 1, which is unusual for a project. I’m working on a show now where we’re on version 21, for example. And some of that would be from: “This is great, but we changed the edit so now it needs to be updated.” It’s really unusual to see a version 1 in a project, but it happens. I think it’s because we had such a back and forth at the beginning, there was an established vocabulary for the project. Once we all worked to get on the same page, I think that’s why things were able to get through so quickly.

  • What inspired the overall sound of Way of the Turtle? I wasn’t expecting something that sounded so epic and cute all at the same time. Was this inspired by anything specific?

When I did a demo for the game, my first shot at the music was a lot more “cute” and electronic with synthesizers. The developers were like “This is okay but it’s not what we’re thinking of.” They actually gave me a reference, then, from Finding Nemo and said that they wanted the game to sound like a big adventure.

Instead of a cute platformer [sound], they wanted a big Disney adventure sound, which led to the use of a full orchestra. For some of the sounds, I covered the turtles with kalimbas and marimbas, to create the quirkiness of the turtles moving around.

  • What kind of instruments are included for Way of the Turtle? I hear the general orchestral mix but there’s some unique sounds mixed in there too. How did you pick which instruments to include?

So one instrument I included was the kalimba, that’s a little hand percussion instrument. I added little touches with it because it’s such a delicate sound and if you put the microphone right up to it, it’s a very close and intimate sound. But if you mix it with the vastness of a traditional orchestra, they really complement each other, one pulls you out while the other one pulls you in. It creates an interesting balance that I hadn’t really done before.

In the expansion music, there isn’t much oboe, but in the original score that I did for the base game in 2019 there was a ton of oboe. I recorded this amazing oboist and he came over to record and the one part that I thought would be super difficult he just blazed through on his first take and it was absolutely perfect.

For the darker scenes we included a guitarviol, which is a mix between a cello and a guitar. It’s sized and tuned like a guitar, but it has cello strings and it’s played with a bow. This instrument was used a lot in the score for Game of Thrones. It sounds like a cello but it’s also a little bit ancient and harsher in an interesting and cinematic way.

  • How does the music for the expansion build on what you created for the original game?

This expansion actually finishes the story of the base game. The original game ends with a “to be continued” and the first update ends with this big explosion sending purple goo all over the island. This update then, sees you re-exploring the island but it’s been overrun with this evil, magic goo.

The music for the expansion is all fully new stuff, although the challenge there was to make it sound cohesive. Like, it’s still somewhat familiar, but in the base game the music is much lighter. In this last update, you’re trying to clear off this evil goo, so the music I came up with is so much darker and more evil. There’s a lot more brass, more low elements, and a lot more big, deep percussion. We’re getting much lighter on things like the kalimbas. There’s still some moments of hope when you can hear them shine through but in general the direction was to go way darker.

  • What was the process like for scoring this expansion? I’m assuming there was new gameplay footage to look at to give you an idea of what was needed?

Sort of. There were two more “explorer” tracks they needed, both of which came with a corresponding “tension” layer and a corresponding “low health” layer. The “tension” layer is tied to the number of enemies on the screen. The more enemies on the screen, the louder it becomes. So you’ll hear more aggressive percussion, and as you then defeat enemies the music becomes more subdued. This makes the music ebb and flow as you’re fighting.

Then they sent me footage for all the different cut scenes. These included all the puzzle endings and the introduction of the boss. There’s also the music when the boss is defeated and the final cut scene when you can re-explore the island as a peaceful paradise that’s been cleared of all monsters.

  • How much time did you have to work on the expansion music?

A few weeks. I ended up taking a month off work and they came and were like “hey we need music for the expansion” which was perfect because it was music I knew I could nail. It was a perfect first project back because it was music I’d done before. And for the most part everything was approved very quickly after a little back and forth.

I hope you enjoyed this interview and I want to give a big thank you to Shaun Chasin for taking the time to speak with me about Way of the Turtle.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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A Strange New World: Speaking with Herdís Stefánsdóttir about Y: The Last Man

Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.

Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!

Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series? 

Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?

How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man? 

The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.

It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.

Did that make the process easier?

In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.

Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?

It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.

Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?

Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.

What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?

I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.

Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?

I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.

I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?

What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].

Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?

I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.

I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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The Adventure Continues: Talking with Composer Peter McConnell about Psychonauts 2 (2021)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with composer Peter McConnell about his work on the video game Psychonauts 2, which released earlier this year. In this game, the player controls Raz, a newly graduated Psychonaut with powerful psychic abilities, as he delves into the minds of others. Psychonauts 2 is set in a fictional, alternate world in which psychic powers exist thanks to the fictional element Psitanium – a substance brought to the planet by several meteors. The Psychonauts are an international espionage agency focused on psychic peacekeeping, scientific research of the human mind, and the development of psychic-based technologies.

Peter McConnell has composed award-winning scores for a diverse range of video games including Broken Age, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the Sly Cooper series, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Grim Fandango.

Peter studied music at Harvard with electronic composer Ivan Tcherepnin, graduating with High Honors. He has been nominated for over twenty-five Game Audio Network Guild Awards and won four, including Best Interactive Score and Best Soundtrack.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Psychonauts 2!

How did you get started as a composer?

