Interview: PlayStation’s Principal Composer on live playing vs samples and the future of VGM

Laced With Wax Interview: PlayStation’s Principal Composer on live playing vs samples and the future of VGM

Composer and orchestrator Jim Fowler talks about his hopes for an increasingly interactive future for games music, the joys of live instruments on soundtracks and the movement for more VGM on national radio.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

PlayStation's Principal Composer Jim FowlerAs an art form within an art form, video game music has come a long way since the days of its inception in the 1970’s. Jim Fowler, Principal Composer and Orchestrator at Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe, is someone who's witnessed both the blossoming of creative ways to implement in-game music, and the incredible diversification of types of music found in video games over the last 15 years. Essentially PlayStation’s musical handyman, Fowler has gone from transcribing tracks for early SingStar titles to being an accomplished game music composer in his own right, working on any number of in-house projects including AAA titles (across the LittleBigPlanet and SingStar series), Wonderbook and VR games (including J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells and PSVR Worlds) and numerous trailers. His orchestration features on Jessica Curry’s BAFTA-winning score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (Spotify) as well as The Chinese Room’s forthcoming Google Daydream VR game, So Let Us Melt. He also contributed to the Bloodborne score (Spotify) and, in particular, orchestrated the The Old Hunters DLC (YouTube).

Diversity rules

Something that has changed significantly since Fowler started in the industry in 2004 is the broadening of musical genres and breadth of instrumentation used in game music: “The expectations of what music in a game can be have changed.

“By the time I started, things had already developed past the point of people thinking of game music as just bleeps and bloops. But, around 2004, if a game’s music featured an orchestra it tended to involve lots of brass and drums. As the medium has matured—and there are now lots of different types of games—that’s enabled the use of different musics. The expectation now is that the music will be correct for the game, in the same way that you expect the music to be correct for a film, TV show or play.”

Those revised expectations have meant that development teams can be more creative: “As a composer you can present [all sorts of] possibilities [for the music] and the developers are open to the idea of doing something different, something new. Audiences seem to be hungry for things to sound different—for there to be variety.”

In terms of games that are especially trying to stand out aesthetically—the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Hotline Miami or FEZ—it becomes “another way to give your game its own, recognisable identity. There are certain pieces of music you hear and you just know which game/score/composer it’s from. Developers want their game’s music to stand out in much the same way that they want the art, the animation and the story to be distinctive.”

Fowler’s live big band score for a PlayStation 3 Wonderbook title, Diggs Nightcrawler, is exceptional (and unfortunately exceptionally hard to find)—here’s a taster:

The future of VGM: Gameplay-as-performance

Fowler feels that there is still territory to be charted by game music composers in terms of interactivity: “I’d like to see more composers—as well as audio leads at developers—really pushing the limits of what we can do with a piece of music to support the player’s experience and still have it be a piece of music. Ideally, the player won’t hear the joins so that it’s like a piece of bespoke underscore that’s made on the fly.

“Each player’s an individual so, ideally, you won’t experience that moment where you walk into a cave and know you’re about to be attacked by skeletons because the ‘about to be attacked by skeletons’ music is playing, on cue. We can get increasingly granular with the [interactive uses of layers of music AKA ‘stems’]. We can use midi to control things and we can have samples on the fly now that memory’s a bit better.

“It’s complicated and it takes more time but I would loved to see something really pushing the creative boundaries, thinking of the gameplay as the performance of the music.

“There’s real scope to think about music from the very beginning of the project in terms of how it’s going to be performed in-game, the way that you might think about how music is going to be experience in a concert hall or during a play.”

Verdi’s Requiem is one such example from the classical world where, for effect during a particular section, several trumpets play offstage, unseen to the audience. “You might think, ‘I’ll put these instruments over here because when they come in it’s going to be awesome.’ I’d love to see people thinking in those terms with games.” He offers a theoretical example: “Imagine an action scene where you have a pad [a held note or chords], but all of the brass stabs and hits are going to be triggered by explosions in the distance.

“Playdead’s INSIDE does cool things with its minimal music and with the sound in terms of how it’s all tied into the game world.” Here’s an example of Martin Stig Andersen’s music and sound design from INSIDE [SPOILERS for the middle of the game]:

Coming on board: The earlier, the better?

At the tail end of March, Laced visited the show EGX Rezzed in London and saw all manner of creative, mind-bending games—including the visually captivating A Light In Chorus being developed by Broken Fence Games. Chatting with some of the team revealed that they hadn’t settled on an approach for creating the game’s soundtrack, although it certainly seemed that its ethereal aesthetic could be a fantastic canvas for a creative composer:

A LIght in ChorusA LIght in Chorus

Responding to this scenario, Fowler recognises: “It’s difficult for indie developers when there’s very few of you. You’re trying to take care of everything yourself—PR, funding etc.” He sympathises that it can be easy for developers to think of music as something added at the end of the process when they’ve got the headspace.

