Music and VR Part 2: “Signature Sounds,” with Farpoint composer Stephen Cox

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signature sounds
Farpoint | Impulse Gear | Playstation VR

Now that Farpoint for PSVR has been released and the soundtrack has dropped, we bring you Part 2 of our own Krista Grace Morris’s interview with Farpoint composer Stephen Cox.

Check out Part 1 here.

In this portion of the interview, Krista and Stephen discuss signature sounds the 8-bit days, preparing sound “tool boxes” and the state of VR and AR markets. Can’t forget VR addiction and more on Farpoint.

Signature Sounds

Stephen Cox: I think with a lot of games, it is about the “signature sounds.” It’s almost a branding, if you will…

KG: Tetris?! Mario Bros.?! Definitely!

SC: Exactly! I mean, it could also just be one little tone that you hear throughout. When you hear it, it just triggers you like “Oh! Enemy incoming!”

KG: That conditions you.

SC: Yeah. Mario Bros.! And in creating those signature sounds, in creating that palette, it was just exhilarating.

Then, the next step was taking orchestra and making the signature sounds work with that giant sound design . . . mess that we made. [both laugh]

I think that’s part of the reason why we got the gig: that I not only handed off a score (the demos that we were doing), but I handed off what I called a “tool box”: here is this drone, here is this strange trumpet sound it was based off of.

We said “here is all this stuff, have fun with it.” And these were sounds we didn’t just whip up in 10 minutes; we crafted.

A lot of craft went into everything you hear, which is the music that I like: when I listen to something, and hear “wow, that was hard.” We carved that up forever to get that sound, that one bell or that one kick drum to be just perfect.

“That takes work. And craft. And patience. That’s what excites me most about this: we had the opportunity to do the craft.”

Virtual Insanity

SC: My kid and I, I can’t wait to play Farpoint with him it’s going to be so fun. He’s only eight, I have to convince his mommy.

KG: Yup, the copious amounts of bug killing and Starship Troopers-style violence…

SC: Yeah, we’ll ease into it.

Edgy Labs interview with Stephen Cox discusses Farpoint's signature sounds.Click To Tweet

SC: It [VR] becomes real, and it’s already real enough when you’re in that space.

I mean, my brain switched over pretty quickly, and when I took off that headset… I think there’s going to be a lot of VR withdrawal issues in the future.

KGM: I can definitely see that as well, and I’m glad that you mentioned this.

This is always the classic fear associated with entertainment, including video games. Conventional and VR. 

Even porn.

Sure, things in themselves can be addictive, period. And, some have genetic predispositions. But, I think we also have to look at what else pushes people into addictive behaviors.

For example, I think that regardless of your political views, I do think that more and more, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say what we mean in public, without offending someone- this is always the danger in a pluralistic society like ours. “Big Data” can make us feel constantly surveilled. 

I’m afraid that if we don’t address that publically, when VR does become (maybe) the dominant medium, it may be our escape into privacy. VR content is still limited but improving, and it will rival reality.

wongstock | Shutterstock.com

So, at the end of the day, I’m not saying that it’s Big Brother or a police state. But, just with technology being a double-edged sword, on one end it has increased transparency so much, it has democratized a lot of these technologies – I mean Garage Band made everyone rock star, right?

But the other side of that is, “where is my privacy?”

I can see VR especially, maybe, in the porn and gaming realms, becoming very addictive very soon, where people use that as a retreat to do whatever they want, to say what they mean, to have the experiences that they want and that they cannot find in the real world.

SC: Yeah, I think you nailed it.

I agree, I think there would be…I think, yes, no one can predict what kind of problems with society we’re going to be having, but political correctness, you mentioned that.

I think the people definitely want to escape and not be held accountable for every single… I hope I haven’t slipped during this interview!

KG: That’s my point. Also, I hope that pop-up ads don’t make a comeback…

SC: Oh man, me either Didn’t even think about that. It just seems too easy.

On Sounding Cheesy

KG: We were talking about Mario and signature sounds in some of the older games. I really like what you said about music being a type of branding (signature sounds) in gaming and in general- I mean how many theme songs or commercial jingles can we automatically finish if we hear the first few notes?

I was in Boston recently and a good friend took me to a spot called Roxy’s in Cambridge. Normal diner-esque sandwich place during the day, but after 5 you walk through what looks like a meat freezer door into the A4cade- a space packed with a bar, late-twenty-somethings and tons of old school arcade games.

I played a handful including Simpsons… Now, we look back at the games we played as kids, and they’re almost laughable like “man, the graphics are so bad.” There’s this kind of ironic nostalgia that’s a reminder of how quickly technology moves and is moving.

Did this play into your compositions for Farpoint, or how you crafted the sounds?

Five, ten, twenty years down the line, did you think of how the music might sound in the future? That maybe the music for Farpoint might sound a little cheesy further down the line?