The short answer is that I came out to California from Boston a few years after college having made a plan with my friends Michael Land and Clint Bajakian to start a band. By the time I got out here the band kind of fell through, but Michael had gotten a job starting the audio department at LucasArts, and he needed help. But there was some history behind that. I had loved music before I could even talk, taken violin lessons as a youth, taught myself to play banjo and guitar, and in college had an epiphany in electronics class which resulted ending my studies in physics, leaving for a year and a half and returning to graduate in music. So it was less a matter of “getting started” as a composer, and more a matter of continuing a long journey.


Were you excited to return for Psychonauts 2 so many years after scoring the original Psychonauts game? 16 years is a pretty long time to go between installments, was it difficult to get back into the story after so long?

Absolutely. And honestly, it wasn’t really a matter of “going back” to the score, since in a sense I never really left the score to begin with. Those themes were always percolating around in my head. I probably spent a total of 15 minutes  listening to the original  Psychonauts tracks before getting started. The music was already there. I find that is generally true with me, although it was especially true of Psychonauts, since it was my first gig as an independent composer after leaving LucasArts in 2000.


Were you brought in to do the music early in the development process or late? And when you were brought in, was there a lot of collaboration/discussion with the game’s directors on where they wanted the sound/music of this game to go?

I was brought in fairly early. I was on the project for over 4 years, and I think they had done about 9 months of work on it when I started.


How much of the music for Psychonauts 2 is built off the score for the original Psychonauts? Or was it decided to go in a wholly different direction for this sequel?

I would say that the score for Psychonauts 2, like the game itself, is both a continuation and an expansion. As a composer I focus on melody, so the themes in the score are all-important. For this reason the characters that had been in Psychonauts 1 kept their original themes, but there were so many new characters! Each one got a new theme. Even the Main Title theme got a new “bridge” section, based on a significant new character in the game. And the music styles were expanded significantly. We could only afford a few live musicians in the original Psychnonauts, whereas in Psychonauts 2 we had The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a live big band, a rhythm section from Nashville, and of course the rock and roll band featuring the voice of the amazing Jack Black. 

What was the general process for creating the sounds and and music for each level of the game?

Each level is about a particular character and each character had a theme. Early on we went through a phase of just focusing on themes in the simplest form: simple piano sketches that, once approved, could be orchestrated into full pieces.


Following up to the last question, what inspired the overall sound world of Psychonauts 2? What groups of instruments did you decide to go with?

The characters inspired the instrumentation. For example, Hollis has an issue with gambling and her level is all about that. So the classic big band sound of Sinatra’s recordings with Nelson Riddle’s band had to figure into that world. Similarly, the Psy King’s level was all about psychedelic music from the ‘60s. It was the same way for all the characters, and each one pretty much called to me with a sound.


How much time did you have to score Psychonauts 2?

The score was done over 4 years, but in a project this size you don’t typically work all the time straight through from beginning to end. It’s safe to say that the entire score probably represents a couple thousand hours of work.


Were any of the game levels more difficult to score than others? For example, did you come to a certain point in the game and feel stumped as to where it was going to go musically? If so, how did you get around it?

There are often moments I run into with individual pieces, but nothing really sticks out. I think it’s safe to say there weren’t any real instances of writer’s block, or being stumped. I find if I do run into a problem, the best thing to do is listen carefully. Sometimes over and over. What comes next usually reveals itself.


Do you have a favorite musical theme/musical moment in the game?

My favorite two are probably the Lady Luctopus Boss and the Psy King music. The Lady Luctopus allowed me to combine the Melbourne Symphony, drums and bass from Nashville, and my friend Andrew Burton’s amazing Hammond organ playing in one piece. And the Psy King music allowed me to have a band reunion with Michael Land and Clint Bajakian—going back to all of our roots—and to create a piece with Tim Schafer for Jack Black to sing.


Is there any musical detail you hope players notice as they work their way through the game?

That’s a great question. There are many details I hope people will notice. For example, a careful listener may note that part of the clarinet melody in the Questionable Area and the Aquato Family Caravan music both come from a tiny little melodic fragment in a dream Raz has about his family in the original Psychonauts.

I hope you enjoyed our conversation about Psychonauts 2 and I want to say thank you to Peter McConnell for taking the time to speak with me.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

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Exploring a New World in VR: Talking with Composer Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon

Earlier this fall I had the chance to speak to composer Jakob Eisenbach about his work on the VR arcade experience Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon. In this exploration game, you and your team are teleported to an ancient Mayan temple where you must work to stop the awakening of evil during a ‘blood moon.’

I’ve been fascinated by VR for a long time, so it was really cool to get to talk with Jakob Eisenbach about his work on Tikal and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the game (and working in VR).

How did you get started as a composer?

It’s quite a funny story: I wished for a guitar on my 15th birthday because of falling in love with the sound of electric guitars, thanks to the game Guitar Hero 3.
Since I was somehow pretty quick at learning technique, practiced up to 12hours a day and advanced unusually fast, I got interested in more and more complex and high energy music. Then I joined a metal band, played lots of Dream Theater, Jason Becker and other very technical music, but became bored with only “complex and fast” eventually.

Since this really was the first time me being good at something, I decided to take my luck into my own hands and start a career in music. But to not be too crazy and only relying on guitar, I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about music.

And as crazy as it sounds, after starting to take piano and theory lessons for 4 years, I already managed to get accepted as one of four students at the Zurich University of Arts. Something which turned out to be my most lucky punch ever –
the year I joined the program “Composition for Film, Theater and Media”, was also the first year where all of the Universities Departments moved into a newly constructed building.

