Many a gamer will have spent the holiday season in front of their TVs, playing the new “Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” or it’s downloadable add-on, “Freedom Cry“. Olivier Deriviere scored the game, along with a number of other titles in recent years, such as “Remember Me” and “Alone In The Dark“. I thought it would be interesting to pick his brains about his recent work as a game composer, and learn more about his profession in general.
Hi Olivier. Can you tell me how you got your start in the world of video game music? Was there a 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 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.
Your biography talks about how you attended coding parties as a teenager. Can you tell me about that?
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 the tools I had.
You went to Berklee College to study film music and jazz. Was the intention for you to use that education to work with 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.
Do you think there’s 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 similar. If you think a game is the same as an opera, 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 support his experience. Not the visuals, not the narration; nothing but his or her role.
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. 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 game music jobs in each of these countries?
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 it’s not like Hollywood where everybody kind of works at the same places. 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 and Disney Interactive.
What would you say was your big break in the game music industry?
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 and commercial success. Unfortunately, most of the studios I worked for that were willing to hire me again went out of business, so each time I had to start from scratch to convince a new one that I can make a difference. Today, people in the industry have started to see what I have achieved and thankfully they’ve 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 Entertainment?
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?
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.
As someone who has a classical background, to what extent do you think today’s bedroom artists should 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 creativity to have access to so many options in a laptop. But what I don’t understand is the search for reproducing an actual orchestra with samples. It can be useful, but I think it’s ultimately meaningless. If I had no musical background, I would rather spend my time in exploring new sounds, rather than trying to reproduce something that is already working great.
What kinds of differences exist between scoring action-adventure games like “Assassin’s Creed”, and Disney family-friendly ones like “Tangled”? Is that contrast a challenge for you?
There’s always a challenge, but 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 two months of writing, with no budget for live recording. You now have to quickly create a “Disney-like” orchestra sound with samples. And for “Assassin’s Creed” it’s the same story, only that I had several months to produce the score. But I had to record the Haitian music in New York City, and the orchestra in Brussels, so you have much less time for composing and much more stress for music production!
Do you think there are any creative ways to bridge the gap between acoustic music recording and electronic production?
The main difference between the two approaches beyond the analog/digital side of it are the dynamics. Today, what is standard in many movie and game scores is for the music to be big and loud. So you’ll 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 range of 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 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’s 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”, which is quite electronic-sounding?
“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 of orchestral and electronic sounds, but rather create a fusion between them. If you take away the orchestra, you won’t hear any electronic synths, because they’re 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.
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 that’s an analog sound 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?
“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 comes to understand that 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 solidarity amongst each other. Also, the game tells a very human story. It’s not about the Assassins against the Templars, but 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? 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. What I can say about Ubisoft is that they were really open minded for such an established franchise and I felt lucky.
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, 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, which is priceless!
If someone came to you with a $2500 budget to build a studio for game scoring, what kind of setup would you recommend they purchase?
You can score a game for much less than that. But it depends on the game. I would say a PC or Mac with minimum 16 GB RAM and a good processor. A RME Babyface as a soundcard, with Cubase and Komplete. Speakers or headphones would depend 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!
What’s next for you, now that you’ve scored a 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 a 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.