Music and VR Part 3: Interview with Farpoint Composer Stephen Cox

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emotional content
Farpoint | Impulse Gear | Playstation VR | Sony

Welcome to our third and final (sadface) part of Edgy Lab’s interview with PSVR Farpoint composer Stephen Cox.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Part 1 and Part 2 and you enjoy having a somewhat cohesive narrative, stop by to learn a bit about where Stephen Cox comes from and how he tackled producing an amazing soundtrack for Farpoint.

In this edition, we’ll:

  • talk about how sound works with emotion content
  • segway into swooning over Imogen Heap and MINORITY REPORT-style haptic applications for music
  • give you an insider view of the music industry and touch on how collaboration expedites and enriches the creative process
  • tease you with unofficial Farpoint side projects news.

Enjoy!

 

How Sound Frames Emotional Content

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

And, like you said, sound is powerful. You talked about the emotional component, the emotional capacity of music.

Stephen Cox: Yeah! Oh yeah. When you’re brought onto a project in a supporting role, hands down, you’re there to support the idea, to support the project.

First and foremost, what you do has to make the project work, and #1 is emotional content support. Are you realistically supporting the emotions on the screen?

Now, in Farpoint, it’s initially desolate. It’s also wondrous at times. To be able to accurately represent these complex emotions and states of being with music is another reason why I loved it.

SC: The cinematics are one thing, there’s happy, there’s sad, there’s pensive, there’s are so many emotions that you’re going to get when you have actors on the screen.

But, when you have a place, a world on the screen, you’re encapsulating more than just emotional content: you’re digging into questions like “how does this music work with the ambient environment and the sounds that are coming from the crazy waterfall of the upside down volcano?”

There isn’t one of those, but…

KG: That would be cool. Farpoint 2!

One Man Bands

KG: You talked a little bit about how positive that your experience was collaborating on Farpoint with Sony and with your partner Dr. Danny McIntyre at Unified Sounds.

I want to talk a little more about collaboration can help you in your support role as a composer. Whether collaboration helps refine a product faster.

You see this with 3D Printing, for example.

Additive Manufacturing has been around since the 1970s, but it didn’t explode until recently in part due to the fact that the technology was under certain patent protections.

Once those expired and that technology went open source, you see this explosion in refining that technology which is helping get commercial models to mass markets faster.

In my opinion, collaboration is the best way to refine a product quickly. Get a high-quality, highly relevant version to market fastest.

SC: Yes!

KG: You also see this in developer and open source culture. In the academic community, however (maybe you saw this at Berklee) people tend to hoard their ideas.

People keep them close because they’re afraid someone else might publish them, that someone else might get the credit.

SC: Absolutely.

KG: Now, more and more, we’re seeing more collaborative studies, even interdisciplinary. We’re really seeing that expedite the time to market.

Is this something that you think could be applied to music and the music industry, as well?

SC: Absolutely. I love it. I love that.

Not only does collaboration expedite the process, but it enriches the process.

Not only are you going to get a faster “something” out the door (and to be able to make the deadline because, like you said, there are a lot of moving parts, lot of details with the production); You’re going to get something better than the sum of its parts.

If it’s managed properly and there’s good… Syner… Gah, I hate that word. Synergy.

KG: I know what you mean but I think that’s exactly what I’m getting at: working together as a happy productive team is cheesy in our current industry culture.

I want to show how it’s not holding hands in a factory. I want to show the actual, direct, lucrative results it delivers.

I think it’s the perfect word.

Not only does collaboration expedite the process, it enriches the process.Click To Tweet

SC: It’s definitely not just something that you can jump right into. It’s a skill you have to build up over years and years through butting heads, arguments, finding the person’s workflow. How do you bring out the best in each other?

At Unified, we’ve been working together for five years, and we figured it out…finally [laughs] through CBS and through all these random gigs that we get.

I feel really lucky to have Danny [McIntyre], Dave Kropf, Mike Schiciano and Stephen Wheeler.

And that’s one of the things that’s kind of perplexed me for awhile. I never understood the . . . like you said about academia, it is very similar in the composing world.

People have huge teams, all of the composers on big budget films have companies, and they are constantly bringing people in.

And it’s rare that you hear about that team. It’s very rare. Why? That’s something that never squared right with me. There’s no good Karma there.

And yes, maybe it is protective and making sure that this guy doesn’t outshine you. Maybe there’s a reason for all of this.

Maybe it’s just built into the industry that’s been around for 100 years to where only one composer can come up and accept the Grammy.

When you’re working with bands, that’s a different thing, but these composers have bands! Right?

I mean, their team that they’re working with to make all of this music, that’s their band.

The team is sitting around jamming, or throwing noodles at the wall trying to figure out what sticks.

That’s what we did, Danny and I did with Farpoint, bringing in our guys, saying, “go out and record some dumpsters! Come on!”. Let’s create some crazy “thud” no one’s ever heard before.

