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Friday, May 11, 2018

#Musicproduction: Interview: Squeaking About Moss' Soundtrack With Composer Jason Graves

Recently we got the opportunity to chat with composer Jason Graves – likely best known for his work on the Dead Space series or The Order: 1886 – about his work on the recently released PlayStation VR title from Polyarc, Moss. We discussed how the game's score came to be, Graves' adulation for the player character Quill, and how scoring games is different from what it used to be. And more! Check it out below.
Question: You’re no stranger to scoring games, or for that matter even VR games at this point [Graves has scored several VR games prior to Moss]. Is there anything different you find that you have to do when scoring VR titles versus traditional ones? Is there anything harder about it? Easier? Or is it just something different?

Jason Graves: There’s definitely an approach you can take with the music if you choose to implement it binaurally – that is, in the same kind of 3D space that VR visually occupies, but from an audio perspective. VR opens up so many new opportunities for audio, and music can sometimes benefit as well. But I don’t think music is something that necessarily needs binaural placement all the time. Most of the time the music is best being used the same way it would for a non-VR title and the remaining audio can take center stage as the immersive, surrounding environment.

And as a follow up to that – specifically for Moss – in what ways did you utilise the 3D-style audio when crafting the score? Did it have an impact at all? Did you purposefully navigate around it even, so as to not encroach on the sound effects? Anything unique for the game come from the new audio approach that VR offers?

Audio Director Stephen Hodde really knocked it out of the park delivering a completely fascinating sonic palette that invites players into the world of Moss. One of the biggest things Stephen and I were able to do was to keep sharing our work and tweaking things as we both progressed. Probably half the time he had sound effects laid in for the levels I was to begin composing music for, and I was able to work the music around the atmosphere, even putting it in the same key as Stephen’s sounds. And he would do the same if the music was already finished, adjusting the pitch of the sound effects to the same key as the music. Things like that may sound simple, but they make a huge difference in the end.

The world in Moss is a gorgeous fantasy setting. In what ways did you lean into that look and feel of the world when crafting the score? Did the score grow from a certain setting? Certain aesthetic? Or maybe even a more personal journey, stemming from the main character, Quill?

I fell in love with Quill, quite literally, the moment I saw her. I received some concept art of a few characters before I began and instantly knew I had to do whatever I could to be a part of the world of Moss. I live on a large bit of land surrounded by trees and a stream and we have quite the menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, geese, snakes, rats, hedgehogs, tortoises, bunnies...the list goes on! So really my inspiration came from the amazing world that Polyarc has built, magnified by 100 as a result of my love of animals and nature.

I also wanted the music to further emphasize the emotional bond between the player and Quill, so the score is very melodic. I actually prefer writing this way, but many times the projects I’m working on do not deem it appropriate – you can easily call too much attention to the music when it’s sometimes best to let it simmer in the background. But Moss was a wonderful opportunity to get back to my love of themes and motifs. There are at least five different themes, ranging from the short flute phrase you hear on the logo reveal of both trailers – the unofficial musical logo for Moss, as picked from my original piece by Stephen – or the long, simple, repeating five note “call of adventure” from the oboe that consistently leaps upwards in a heroic yet plaintive way throughout the game. 

The whimsical, almost cuddly nature of the game shines through in practically every frame of the game. Did you lean into that aesthetic when crafting the music for the title? Because the look and sound of the game pair together exceptionally well.

That’s great to hear! The music was completely and totally inspired by the wonderfully detailed environments and especially the emotional bond the player feels to Quill. I used small instruments – flute, oboe, violin, Celtic harp, ukulele, guitar, dulcimer – to convey Quill’s tiny size. And the music surrounding these instruments illustrates the epic journey she takes part in.

Kristin Naigus performed flute, oboe, and English horn, which is really the backbone of the entire score. I kept composing more and more woodwind solos for her – her tone and interpretation is just phenomenal. Jeff Ball’s solo violin, which is also featured throughout the score, is equal parts magical and mysterious.

Kristin and Jeff were truly inspirational; they recorded themselves at home and sent me files over the Internet (I performed everything else in my studio). So I had all the live performers on every piece within a few days of having finished composing. I can’t stress enough how important and impactful this was for me, since the usual way of recording live players means waiting until everything is finished and recording all the music in a single pass at the very end of the project. Hearing their work one song at a time really opened my mind to other musical possibilities.