“But the nice thing about a composer coming in early on a project is that the music can become much more integral to the game. Also, if the composer can spend more time with the game and with its creators, they can get a much better sense of what it is and bring more to it via the music.

“Not that coming on late to a project means a composer will do a bad job,” he adds. “It’s just that given time to experiment, you’re more likely to discover something different and interesting. If nothing else, you can make sure the music ties in better with the mechanics of the game—it can really be designed within the interactivity of the game. This can help to shape the player’s experience, make it more bespoke. In that sense it can be really valuable for a developer to try and make the time early on to get a composer involved.”

The gaming equivalent of a ‘rough cut’

Unlike more linear mediums, such as movies or TV, games involve interlocking systems of gameplay that might drastically differentiate the experience of one player over another. As a result during the composition process, game composers have to anticipate this often abstract relationship between the player and the game.

It’s not that bad though, says Fowler: “In terms of keeping the player in mind… As a composer you do get the game equivalent of a ‘rough cut’—design documents which include concept art, reference points, possibly some early character models and a synopsis of the story. You might have an early storyboard of the whole game with level breakdowns and there will be goals for what the player is feeling at various points. Very early on there will be interactive experiments showing what the gameplay is going to be like. It might be just a load of visually uninteresting grey boxes, but it shows the interactivity and that it’s fun."

Concept art for Diggs Nightcrawler

“So as a composer, you can get a sense of that timing before the game is finished. You don’t have as good a sense of the timing as you would with a cut of a film but from a musical point of view, we know what we’re aiming for and where the hero starts and finishes. Given the nature of games, we might not know what’s going to happen in the middle, but we know about the journey that’s going to be taken. Also, you don’t have to wait until the very end to put all the music in the game as you can insert music by yourself [into an early build], test how it works in the game and fiddle around.

“There is some abstract writing,” in terms of not knowing how the player will experience the music in the final game, “and you may have to wait until the very end of the project for any rendered cut-scenes that have fixed timing.”

Wearing multiple musical hats

It’s put to Fowler that a video game composer in 2017 is often required to be an arranger/orchestrator, a performer/musician, a programmer (sequencing and tweaking MIDI instruments), a producer (organising recording sessions and overseeing the production of each piece) and a mix engineer (mixing levels, applying effects and balancing parts). Does this mean that the video game composer who eschews these different roles in favour of focusing purely on composition has more head space? Does it change the sound of their scores?

He responds: “Everybody’s a composer whether your tool is writing down dots or [programming sample-based digital instruments]—it’s just a different tool to achieve the same end. I wouldn’t say you’re any more of a ‘real composer’ because you write the dots.

“It depends on the person and what they want to do. Some people want to really dig into all that tech stuff: they want to be involved in mixing or mix it themselves, they want to do all the programming. Others just want to write the music and hear it recorded; and some are in-between. It’s a preference thing. Occasionally, out of necessity, you may be required to do a bit more of that extra stuff than you would prefer to, but as long as it’s all scheduled properly then that’s OK.”

Live playing versus sample libraries

Money, time and inclination are a few reasons why a composer, game developer and audio team may or may not want to record using live performances rather than rely on samples and synthesised instruments. Of course, many game soundtracks feature a mix of both. But Fowler has form in this area, having studied jazz and scoring himself (boom-tish!) a position in the ostensibly well-resourced in-house audio department at Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Although he aims for live performances as much as possible, Fowler’s not a purist: “If you want your soundtrack to feature instruments [e.g. flutes or violins rather than explicitly synthesised electronic sounds], you should try to have them be real instruments. And, my preference is that if your final product features some real instruments, then you should aim to include as many as possible. Sometimes budget doesn’t allow for this, so you bolster things with sampled instruments. Even a handful of live instruments and human performances on top of mainly sampled instruments can really lift things.”

A quick look at the recording sessions for Bloodborne, which Jim Fowler helped orchestrate:

“That’s not to disparage samples—I love using them, there are some great libraries and you can make brilliant mock-ups—but they’re not real people. What you get with human players is their personal interpretation of the music and their feeling as they play it.

“Take a single, held note on a flute creating using a sample library: you can tweak it in terms of properties like vibrato or ‘attack’ [the aggressiveness of the beginning of the note]; you can play it with a woodwind MIDI controller [such as the Yamaha WX5] so you can get some shape. With all of that though, you’re still limited when affecting that recording or stitching together several recordings.

“Whereas a single held note being played by a person who is responding to what’s just happened and what’s going to happen next is always going to be different, slightly more ‘shaped’ and played with more feeling. There are fantastic string samples out there but 14 violins actually playing music together in the same room is always going to have a bit more flow and emotion. With real people, you get infinite variety and tweak-ability, instantly.

“Perhaps samples will get there eventually and you can them sound amazing if you have the time. As a one-off cost, it is more expensive to get all of those musicians in a room and record them. But once it’s done, it’s done. Whereas perhaps with samples, you could be spending a very long time [endlessly tweaking things] and that’s not necessarily practical for a full soundtrack.”

