Interview: Olivier Deriviere [Game Composer]

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olivierIf you’re a video game fan, you may have spent the holiday season sitting in front of your TV, playing the critically acclaimed “Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” and it’s downloadable add-on, “Freedom Cry“. If you’re a true fan of the series, you’d also have heard that “Freedom Cry” just came out as a standalone version today. That’s bound to make Olivier Deriviere happy. Oh, I forgot to mention, he’s the one who scored the game, along with a number of other titles in recent years, such as “Remember Me” and “Alone In The Dark“. Being that Olivier is clearly on the upside of his career, we thought it wise to pick his brains about what it’s been like for him as video game composer over the last years, and learn more about his line work.

Hi Olivier. Thanks for being willing to talk to me about your music work and career. I’ve had the pleasure of playing many of the games that you’ve worked on, and it’ll be exciting to ask some questions about it. Can you tell me how you got your start in the world of video game music? Was there a particular catalyst that launched you into it?

The catalyst was video games themselves. I was born when games started to become home entertainment, and since then I haven’t stopped playing them. I have to say the fascination is still fresh and I’m always amazed by what we can achieve. That said, I must confess that my first idea was to become an engineer to code games, but it appeared I was a better composer than a programmer, so I ended up scoring them; not that it is a bad thing at all!

Your biography talks about how you attended coding parties as a teenager. How did you come to be at such places, and what were some of things you learned that helped you in your music career?

When I was fourteen I went to big coding parties. They were events where you would spend three days in a row with very little sleep to create music, digital drawings and code to compete with others, in a very friendly way. At that time, technology was so limited that it taught me a lot about how to make good use of them and be creative.

Seeing as you went to Berklee College to study film music and jazz, was the intention for you to use that education to work on video game music, or was film music something that you also wanted to get into?

I went to Berklee to escape my French musical education, which is really different from an American music education. I even had some interesting arguments with teachers at Berklee because of that, and eventually had to consider that it might have been too late to escape my first teachings. I was mostly interested in the film music program, but deep down I knew games were my final goal. Since there was no school for that, I decided to take the chance of starting a career.

Would you say that the work you did for TV and animated short films helped you in your video game music work? Is there an overlap between video game music and other media music?

The common overlap is the art of writing music, but the ultimate result is completely different for a movie or a game. You have to develop special skills for each of them, and I would disagree with anyone saying it’s very similar. If you think a game is the same as an opera, a symphony, a television show or a movie then I believe you don’t know what a game really is. In a game, the main character is the player and you want to make sure to support his experience. Not the visuals, not the narration; nothing but his or her role. It’s a process that only gamers understand I guess.

Can you talk about your experiences with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and what you learned from them whilst at Berklee?

Well, I was so lucky that I got to spend a whole season there. I was at each rehearsal and concert, which had an incredible list of maestros conducting this awesome orchestra. I think as a composer the best way to learn orchestration is to go listen to a live orchestra. You may think listening to a CD is enough, but by experience I can tell you it is not. It also taught me how important it is to get the best musicians you can to perform your music because when you hear Seiji Ozawa conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique performed by the BSO you hear things you never heard elsewhere.

As someone who has spent time in both France and the USA, would you say there are any major differences between getting video game music jobs in each of these countries? Is it harder in one place over the other?

That’s a great question! I think the video game industry is one of the toughest to make a career in for composers. In games, you’re dealing with development studios, so you have to convince the top management as much as the guys you may work with. Also, there are some cities like Montreal or Seattle where you may find multiple studios, but mainly it’s not like Hollywood where everybody works kind of at the same place. The game industry is a global one, so you need to be really proactive to make sure people know about you. Being French may have helped me sometimes and may have not helped me at other times. What I can say is that opportunities are more widely available in the USA, yet I have only worked once for a US based studio, which was for the “Tangled” soundtrack, at Planet Moon Studio / Disney Interactive.

What would you say was your big break in the game music industry, that made it possible for you to do this as a living? Was it because of luck or hard work?

It’s a mix of luck and a lot of hard work. I haven’t had the chance to do what we call a “hit game” that is both a critical reception and a commercial success. Unfortunately most of the studios I worked for that were willing to hire me again went out of business, so every time I had to start from scratch to convince them that I can make a difference. Today, people in the industry start to see what I have achieved and thankfully they have recently become interested, but I wouldn’t say I had a big break….yet!