Homemade MIDI Suits and Old Skool Slo-Mo

KG: I noticed that one of your influences is composer John Williams, and I thought immediately he had done the soundtrack for MINORITY REPORT. That was in 2002.

It’s a Philip K. Dick story, it’s supposed to be futuristic. It’s already been 15 years since the film came out, but I think what Williams did on the score stands the test of time.

I mean, there’s a point in that movie where they’re video chatting on Nokia screens. But, the Pre-cogs have their signature sounds that are eerier, and the car chase has more of this mag-lev, industrial sounds.

KG: Did that particular score influence your work for Farpoint at all?

SC: That was a good one.

KG: Definitely a good’un.

SC: He did AI, too, didn’t he? I love when John Williams goes a little techie with it because he always keeps it organic, with the orchestral palette. He doesn’t rely too much on synth elements too much.

But, the way he did the style for MINORITY REPORT is so hip and so relevant to the style and the aesthetic of the movie itself.

Like the real cool blues and the dark hues, the dark tones. His sound palette was perfect. It matched the aesthetic and again, that’s always on the tip of our brains with Farpoint.

I mean anything John Williams does is classic, and I think he’s going to go down in history as one of the most important composers – and strictly composer, not just film – of all time.

I love his stuff. It affected me. I mean, we watched STAR WARS like 900 times like every other 80’s kid.

KG: Maybe even over 9,000.

SC: [laughs] I totally just dated myself!

KG: I realized the other day that I’m still saying “tape.” Now, I think people are saying “record.”

Like, “let me record this” instead of “let me tape this.” I thought: “Oh no! I have to stop saying this!”

SC: I had more fun with a tape recorder when I was a kid than any other piece of gear. Just holding down the pause button halfway as you’re recording so it slows down your voice, did you ever do that trick?

Almost any, regular tape recorder where you have to hit play and record at the same time, if you held down that pause button it would slow down the gears as it was recording.

Or, it would do the opposite: it would speed up the gears… a sort of [imitates of a voice in slow-mo].

KG: [laughs]. That reminds me: Imogen Heap –

SC: OH! I LOVE HER SO MUCH! WHY DID I NOT MENTION HER? If I could go back to all of these interviews I’ve done, it would be her! I’ve got everything she’s ever done… but yeah, I’m sorry, I cut you off. She’s amazing.

KG: I just found out about her. It’s been like this Pandora’s Box for me. We started talking about how tangible sound and music can be, but sometimes the keyboard in the mouse get in the way. I know that was something that was really important for her, that she was sick of music production in this very static way and wanted to make it more organic.

She worked with MIT Media Lab back in 2009 to create these…haptic gloves.

SC: Yup.

KG: Speaking of MINORITY REPORT…

SC: I had no idea. I was mesmerized by all of these videos of her using the gloves in the studio – she looks like she’s dancing.

It’s almost like combining this strange, Sci-Fi character of the Holodeck with this very traditional orchestral conductor that is standing there, using these forms, using their hands to really guide the music [skip ahead to the 8-minute mark in the video below].

KG: And I love that image. I wanted to ask you first if you even knew about these gloves, and secondly if you would consider using them?

SC: It’s really funny. I mean, I admire everything she’s done since I discovered her. She’s an innovator. First and foremost. She was doing stuff that was way ahead of its time 10, 15 years ago. Way ahead. She takes after my own heart.

My final project for my music synthesis studies was making basically a MIDI suit for two female performers to trigger at certain times with the band playing behind them.

KG: Incredible. That’s out of control.

SC: It was a bunch of mouse pads that were chopped up with a bunch of transducers that were hooked up to a Radio Shack controller… it was a mess [laughs]. It didn’t look good.

We had MIT right down the street, I could have just found a designer. anyway, my soldering was terrible, it kept falling apart in the middle of the performance… anyway.

I LOVE that stuff and I wanna get back there. You asked me earlier how I define myself, and I think that stuff that I was doing right at the end of Berklee [College of Music], when I kind of had this foggy “I want to be an artist but Oh! God, it’s scary, I’ll never make money and I’ll have to quit music – forget it.”

That’s kind of where my head was at that point in time, and I was doing something a little dark, a little edgy.

KG: Nice. We like Edgy.

Sound frames emotional content in video games and other creative works.Click To Tweet

SC: And making some crazy sh…stuff. If I get the chance to do something more solo or not attached to a project or gig, it will be something where I get to build some crazy stuff. Welding. I’m thinking welding.

KG: You call me the minute that happens. I would love it.

I really hope you get the opportunity to do it, to do that, because… I don’t want to say that I feel like you are limited by things that you are doing or projects that you’re working on currently, but I will say that you are at a stage in your artistic development where you’re ready to push it.

You’re ready to go for the weird and experimental. And we definitely see that with Farpoint.

SC: I agree. You’re right.

Production Pushups

KG: One sample written for CBS Football on the Unified Sound site is called “Sugar Nutz,” which is pretty far apart from what you’ve done for Farpoint. How do you adapt your talents and your sound to a commercial purpose?

