An Interview with Stephen Cox
By Jonathan Balofsky On 25 Apr, 2017 At 10:03 PM | Categorized As Featured, Interviews, Otaku Music, ROG News, ROG Tech | With 0 Comments

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I recently had the chance to interview video game composer Stephen Cox.  His most recent work is the upcoming VR game Farpoint .We discussed his influences, and how composing for a VR game changes things. Please enjoy.

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JB: What are your biggest influences in music?

SC: They are all over the place. In the early years it was definitely all things classical including film music – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart especially John Williams. But Stevie Wonder was also in the background growing up, so I love groove oriented anything. Then Steve Vai, Mr. Bungle and most 90’s rock/metal/grunge pushed me through the high school years.

 

Once I was in college, my influences became totally schizophrenic… Coltrane, Mike Patton, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Erik Korngold, Aphex Twin, Stravinski… One of my new film scoring favorites is Jóhann Jóhannsson. His score for Arrival was outstanding. Can’t wait to hear what he does in the new Blade Runner! I love anything John Powell does and there are so many modern pop, rock, hip hop and R&B artists I’ve left out. I honestly listen to everything (even Country music) and sometimes study the hell out of it, depending on the gig.

 

JB: Who inspired you to go into music?

SC: It’s hard to say when that seed was planted and who planted it. Music was always part of my life growing up. However, there is one instance that stands out back in the early 90s… I was in the middle school concert band (playing trumpet at the time) and heavily into rock music, especially Steve Vai and his genius guitar playing. So this guest speaker comes in to do a talk about his music career and maybe selling Berklee College of Music, where he studied. I’m not sure who this guy was and I wasn’t really paying attention to anything he was saying… until he mentioned Steve Vai. He started talking about life at Berklee and the famous alumni who were there in his day. I don’t remember this speaker’s name, but I think what he said stuck with me in a big way. Years later I ended up at Berklee totally focused on doing music from then on out.

 

JB: What have been some of the challenges for composing music for video games?

SC: The fact that you aren’t scoring to a locked picture, like a film or show, can be tough initially, yet so much more freeing! I found myself really loving the nonlinear process. Also writing chunks of music or overlays that can be triggered at any time while fitting into an underlying loop was a fun challenge. But again, I love that part of it as well.

 

Deliverables are more complex in a game compared to TV or Film. Handing off organized sessions and countless files to give the engineers as much flexibility as possible (while still retaining your sonic vision) requires a certain degree of technical skill and planning. You always have to think about the guy down the production pipeline, making sure you are not making more work for the implementers and engineers. If they’re happy, we’re all happy.

 

JB: What styles do you like to experiment with for your work?

 

SC: I love having the chance to pick up a guitar and rock out. My ongoing work with CBS Sports usually fills that need, but there is not a lot of room for experimentation. If I ever get the opportunity to experiment, like we did in Farpoint, it would be the process of crafting new sounds from organic sources, textures… stuff no one has heard before. Being a part of that ‘world building’ process sonically was such a thrill.

 

JB: Related to the above, what styles would you like to bring into your work?
SC: Being able to mix up styles in new and interesting ways is something I always try to do when given the chance. It seems like our work with trailer music usually gives us opportunities for mashing up orchestral writing with sound design, synthesis and even rock. Music for trailers is usually bombastic, shock and awe, but they are a lot of fun. I look forward to any opportunity to do some modern composition, experimentation with rhythms and microtonality. Film and games are usually the best fit for this style. I can’t wait for the next one!

 

JB: What are some of your favourite video games soundtracks?

SC: My all time favorite is Grim Fandango composed by Pete McConnell. I know it’s old, but the music was the primary reason I was hooked on that game for years. I still play it with my kid on PS4. The score to The Last of Us composed by Gustavo Santaolalla was a big inspiration for Farpoint. Aside from his amazing theme music, some of the in-game music was so lush and rich with organic sound design… he is a true craftsman. The most recent game I can think of is Sarah Schachner’s work on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which was killer! Her work with modular synthesis is super impressive… and it makes me want to go out and buy a bunch of toys. I know I’m leaving someone out…

 

JB: What would you like to see done with video game music going forward?

