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Resistance: Burning Skies composers discuss making a AAA soundtrack for a handheld game

Submitted by on Thursday, 24 May 2012One Comment

Sony is determined to prove to the world that just because PS Vita is small, it doesn’t mean it can’t offer those big game experiences. This not only applies to controls, visuals and gameplay; sound also has a huge part to play.

PS3 Attitude caught up with Kevin Riepl and Jason Graves, composers on Resistance: Burning Skies, to discuss their approach to composing a score for a handheld game that befits a AAA PS3 blockbuster.

Graves made a name for himself through his work on Dead Space 1 and 2, while Riepl has produced rousing scores for Gears of War and music for numerous indie films. Both were asked to produce 40 minutes of music each for Burning Skies. Read on to find out how they went about this.

[PS3 Attitude] Can you explain how you both arrived on the Resistance project?

[Kevin Riepl] I was working on another Vita title for Sony at the same time Resistance: Burning Skies was looking for composers. I was thrown in the mix because the team on Resistance: Burning Skies was really enjoying my material for this other unannounced game.

[Jason Graves] I’ve known Clint Bajakian and Chuck Doud for many years now. We’ve been keeping in touch, looking for the right king of project to work on together. They asked me to submit a demo for Burning Skies and said they loved everything about it. It ended up going into the game exactly as I wrote it, except recorded by a full orchestra. It’s always nice when that happens!

[PS3A] What are the pros and cons to having two composers working on the same game?

[KR] This was my first project working with another composer. We actually didn’t work together and collaborate. One of the reasons why we were both chosen was because our demos were very similar sounding in orchestration and structure. So, from the start we sort of knew our styles would complement one another on the game. Other than the demo pieces, we didn’t hear much of each other’s music until the recording session. All the pieces ended up working very well together.

[JG] If handled well, listeners won’t even realize there are multiple composers on a game. But when poorly executed, the score ends up a mish mash of diametrically opposed music with no emotional continuity or natural flow. Fortunately for Kevin and I, Sony did an outstanding job with the music direction. Their best decision was hiring two composers with similar tendencies towards dramatic, melodic music. Kevin has a wonderful gift for emotional music, and Sony even said our demos were very similar in tone, both fitting the game perfectly. And I have to credit Kevin for a stroke of genius – he took the first four notes of my main theme and used them as the first four notes of his main theme. Of course, we composed completely independent scores, but those few notes that are shared between our music are the thread that ties them together. I thought that was a brilliant move!

The other added benefit is you get to split the score. That’s an especially good thing when there is more than ninety minutes of music to produce in less than a month, including the recording session!

Around 60-65 players contributed to the Burning Skies score.

[PS3A] Have there been any heated arguments? If so, who won in the end?

[KR] If there were arguments I would have definitely won =) Jason and I get along really well as friends, and working on the same project together was no different.

[JG] Kevin and I have know each other for years now. He’s such a talented composer and nice guy. We pretty much agree on everything, many times we end up ordering the same thing at meals because our taste is so similar. But if there WERE any arguments, I would totally let Kevin win. I mean, have you SEEN that guy!?

[PS3A] Boris Salchow told us he was looking for a more “subdued and intimate” musical palette when he created the Resistance 3 score, due to the character-driven nature of the story ( What approach have you both decided on for Burning Skies?

[KR] With the guidance and direction from Clint Bajakian and Ernest Johnson of Sony, we were asked to create a very dynamic score rooted in traditional orchestral form. Being influenced by film scores from the Franz Waxmans and Max Steiners of the ‘40s & ‘50s.

[JG] Yes, Sony was very specific in wanting a melodic, “old-fashioned” score. They weren’t very keen on the modern way of using repetitive string rhythms or drum loops as the backbone of the score. They really wanted an evolving, melodic score that ebbed and flowed with the action in the game. They were also very interested in music that emoted and spoke towards the feelings of the main character. Basically, all of the stuff that I love to do!

[PS3A] Do you approach a portable game different from how you approach a PS3 game?

