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Interview with Dead Space 2 Composer Jason Graves

RickDamigella
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Posted January 24, 2011 - By Rick Damigella





Dead Space 2 Soundtrack

Tomorrow is not only the release of Dead Space 2, but  along with it is a day-and-date release of the Dead Space 2 original soundtrack album. The Feed received a subspace transmission from the game’s composer, Jason Graves, where he talks about what went into creating the terrifying music for Dead Space 2, answers several of our readers’ questions and reveals the very appropriate sequence of notes which make up Isaac Clarke's theme. We promise no Necromorphs will jump out at you from the shadows as you read, so go ahead, hit that switch below and read more.

The Feed: How does the music in Dead Space 2 differ from the original Dead Space? With game play going from the tight, cramped confines of a ship, to epic, massive planetside environments like the Unitology Church in Dead Space 2, how does that affect what you create for the game’s music?

Jason Graves: Well, you pretty much hit the nail on the head with the question! The first Dead Space was indeed cramped and claustrophobic and the music reflected that. In the sequel it really does open up the universe to a more epic scale. I naturally wanted the music to have the same sense of scale, and I decided the most effective way to do this would be to contrast it against something more personal.

This time around Isaac has some fairly disturbing mental issues he has to deal with. We also see him go through various stages of vulnerability and self-doubt. I saw those game play instances as the perfect opportunity to contrast the huge, bombastic orchestra with a small, intimate group of musicians. Extreme crotchets musically illustrate Isaac’s journey, both mentally and physically, throughout the game. As a result, the player hears an intimate, emotional ensemble one minute. Then comes a huge, epic scale orchestra the next.  The small ensemble makes the orchestra seem even larger by comparison, and vice versa.

Dead Space 2 Soundtrack - "Much Ado About Necromorphs" »


The Feed: This is your third foray into the horrifying world of Dead Space. How does it feel to be such an integral part of this franchise?

Jason Graves: It definitely feels nice to be appreciated! I’ve been involved with Dead Space from the very beginning; it’s truly a wonderful feeling being a part of something so big. And the real irony is that we all actually have a lot of fun working together. Sure, we work just as hard as anybody else. But I think there’s something about working on a game as dark and brutal as Dead Space that brings out the craziness in all of us. So it’s important for us to have fun!

Dead Space 2 Composer Jason Graves

The Feed: Do you revisit any themes or ideas from Dead Space or Dead Space: Extraction in your music for Dead Space 2 or is everything in a completely original mode?

Jason Graves: Well, there was really only one true theme in the first Dead Space and that was Nicole’s theme. After all, that was the only reason Isaac volunteered to go on the mission in the first place. Nicole also provides Isaac ample motivation in Dead Space 2, so I was able to bring back her theme and thread it through the game.

There are also two new themes in Dead Space 2, one for Isaac himself and one for the marker, and they are only four notes each, stated very simply. Isaac’s theme is D-E-A-D; a simple musical statement that shows up at times amazingly dissonant and others quite introverted. The four notes from the marker theme often clash and try to “break down” Isaac’s theme. Nowhere is that musical battle more evident than in “Lacrimosa,” the String Quartet Concerto I composed for the album release.

The Feed: Which group of musicians did you work with to bring the Dead Space 2 compositions to life?

Jason Graves: I returned to Skywalker Sound to record all of the orchestral and choral portions of the score. I recorded the first Dead Space there as well and by now it feels like home to me.  All the scoring staff are also great to work with.  And the atmosphere of the place is spectacular!

Dead Space 2 Composer Jason Graves

The Feed: If you had to pick a centerpiece of music from the soundtrack, something that really drives the theme of the game home, what would it be?

Jason Graves: I would have to reiterate what I said earlier about “Lacrimosa.” I originally wanted to use the string quartet to counterbalance the enormous orchestra. It actually turned into a chance to do much more than that. The more I explored the relationship of Isaac’s theme and the theme from the marker the more musical material I came up with. I quickly realized there simply wasn’t enough game play for all of the music I wanted to write.

So I did what any normal composer would do. I wrote it anyway! I created a three movement Concerto for string quartet that ended up being about twelve minutes long. As it turned out, there were several key moments in the game where the final quartet was utilized. As an added bonus, I was able to release it in various forms on the official and Collector’s Edition soundtracks.

The Feed: One thing that stands out in your music is your sense of humor in the naming of many of your pieces. Is it challenging to name certain kinds of pieces? Some are obvious in-game references, others are a nod to pop culture, while others sound like you are definitely having fun with what you are creating. Are the names you create an exercise in fun and creativity?