More than one way to skin a cat

Rather than hire a traditional game composer, developer Hello Games decided on Sheffield instrumental rock band 65daysofstatic to create the soundtrack for its opus, No Man’s Sky. We reported on the band’s 2016 EGX developer session discussing the project—after signing on, 65daysofstatic essentially went away and created a studio album in isolation, loosely inspired by what they had seen of the game to that point. With a complete record in hand, they then worked with Hello Games’ audio director Paul Weir (who we interviewed last year) to implement the various musical sections and strands into the game using a sophisticated dynamic audio engine. This meant that each player exploring the far reaches of No Man’s Sky’s almost infinite universe would get a bespoke music and sound effects experience.

Fowler finds this approach to game music just as valid as any other: “What [Hello Games] have done there is gain an extra collaborational viewpoint on what they were doing—creating an opportunity for the band to bring something new to the table that they might not have thought of. Musicians in a band, as opposed to a dedicated soundtrack composer, probably find it more natural to go away with some inspiration and make an album of music rather than sit and wait for a cut of a film and writing to that.”

The approach taken with No Man’s Sky “brings something different to the table—and it’s a great soundtrack! I think it would be quite exciting as a developer to send someone away for six months and then discover how they had interpreted what you’re making.” This approach has been used elsewhere, with Daft Punk creating the renowned TRON: Legacy (Spotify) soundtrack before the film had been shot.

As another creative example, Fowler mentions 1958’s Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), where Miles Davis and band improvised to a screening of the movie. “I don’t think you could do that for a game—for lack of stamina! Playing for 48 hours straight…”

Favourite scores

Some favourite game soundtracks of Fowler include Takeshi Furukawa’s The Last Guardian (Spotify) (“because it had lots of woodwinds which often get left out!”) and PlayStation 3 game, Warhawk. “I really liked the use of trumpets, especially during the main theme—it’s unusual to have them as the lead instrument because they’re quite punchy, but it suited the game well.”

The Warhawk Main Theme by Christopher Lennertz:

“I played a lot of Civilization, so Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu [composed for Civilization IV] reminds me of spending all day playing... rather than doing the washing up!”

VGM on Classic FM = A win for the industry

Fowler has been looking forward to the launch of Classical FM’s first ever video game music show High Score, hosted by Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture composer Jessica Curry. He also sees the campaign to infiltrate the Classic FM Hall of Fame over the last five years, spearheaded by passionate fans like Mark Robins, as a positive movement: “It comes out of that diversification of game music.” The proof is in the pudding: “There’s now a demand for it on the radio, a huge demand for live concerts [from the flashy fun of Video Games Live to the serious classical intentions of Final Symphony] and increasingly noisy calls for a video game BBC Prom.”

Thanks to Fowler’s orchestration work on the BAFTA-winning score for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, he can now tune in to Classic FM and hear one of his projects played on national radio: “It’s exciting because it means something to people who don’t necessarily like, or are involved in the world of games. If I can say ‘some music that I helped with was played on Classic FM’, that means something to older family members. In that way, it’s nice to be able to share what you’ve been doing with people who perhaps aren’t going to play a game, or maybe will play a game as a result of having heard the music.”

In terms of this push for wider recognition of video game music happening in the realm of popular classical music, possibly excluding genres like chiptune, he is sanguine: “It has to start somewhere. It’s a slow creep forward but eventually the floodgates will open and things like [Disasterpeace’s electronica score for indie game] FEZ (Spotify) will get played on soundtrack shows, perhaps on other stations that don’t have such a specific remit.”

Haters gonna hate...

Fowler observes: “There is still a hurdle to overcome in terms of people who think game music is something else—they’re often surprised when they hear [the abundance of high quality] stuff. It can only be a good thing if more people are hearing what game music can be and having their minds changed… Or don’t change their minds but at least they’ve actually heard some game music rather than be against it on principle!”

And those dismissive types—the classical purists that sometimes appear in the Classic FM comments or on social media, denigrating video game music’s inclusion alongside Beethoven and Mozart—often rile up the most ardent VGM fans who come to its defence. Fowler points out: “All of video games has been through that… For a long time it was a thing that had to be defended from people who wanted to ban it because it was corrupting people; or was attacked as being a pointless waste of time. As a result, one of the habits you learned, as someone who liked games, was that you had to defend them as this fragile thing that might be taken away.

“But we’ve reached the point where it’s not a fragile thing anymore—there are enough games and differences in games that it’s OK for you to agree with someone who doesn’t like a game. It’s a habit we’re having to overcome—a knee-jerk defence of ‘our thing’. No one expects you to like every film if you like films, so I don’t think you have to like every game to call yourself a gamer.”

Jim Fowler is Principal Composer and Orchestrator at Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe – | Twitter: @jimfowlermusic