And there I was….studying my dream occupation while being surrounded by so many talented people, state of the art recording studios, concert halls, classical/jazz music students, while having yet the craziest advantage to come: Collaborative in-house programs with students from game design, film, theater, dance, conducting, recording, you name it.
Somehow our field of studies turned out to be at the intersection between a lot of those disciplines, so any project we did could be recorded live with real instruments since the very beginning – simply because the musicians were next door and we simply had free access to the infrastructure.
We literally recorded full-size orchestras for fun little school projects, because the most difficult thing was to only find enough musicians. The rest was already there and free.

Fast forward a few busy years, students graduate, some find jobs at different production companies or game studios and then you eventually get a call: “Hey Jakob, since you worked on my MA graduation game, my company and I have this new project….”
And suddenly I find myself inside this incredible VR startup “True VR Systems”.

How is composing for VR different from composing for, say, a regular video game or a film?

Basically, as with any kind of storytelling, you’re aiming to re-create human experiences. And there’s only limited ways of doing that. Film for example, is something that you’d call a “linear” story: You as the consumer can only go forward in time. The most interactive a movie gets, is you pausing it or adjusting the volume.

Then there’s games: some of them also have a linear tendency, like Journey.

Most games however tend to have more “non-linear” gameplay: open world games like Red Dead Redemption or World Of Warcraft, where you can spent as much time as you want, where you want, and even do things repeatedly.

Depending on how the story is told, the music has to connect to either the environment/mood or a linear sequence, like in cutscenes or timelines.

Actually, since the definition of music is anchored at the “perception of organized sound” it’s the job of me as the composer to create those organized chunks that a consumer may eventually perceive as music. They can consist of many different possible sections with lots of outcomes, transitions and different versions of the same story and mood.
Or you can create one singular timeline, that you have to experience in one in one sitting.

In the projects of TrueVR it’s the same: the only extension is that you could place the music in virtual spaces and environments. But no matter how much technical extension you add to a story, it still has to make sense in the consumer’s head.
Those VR projects are mostly non-linear but have a few linear timelines where the music has some straight moments (for example on the Lava River).

Fun thing to think about: The reality we experience every day can also be observed as some kind of linear story with moments and chunks of non-linear, repeatable timelines.


What inspired the sound of Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon?

The main inspiration lies in the idea that you are experiencing a “strange” world, but you are some kind of main character/hero that’s solving the ancient riddles and mysteries of this temple.

As the game itself aimed for the “wow effect” experience of huge dimensions, especially in the vertical, we decided this is achieved best with a real symphony orchestra.
The 24-piece choir really added the feeling of an ancient magic being at work.

To achieve the “strangeness” I was strongly inspired by Balinese Gamelan culture, since this has a strange character to most western ears, and I was familiar with their theory. Extended with Arabic and Asian instruments it became less specifically on one culture though, while retaining the character of something “different” and “tribal” next to the orchestra. Nobody really knows how Mayan music sounded after all. We only know of some self-made instruments like bamboo flutes and drums.


Why was it so important for the music for Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon to be recorded live? 

Two reasons. The first: This game should evoke the feeling of being impressed and stunned by perceiving the virtual world, but not the kind of “gimmicky impressive” you have in most trailer music.
The second reason: Since we established a kind of “real instrumentalists only” trend, coming from the amazing experience in my studies, I simply had the experience how to pull this off. Since we did small school projects with real orchestras and ensembles all the time already, I very strongly felt that this project, which became internationally available and feels like something exceptional in its way, especially deserved to have a real soul.

How did working on Tikal compare to the other VR projects you’d composed for? It sounds like this one was bigger than the ones that came before.

Tikal was planned by the studio as their flag ship project in their “explorer genre” from the very beginning. They wanted to have one very high-quality game, and Tikal was going to be that one. The other projects that have music of mine (like Patient Zero) are more focused on the interactivity and shooting zombies had a different approach from the studio. And they felt that for PvP and PvE shooters there’s other necessities than having a huge score. 

How much time did you have to score Tikal?

Not much time, then suddenly a lot of time, and then suddenly not much time again.

So, while designing the core gameplay with the visual artists and creative team, we really went hand in hand. I scored a 10-minute suite within a few days, then we split this into different sections that could work to what we transcribed in the storyboard.
During the level design, we tested a lot in the actual VR environment, like how you perceive the time for different locations etc.
But because the new licensed partners in Canada wanted to open their franchise with a new game, we had to go into beta very early. So from first draft until beta, I had around
3-4 weeks.

Then this got stuck, because the dev team and me (hired as sound designer) had to go to different projects, so the composer side of me was left in the dark for quite a while.

But then, more than a good year later we got back to this refurbished the game for the new 4K hardware and the arenas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Which was when we felt this was the time to finally record the music – but then there was COVID.

So, lots of stop and go, then during the “European summer break of covid” we sneaked into a little timeslot where travelling and recording full orchestras in one room was allowed and finally managed to pull this off in Budapest.

Let’s just say the composing part of this project was the least difficult part by far, ha ha.


Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes! My favorite part is “An Ancient Awakening”.

And you really need to play the game in the arena to understand why.

I’ll try to transcribe it though: When this cue starts, you’re already in the game for a little while and managed to advance to an ancient grave chamber.

You solved the riddle in this level and then the wind machines of the VR arena start, the scent dispensers are activated and in the game, you see a lot of beautiful particles flying around in the environment that slowly materialize into an ancient Mayan ghost in front of you. This ghost is the first NPC character you meet in the experience and since you’re inside the VR environment, he really is about as tall as you and your teammates.

