Award-winning composer Gareth Coker has composed for a diverse array of projects, including Moon Studios’ acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest, Insomniac’s virtual reality game The Unspoken, and Minecraft: Chinese Mythology & Minecraft: Greek Mythology (Mojang). For his latest musical journey and collaboration with Studio Wildcard onARK: Survival Evolved, the definitive open-world dinosaur survival-adventure game, Coker recorded an epic orchestral score with the 93-piece Philharmonia Orchestra at the world famous Abbey Road Studios. The soundtrack for ARK is available now from Sumthing Else Music Works. Read Gareth’s full bio at the end of this article.
1. Can you describe your workflow when beginning a new project? More specifically, typically how long does it take to establish a direction?
It largely depends on what kind of score it is going to be. The things I’m looking to establish as soon as possible are tempo, which means getting into the game and getting an idea of how it feels and how it plays. After that, it’s usually the palette. Instrument choice is a huge part of my process, and I’m willing to spend a long time trying to find the right sound. This isn’t just limited to the orchestra, it can be with synths, pads, pulses, plucked instruments, tonal percussion. Do I use one of those, or all of them? And so on. Alongside that, I’m looking at developing riffs and/or melodies and themes. Between tempo, palette, and thematic material, the score comes together after that, but that initial process can take anything from up to a week to a couple of years, depending on when I’m brought onto the project. For example, for Ori and the Blind Forest, I came on early, and as a result I was able to experiment a lot with the sound. For Minecraft: Chinese Mythology, the sound required was pretty clearly defined already as was the pace and style of the music, so I could jump right in immediately.
2. Ori and the Blind Forest was an incredibly melodic game whereas The Unspoken feels more rhythmic and texturally driven. Can you discuss the different approaches you took on each game, and the conversations that led to that?
Ori was a character driven game with a very strong focus on narrative. There was also little to no dialog in the game, thus we needed hooks in the music that would help draw the player in and allow us to attach the theme to moments of importance. It was one of the first things asked of me, to come up with a tune. Everything sort of branched out from that. With The Unspoken, Insomniac Games wanted an all-electronic score with an element of etherealism and mysticism. The core of The Unspoken is electronic, but each character has a texture/instrument of their own, the Blackjack character uses voice, the Kineticist uses electric violin, the Anarchist uses electric cello, and so on. The idea to have one instrument per character came about simply from a question “How can we differentiate the experience depending on what character the player chooses?”.
3. What is it like in a typical day-in-the-life of being Gareth Coker? e.g. how much composing are you doing, how much business development and promotion, reviewing music in the game, meeting with developers etc.?
While a regular routine is something I try to aspire to, the realities of working in the 21st century and across multiple timezones makes that almost impossible. There’s a saying that composers working in media spend 90% of the time doing the things that allows them to spend the remaining 10% of the time composing! That’s a bit extreme, but sometimes it can feel like that. As you’ve outlined above, there are many facets to this job. Unless I’m in ‘crunch’ mode, I rarely spend more than 6 hours a day actually composing. However, I can spend way more time working on a track. The composition side of the brain feels different to the production/aesthetic (engineering) quality side of the brain. The composition side is much more draining, so I make sure that I have no distractions when I’m actually composing, to maximize efficiency. As for meetings, and business development, that’s really 24/7. My Skype is on all day and I’m always available to the teams I’m working with. In terms of marketing, my Twitter and Facebook is always active, so that’s really a 24/7 thing too. Essentially, I do what I can, but the most important thing is to write ‘something’ every day.
4. When working on multiple projects at the same time, how do you manage your time between the projects?
It’s really a question of establishing deadlines and a long-term schedule. Once you know what the specific milestones you have to work towards and when they are due, it’s easy to organize. I essentially run a triage system and try to work on what is most urgent. It’s been very effective so far. Additionally, I also like jumping around different projects as it keeps me on my toes and doesn’t allow me to fall into habits.
5. In Ori and the Blind Forest, many of your music loops are incredibly seamless. Do you have any tips for younger composers for creating seamless loops or transitions?
I had a fantastic teacher, Lennie Moore, at the University of Southern California. There are a couple of little tricks that can really help. First, and most people know this, is to copy the tail of your loop and paste it onto the front. For example, if your loop is 16 measures long – copy the reverb tail from measure 17 (and possibly 18) – and put it on top of measure 1. Secondly, a very useful trick if you’re struggling for perfect loops is to use a sound with a strong transient at the beginning of the loop, even just a soft bass drum, or a plucked instrument. This can hide any gap or pop that is not making the loop perfectly seamless. Honestly, the other thing is, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you should test your loops in the game, and not just in the sequencer, regardless of whether you are using middleware or not! Play the games you work on!