How did you end up getting your first game scoring job at Hydravision?

By accident, sort of…I was looking for a job in games for about a year and I was almost out of money, but I couldn’t believe I had to go back to my parents. Just a few weeks before my probable return, I heard about this project by accident and went to the studio to meet with the producer. Years after we worked together, he told me that “everything you said during the meeting was too good to be true”. The thing was, it was thanks to my experience in coding parties that I fulfilled all the requirements for the job.

As someone who’s worked extensively in the world of acoustic music, what are your thoughts on blending acoustic and electronic music for score work? In today’s digital age, the two seem very intertwined, and your music work for games like “Remember Me” feature a lot of both.

It all depends on the project you work on. First it depends on the budget; electronic music will always be cheaper. Then, the hybrid music between electronic and acoustic was a great improvement to the musical palette for movies. ”Remember Me” was a great challenge because we were in uncharted territory, as we wanted to record a live orchestra and then manipulate the performance with electronic processing. Ultimately, I think the real path for game music is to extensively employ electronic music because it permits a lot of flexibility, not only to produce, but mostly because you can attach lots of parameters of an electronic sound to the game’s parameters. I think this is the future of video game scoring even if we still may have some acoustic elements.

A common element among many of today’s youth is to make music at home on their laptops. Many who never have had classical training are able to make great music this way, since they focus on samples and MIDI. As someone who has a classical background, to what extent do you think today’s up-and-coming artists need to focus on learning music theory and classical instruments, if they wanted to score video games? Is it a must-have?

Not at all, and I encourage them not to learn classical music if they don’t want to go with live orchestras. I think this is a great opportunity for anyone who wants to develop his/her creativity to have access to so many options. Now, what I don’t understand is the search for reproducing an actual orchestra with samples. It is useful but I think it is meaningless. I would rather spend my time, if I had no musical background, in exploring new sounds rather than trying to reproduce something that is already working great.

What kinds of differences exist between scoring mature-rated action-adventure games like “Assassin’s Creed”, and Disney family friendly ones like “Tangled”? Is that contrast a challenge for you?

There is always a challenge and usually not where you might think it is. If a composer accepts a project, I believe it’s because he knows how to write music for it, or at least he has the skills to do that. The actual project, such as “Tangled”, may be just 2 months of writing, with no budget for live recording. You now have to quickly create a “Disney-like” orchestra sound with samples, and that is the challenge. And for “Assassin’s Creed” it’s the same story, only that I had several months to produce the score. But I had to go record in New York City for the Haitian music, and then in Brussels for the orchestra, so you have much less time for composing and much more stress for music production!

As someone who has recorded everything from vocals to live strings, as well as produced music electronically on a computer, do you think there are any creative ways to bridge the gap between acoustic music recording and electronic production that people would benefit from learning?

The main difference between the two approaches beyond the organic and analog/digital sides of it are the dynamics. Today, what is standard in many movie and game scores is for the music be big and loud. So you will have a huge orchestra with tons of percussion and lots of electronic elements that are combined to take up all the spectrum of frequencies. It’s fun, I admit, but it tends to leave musicality on the side; you just hear a huge sound with about four chords going in a loop.

When you listen to classical music, you have such a gap between dynamics that sometimes you find yourself turning the volume up and down. If you listen to pure electronic music, everything stays mostly at the same level of intensity. It’s called “compression”. They tend to destroy all dynamics on purpose so you will get the same amount of volume all the way through. Now, I think orchestral music can’t compete with electronic music in that regard, so it is our role as composers to adapt our production dependence and bring some music back to our production.

Can you talk about the process of scoring “Remember Me”. It has quite a digital sound to it. Did you feel like it differed considerably from what you had been doing in the past?

“Remember Me” could be considered as a try-out for what I just talked about in the previous question. The idea was not to have a balance between an orchestra and electronic sound, but rather osmosis between them. If you take away the orchestra you won’t hear any electronic synths because they are a result of electronic audio manipulation, and if you take away the electronic processing then some parts of the orchestra will feel empty and meaningless. I don’t think anyone has ever done that to a live orchestra prior to this project, and I’m happy it ended up being quite good, but I must say I had listened to so many electronic artists manipulating acoustic sources that I feel I owe them some credit.

I didn’t feel it differed from my previous work since each of them needed to have its own identity and satisfy the game’s need.

From a production standpoint, what were some of the creative challenges you had with the “Remember Me” score?