I also carefully sound designed his voice and sound effects. He carries I think 5-7 individual binaural SFX sources in his prefab, which blend in with the music.

When I tested the game, I always liked to stand pretty close to his animation.

Little fun fact: The ghosts’ animation is a motion capture of the lead developer Mischa Geiser himself. They recorded this full sequence while repeatedly playing my music mockup on speakers in the VR arena and performing the movements to the music.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Around and Around We Go: Talking with Composer Tom Salta about Deathloop (2021)

Just recently I had the chance to speak with composer Tom Salta about his work on the hit video game Deathloop. Salta is an award-winning composer, who writes music for film and television as well as video games. Aside from Deathloop, his past work in video games includes work on Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the HALO games, and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, just to name a few.

For Deathloop, Tom Salta had to create music for a world where the player controls Colt, an assassin tasked with killing a series of targets before a time loop activates at midnight, undoing any progress made. With that premise in mind, I was very excited to speak with Tom Salta about his work on this game.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Deathloop!

How did you get started as a composer?

Now that’s a loaded question! [laughs] Back in 1990 when I started on my professional path, I never imagined getting into composing, no less composing for video games. I started in the music industry fully intent on becoming a famous record producer. My first shot in the big leagues was going on tour with Bobby Brown as keyboard tech and sound designer. After touring for several years, I spent the ‘90s working in the studio on almost every kind of music you could imagine for a variety of both up and coming and major artists. In 2001, there was a paradigm shift in the music industry and in the world. High speed internet became widely available and music piracy took over. No one was buying music anymore. Mainstream artists were becoming “manufactured” by huge labels and I felt creatively restricted in the area of pop music. All my dreams and aspirations of becoming a record producer started to crumble.

At the same time, the original Xbox was released and a game called ‘Halo’ redefined the first-person shooter. I was also an avid gamer since the ‘70s but it wasn’t until 2001 that the music in games started to resonate with me. And then one day, a day that I still vividly remember, I had an epiphany… “That’s it! Video game music! It combines the two things I love the most… music and games! But where do I start?”

It was a difficult transition… Imagine throwing away fifteen years of experience in music and starting over in a new industry entirely with absolutely no connections. Scary to say the least. After a lot of dead ends, I got the crazy idea that my best chance of being noticed was to go through music licensing channels, rather than trying to start as a composer. So, I created a new moniker for my artist persona, “Atlas Plug” (Atlas is Salta backwards) and created an entire album on my own of big beat electronica that would be perfectly suited for licensing in games, television and film. I connected with a publisher who represented the album and before I even finished, Microsoft heard it and wanted to license four songs in a new game called Rallisport Challenge 2. And that is where it really all started. That year, my debut album “2 Days or Die” took the industry by storm with every track being licensed in games, television, and film.

At the same time, I signed with an agent and began getting opportunities to pitch myself as a composer in games. My first original score was a PC adventure game called “Still Life”. Shortly after that, I established myself as a composer when I was hired to score major titles like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and Need For Speed Underground 2.


How did you get involved with Deathloop and what did you think about the game’s time loop premise?

I was approached to work on Deathloop by the audio director that I had just finished working with on Wolfenstein Cyberpilot. When I heard about the unusual time loop mechanism and even more unusual music style, I was definitely intrigued.

How involved were the game’s directors/producers in collaborating with you on the game’s soundtrack? Were you given a lot of direction or was a lot of it left up to you?

I would say it was a healthy combination of both. Initially I was provided with a very comprehensive 50-page brief that described everything about the game. The audio director was also very specific about the late ‘60s aesthetic he was going for, although he knew that we were entering into uncharted territory with some of it.

I’m a big fan of collaborations so we had many emails back and forth and I did lots of my own research and explorations into potential musical approaches. After several weeks of experimentation, the signature sound of the score began to emerge.

I’ve read that this game was inspired by the Swinging Sixties, how did that inspiration play into the game’s soundtrack? 

Deathloop has a wide array of inspirations, including, but not limited to, the swinging sixties. The music of one of the fictional targets (visionaries), Charlie Montague, was definitely inspired by the swinging sixties and in particular, the superhero cartoon music back then, especially the original Batman series that I used to watch after school as a kid. That was a lot of fun to create.


On a related note, with the 60’s pop art style engulfing the game world, how much of the music was Inspired by films like James Bond.

The late ‘60s James Bond music was definitely an ingredient in the overall recipe of the score’s style, especially in key areas where I had to bring out the ‘secret military base’ vibe. The sixties were a very colorful time and so I had a lot of fun channeling that period in a myriad of ways.


What type of instruments are used in this score, I wasn’t expecting a game called Deathloop to sound like this but I absolutely love it. Also, do I hear a theremin in the mix?

[laughs] Yes, you certainly do. You can’t do ‘60s sci-fi and not use a theremin, right? [laughs] The approach I took for creating the palette for this score was imagining that I found a room of musical instruments that was locked up for fifty years. Then I would take those instruments and create a ‘60s inspired score through my own modern lens.

You’ll hear instruments such as Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3, Farfisa, Clavinet, Mellotron, Electric Harpsichord, Marimba, Vibes, Orchestra, Guitars, Bass, Drums and lots of other sixties inspired ear candy.

I noticed that there is a separate track/theme for each of Colt’s targets and those themes sounded strikingly similar to me. What went into creating the music for each of the targets and did their themes have anything to do with how each needs to be approached in a specific order to ultimately beat the game?

