Interview with Composer Jeremy Nathan Tisser, The Mechanics of Making A VR Game Score

When Survios’ virtual reality game for Vive “Raw Data” first hit the market, it did more than impress audiences, it raised the bar on VR gaming with record breaking numbers.  The game became the first consumer VR game to hit $1 million in sales in a month. In addition, it became the first-ever VR game to top the charts at Steam, a leading game platform and ranking site.  Three years later, Survios is releasing the seafaring combat VR game “Battlewake”, which hits Playstation 4, Oculus Rift and Steam September 10th.

What do these two games have in common?  Composer Jeremy Nathan Tisser.  Jeremy’s noteworthy resume also includes other VR titles such as “Zombies on the Holodeck”, “Wild Skies” and “Tricklab” to name a few.  Ahead of the “Battlewake” release, Jeremy reveals the ins and outs of scoring a VR game. In the below exclusive interview, he discusses everything from the programs he used for “Battlewake” to his “go to” equipment.

-What sort of equipment or programs were you using to create the “Battlewake” score?

My newer studio is equipped with 2 Mac Pros, a PC, a 43-inch monitor, plus tons of rackmounted gear (interfaces, preamps, ethernet and audio patchbays, and more). However, when I first started writing the score, my wife and I shared a workspace in our old house, so needless to say, I did not have much gear then. I had a few decent preamps, a 15-year-old interface (MOTU 2408 mkiii), and a few microphones on my drum kit. My drums were setup in the garage inside of an acoustic sound booth I bought from Vicoustics called the “VicBooth”. I had a make-shift stage box that I bought off of composer Teddy Shapiro, which had a total of 6 microphone inputs on it, so that’s how many microphones I had to work with. I wrote and recorded most of the score in Digital Performer.

                I recorded the percussion grooves at Riot Drum Studio on Pro Tools, and we recorded the haunting chants that you’ll here at The Bridge Recording in Glendale, CA, also on Pro Tools. The Bridge has since closed unfortunately. We also recorded much of the score to Raw Data there.

-What would you say is your “go to” piece of equipment whenever you are scoring a project?

                For me, I actually prefer to go “old school”. I start at the piano and work through the emotions of the project I’m scoring. I’ll try to figure out my themes, chord progressions, counterlines, and any other ideas I may need to draw from. I use that to create a “road map” for the project. With Battlewake, however, I had to take a different approach. The first piece of equipment I went to was an Oculus Rift. I played the original demo of the game and used that initial feeling of excitement to draw my inspiration! My next step was heading to my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to get some percussion going. Percussion was the basis of the entire score, and set the pacing for every cue. From there, I built my ideas, my themes, my riffs, and instrumentation.

-Some composers prefer to only use programs these days. Do you think this is the future of composing? Will you jump on this wave too?

                I use software instruments all of the time! It’s how we realize our musical visions into something “tangible” and presentable for our producers and directors to hear. It gives us a baseline for communication, and can act as a “trial run” before the final recording. Basically, we can listen to the ideas I’ve created, and hone them in before spending tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on an orchestra. Personally, I think there will always be a place for live music in media. As good as computers can sound, nothing can replace the human element. A computer can’t move physical air through a clarinet with real expression. Even when the tech evolves to the point where digital orchestras are playing REAL instruments in the concert hall, someone still has to program the performance. And even if A.I. gets to that level of adaptability on its own one day, it still won’t have any real raw emotion. To a musician, that emotion is what fuels the performance. A proper musician understands that it’s not simply the notes on the page, but the emotion and the player’s contribution to those notes are what create a real and honest performance. Because of this, I always try to get at least one live element on my scores so that the audience has something to connect with.

-You have scored many VR games. Since VR is so immersive do you find yourself making these scores a little grander than non-VR scores, in order to heighten the playing experience even more?

                Absolutely! I grew up on the larger-than-life Spielberg films. Those films (and their respective scores) were what initially inspired me to want to create movies and games in some capacity. When you go to the gym, you put your headphones on and crank up your “workout/get pumped” mix, right? And you use that to get your adrenaline going and put yourself “in the zone”. To me, that’s exactly what music for VR games should do. The music can make you either hyper-focused, or completely pumped full of adrenaline. In the case of Battlewake (and Raw Data, too), we went for adrenaline pumping excitement. What better way to achieve this than just go all out and have a good time with the music. Then we add a big sweeping and memorable melody on top to tie the game together. That melody hopefully gets the player even more pumped every time they hear it.

-From your first VR game you scored to “Battlewake”. What are some of the major changes you have seen in VR?

The biggest change I’ve seen is the technology’s progress itself. We’ve gone from spending $800 on an HTC Vive PLUS $2500 for a custom gaming PC, to $399 for an Oculus Quest. It’s spectacular! Though the graphics on the Quest may not be as high quality as running a GTX 2080 in 4K, they’re still lightyears ahead of the Oculus Go or the GearVR, and honestly not too far behind the Oculus Rift itself. With Playstation and Xbox, the point of entry on a new console is usually around $399, plus the television, additional controllers, sound system, etc. For that same initial $399, you can now get into VR and play almost every game out there with ease. And this is just first step. I cannot wait to see the next iterations of the Quest and its competitors. We’re certainly on our way to becoming a mainstream gaming platform.

-What, if any assets did Survios provided to help you compose the original soundtrack for “Battlewake”?

I was given all of the initial concept art, as well as the original game bible, character backgrounds, story beats, and all of the other original documentation to do my research off of. At the time, there wasn’t really any real gameplay yet; just a basic demo of their gameplay mechanics in a rough mockup of the world you would explore. The idea was to “test the waters” (pun intended) of a pirate game, and figure out what would make it the most fun. Music was an integral part of that trial and error phase, so that’s when I was brought in to begin my contributions to the game.

-Are there any elements of VR that inform your scoring method, that would differ if you were scoring traditional 2D media?

For me, it’s the visuals of VR. Every project is unique, and similar to 2D media, every project has its own look and design that gives it a unique feel. But it’s such a different experience when you’re completely immersed in this new “virtual” reality. Everything feels different. It’s that feeling of really being transported to new worlds that not only informs, but inspires, my scoring method.

-Have there been any game scores lately that have really stood out to you?

I’m still on a severe “Doom” kick. I think Mick Gordon took the idea of the original game from my childhood and really brought it back for a new generation to enjoy. It’s so unique and inspired, and very meticulously crafted. I can’t wait for his score to “Doom: Eternal”! I also really love what my mentor and teacher Garry Schyman (Bioshock) did for the VR game “Torn”. This was the first VR game to record with musicians of the AFM (American Federation of Musicians), also known as the Musician’s Union Local 47. These musicians make up the Hollywood Studio Symphony, which you’ve heard on everything from Halo Wars 2 (another BRILLIANT score) to Jurassic Park. Anyways, Garry’s string writing is always so masterful. Bravo, my friend!

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