We sat down with film and video game composer Jason Graves this week to discuss his music on the video game “Murdered: Soul Suspect” by Airtight Games and Square Enix. Jason is also known for his work on Tomb Raider, the Dead Space series, F.E.A.R. 3 and many more films and games!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Jason. You scored the video game “Murdered: Soul Suspect” from Airtight Games and Square Enix, which has won a number of awards. Talk us through how you combined live string textures and themes with the more experimental percussion to create the overall sound we hear. What were some unique challenges you came across when scoring the game?
The game takes place in a parallel world called Dusk and you are a ghost attempting to solve your own murder. So what would music in this universe sound like? I was interested in exploring the ideas of “ghostly sounds,” which sounds really obvious and cliché when I say it like that, but it’s the truth! So I put my collection of trusty bows to bear on everything I could find in the studio. Cymbals and gongs were the obvious choices, but I also bowed wire racks, cage grates, and even one of the music stands – anything was fair game!
The percussion was really more just an extension of what I do naturally, being a percussionist who is easily bored and always looking for something new to hit. And I liked the idea of giving the score a bit of a musical soul, which seemed like a nice job for a string quartet. Conveniently, it also allowed me to perform all the non-thematic string parts myself. That made music implementation a lot easier for Airtight since probably 85% of the strings were me. We had a lot of control as a result.
With the huge success of say, Tomb Raider, do you ever get a little stage fright for repeat work on this level? The expectations must be high to retain that super high standard etc, so how do you mentally manage your creative state so you can keep your chops up and deliver?
It’s funny, at least to me, because every project is so different. I can’t really compare them to each other in my head, so I don’t think there’s fear coming from a “this next title needs to be even bigger than the last one” mentality. I believe most creative people have that impossibly high internal standard that they’ll truly never reach. For me, each project is an exciting new opportunity to try and get just a little closer to hitting that bar.
You’re one of the most popular composers in the horror/thriller genre in video games and have a very distinct signature sound that’s instantly recognizable. Do you ever worry about being pigeon-holed into a specific genre, or you happy to focus on the one area?
That’s very kind of you to say! Ironically, I’m a bit of a softie and love the more melodic, emotional side of music. So I would definitely not want to be too focused and only compose in one style. But it is a lot of fun to delve into those dark corners, especially when I can experiment and try out new ideas. I’m honestly not concerned about being typecast when it comes to game music. Developers want truly unique, original music for
their projects and the amount of creative freedom they allow will keep me happy for a long time.
On a technical level, how do you deal with “Analysis Paralysis” or “Option Bloat”. Where do you start when handed a blank page? Do you try to limit your choices or just let it flow creatively?
Everything is informed by the project, so it’s almost like I’m cheating a bit. Inspiration comes less painfully when you have amazing work that other people have already dedicated so much time towards. Probably the most basic idea I begin with concerns what instruments or sounds I would like to exclude. If I can whittle down my palette of sounds it limits my tinkering and forces me to be more focused.
Do the mechanics of a game being slowly built affect that creative process (ie. do you ever get midway through the game build and have to bin the whole lot and start over?)
The implementation plan is fairly well defined by the time significant portions of the music are written. Many times I’m brought in early to help shape how the music is put into the game. But I’ve never had anything thrown out or replaced because the implementation had changed.
Do you prefer to take a sound and manipulate it to make it your own or make your own sound design from scratch ? Tell us about the process what audio mangling tools and synths do you use to do it ?
I honestly don’t have a lot of patience for staring at a computer screen and clicking the mouse over and over to tweak a virtual effect or instrument. Obviously, I do it when needed but I much prefer to physically walk around, hunting for new sounds and ways to record them. I’m not talking about anything fancy, either. An empty pizza box with some pens in it made for an excellent percussion instrument the other day. And the simple act of rolling my studio chair towards the mic while recording (the audio was passing through my guitar pedals to great effect) created a wonderfully ambient swoosh sound.
How do you deal with “writer’s block” as a composer?
I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual writer’s block…but looming deadlines always manage to push me closer to the finish line each day. I do find that taking a five minute break and walking outside the studio really helps scrub my fuzzy brain a bit and give some much needed perspective.
What does your daily routine look like?
My studio is behind my house and I usually work 9-5, Monday through Friday. I’m simply more productive if I have that evening and weekend break. I also like to dedicate an entire day to a specific project – seems to keep me more focused. My normal pace is 2-3 minutes of finished music each day, either ready to be dropped in the game permanently or sent off for parts destined for the recording stage.
What do you think about the trailer music domain ? Have you ever been approached by some trailer companies to compose this kind of music or does it interest you?
I do some trailer composing for EMI in London. They have a trailer department that commission pieces quite frequently. I think it’s a great idea to be as diverse a composer as possible, so trailer music, television and advertising are all on the table for me. They also help keep me sharp as a result of all the different styles of music they need!
What are your favourite plugins and sample libraries at the moment?
FabFilter and SoundToys are on everything I do. As are iZotope and Waves, especially their vintage plug-ins. I also can’t overstate how amazing all the Heavyocity products are – the perfect marriage of great sound and a straightforward interface. All my orchestra samples are custom and I record percussion, drums, guitars and bass at my studio. Not helpful as advice on what to purchase, but would strongly encourage everyone to invest in a small microphone and start recording some sounds for yourself.
Jason will be speaking at the international video game music conference Game Music Connect 2014 in London on September 24. To learn more about Jason Graves, visit his website at http://www.jasongraves.com/