Yes, they should sound similar as they are all based on the same composition. In fact, they were supposed to be even more similar than they are now.

The original idea was to have a single suite of music (Exploration, Fight and Escape) for all targets and then just introduce one or two different elements to identify the character. Eventually, some of the target tracks evolved to be more unique arrangements of the same music. But they are all structurally identical.

The differences between the arrangements for each visionary are based around the instruments used that would come to represent each of them. So, for example, Aleksis (the arrogant eccentric) featured some sophisticated jazz styles, Harriet (the ruthless, yet pious mystic) features a dark church bell and eerie gothic choirs, and your theremin makes an appearance for Wenjie Evans, the program founder who studied supernatural phenomena.


How much of a role does the time loop play in the music? For instance, Andrew Prahlow, the composer of Outer Wilds, another video game that features a time loop, mentioned that he crafted music that begins to speed up and become more insistent the closer the player got to the loop restarting. Does anything of that nature occur in the music of Deathloop?

Yes, but instead of the tempo changing, the music gets livelier. This parallels the activity of the island’s inhabitants since all the partying really gets going in the evening. Each of the four main areas of the island of Blackreef have their own musical suite. The Exploration phase of each of those suites has four different arrangements based on the four different time periods… midnight, morning, afternoon and evening.


How much time did you have to work on Deathloop? Were you brought in early in the process of game development or late?

I worked on the score for six months, starting in January 2020 and ending in June. I suppose it was somewhere in between but there was still over a year of development after I finished.


Do you have a favorite piece in the score?

I’d probably have to pick the main theme, “Welcome to Blackreef.” It was an interesting journey getting there though. The original theme idea proposed to me was to create a very mysterious theme, more in the spirit of the 1961 classic “Mysterious Island” and the “Lost” series. The audio director really liked the theme but about a month into the score, I began to feel that it didn’t quite match the vivacious personality of the game. So I secretly began working on a new theme. I wanted something catchier and, well… loopable. [laughs] Eventually I found the four chords and three notes I was looking for and spent a week putting the final touches on it. Once I had a finished version, I sent it over. Naturally, the audio director wasn’t quick to just replace what we had, but several weeks later he agreed that it worked better for the game and so, that became the new theme that most of the score is based on.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and I’d like to say thank you to Tom Salta for taking the time to speak with me about Deathloop.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Back to Eternia: Talking with Composer Michael Kramer about Netflix’s ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ (2021)

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Michael Kramer about his work on the recently released Netflix series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (note: this is not to be confused with Masters of the Universe: Revelation that came out this past summer).

Michael Kramer is a two-time Emmy nominated composer who works on film, television, and video games. He studied film scoring at USC and his past credits include LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, producing music for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, just to name a few.

In this reimagining of the story of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, He-Man and his powerful friends Teela, Duncan, and Cringer learn what it means to be a hero while battling the evil forces of Skeletor and his minions.

Please enjoy my discussion with Michael Kramer about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!

(*warning* plot spoilers for the show can be found below)

How did you get started as a composer?

I’ve always been attracted to music, I would go into the piano room and plunk out the pieces my sisters were playing for their piano lessons. I’ve also always had this love for stories, my mom would read to me so much, and reading was woven into all of our days together. I felt like I had this imagination for storytelling at a very young age. Those two things [music and storytelling] twisted through my life and eventually co-mingled into this thing called film composing. It’s a pretty magical thing, being able to manipulate people’s emotions with music and make them feel one thing or another. I always say it’s the closest thing to feeling like a wizard.

I went to school for music and eventually made my way to USC for their film scoring program. I had amazing teachers and an amazing network to get me started.


How did you get connected with this new Masters of the Universe series?

It was actually a pretty straightforward process this time. I received a brief to do a demo for the show from my agents and thought “Is this what I think it is?” I really swung big and took some chances with the demo. I wasn’t sure if [the showrunners] would be into what I would want to hear in a score for a He-Man remake. However they seemed to be on the same page with me and they picked me to score the show.

When you talk about a “demo”, is that a big thing, little thing, what is that?

That’s a great question. Oftentimes, and I feel this is more common in animation, you [the composer] are given a few test scenes [to score]. Usually they’re pretty rough because it’s early [in production] and you’re working with rough animatics or storyboards. Sometimes this can make it difficult to work out what’s happening on the screen and you have to use your imagination to say “Is this character doing this? Are they jumping up and fighting this character? Sure, I’ll go with that.” You just have to fill in the blanks a little bit.

I had three different scenes to score: one was an action scene, one was more under-dialogue, and one was a comedic scene. [The directors] were testing the different cross-sections of emotions to make sure I could hit all the different tones of the show. And that was [the demo] I submitted.


How familiar were you with Masters of the Universe before working on this series? And what did you think of the reimagined concept for the story?

Growing up, I was born in ’83, the same year the show premiered, so I was a little young to actually watch the show. However, the action figures were a huge part of my play time as a kid. And the show itself wasn’t a big part of my imagination. I watched some of the episodes later, but growing up it was mostly about the action figures. The unique thing about that scenario is, I felt like I had already built up my own conceptions of what these characters were. I had my own unique take on these characters, and this universe and the mythology. That made it easier for me to go on this journey of reimagining the series. Kudos to Mattel for taking a risk and daring to do something different.