Jason Graves: Ha ha, I’m so glad you appreciate the track names! That’s definitely one aspect of producing a soundtrack album that I have a lot of fun with. I’m obviously a big fan of jazz, so it’s easy for me to play the word replacement game and come up with amusing titles. The trick is, at least for me, to find titles that are both appropriate and amusing at the same time.

“Nice R.I.G. If You Can Get It” is a perfect example. That’s the first piece of combat music the player hears once Isaac gets his new R.I.G. suit, and he’s gone through quite the ordeal to earn it! Obviously, the original song is entitled “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” But what I love is that if you replace the old title with the new title and the Dead Space universe, the rest of the lyrics and song actually makes sense. I’m sure most people don’t think of it in that much detail, but I can’t help myself!

And since you mentioned track names, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least hint at something else I put into the track names. There are also three anagrams hidden amongst the tracks. Unscramble the anagrams to find the real track names. However, the anagrams themselves are also meaningful to their respective music tracks, so you have to look carefully.

Dead Space 2

The Feed: Talk a little about taking what you have created for the in-game experience and then putting it together into the format of a soundtrack album. What challenges does that entail?

Jason Graves: The initial challenge is simply documenting and organizing all the music from a particular game. The true challenge is not only selecting what music will go on the soundtrack, but what each piece will actually sound like. I’ve been delivering interactive music stems to developers for at least the last three years. The trick with interactive music is it works wonderfully well in the game because there are so many independent stems of music. But all of these stems would never play together at the same time. It’s the combination of different stems at different times that make the game play and its music truly interactive.

Now, that’s wonderful for listening to the music in the game. The real issue presents itself once it’s time to create a soundtrack album. In the game, the audio engine is constantly mixing and remixing the music. However, for the album I am the one who has to do the mixing! And if you’re talking about a title like Dead Space, you’re talking about more than three hours of music, hundreds of stem files, not to mention hundreds of stingers and dozens of cinematic pieces.

So the trick is really a simple, yet extremely time-consuming process of whittling the music down into bite-size pieces, not unlike a sculptor chipping away from a stone. If I’ve done a good job, the final soundtrack should allow listeners to relive their favorite parts of the game and also allow people who have never played Dead Space to enjoy it. At least as much as you can enjoy music from Dead Space!

The Feed: You had been listed as working on the soundtrack for the cancelled Aliens RPG. Did you ever get to the composing stage for it? If so, have or will any of those compositions find new life elsewhere?

Jason Graves: Yes, I believe there was about twenty minutes of music produced for that title before it was canceled. Unfortunately, as is the nature of game audio, everything I composed for it is a “work for hire” and belongs to the publisher. I think it would be great if the music could be repurposed for another title, but the decision does not lie with me.

The Feed: And now some questions from our readers: Sierra asks, who is your biggest influence?

Jason Graves: I’m going to have to geek out on you for a moment and list a few classical composers, because that’s where my love of music begins and ends. Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are two of my favorites, but I also love Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. In the modern world of film scoring, I think Thomas Newman and Marco Beltrami are doing a wonderful job advancing the art of film music.

The Feed: Mike  and Jake ask how you do you make the mood just right during a specific sequence and what is your "secret" for how you make the music for the game fit so well with the atmosphere?

Jason Graves: I think it’s safe to say that well implemented music definitely establishes the mood of any particular game. And that’s really the key; the way the music is implemented. As far as the music itself goes, I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the emotional context of the scene?”  For me, that’s what it all comes down to. It’s how the player feels; what they’re thinking during a particular sequence. If I can figure that out, the rest comes naturally.

Dead Space 2 Composer Jason Graves

The Feed: Michael wants to know do you also enjoy playing the games you create music for?

Jason Graves: Absolutely!  I usually end up playing through a title at least nine or ten times, and by that time all the music has been written, so I don’t usually go back once it’s released and play it again.  Except for the first Dead Space.  I did go back and play through the entire game for “research purposes,” but only for a little bit every day.  It scares me just as much as anyone else!

The Feed: Fahad asks what were your inspirations for the music in the Dead Space series?

Jason Graves: What it really came down to for me is the psychology of fear. What scares you? The fear of the unknown. So I decided to create a score of “unknown” sounds. How can I express fear of the unknown as a musical concept?  Strip away everything that is recognizable as “music.”  The three basic building blocks of any piece of music are melody, harmony and rhythm, so strip those away and the result is the score for Dead Space 2.  Off-kilter rhythms, no traditional sense of harmony and strange instrument effects make for quite the unsettling listening experience!

Jason Graves' soundtrack for Dead Space 2 releases on iTunes and Amazon tomorrow!

If you want a shot at asking a game industry music pro a question in a future interview, you can follow me here for details.

Interview with Dead Space 2 Composer Jason Graves
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