Maybe your eight-year-old son will be in a VR retro [arcade bar] as an adult, see Farpoint and say “Oh, no way! My dad worked on this!”

SC: Wow, you know what, no. No, that hasn’t really crossed my mind.

I’m just now dealing with the fact that this game could be a big deal. And now, the fact that my kid’s talking to me about it everyday on the way to school. Instead of Plants vs. Zombies! Which is usually what he wants to talk about… “PVZ, Dad!”

I’m just now grappling with that, thinking “wow, what is going to be doing when he’s 10…?” Just two years from now.

But, 20 years out? Will it sound cheesy? I don’t know because music, it goes through these drastic changes. You have to think, music was really limited back then.

KG: In terms of the capabilities.

SC: Yeah! Back then, you were limited to: a square wave, a triangle wave and a sine wave. [laughs] That was it: “bleep bloop.”

“Yeah! Back then, you were limited to: a square wave, a triangle wave and a sine wave. [laughs] That was it: ‘bleep bloop.'”

And four tracks, or four notes, that could be played simultaneously. That was it. That was hard, during the 8-bit days.

And maybe those limitations will be ripped away even more with VR.

Maybe you will be able to build your own orchestra before the game starts. Hire your violinist! Here’s a whole line up of cello players.

Pick your ensemble. You want eight cellos? Or, do you want two? Do you want a smaller ensemble… the possibilities are endless. You could place your musicians wherever you want in the space. And then start the game.

You could place your musicians wherever you want in the space. And then start the game.

KG: We didn’t even see the cell phone coming, so there are things right around the corner the neither we nor Sci-Fi can predict.

The Year of VR

KG: Sony is putting a lot into VR right now. Last year was supposed to be the year of VR. 2015 also.

Now, we’re in 2017 and it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen… but there’s something that just needs a little nudge to push VR over the edge. And I don’t think that Sony has figured it out, either.

AR, on the other hand, is already taking off.

SC: The Director of AR at Atlantic Records has told me the same thing. He sat me down, said, “okay, AR is going to take off, I want to be on that train. How do we do this? How do we put the moving parts together” because it’s not easy.

You have to get developers, you have to get a project manager who knows how to put all these moving parts together, and you’re going to source graphics, sounds.

It there’s anyone that can do it, it’s the Impulse Gear guys. The guys who made Farpoint, who made that AIM controller. Seth Luisi and his crew.

AIM Controller | Farpoint | | Impulse Gear | Playstation VR

And they’re a small crew but they are a lean mean fighting machine. If they had the time and ability to do it, I think they would. They’re on the forefront of innovation.

KG: My personal opinion is that right now, the barrier to VR being super accessible and in everyone’s home is an infrastructure question. Cost is part of that. Just the headset alone will set you back a few hundred dollars. Then, you’ve got to invest in other equipment, games…

But, Augmented Reality is really taking off because it leverages technologies that people use every day, they already use them. Like the cell phone. Going back to Pokémon GO, it didn’t require you to buy anything else- no special equipment.

I don’t know if you remember this, but when I was little, I remember taking airplanes and looking at those Skymall catalogs and at a certain point, there were video phones! It almost looked like an older PlayStation console with a screen.

You think, “wow! That’s great! That’s awesome!”.

Then you think “but who am I going to talk to? No one else has this video phone, no one else is going to invest $400 dollars in this and I’m not going to buy two and give one away so I can use mine!”.

Then, smartphones come out, cameras are already integrated, and someone realizes they can leverage those two things to finally give the world video phones. I’m seeing a parallel with VR and AR; for me, VR has the same infrastructure problem that Skymall video phones had.

It’s this marriage of infrastructure and content. The content obviously has to be relevant, has to be engaging. I think we’re almost there with the content and games like Farpoint are pushing that a bit by delivering quality content, emotional content, emotionally-driven content.

But, content still does not solve the infrastructure issue. VR is not integrated into something that people use every day. Like a cell phone. Not yet, anyway.

SC: Wow, that’s really insightful. Maybe Google was trying to get ahead of this with Google Glass. Get the infrastructure in place.

It’s going to be a crazy next couple of years. Sony has already helped develop a VR album on the music side, and for Farpoint, I pitched an AR experience that experiments with the music.

KG: It would be incredible to maybe take some deleted scenes from Farpoint and craft an interactive AR experience.

The thing about Augmented Reality is it’s not that hard to do. You watch a football game, the first down line is AR: it’s just live action with a digital overlay. It’s much more accessible than people think.

Like you said, with VR, there are a lot of moving parts. Not just with the production, but with sensors with limited range, you turn your head and if the music isn’t mixed correctly, it ruins the experience.

Right now, AR is much more elastic, much more personalized.

In Part 3, we’ll cover collaboration in both the studio and in industry 4.0 and Minority Report-style production. We’ll also tackle some Fairpoint sequel rumblings… stay tuned!

[This article was updated on 06/12/2017]

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