When you’re doing a remake of something, the closest analogy I can think of is doing a cover song. I try to think of what makes a really good cover song. It has to be something that stays true to the melody and the lyrics of the original so that it feels like the soul of the original song is intact. It also has to be different with everything else around it or else what’s the point? The most exciting cover songs have this quality and I feel like the most exciting remakes also have this same quality. For us, approaching the series, we wanted to stay true to the lyrics and the melody, the “soul” of MOTU (Masters of the Universe). Everything else…we wanted to dare to do something different. I think it’s a pretty fun and fresh take that a new generation of kids will enjoy.


Since this is a reimagining of He-Man’s story, was any of the music based on the original series, or any iteration of the story, or was it decided to go completely original with the musical score?

It was all original. I went back and listened to a bunch of the original music, to get it in my ears. It’s so specific and of that time, and a lot has changed stylistically. When you think of the amount of film music history, what has come out between 1983 and now…so much has changed.

I did try to take some interesting nuggets, some things that maybe no one would notice but me. One specific example is Adam’s transformation music in the original score. It’s in a specific scale/mode. I wasn’t going to use the same melody, obviously, but I stuck close to that same scale. When you hear the two themes then, they’re different melodies but using the same scale. There’s a similar kind of emotion you feel when you hear that scale of music. Little things like that I tried to use to create some connections. At the end of the day I wanted to do something that felt honest and true to me but also true to the characters and the mythology of the show.


On a related note, was there a specific type of sound the directors wanted you to go for, or was that largely left up to you?

This project was amazing in that the showrunners gave me so much freedom. It’s kind of crazy how much they trusted me to just go out and try crazy stuff. I felt like I could try or do anything and they were always so encouraging. They were great about feedback and would tell me if I was heading in a wrong direction or going down a rabbit hole that they didn’t want to explore. For the most part I felt like I was off in my own sandbox, it was so much fun.

Are there any examples of things you tried that didn’t work out? Without giving anyway?

That’s a great question. The great thing about my job is that a lot of experiments that initially end up on the cutting room floor find their way into the score eventually. I found that if I was respectful of the things we jettisoned and didn’t forget about them, they would often come back in unique and interesting ways. That’s one thing I love about working in the medium of television; it’s such a broad canvas. When you’re working on a film, you have a fairly short story arc. But with television, it’s epic, it’s hours and hours that you’re scoring. The canvas is so large that there are plenty of places to play.


Did you create any specific themes for characters or places for this series?

When I first sat down to map out the thematic universe, it was pretty daunting because there’s so many different characters. There are dozens of themes in the show. One strategy that we decided to go with thematically was that the score would not only represent characters but it would simultaneously represent different ideas and places. A perfect example is in Star Wars with the iconic “Force theme.” Some argue that’s Luke’s theme, other’s that it’s the Force theme, to which I would say “yes.” It operates in a really great way as a character theme and a theme for this concept [of the Force].

For Adam, it’s a similar thing. His theme is also the theme for Castle Greyskull. And the first few notes of that theme is in itself the theme for the “power” of Greyskull. His character and his power all come from the same place, Castle Greyskull, so it’s all wrapped up together. When you start making connections like this to character and concept, the score can then start making interesting connections and opening wormholes to other moments that the viewer might not necessarily think of. That’s my job, as a composer, to try and make all these connections and help point out things that rhyme in the story.

I really wanted to ask about Keldor, who becomes Skeletor, does Keldor’s theme becomes Skeletor’s theme or does one feed into the other?

Skeletor’s theme was one of the first things that I really sank my teeth into. His melody, for Skeletor and Keldor, those melodies are the same. It’s the same person, the same character, the same story arc. However, what’s different is the instrumentation. He has this creepy, slinking, shifting sounds for his Keldor variation. And then, as soon as he transforms into Skeletor, it’s like running the orchestra through an amplifier. There’s tons of distortion, me screaming into a microphone for different shouting sounds. If it didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies then it wasn’t good enough. I really pushed this theme to live up to the “Lord of Darkness” as it were.


How much time did you have to score Masters of the Universe?

Generally it was a couple of weeks per episode. It’s an immense amount of music and really intricate. What makes this music so time consuming is that it’s not just big orchestral, thematic music, which takes forever to write. On top of that, pretty much every character has their own set of colors. Before I started scoring I did a ton of experiments so that each character has a sound that, basically when you hear that sound, it’s that character. Every character has their own iconic sound within the musical landscape. It’s a really colorful score and painting in all those colors is so time consuming. But I hope it supports the storytelling and helps the viewers fall in love with the characters.


Do you have a favorite piece of music for this series?

I think I really love how “We Have the Power” turned out. It’s the track where our MOTU characters power up for the first time. It’s also the first time you get to hear the full MOTU theme. It’s rare to have a really big canvas to write a big melody like that, the visuals in that sequence are just so stunning. I really love how that one came out.

I want to give a huge thank you to Michael Kramer for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Netflix’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe! I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Loneliness, Hope, and Old Gods: Talking with Sergio Ronchetti About the Music of Eldest Souls (2021)

Last month I got the opportunity to speak with composer Sergio Ronchetti about his work on the recently released video game Eldest Souls. London-based, Spanish & Italian composer and sound designer Sergio Ronchetti boldly crafts scores dwelling within realms of dusky depth, mercurial mood, and aggressive execution, drawing upon his background in heavy metal and combining his lyrical tastes with more traditional, orchestral compositional techniques for a truly singular signature style.