SC: It all depends on the gig and how far we can go.

Meaning, do we have to develop an entirely new sound palette that no one’s even heard before? And, that was the treat with Farpoint that’s been by far the most fun, awesome project.

There are still constraints, we still need to write, we’re writing for the masses, we can’t be writing melody lines that are using 12-tone, you know [makes robot noises and KG laughs], they’ve got to be singable melodies, the ear needs to be able to recognize where we’re going and subconsciously You, as the listener, should kind of know where the music is headed because if you’re surprised too much, it takes you out of the immersion, it takes you out of the experience, and you shut down.

SC: When it comes to CBS and some of the commercial work, that’s almost like going to the gym. They’re “production push-ups.”

We’re going to go in there and learn this style, I’m gonna dig in, I’m gonna figure out what kind of amp this guy uses, I’m going to use this guitar, I need to know if that was a specific snare, how does this mix work the way it does? and I dig into the mix.

It’s really fun in that respect, as far as being creating and having a creative release; the creative part is trying to find something that sounds great and “hooky” but while still fitting into all these parameters.

There are so many parameters with writing for TV, they have to be a certain amount of time, there can’t be frequencies that step on the dialogue, there are all of these do’s and don’ts, and in the end, you gotta make something that grabs that producer, who’s at the station, the guy picking the music that goes on the air, you gotta grab that guy and “Oh, that’s an album.”

I have to compartmentalize it like that. You know, for awhile, before Farpoint, I always told everyone that I hadn’t written anything for me or for fun in like a decade.

Kind of true, but, anytime there’s an art installation project, which we’ve gotten to do a few of them, or something like Farpoint, it’s like, it’s… awesome, not only is the production as demanding as any album or any big tv production, it’s the sound, you have to invent it.

Love it. Love that part of it.

Sound Checks

KG: Final question.

SC: Ready.

KG: Great artists and inventor Leonardo da Vinci said that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

SC: Right.

KG: How do you know when you’re finished?

I know you have deadlines, you had… diligent project managers at Sony that kept you on track, for example. Sometimes things have to be finished whether you’re ready or not.

But, is there a moment where you think to yourself “I nailed it! Ship it!”, or do you just kind of leave it alone? How do you know?

SC: [Sighs]. So tough. That’s kind of the luxury of doing the commercial, corporate gigs is that the client tells you when you’re finished. Or, you’re out of money [both laugh].

Those are always the three factors: the client, the money or the time.

I totally agree with da Vinci: nothing is ever done. I’m never 100% satisfied with something.

There are things that I have done in the past where I think, “Yeah, that was…pretty good. BUT I SHOULD HAVE DONE X!!!!!!!”. My inner critic is really…

KG: You’re your harshest critic, I’m sure.

SC: Even with Farpoint, there’s stuff I’m hoping Sony gives us a budget for or hoping that I can give the additional budget for the Farpoint soundtrack and related upcoming projects. That’s a lot of hope: it’s really all up to Sony.

Like, Farpoint is so far from “done” in my eyes, in my head. I want to do a marching band version for one of the songs! Or, I want to do a metal version of this song and bring in Steve Vai… who I couldn’t afford but wanted [laughs].

KG: If Farpoint blows up like we hope it will, he’ll be knocking on your door.

SC: One of these days, we’ll do something for art. For Art’s sake. I can’t tell you the longing I have to do that. To do something for… with no gun to my head. Or checkbook to my head [both laugh].

KG: It’s really the checkbook.

SC: When the cuffs are off and there are no parameters.

KG: Would you want to start from scratch or go back and finish projects that you had to abandon when the checkbook was thrown at you? Maybe when you played an early version of Farpoint, you might have thought, “Oh man, I should have tweaked that sound a little bit” or “This sound would have been better here”?

SC: Oh yeah. I really do want to see a weird version of the Farpoint soundtrack that is not the official version, but something with a bunch of remixes… unless someone beats me to the punch.

People do that all the time with games. A whole collective of composers will get together and pick a track from a game and do it in their style. That would be the next best thing.

But I really want to start from scratch. I want to have no idea what I’m going to do. Have the freedom and the time and –

KG: The checkbook.

SC: There it is.

KG: Maybe if you did a remix of just one song from the Farpoint soundtrack, do an unofficial release on social media. I mean, that would only give Sony more traction on the Farpoint release and I think it would get you started on this more experimental road you want to head down.

Or, an AR experience where users can download your sound toolbox and remix their own and customize a deleted scene. The ideas are limitless and the commercial viability is there.

SC: I’m going to take this to Sony. This is what Krista said we should do.

KG: [laughs] Make it so.

SC: I’m actually kind of serious. I think it’s been done in exactly the way you said and there is potential there.

KG: Well, you do have their ear.

Have you played Farpoint? Let us know what you think of the game, the music and our stop-and-chat with Stephen Cox!

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