Gaming Tree House was lucky enough to conduct an interview with composer Stephen Cox! He is the brains behind the musical score for the upcoming PlayStation VR title, Farpoint. We’d like to thank Stephen for taking the time to conduct this interview with us! Hope you all enjoy!
Gaming Tree House: How is the transition from TV advertisements to games? Is your approach different?
Stephen Cox: The transition has been a welcomed change! I’ve probably done more scoring work for film and TV shows than I have for TV ads. However, sticking to a 30 second or 1 minute time constraint is a challenge in and of itself. With game music, the cuffs are off in terms of hard timings during the gameplay writing. It’s the implementation of the music that determines triggering and timing. Although there are plenty of cinematics in Farpoint, which are treated just like a film score, writing music for the gameplay was super exciting and sometimes very technical, which is why I love it! The pressure to create something original, timeless, and doing it all without a linear video guiding the process was the best part.
Gaming Tree House: Why did you transition to video games?
Stephen Cox: Composing for games has always been an aspiration of mine. As I worked on more TV and film projects where the music productions kept growing in complexity and scope, games were the next logical step. As I learned more about the process of game music production, the more I wanted it. It all came down to finding the right opportunity and convincing the right people.
Gaming Tree House: How does working in a VR experience compare to working on the audio of another kind of consumer?
Stephen Cox: All sound, including music, can be very pinpointed and directional in the VR world. Voices, ambiance and possibly music can potentially change in mix and location depending on where your head is turned. The use of reverb and stereo panning is so much more important in VR than it is in any other medium. I worked closely with Jonathan Mayer and the rest of Sony’s music team to figure out which reverb presets work well and how dense the instrumentation should be. We would need to hand off music sessions with fully routed reverbs and effects for maximum tweak-ability.
GTH: Does VR change the way you approached the musical score?
GTH: When I first saw Farpoint, I thought “this is what VR is supposed to be”, how do you craft music or audio for an experience in Virtual Reality, where full immersion would not have music at all?
Stephen Cox: I’m so happy to hear that! I thought the same thing when I played that old E3 demo. And the last build I got to play exceeded my expectations even more so with the implemented score. In terms of music in VR, I think there are two extremes or camps – Full immersion, where the space and reality are 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 extreme could be called hyper-cinematic – where the music is so intense and bombastic that heightens the anxiety more than you would expect in a regular feature film, almost used like an effect. We definitely flirted with both extremes in Farpoint, but we were always conscious of the immersion and made sure the music would never be a distraction.
Gaming Tree House: What’s your personal favorite video game soundtrack?
Stephen Cox: 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 most recent game I can think of is score to The Last of Us composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. 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.
Gaming Tree House: Who are your musical influences?
Stephen Cox: 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 pushed me through the high school years. Once I was in college, my influences became totally schizophrenic… Coltrane, Oscar Petersen, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Erik Korngold, Aphex Twin, Stravinski… I’m jamming out to a Steve Reich playlist as I write this. One of my new film scoring favorites is Jóhann Jóhannsson. His score for Arrival was outstanding and totally underrated. I’m also a big fan of his live music, Drone Mass, which is currently touring. Also anything John Powell does. There are so many modern pop, rock, hip hop and R&B artists I’ve left out. I listen to everything and sometimes study the hell out of it, depending on the gig.
GTH: How did you get into composing video game music?
Stephen Cox: Composing for games has always been an aspiration of mine. I have to say one guy made it a reality. I met my main man and good friend, Jonathan Mayer, at a Full Sail VIP event several years ago. He’s the Senior Music Manager for Sony Interactive Entertainment. I had admired this guy and the important work he does at Sony for years prior. He would fly out to Full Sail regularly to do guest speaking and Master classes. During these events, I would pick his brains relentlessly and made sure I kept in touch. For the next year, I would send him random tracks from our CBS Sports work, trailer music and anything else that I or Unified Sounds was working on. Then he offered us an amazing opportunity. Unified Sounds was initially commissioned to do a series of background tracks for an unannounced Sony project, many months before Farpoint. It was amazing working on the proof of concept with Jonathan’s music team. Their workflow, efficiency, and talent are second to none in this industry. Only a few short months later, after our work on that project was wrapped, I was given the opportunity to do a demo for what is now Farpoint. Sony told us that we “killed it” with that demo and one of the pieces ended up being the main theme.
Gaming Tree House: What are the first steps you take when starting to compose a score for a game?
Stephen Cox: Finding the palette is always first. Many times the developer (in this case Jonathan’s awesome music team) will give you references or a style guide of scores that point you in the right direction. My writing partner, Danny McIntyre, and I did a lot of sound design in the beginning before writing a single note, which really set the tone (and key) for the entire score. We bowed, hit and blew into any random object or exotic instrument that we could get our hands on to keep it organic. Once we had that “tool box” of ethereal tones, it made writing the pieces very fluid and organic. After that, we concentrate on 4-5 “tent pole” pieces or themes that encompass the overarching emotional content of the game. Then variations will be constructed (or deconstructed) from those main themes to fill in various levels and stages of the games. It’s a similar process in film, but in games it’s much less linear when you are not scoring to a locked picture from start to finish.
Gaming Tree House: Do you like to have a soundtrack that stands out or one that’s more in the background or ambiance?
Stephen Cox: There’s a time and place for both. I’m a big fan of both as well. For film, I do like when the underscore doesn’t distract or get in the way of dialog. This is the same with cinematics in games. If I don’t notice the music but still “feel things” I know the score is doing its job. But I also want the music to shine during an emotional apex or at least for the credits! In the end it’s whatever serves the project and lights up the audience/player.
Gaming Tree House: What’s your favorite video game to play?
Stephen Cox: I feel almost embarrassed admitting it, but Clash Royal on the iPhone is probably it. My whole family is hooked on this addictive, skinner box of a game! We are constantly battling each other, so I like that communal aspect. My kid is only 8 yrs old right now, and he is the one who introduced us to it. I’m sure he’ll discover my next favorite game in the near future. If Farpoint was out, that would definitely take the cake. There’s nothing like it. And now that co-op mode is a big part of it, I cannot wait for the release!!!
Thanks Stephen Cox for the interview!