SC: I would love to see a “choose you own ensemble” scenario. Complete user control over the music engine itself. With VR, you might have the flexibility to place your chosen instruments in the world, add effects, who knows! The act of listening to music can be so much more with this technology. I know for a fact record labels are working on similar ideas for albums and artists currently. These next few years will be very exciting in the world of music and game music within VR.

 

JB: Do you feel video game music is held back still by anything?

SC: Only our imaginations. At this point I see no difference between the production quality of the biggest games compared to the biggest films. My kid and I just finished Uncharted 4 last night and Henry Jackman’s score totally knocked me out, Niagara Falls. I forgot to mention Uncharted 4 in the previous question. The emotional content and gameplay was supported perfectly by the music, just like his best film scores. If anything, film music is held back because of the static medium. Game music can be ever changing, evolving with the action taking place and there’s no longer a limit on how ‘big’ the music can be for a game. Kudos to Sony and Naughty Dog for the most amazing implementation of game music I’ve ever seen or heard.

 

JB: What are the challenges of composing for a game that is in VR?

SC: The biggest challenge is immersion, or keeping the player immersed in the VR world. There seems to be two schools of thought in terms of sound and music within VR: The first is Full Immersion, where the space and reality is represented as accurately as possible using sound effects only. And if there is music, it is source music, meaning it is coming from within the world itself. The other approach treats audio and music closer to a cinematic experience or even hyper-cinematic, almost like a theme park ride. We were always walking that fine line. When my writing partner, Danny McIntyre, and I realized that VR experiences (including Farpoint) are closer to a theme park attraction than a standard game, we found our stride and the music cues started clicking into place.

 

JB: Does the game being in VR change the way you go about composing?

 

SC: In terms of writing themes and cues, not so much. In terms of the sound palette and instrumentation, very much so. The way the instruments interacted with the space is very important. We tried to keep the score very wide and reverberant as if it was a part of the background ambience, which it almost is at times. We found that less could be more in terms of ensemble size even though some of the cues are very thick.

 

JB: Do you feel that VR offers new ways to experience the music?

 

SC: Absolutely. Mainly because of the space. The use of reverb and panning is so much more important in VR than it is in any other medium. Things can be focused or spread in a way that wouldn’t make sense if it were played back on speakers. Because the VR experience is inextricably tied to headphones, we ended up doing a lot of testing using them. I worked closely with Sony Interactive’s music team under Senior Music Manager Jonathan Mayer (along with music engineer/implementer Anthony Caruso and Rob Goodson) to figure out the right balance of instrumentation, reverb and placement. Those guys did amazing work.

 

JB: What are some of the innovations VR brings to game music?

SC: Because the experience is so immersive, I think it may change the way we approach sound design and scoring music entirely. Using music in a way that increases that feeling of immersion is an innovation in and of itself. I think we did very well with that in Farpoint, but we are all trying to reinvent the wheel together.

 

JB: What would you like to be able to do differently with music that cannot be done yet?

 

SC: I hear music, intervals, rhythms and pitches everywhere when I walk outside, wash the dishes or just sitting in my studio writing this. It’s kind of a sickness for most composers and audio pros. I want to create an experience for the listener that takes that to a new level. Where the pitches and rhythms of normal, everyday ambience can be compiled and processed in a way to make true music… in real time. Maybe I’ll get cracking on that right now, unless someone has already beaten me to it 😉

 

Also being able to craft and compose music in a VR space as if you were using the interface from Minority Report. VR could be the bridge to creating and composing music in entirely new ways and Farpoint is a very important first step in the world of VR innovation. I can’t wait for you all to experience it!

 

Thank you again Stephen for taking the time to talk to ROG!

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