Sergio’s debut score for the 2021 pixel-art, boss-rush, “Souls-like” video game Eldest Souls captures the lonely and desolate melancholy of the game world while also providing vigorous, combative battle music matching the intensity of the challenging gameplay and capturing the personality and essence of each iconic boss fight. He cites artists like Trivium, Machine Head, and Gojira as direct references to his Eldest Souls score – even if his instrumentations are far removed from theirs.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Ronchetti’s work on Eldest Souls!

How did you get started as a composer?
I left high-school with the sole intention of joining a metal band and becoming a touring musician: which is what i did! I had been playing in bands ever since i was 15, using every spare minute at school to jam with friends in the music rooms. I guess during this time i picked up a lot of DAW production skills without knowing, which gave me a little head start when i decided to pursue media composing after about 4 years of touring. University was then the best place for me to learn exactly what kind of composer/musician i wanted to be, but I learned how to compose behind a computer around my degree. I took short course, extra classes and spoke to as many of my lecturers as possible to understand how to get my career started during my studies, not after. Combine this with saying yes to every opportunity that came my way and everything slowly built up from there.

How did you get involved with Eldest Souls?
I met Jon and Francesco at a free workshop in London hosted by Intel. They were showcasing a super early version of the game whilst taking a gap year during their studies to work on it. Initially they just wanted music for a trailer they were putting out. I sent them a track i thought could work and to my amazement they loved it! Pretty clear from then on that I was a good fit for their project, which is important when collaborating. I don’t think I was anything special, especially back then, but both parties were in the perfect position in terms of experience and skills to work together.

Were you given any specific directions by the game’s creators when working on the score?
The stylistic decisions were made very early on. This meant that I had a direction right from the get go, in terms of style, placement in the game and the scope of the game. The best part as that Jon and Francesco created a very stress-free and flexible workflow, which gave us all the chance to fail and learn moving forward. Sometimes they had reference tracks that they really wanted to hear in the game, other times i just asked for 3-4 words describing the mood, setting and emotions they wanted out of each boss fight.

A related question: was there a lot of collaboration with the game’s director/creators on the score?
As an indie studio, there’s often a lot of crossover within our individual roles. With the music and more so the sound design, we worked very closely and generated as much feedback and testing as possible to get the ideal work out of me. Similarly, I’d always offer to help out at conventions and managing other areas like the socials and marketing, so it really was a collaborative effort from all of us. And I loved every minute of it! We’ve all grown an attachment to this project and we’re all the more happy to see it finally out there for people to enjoy.

I’ve heard Eldest Souls described as “Souls-like” which I assume means it’s similar to the Dark Souls series of games. Is the music for Eldest Souls similar in any way to Dark Souls or did you take a different approach with the music?
In terms of gameplay you could say so. We limited the music to the combat sequences in the game, which left ambience and sound design to govern the travelling in-between. Really this was to reinforce the narrative of the game which is my sole purpose as a game audio professional. I am constantly asking myself “what story am I telling here?” before designing any sounds or music. So when the music hits, you know it’s go time, and everything springs into action. When it’s over, you’re left with the residual consequences of your action adding to the already desolate environment. But in terms of musical sound I wouldn’t say my music is anywhere close to DS or Bloodborne. We felt that overtly gothic and dark style was perhaps a little overkill for the art-style and pace of Eldest Souls. But I love those soundtracks and getting familiar with them during development was super inspiring.

In general, how did you approach scoring Eldest Souls? Were you able to play through early builds of the game or at least observe early gameplay footage for inspiration?
It was very hands on. Again, all praise to the boys from Rome for allowing me to be as involved as I was. I could quite literally jump into the game, test and mix my audio live using Fmod. Then once i was fairly happy, i’d send it over to them for review. It saved a lot of time and effort in the long-run. Being able to experience the gameplay first-hand is invaluable. It’s like scoring a film and getting to play the main character as you do.

Given how important the game’s boss fights are, how did you specifically go about creating music for those moments? Since each “Old God” encounter is different, I can only assume that would affect the music for each fight. Was there any extra pressure to get the music “just right”?
Really, since this was the first project for all of us, there was no pressure at all! Haha. We just wanted to do the best we could, and learn from the process. That being said, some boss fights came together very quickly, others needed more revisions. It was all about focusing on anticipating player emotions and the mini-narratives within each fight: was it fast-paced? How intimidating was it? What are the boss’ unique characteristics? Questions like that. I also often asked Jon and Franco for just 3-4 words describing the scene, and went from there. Each boss had its own personality that needed matching and enhancing with my music.

Did you make specific musical themes for the main character and the Old Gods? Or other aspects of the game?
Eldest Souls had 2 messages which needed conveying: the brutal combat and the idea of loneliness and hope. The former was expressed by each fight being narrated by a unique boss theme to match the style and personality of each God and beast you encounter. The latter is portrayed via the Main Theme. This title track was my way of tying the whole soundtrack together. Since each boss fight was so different, re-working one theme throughout didn’t end up making much sense from a gameplay experience perspective. It also gave me a chance to write in a totally different genre with my post-minimalist interests coming through with the repeating live vocals and haunting solo cello recordings. It was a lot of fun writing that track and for that reason it holds a special interest to me.