Is there a standout piece from the score that you struggled to get exactly where you wanted it? Or did everything just sort of click right and crescendo from there? Any major shifts in the direction of the sound?

The combat music was definitely the most challenging, but also the most fun! “Legends Old And New” was the first one I wrote. I knew I didn’t want any kind of traditional, battle music you might expect in a fantasy game. I loved the idea of musically telling the story from Quill’s perspective. She may be tiny, but she throws herself into everything she does. So for me, if she was fighting something, she wouldn’t be scared. She would be determined. And hopeful. Innocent, even. And I wanted the music to reflect that.

So...with all that said, this is the first time I’ve ever written a combat cue in a major key! Even the other two cues I composed for combat are very light and bouncy; more like music for a dance than combat, which is exactly how I see Quill in my mind when she’s fighting!

When I hear your name mentioned for scoring, my mind usually goes to your horror scores first – Dead Space, Until Dawn – which is quite a different sound from this. Beyond the obvious in that they sound different, in what ways you consider scoring games like that similar to scoring something like Moss? And by that same token, what would you consider different?

It’s probably the last name, right? So many people thought I had a stage name when Dead Space first came out... Surely no one named Graves would just happen to be composing music for horror! Honestly, the base idea is exactly the same, regardless of the genre – compose music that will support the player and gameplay. Everything else I do is completely based on the world that these amazing developers have spent years creating and I’m entering for the first time. It all comes from the gameplay, whether I’m asking 60 strings to perform their highest note as loud as they can or recording myself strumming the ukulele.

How did you wind up scoring games in the first place? You’ve been a part of the industry for a number of years now, was it something you always knew you wanted to do? Did you almost stumble into it? Or did you end up scoring games more organically?

It really was a bit of a stumble, in fact! I began my career in film and television in Los Angeles. Then I was scoring independent films in North Carolina, where I am from. It was there I met someone who knew someone that was working for a game company in Australia, which is literally on the other side of the world from North Carolina! But they were looking for a composer and I was recommended for the job. The rest, as they say, is history!

In a follow-up to that, in what ways have you seen the industry grow and change either at large, or on a personal level through that time? I know on a personal level, when I first started playing games, the fact that VR games are as popular and as good as they are already is something I’d never have even imagined in my wildest dreams.

I’m very happy to see music for games come into its own. Radio programs, podcasts and concerts are being made all over the world that are completely dedicated to music for games. Gamers have always been voracious fans of their favorite game’s music, and I know all the composers are so appreciative of everything they have done. Now people outside the world of games are being exposed to some of the wonderful music this medium has to offer.

And as one final note, if there were just one piece of music or theme from Moss you’d say encapsulates the score, which piece would it be, and why? A character theme? Location ambience? Anything!

Now, you know that’s a completely unfair question! “A Different Story” was the first track I wrote for the game, because it was also the track I submitted as an example before I was hired, pretty much note for note. Especially the solo flute, harp and violin – to me, they are the musical heart and soul of Moss.

But I also have a special place in my heart for “Last Respite”, if only because it’s so simple – a single theme developed over five minutes. I had no idea where it would fit into the game, but I simply had to get the melody out of my head and recorded. Another nod to Kristin Naigus performing flute, oboe, and English horn – this piece was just an excuse to have her record more music for me. That’s why you hear her, playing all by herself, in the beginning and end of the piece. I just fell in love with her tone and musical interpretation.

The score focuses on small, intimate, live performances by real human beings. That may seem fairly obvious or even trivial to some, but technology has come a long way. In today’s music production circles, live performers are often replaced with their computer “sampled” equivalents, which can, to my ears, often be a little too “perfect” and come off sounding more clinical than inspirational. I hope the live musicians on Moss will give the score a musical identity with true heart and soul!

And that does it. There is no official soundtrack out yet, but a preview of a few of the songs can be heard on Polyarc's Soundcloud here. The soundtrack is absolutely magnificent, though, so a proper soundtrack seems like more of a "when" rather than an "if". Thanks so much, as always, to Jason for taking the time to chat to us.

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