Jason Graves Interview: Brutal, Visceral, Musical (November 2008)

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Jason Graves
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko, Greg O'Connor-Read

Interview Content

Michael: First of all, tell our readers about yourself. How and when did you start writing music for video games?

Jason Graves: My background is in classical composition and scoring for film and television. I was approached about seven years ago because of my experience composing and conducting for live orchestra. My first game had a decent budget for a live orchestra and I ended up having a blast, both working on the game and working with the audio team. After that first title I was hooked. I was already an avid gamer and it seemed the game music industry was really starting to take off. From then on I switched my focus from film and television to video games.

Michael: How did you get involved with Dead Space?

Jason Graves: My agent told me that EA was looking for a different kind of score for a game and I submitted some music I thought was appropriate for the title. Don Veca, the Audio Director for Dead Space, heard the demo music I submitted and said it was exactly what he was looking for. He called about a month after my initial submission to talk about flying to EA, meeting the team and playing the game.

Michael: Was there any concept art available when you started your work? Did you receive a demo of the game? 

Jason Graves: Was there ever! They had some of the coolest and scariest art I had ever seen, plastered all over the place at EA. I got copies of everything and put it around my studio. It creeped my kids out, but really helped me adapt to the atmosphere of Dead Space. For most of the game I had “walkthroughs” for reference, which are movie files of someone playing through each level from beginning to end. I also had many on-site visits with EA and sat down and played the game as much as I could over a two year period.

Michael: What do you think about Dead Space as a game? Do you like playing games in general? 

Jason Graves: I LOVE to play games. I only wish my schedule allowed me more time to play! The funny thing is, I've been playing Dead Space for about two years now, so you'd think I’d be tired of it. It’s actually the total opposite. Dead Space is such an immersive, dynamic experience that I've already played the entire thing all over again. I'm still constantly amazed at the depth and beauty of the visuals, not to mention the whole thing just drips with atmosphere. And it STILL makes me jump out of my seat, which is definitely saying something!

Michael: For what kind of projects (shooters, RPGs, RTS) do you enjoy composing the most? 

Jason Graves: I know this sounds like a cop-out answer, but I enjoy composing for all of them. One of the many things I love about composing for games is the variety of music I’m asked to work on. Each one has its own set of rules and challenges, which is always a welcome opportunity for me to learn more about music and audio for games.

Michael: Tell us about how the recording sessions went. Any nervousness when you work with a full orchestra and choir? :) 

Jason Graves: There’s always a little bit of nerves involved with live sessions, but for me I’m more concerned about the parts the musicians have on their stands, if there are any mistakes or obstacles that I’ll need to overcome during the sessions, and how much music I can record and still manage a really good performance from the musicians.

The orchestra was performing very dark, brooding music during the sessions, so you would think the music would lend itself to an extremely ominous atmosphere at the sessions. Ironically, both scoring sessions were definitely the most laid back and funny that I’ve had the privilege of conducting. I think a lot of it was a result of the experimental techniques the orchestra was able to perform. I know many of them had never really done anything like that before. While it may sound terrifying, that genre of music is amazingly fun to play. There’s a lot of freedom for the players to make up things as they go, so there’s a lot of give and take between myself and the orchestra. Most of us had big smiles on our faces during the length of the session.

Michael: Is there any dynamic music in Dead Space and if so, how will it be implemented into the game? Which type of music do you prefer to write: dynamic or standard? 

Jason Graves: The bulk of the score for Dead Space is dynamic - that’s what is playing when you’re exploring the ship or fighting Necromorphs. All the music was composed in four separate layers with different levels of tension assigned to each layer. The game engine reacts to the player’s moves and decides which layers should be playing at any given point in the game. The variable mixes of music layers/tension allow for pretty seamless interaction between what happens on-screen and how the music sounds.

Michael: Could you give us some insight into the collaboration between you, Audio Director Don Veca, and fellow composer Rod Abernethy, who also worked on Dead Space? What were the differences between this project and previous games that you have worked on?

Jason Graves: Rod was involved in the early logistics and initial brainstorming of the project, but did not compose any music for the final game. I composed, orchestrated and conducted the entire Dead Space score myself, so my interaction was mostly with Don Veca, who is a truly wonderful person to work with. We share a lot of the same ideas about game audio, listen to a lot of the same music and had a lot of the same thoughts when we were working on the score. We often finished each other’s sentences when we were face to face, talking about the game. He’s also a great musician and composer himself, which I think really shows in the final sound - Dead Space has some of the best audio I’ve ever heard in a game. Don provided me with the perfect combination of feedback and freedom, which is all a composer can really ask for. He deserves just as much credit for the Dead Space music as I do.