What was your process for deciding which instruments to use in the game’s score?
Keeping with the Souls-like vibe, i took a touch of inspiration from the From Software games. I remember a few years back going to a video games exhibit at the V&A museum here in London. There was a fabulous insight into the Bloodborne music and even previews of the score they used during recordings! The likes of Cris Velasco and Yuka Kitamura decided to cut out any typically high frequency or bright instruments, like trumpets or high violin lines. All with the intention of keeping it as dark sounding as possible. Aside from that, I still take great inspiration from my days of writing and playing heavy metal music which is hugely reliant on rhythmic ideas. For that reason the percussion in my tracks is always front and foremost. Metal drummers like Mario Duplantier and Joey Jordison are huge inspirations to me, even when i’m writing for melodic instruments.

How much time did you have to score Eldest Souls?
The project was initially meant to be a 13 month stint. But through the process we picked up a lot of momentum from wishlists and conventions that we ended up scaling the scope of the game up as we went to about 3 years of development. For that reason I had the opportunity to go back and re-write some of the initial tracks that weren’t quite up to scratch by the end of it. You can improve a lot as a composer in the space of just a year, so after 3 I was at a totally different level. However, I’m not a fan of going back and constantly re-writing and improving work. I’d rather just finish a project and move on to the next. Being prolific is the only way to progress as an artist.

Are there any musical details in the game you hope players notice?
If there are, they are VERY well hidden haha. But for example, towards the end of the project I started to lean into my metal roots even more. I even exercised taking my favourite metal songs and re-arranging the rhythms and melodies. It might be most obvious in The Imperator, if there are any fans of Machine Head out there. Also the intro to that track was super fun to write too. I often like taking classical and romantic pieces of music and re-orchestrating and arranging them. It’s a great way to use existing material and create something totally new by the end of it. The final boss intro had to be epic, so I used epic material. In my opinion it doesn’t get much bigger and grander than Carl Orff’s, O Fortuna.

Do you have a favorite musical theme in the game?
I’m quite partial to ‘Ov Fire and Water’ which I think came out great. Equally ‘Main Theme’ and ‘Lunar Descending’ are still some of my favourites.

I want to say a big thank you to Sergio Ronchetti for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Eldest Souls.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Behind the Music of Action and Comedy: Talking with Atli Örvarsson about ‘The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’

Recently I had the chance to speak with Atli Örvarsson about his work on The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Atli’s credits include composing and orchestrating music for some of Hollywood’s biggest projects, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Angels & Demons, The Holiday, The Eagle, Vantage Point, Babylon A.D., Thick as Thieves, The Fourth Kind, and Season of the Witch.

Atli’s accolades include winning the HARPA Nordic Film Composer Award for his acclaimed score to Rams, several ASCAP and BMI Film and TV Music Awards, a “Breakthrough of the Year” nomination with the IFMCA Awards in 2009, plus he was nominated for the prestigious World Soundtrack Academy’s “Discovery of the Year Award” for his score for Babylon A.D in 2009 and his score for Ploey: You Never Fly Alone was nominated for a “Public Choice Award” in 2018.

I hope you enjoy the discussion we had about this film!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
I have been writing music since childhood but got “serious” about composition when I was attending Berklee College of Music and found out they had a film music program. I had always been interested in film music, as far back as the first Star Wars film when I was just a little kid, so this field of study really appealed to me and has been my path ever since.

I know you previously composed the music for The Hitman’s Bodyguard in 2017, was it always assumed that you would return to score the music for the sequel?
Yes. Patrick Hughes, the director of these films, started discussing a possible sequel with me right after the first film came out.

Speaking of, what did you think of getting to return to the world of The Hitman’s Bodyguard to create more music for it? Was it easier scoring this film because you’d also written the music for the first film?
I don´t know if easier is the right word but perhaps it was a bit of a luxury to have a lot of themes from the original film to work with and it just made sense to reuse these.

On a similar note, what was the discussion with the director like when it came to putting the score together? Were you building on the first film’s musical themes in the sequel or did you create something wholly new?
A bit of both. There is a new bad guy in this film who needed a new theme, obviously along with some other new characters and storylines. Salma Hayek’s character also plays a bigger role here so that called for some new music. At the same time the two main characters are the same so there is a lot of reusing and reinventing themes from the original film.

Speaking of themes, are there musical themes for specific characters?
Yes.


I know this film is considered an action-comedy. How did you balance the music in the score between action and comedy?
It’s usually pretty clear cut whether a scene is primarily an action scene or a comedy scene but there are certainly scenes in this movie that combine both. In these cases, I usually choose to score the scenes very much like serious action scenes as the comedy sort of speaks for itself but to be honest, there’s no hard and fast rule. It just depends on the scene and what feels right.

How much time did you have to score The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard?
I had quite a bit of time as the Covid pandemic kept interrupting the schedule, but once we got started “for real” it went quite fast. I’d say about 2 months from the start of scoring to recording with the orchestra.

How much did the previous score for The Hitman’s Bodyguard influence the music for the sequel?
Quite a bit! As I mentioned earlier, I did reuse themes from the first movie but perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that there’s more score and less songs in the sequel.

Do you have a favorite musical moment in the score?
It’s hard to say… I really enjoyed writing some of the comedy cues around Bryce’s personal backstory where the music plays very serious over the comedy, e.g. when we first meet his step father and for the flashback about his mom.

Finally, is there any musical detail you hope viewers notice when they go to see this movie in theaters?
There are many places where I geeked out and tried to sneak in my themes in disguises. Hopefully someone picks up on that!

I hope you enjoyed this interview about the music of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.

See also:

My Thoughts on: The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

Composer Interviews

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