Interview: Jason Graves [Game/Film Composer]

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Jason Graves croppedJason Graves' resume stretches too far for me to fully go through but some notable game and franchises he's scored are Dead Space 1,2, and 3, Devil May Cry: Vergil's Downfall, Resistance: Burning Skies, Murdered: Soul Suspect and the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. With his music output not seeming to slow down, I figured I'd throw some questions at him to learn a bit about his history and process.

As someone who's worked on a number of media franchises and indie game titles alike, what would you say have been some of the titles that have been most responsible for directing your game music career to where it is now?

I'd like to think it's the unique combination of everything I've worked on. Not just the media exposure of the bigger titles, but the experience and knowledge that slowly comes with each title, whether it's a AAA game, an indie feature film or a licensed trailer track.

You've made many mentions in the past about how you research your games and music prior to delving into the composition. Can you talk about some of the research habits you employ during the early stages of your work?

I'm not sure if there are any habits, per se. It's more like a general "what musical potential is there for this title?" kind of thought. It may be some weird orchestration technique or ensemble setup, diving into alternate microphone uses or downloading new FX plugins. Currently, I'm trying out different hardware synths through my guitar setup, so it's all about experimenting with oscillators and guitar pedals. Totally independent and different from one project to the next, which is quite refreshing!

Some titles that you've scored, like Tomb Raider and Dead Space, have received critical acclaim across the board, which I assume brings more attention to the various aspects of the game that helped make it successful, including music. But when you work on a title that goes on to be less critically acclaimed for whatever reason, be it graphics, glitches or poor gameplay, does it affect your feelings of having worked on that project?

Absolutely not. It's honestly not something I think about very much. The funny thing is you really have no idea what the public response of any project will be, especially when you're eyeballs deep in the middle of music production. The reality of public opinion never really sinks in for me. I guess I've mentally left that project behind at least six months before it comes out, so really I'm just left with my positive memories of the people I worked with and how much fun it was.

As someone who has quite a lengthy resume of game music work, what kind of principles and practices have you been using over the years as far as developing new musical ideas. Do you ever recycle content, samples, melodies or themes?

I prefer to start as fresh as possible. I almost feel like a musical great white shark - keep moving forward or die! It's one of life's great ironies - I feel like the more I try to learn about music the more I realize I don't know. Each project is another opportunity to start anew and really improve myself.

I've seen some of the YouTube videos from 2012 of you making your own sounds using different instruments and objects. What are some ways that you've gone about creating new sounds of late for your recent projects?

Lately it's been all about microphones, preamps and live acoustic instruments. I'll play anything I can find around the house or order off Amazon, especially where percussion is concerned.

What was it that drew your interest to one of your latest game music projects, "Murdered: Soul Suspect"? Did that project offer up any new experiences for you?

That was the first project that I tried a hand at playing all the solo string parts myself (except the melodic bits). It gave me a lot of freedom to record ambient and combat tracks with live strings. It was especially interesting stacking up multiple takes of harmonics from all the stings - I have two violins, a viola, a cello and a contrabass. So I would end up with ten or fifteen passes of these high, squeaky harmonics that would sound silly on their own but ended up being extremely effective when played together as an ensemble.

You've mentioned in previous interviews that the music for "Soul Suspect" was made over a three and half year period. Is that a time span that you're usually afforded when working on games, or was that unusually long for this one?

That was slightly longer than most due to me being brought in at a very early stage. Most bigger titles probably have a one to two year music production period, but of course that includes lots of breaks in between. The largest portion of the score is still normally composed in the last six months of the schedule.

Given that you played most, if not all, of the instruments on the "Adrenaline" film score, what did you find to be the most challenging part of assuming the role of instrumentalist for that project?

I found out very quickly that less was more, especially with the drums and bass parts. It made it easier to mix the tunes but definitely more challenging when I was laying down the tracks! Keep it simple? Sometimes not as easy as it sounds!

What kind of technical challenges exist in overdubbing your own playing with more instruments? I heard that you had to expand your studio gear quite extensively for this project.

I did, indeed! The drum set alone has twelve microphones on it, so that was twelve more mics, preamps, tielines, etc. that I needed to install. Add another six channels for guitar and bass, plus all the associated instruments - drums, hardware, cymbals, guitars, amps, cabinets, cables, basses, bass cabs...it was quite the studio upgrade. But what's great is it all stays after the project is finished and works it's way into other scores in ways I never would have thought of if the gear and opportunity weren't sitting right there ready to play with.

As far as overdubbing goes, aka the "one man band" scenario, I simply practiced a lot. At least four nights a week I would woodshed guitar, bass and drums. The premise being that the more I played, the tighter my timing would be and the less editing I would need to do once I recorded. Luckily I had time to practice before the score needed to begin so I was mostly there by the time composition began.

Speaking of technical things, can you tell me a bit about your studio setup. What kind of gear and monitoring tends to be used in your compositions and mixing?

I tend to prefer the idea of as much analog pathways as I can muster, assisted by digital recording. So I record as many acoustic instruments as possible into the computer, add software sounds and effects as needed and run it all back through my analog outboard gear at the end. I've got Manley and API on the front/back ends and monitor through a Cranesong Avocet with Bryston amps/crossovers and Dynaudio M3A speakers.

What are some of the things you use from a software perspective, such as DAW and favorite plugins?

I'm normally composing in Digital Performer but also use Ableton Live and ProTools. I especially use ProTools when mixing live orchestra. FabFilter and Waves get pulled up a lot for utilitarian mixing duties, as does SoundToys for effects.

How do you juggle composing and mixing when scoring? Do the two ever intersect, or do you have to keep them separate, particularly since game music has an interactive way of being integrated into its media, leading to the necessity of a dynamic mix?

It's definitely not an easy thing. I think composers today struggle with mixing more than ever before - everyone seems to assume that the computer somehow magically mixes everything for us in an instant. It's so far from the truth! I'm pretty much constantly mixing while I'm composing - tweaking and changing my basic template to suit the needs of the specific piece. The only exception would be if it's destined for a completely live recording, in which case everything will simply be replaced. Dynamic game music is even more in need of proper mixing, since the individual elements all need to be balanced and voiced beforehand to translate within the game.

As someone who's integrated drones, ambience and textures into his music, like with Dead Space, what are some of the ways you've gone about bringing such sounds to the forefront of a mix? It's not something that an average listener might normally pick up on unless it stuck out somehow.

I tend to be musically OCD when it comes to composition and I think that shows the most in the quieter cues. I have this unexplainable need to have things constantly moving and evolving, even if it's ever so subtly in the background. But I'd like to think that helps them stand on their own a bit more, even if that's only me trying to make myself feel better about the situation!

Do you feel like there's any limit to the type of game music you can make for different genres? Are there any things you've turned away or avoided thus far?

One of the many things I love about composing for games is the creative freedom I enjoy. I have yet to be boxed in or regulated to a single genre of music, even within multiple title in the same genre.

What is coming up next for you? Any interesting projects for the remaining part of the year?

There are some very exciting game titles being announced in the coming months that I have, of course, been sworn to secrecy about. I'm also a few weeks away from my next feature score, of which the instrumentation is to be determined. Cue the researching!

SamInterview: Jason Graves [Game/Film Composer]

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