Michael: Were there any particularly difficult or funny moments during the creation of the score? 

Jason Graves: The one thing I will never forget was at one of the Skywalker Sound recording sessions. The orchestra was playing these slow, short, really scary, “zombies are slowly walking towards you to eat your face” kind of effects. During the break we were listening to the playback of the recording. My agent walks onto the scoring stage doing a perfect zombie imitation - arms out in front of him, staggering a little bit, moving in slow motion. Except he’s got a lamp shade on his head! So he looks like this round-headed alien zombie marching out of the booth towards the podium. I almost fell down and impaled myself on my baton I was laughing so hard.

Michael: How much music did you write for the game? How much time did you spend on Dead Space? 

Jason Graves: There were about three hours of music composed for Dead Space, but keep in mind it’s an interactive score, so each piece I wrote was actually four pieces - a two minute cue actually had eight minutes of music in it. The total timeline for music production was close to two years, but the first three-quarters of that was mostly experimenting with the sound of the score and how it would eventually be implemented. The final score was composed over a little more than four months, with the usual odds and ends to finish up a few months afterwards.

Michael: Where did you get your inspiration from? Are there any musical references to scifi horror movies? 

Jason Graves: There were some film scores Don suggested were on target, emotionally speaking, for the emotion we wanted the music to evoke. These were mostly horror/thriller films that had incredibly tense, atmospheric scores. They provided the jumping-off point for the score, but it ended up being a lot more barbaric and visceral than we had originally planned. The fact that the game takes place in space didn’t have much impact on the score. I knew I wanted the music to be as scary and alien-sounding as possible, which meant researching as many experimental techniques and unusual orchestral performances that I could find. I found a lot of inspiration in the modern works of 20th century composers, whose music is full of the kinds of effects and techniques I knew I wanted for Dead Space.

Michael: Are you proud of your work for Dead Space? What do you think makes it stand out from other scores?

Jason Graves: I’m incredibly proud of the score for Dead Space. It was definitely the most challenging score I’ve ever worked on, I think because of both the amount of music the game needed and how I approached recording and implementing it into the game. I was constantly breaking new ground and doing things I had never done before, which is why it’s also the most rewarding soundtrack I’ve composed. There’s definitely a brutal, immediate, grab-you-by-the-throat aspect to the bulk of the score. There’s actually a lot of non-musical sounds and ideas going on, but I tried to arrange them with a musical sensibility in mind. My intention was to give Dead Space a unique sound and feeling through that approach.

Michael: Will there be an official soundtrack release? 

Jason Graves: Yes - EA is releasing the Dead Space soundtrack on iTunes, Amazon and EATrax, all for digital download, on November 11th. It’s about an hour of music, which I personally selected and edited into a linear soundtrack.

Michael: What composers and artists do you admire? With whom would you like to work together? 

Jason Graves: As far as film composers go, I would have to mention Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Christopher Young (both of whom I've had the immense honor of of studying under), Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and obviously the technical master of film music that is John Williams. I also have to mention non-film composers (who are actually the guys the film composers are impacted by) like Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bartok, Stravinsky, Glass and one of my favorite classical composers, Krzysztof Penderecki.

Michael: Tell us a bit about your studio equipment (hard- and software) and how you tackle the process of creating music? 

Jason Graves: I’ve got four Mac Pros and two custom-built PCs networked together for my sounds. Other than a few external synthesizers (an Access Virus, Moog Little Fatty and Waldorf Blofeld), all my sounds are inside the computer. I use Logic, Live and Digital Performer for sequencing, depending on the kind of music I’m working on. For effects I love Waves, Bias, Melodyne and Izotope plug-ins. Some of the virtual instruments I go to a lot include Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, East West, VSL, and Arturia. However, my favorite instruments are the real ones, namely the Skywalker Symphony, the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle and the Hollywood Studio Symphony, among others. The music for Dead Space was composed almost entirely on paper, and I had the unique opportunity to work with both the Northwest Sinfonia and the Skywalker Symphony.

Michael: What advice can you give to aspiring composers?

Jason Graves: Write as much music as you possibly can, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. Nothing can make up for lack of experience - the more music you compose the more you learn. Study as much music as you can, especially classical pieces if you are composing orchestral music. Never stop learning, never stop listening and try to make yourself a better composer with every piece you work on.

Michael: Many thanks for your time!

Jason Graves: My pleasure!