[KR] With technology taking such huge leaps in the handheld market these days, approaching music for a portable device is no different than our approach to scoring a console game.

[JG] That used to be the case, but the last few years have allowed me to just compose the best music I can and not worry about the technical restraints. Burning Skies was no different. I wrote the music and recorded the same as I would for a AAA console title.

[PS3A] Jason – Did you learn anything from composing the seriously atmospheric Dead Space that you were able to apply to Burning Skies?

[JG] I have learned so many things from Dead Space, it literally changed the way I think about composing and implementing music! Burning Skies has some wonderfully creepy music I wrote for the Chimera; lots of extended orchestral techniques and effects in the atmospheric exploration music. And a lot of the boss music has that visceral, raw edge to it, especially in the harmony and rhythm.

'We wanted to keep the ensemble as traditional as possible', says Kevin Riepl

[PS3A] Kevin – As a successful film composer, how does making a score for a game compare and contrast with making a score for a film?

[KR] When composing for films or television, a composer is scoring to support visuals and story in a linear fashion. From start, middle to the end supporting the emotional content. With videogames, you still write to support visuals and story, but you have to think vertically when writing. For instance, how certain layers in a piece of music will work alone and in addition to other musical layers stacked on top of or faded in and out of each other. It is definitely two thought processes. Again, not all games take this approach, but more and more are taking this direction.

[PS3A] Over 60 musicians worked on the Resistance 3 soundtrack. How many worked on Burning Skies?

[KR] I believe we had around 63 musicians on this score.

[JG] I think the orchestra weighed in around 60-65 players, plus I recorded myself performing world percussion and various effects on solo string instruments like my violin and cello. There’s also some great contrabass effects I performed on the exploration music, plus some wonderful bowed metal sounds. I guess I only count as a single musician, but I probably recorded an extra 15 instruments on the score myself.

[PS3A] What were the reasons behind selecting the instruments that were used?

[KR] Since we wanted to keep the ensemble as traditional as possible, the instrumentation chosen was straightforward; strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. Every so often a piece may have called for a synthetic element to convey the evil darkness of the ‘Chimera’.

[JG] Sony definitely wanted a more classic sounding score, so the instruments were also very traditional. We did augment the low end of the orchestra a bit with some additional trombones including a contrabass trombone. I think we had six trombones instead of the usual three. We also had Contrabass Clarinet and Contrabassoon, two of the lowest insuments in the orchestra. The reason being we wanted to add some heft to the orchestra for the benefit of the Chimera music.

[PS3A] Burning Skies is set in the early 50s. How did the music and sounds of the era influence the composition?

[KR] With the story being set in the early ‘50s, we wanted the music to sound like it was influenced by the film scores of that period. Those scores always ran the gamut of emotions and were very dynamic in nature.

[JG] Well, there isn’t any theremin in this one, despite the early 1950s period! I would say this score is simply a more traditional, emotionally evolved score that’s reminiscent of more classic scores from the films of that period.

[PS3A] Is there one thing about the Burning Skies soundtrack that is unique from other game compositions?

[KR] Yes, the score was written by Jason Graves and Kevin Riepl. No other game can claim that. =) I would like to think that the uniqueness will be our own voices interlaced with influences from the ‘50s. If we did our job correctly then that will be one aspect of the score being distinctive.

[JG] I would hope this score sets itself apart through its melodic narrative and classic orchestration. I really appreciate the dramatic sensibility of Kevin’s music and love composing that same kind of score myself.

[PS3A] How closely did you work with Nihilistic Software?

[KR] Since Sony was handling every music aspect of the game, we interacted with Audio Leads Clint Bajakian and Ernest Johnson (Sony Computer Entertainment of America) throughout the entire project.

[JG] We actually dealt directly with Sony for the music, but Nihilistic did provide us with screenshots, movie captures of gameplay footage and general music direction.

The official soundtrack album will be released via iTunes on 29 May.

For more information visit the composers’ websites:

Kevin Riepl
Jason Graves