Fans of the racing genre of gaming will likely have heard Stephen Baysted‘s work at some point. He is the in-house composer and audio director of Slightly Mad Studios, with whom he has worked on titles like Need for Speed: Shift, Shift 2: Unleashed, and most recently, Project CARS. He has also worked on several feature films and documentaries, and his music dances in and out of Phil Grabsky‘s 2015 feature documentary, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them. He is a man of several talents, and today we have the pleasure of interviewing him.
Thank you Stephen for the opportunity to chat. Most of your video game work has been with Slightly Mad Studios and their predecessor Blimey! Games over more than ten years. How does this consistent, almost in-house relationship with one developer differ to the experience of freelancing for you?
Well, like so many relationships in the entertainment industry, they’re built on long-standing friendships – in this case, Ian Bell, the owner of the company, is one of my best friends, and we’ve been working together for about 15 years now. Seems like yesterday when we first met as impoverished PhD students! I think the goal of all freelancing is to do the very best job you possibly can, and at the same time, build a lasting relationship of mutual professional respect with that particular client.
You take on a dual role in the games you work on, acting as both composer and audio director. What does that role entail for you exactly? Does overseeing both areas make your overall job any easier?
Yes and no … OK, so that’s not the most helpful answer! Yes, in the sense that I tend to view the music and sound design in a game as a continuum, so overseeing it all and determining the game’s sonic aesthetic has big advantages. No, in the sense that it’s more difficult to be objective about the music, so that’s when you tend to rely on the invaluable critiques of people you trust.
What went to creating the music and audio of Project CARS? How did this world of sound evolve out of the vision shared by the developers and yourself?
Well, of course, I’m one of the developers, and in a sense, the vision for the game has been evolving over the past 15 years, since we’ve been working together. Because Project Cars is Slightly Mad Studios’ very own IP, we were able to make the game pretty much as we imagined it (obviously within technological constraints!). There’s a very difficult balance to strike with audio in simulation games too. On the one hand, the player is expecting engine sounds to be as authentic as possible, but on the other, for purely ludic reasons, you have to dial back a notch or two from the purist approach to make the game playable. Additionally, where the music is concerned, in the simulation genre, music is never played during gameplay. So all of the composer’s work on mood setting, contextual painting, tension building, etc. must be accomplished in the menu system. This can be frustrating!
This isn’t your first foray into scoring car racing titles, with your history of working with Slightly Mad Studios, and your impressive list of credits that includes the the Need for Speed franchise. How comfortable or challenging has it been working on Project CARS, given your wealth of experience in this area?
Yes, I’ve done a fair few racing games so far – nine I think by the last count – so you do inevitably draw on your previous experiences. But that track record (forgive the pun) does really spur you on to try new things and move in different directions for each new game in that genre. For example, Need for Speed Shift 2: Unleashed has a radically different soundtrack to Need for Speed: Shift. And although it’s very early days yet, with Project Cars 2 (2017) I’m going to be taking a very different approach to that in Project Cars – Stay tuned.
Working on a documentary like The Impressionists is wildly different to scoring high octane driven games. However, it similarly involved reuniting with a previous collaborator, in this case director Phil Grabsky, for your second outing together. How different is that second time from the first?
I was more deeply involved and, indeed, a lot earlier in the film making process this time around. The film is also quite different in that it is more character driven and the music is more conventionally cinematic in scope.
The Impressionists recounts the story of Paul Durand-Ruel and his role in the lives and careers of the French Impressionist artists of the late 19th and early 20th Century, to whom we now refer as masters of their art form. What vision did the Phil come to you with in regards to the score?
When director Phil Grabsky and I discussed The Impressionists, he was clear that he wanted a cinematic and narratively focused score, and one which commented directly upon the masterworks being shown on screen and the story that lay behind them. We also discussed a musical style and vocabulary that was contemporaneous with the art works.
Your score for The Impressionists interestingly involves a mix of original compositions and re-interpretations of music of the era. What did the process of stringing it all together involve?
Very early on, I put together a listening list for Phil that contained many of the most well-known works from Debussy, Faure and early Ravel, and one or two lesser known ‘Impressionist’ composers including the American Charles Griffes.
The score itself takes a selection of original piano works by Claude Debussy as its starting point, and pianist and mezzo soprano Susan Legg and I constructed a cinematic and emotive musical landscape around them by interweaving original compositions and orchestrations along the way. In some instances, melodic and contrapuntal lines are isolated from the original and then extended, reharmonised, and expanded into a much larger scale cue synced to picture. In others, original compositions that are permeated with the musical vocabulary and style of the period take the viewer on a journey through the narrative arc of the film’s protagonists.
What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of scoring The Impressionists? Conversely (or perhaps not conversely), what did you find to be the most rewarding part of it?
It was certainly very challenging. The goal was to create original music that could stand alongside the authentic Debussy compositions, which, as you can imagine, was a very tall order. Not only do you have to really try to understand his musical language and style on a profound level, but you also have to translate that into your own compositional voice and the immediate demands of the film.
What do you constantly reach for in your studio? Instrument, plugin, synth, sample library, pots and pans, wooden spoons … anything that makes a noise?
I am lucky enough to have a grand piano in a room adjacent to my studio, which is patched in for recording, so I do reach for that a lot when I’m writing, trying out new ideas and just trying to find a melody. Nothing better than a real instrument to get the creative juices flowing.
What’s the most interesting non-musical fact or story about yourself you can think of?
Difficult question, since so much of my life revolves around music these days! Not sure this is interesting but here goes … I was once given a very stern talking to by an irate policeman when I was about 11 I think for overtaking a learner driver on my street on my skateboard. Outrageous behaviour!
Finally, what’s next for Dr. Baysted?
Well, Project Cars 2 has been announced for 2017, and I’ll be working on Phil Grabsky’s new film on Renoir later this year. I’m also writing the music for a TV series, and I’m working pretty much flat out now on the music to a game that I can’t talk about, but which will be released early next year.
Stephen Baysted can be found on his official website.