I want to point out that this music is serving a game, and what I like to do when scoring a game is to support its gameplay mechanics. I appreciate people listening to the soundtrack on iTunes or Spotify but I think they would get a much bigger idea of the challenges I had if they would play the game.

The biggest challenge in “Remember Me” was to support the player’s actions while he or she was fighting. To be as close as we did, we had to prepare recording sessions in such ways that if I had to do it again today, well, I would do it but I guess I would need an extra year of rest!

What were some of your go-to sound sources and synths for that score?

The orchestra was the go-to sound. That was the safety zone, as I knew we were going to record in London with legendary engineer John Kurlander (“The Lord of the Rings”, “World War Z“). For synths, I created a hybrid lead sound that is an analog shape morphed with a female voice. But what really excited me was the electronic manipulation I had to create. I used several plugins and created custom effects that will glitch and manipulate the orchestra performance in a musical way. That was a real challenge, but it was the main purpose of the score, and the game: digital manipulation.

Compared to “Remember Me” the score for “Assassins Creed IV: Freedom Cry” is quite different, and has a lot of strings and ethnic vocal work. How did you go about creating this?

My goal for each game is to serve it as much as I can with a unique musical approach and a great sense of interactivity. “Assassins Creed IV: Freedom Cry” is a very unique game that tells the story of a former slave named Adéwalé who became an assassin and by accident gets stranded on Port au Prince, where he witnesses his people suffering and little by little understands he has a part to play to help them. When I first met the team I understood quite quickly that I had to bring in traditional Haitian music because music was the way for slaves to express their opposition and to form some solidarity amongst each other. Also, the game tells a very human story. It’s not about the Assassins against the Templars, but it is about a man that goes back to his roots. So we didn’t want an epic feel to it, but rather a more emotional and softer approach. To have the Brussels Philharmonic performing the score was quite a treat.

What was it like working for a major game company like Ubisoft, on Assassins Creed? Did it present any major differences from the past companies you had worked for?

Despite the big name, Assassin’s Creed was like any other game I’ve worked on. I try to be as close as possible to the team to absorb as much as I can for the vision behind the game and this is why every project is different. What I can say about Ubisoft is that they were really open minded for such an established franchise and I felt lucky.

Which of your 8 video game soundtrack projects, which was the hardest for you to score, and why?

I guess “Remember Me” because it was still the biggest challenge, musically speaking, as well as how we integrated the music in the game.

What does your studio look like? Tell me about what gear and hardware you use, and what’s most important to you among those things.

I use PC with Cubase and Pro Tools (that made John Kurlander really happy to try out Pro Tools on PC), some pairs of different speakers, lots of software and dedicated hardware. My plugins are regular ones, such as Native Instruments’ Komplete, and many effects plugins such as Lexicon and Slate Digital.

The most important thing is the game controller I have. Thanks to this, I can play the game I’m scoring and it is just priceless!

If someone came to you with a $2500 budget and said that they wanted teach themselves how to make music for games, what kind of studio setup would you recommend they purchase? Are there any key things that are important?

You can score a game for much less than that. But it depends what is the game. I would say a PC or a MAC (if you have the money) with minimum 16 GB RAM and a good processor. A RME Babyface as soundcard, Cubase 7.5 and Komplete from Native Instruments. Speakers or headphones depending on your budget as well. But the key is to understand what it means to score a game. It’s not just about writing music; it’s about gameplay mechanics, and one tool that is great to start understanding how music in games works is called Wwise. It’s free too, so try it out!

Given that you’ve been able to work in large studios and had big live recording sessions on your projects, what do you think are the chances that bedroom producers who don’t have access to those things can also make good game soundtracks?

Daft Punk produced their first album in a bedroom.

What’s next for you, now that you’ve scored a famous AAA title like Assassins Creed? Are the game companies lining up to give you bigger projects?

It’s good to have scored a big franchise, but trust me, it makes only a little bit of difference. This job teaches you one thing for good: humility!

Right now, I’m finishing a game by Spiders, called “Bound by Flame”. It was developed by a very small team, compared to my previous productions, but a very talented one! And I am still working on an indie game called “Harold”. You’ll hear of it soon. Thank you for your interest in my work!

No problem at all! I look forward to hearing more of it in future games Thanks a lot for the interview Olivier. I hope people check out your website, and get further acquainted with your music and background.

SamInterview: Olivier Deriviere [Game Composer]

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