6. How do you go about deciding on the back-end audio tech for a game? I attended your talk at GDC, and I know that Ori did not use audio middleware, but do you use middleware like Wwise/Fmod/Elias, on other projects? If so, are you implementing your own music into the creation tools or do you let the developers handle that?
I see my job as a composer and storyteller, and thus my only objective with audio tech is to help the person implementing have defined parameters that allow me to do my job. While there was no middleware on Ori, there is a ton of custom-code written based on my very specific parameters. It’s just timings of transitions usually, but they are written down to the milli-second and written in a language that a programmer can understand and implement easily.
On other projects, I talk about the music requirements with the audio director. Then a music system is created based on those requirements, and then I create the assets and hand them over. This is what we did on The Unspoken. Insomniac Games showed me the gameplay flow and it required an ambient loop, a battle loop, an escalated battle loop, and a ‘summon’ loop. These different game states all had custom 2-measure transitions written for them. As long as I delivered the music loops and transitions to spec, they could just be dropped in the game, tested immediately and I’d get notes, or not!
I think it’s important to not be confined to a music system from the beginning of the project. Find out what the game needs, and then if a middleware system is needed, use it, and if not then don’t! I’d argue that the best audio middleware system is one’s brain, as long as you’re willing to put in the effort and time it takes to test everything!
7. Do you have any tips for younger composers about learning the technology side of video games?
You have to put in the hours. Also, unlike when I was getting started, composers have the best resource ever now, and it’s free, YouTube! If you don’t know how to do something, chances are someone has uploaded the answer onto YouTube and you’ll get visual/audio examples. Dan Worrall’s tutorials are particularly excellent.
8. You’re at a level now in your career where it may be easier to purchase gear and instrument libraries. What strategies would you suggest to younger composers with regards to instrument and hardware purchases on a limited budget?
Same as above. If you can’t decide what to buy, then YouTube is your friend. There are always composers doing comparisons between libraries. Probably the best known man for that is the excellent composer Daniel James. His YouTube page is an oracle for information about new sample libraries and he’s also just very engaging to listen to while breaking down his own tracks and contextualizing usage of new sample libraries.
Beyond that, I’d say it’s better to master one sample library than buy everything. There are composers who can make libraries that are 10 years old sound good. There are also composers who can make state-of-the art libraries sound bad. It’s not the tools, it’s how you use them.
9. Do you employ assistant composers in your work? If so, can you describe the optimal skill set and personality traits for a potential hire?
On a handful of occasions, I’ve had a composer help me out with writing. On Primal Carnage, I had Zach Lemmon write some cues, and on Mean Greens, Zach helped me out on a few tracks and so did Alexander Rudd. Generally speaking though, it’s rare that I hire out the actual composing, and if I do, I give full credit.
The traits I look for, are first, do I know this person?! I’ve known Zach for 8 years. Alex has been my conductor for 8 years too. I only hire people that I know, so contacting me through Facebook/eMail/Twitter randomly, asking for a position, isn’t going to get it done. That’s just me though!
With my workload increasing, I have hired out more work, but it’s generally not so much of the creative kind. That said, doing good copying work could open up to orchestration work, which could open up to composing work down the line. But it’s all going to start from how well I know that person.
10. If applicable – how did you find you last assistant composer? e.g. did you post an ad, or how did you meet them?
I’ll never post an ad, I’ll ask people I know for recommendations, but that’s only the case I don’t have anyone in mind in the first place. If I’m looking to hire someone, it’s probably going to be from a list of people that I know. But for the foreseeable future, I’ll be composing myself.
11. Looking back on your career, what do you wish you had known earlier that may have helped you get you to where you are at today?
How important it is to be organized from the beginning of a project, and not just at the end. This may not seem like the most interesting answer, but it’s especially pertinent to videogames because many projects can last years and years. During Ori and the Blind Forest, I went through 3 computers, and towards the end, relinking old projects and syncing them up with the new computer was something I just wasn’t equipped to do quickly. I lost a lot of time due to not planning for the future. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail!
What skills do you think are most lacking amongst composers that are entering the industry today?
Perspective. I think one of the most important things a composer needs to experience, is…. Reality! And in that I mean, real life. Get out there, see the world, get out of your studio, live life, do some crazy things. I genuinely believe that the more experiences you have, the more it can help your composing and expand your mind. Experiences can be anything from just having more conversations (not with composers!), to going on holiday, to jumping out of a plane and skydiving, to listening to music you don’t normally listen, to having a really nice 10 course meal with your partner, to living in a foreign country. The list is endless, and every experience should help inspire but also give perspective.
In terms of technical skills, I think the art of writing a ‘hook’ has largely been lost. Now, by this, I don’t necessarily mean a melody, but I mean a signature. The Inception horns aren’t a melody, but they are a signature. Conversely, the Star Wars main theme is a melody, and is also a signature. Unique signatures are pretty rare these days, and it’s refreshing when one comes along, even if it’s as simple as a special texture, or a soaring theme. Of course, you need to be working with a developer/director that encourages these signatures, in my opinion, a lot of music today gets lost in the background and lacks a little personality, which is sad.
What would you recommend to young composers looking to get their big break in video games from a business perspective?
Simply put, get out there and talk to people. There’s a limit to how much you can do when you’re operating from behind the screen. That said, if you really can’t get out there, then make sure your music is easily available and in many places online. You never know where that next job might come from! A student project I worked on for free, 7 years later, that director was able to get me ‘in the room’ with the creators of ARK Survival Evolved, which of course got me into Abbey Road with a 93-piece orchestra! You never know where things might lead. The way to think of it is less about looking for a big break now, but rather, build a foundation for the future, the more seeds you plant, the higher a chance that at least one of them will blossom.
Tell us about your experience with Early Access Scoring of ARK, and the process of live recording in general. Where did you record, who did your orchestration, and what was your favorite part of that process? How is recording for live orchestra different from recording in the box – what are the main things you need to pay attention to in the former?
Scoring ARK has been a very unique experience. It’s an early access game, which means that the game can be purchased by a member of the public under the disclaimer that it’s unfinished. This means that your virtual mockups will almost certainly be heard by the public. This eventually – over the course of 2 years – produced a highly unique phenomenon, that of ‘audience temp love’! When we eventually got around to replacing some of the music with newer versions and ultimately the live recordings, they’d gotten so used to the mockups that the change was quite shocking. Nostalgia can be very powerful. Eventually they’d grow used to the new tracks, but there was always a tricky adjustment period. With a smaller game, it would have been easy to ride out, but ARK was so successful in early access with millions of players, opposition to new music developments was heard loud and clear!
We recorded the score at Abbey Road, with a 93-piece orchestra. For the core game, I did the bulk of the orchestration myself. There are a handful of expansions and add-ons for the game that were orchestrated by my colleagues Justin Bell, Zach Lemmon, and Alexander Rudd. Alexander is also my conductor, and has been since I started in the industry. I can conduct, but I prefer to sit in the booth, to really zero in on what I’m hearing.
Recording for live orchestra requires taking into account so many moving elements that you don’t have direct control over, as opposed to having control of every parameter when in the box. It just requires superb preparation, and everyone who is working with you needs to be operating at a very high level, especially when one mistake can add 10 minutes to recording time which can cost a lot of money with 93 players! When you’re working just in the box, that’s not something you ever have to worry about.
For me, the most memorable moment was hearing take 1 of the Main Theme, which was the first cue we recorded. I’d already spent 2 years with it at that point, but hearing the Philharmonia Orchestra bring it to life, took it to a place I hadn’t even imagined, and when it comes to live recordings, that’s what you want and it doesn’t get much better!
After graduating in composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, English-born composer Gareth Coker traveled the world extensively to study music from different countries, including Japan, before completing the film scoring program at the University of Southern California. This multi-cultural background has enabled Coker to draw upon numerous musical influences that have shaped his rich and versatile musical sound and he has continued to develop a compositional style focusing on memorable, melodically-driven themes and motifs, combined with unique, and unconventional soundscapes. This approach, and his ability to apply it in a way that always serves to enhance the story earned him the attention of Moon Studios, which led to a highly successful collaboration on the acclaimed game Ori and the Blind Forest. Coker’s universally critically acclaimed soundtrack for Ori and the Blind Forest was honored with several prestigious awards, including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences award for Outstanding Music Composition and SXSW Gaming Award for Excellence in Musical Score, and his success in the field led to him being awarded recognition as an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM) for his significant contribution to the music profession.
The ARK soundtrack is available now via digital and streaming outlets worldwide through Sumthing Else Music Works https://www.sumthing.com.
ARK: Survival Evolved is out now in retail stores and on digital platforms for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam PC. Visit www.playark.com for more dino-tastic news.