Exclusive Interview: Jeramiah Ross AKA Module Part 2

In this second part of Damian Kastbauer’s exclusive interview with New Zealand based music producer and audio designer Jeramiah Ross / Module , they discuss how important the team dynamic is for development studios, working with coders and space-rock opera. You can read up on Part One of this gargantuan interview here and check out his latest album release Imagineering here

I feel like there is a ton of potential to tie things together and experiment, from the mix perspective.

That’s something I did with [PlayStation 3 game] Shatter. I did it with the stereo field. The music is really wide, I need all that space in the middle for sound effects, you know! I basically used lots of instances of the Waves Stereo Expander, and tried not to over-phase everything, but keep everything nice and beautiful, that the effects are all mono and on-key with the music and everything else, all humming together nicely. I wanted it to feel like you are looking out over a horizon and the music is everywhere and the sound design is right there.

I actually think a lot of my mixing and production approach comes from my time in radio audio production.I was always fighting against that bloody radio compression to get the best sound I could. Radio compression is extremely strong and just squashes everything, and so i eventually found a way of mixing that suited that kind of stupid compression. I found I could get great mixes without having to kill off all the dynamics. I love things that breath sonically. Sometimes I don’t even use any compression.

How do you bridge the gap in communication between the developers expressed needs and your position as the audio professional?

It’s similar to being in a band; if you think about being a musician or audio person and you think about working in the video game industry, if you switch the roles of your drummer to being your programmer, your bass player to being your designer and establish those kinds of relationships and treat the whole thing as a band trying to perform a really awesome piece of music. that seems to me personally as a great way to mentally approach the creative & production process and in terms of establishing these relationships with people who may not be as tuned in to your discipline as you might be. That’s the challenge! It’s just as important. It’s not easy. As everyone knows when something isn’t working sonically. But pretty much, like myself, everyone I work with share the same goals. to create something cool that people like that suits what it’s been made for, so with that in mind that is the wood and nails holding the bridge together, bridging the gap and connecting both sides.

Right, and it’s a process to get everyone “tuned in”…

Totally! The key thing is that human beings will instinctively feel when things are right, and people will know when things have the right creative energy.most things that people react to, and that people enjoy or love are usually of some form of passion.

The key thing you can do as a creator is get into a situation where you are working in a creative environment that is really open to expression and creative ideas which will create good energy within the product or project. Its like if you’re playing a keyboard part, and you’re really enjoying it, that’s going to come across in the music. If you have that kind of fun, creative, open approach during audio design and during the creation of your audio projects, then people are going to feel that. It’s just the way it works.

That’s actually what happened with Shatter. I just got lost in that world, and wasn’t even thinking about it half the time just doing it.  It was a very small core team that just explored this exciting tangent for 18 months and Shatter just happened to come out of that (laughs). It’s one of those things that happened. There only pressure in regards surrounding schedules and everything came at the end when we ran out of time but the team was all in it together and we really believed in what we were making. There was a strong sense of it being something really cool that helped drive us all across the finish line. It was one of the highlights of my creative career so far without a doubt.

Yeah, with everything coming together simultaneously it takes everyone to pull it together.

I am such a strong believer of that. It can get really hard, and really full-on when you’re balancing deadlines and schedules and so on and that’s part of the beast.

The best way to approach that is, just do what you can to make it sound the best you can. Obviously there are other conditions involved, such as budgets, health, family, time but as long as you are in a situation where you know your tools and you can establish these creative relationships with the people around you to create this awesome thing. You end up in a situation where your doing something like Motown records where you’re just pumping out these awesome great hits because its fun to be involved in and your audience is enjoying it.  That’s how it should be…in a perfect world of course.

It’s the team dynamic that makes the game.

There is a lot more to being an Audio designer than just the Technology and the technique; it’s also about the whole creating an emotional response thing too, so you have to find balance and compromise between those thing to bring the creative vision to life, which is a really exciting thing to do. But yeah, it can get really draining on you emotionally as you’re pushing constantly all the time, but then again it only exists because of what other people are creating and my role when I am working in video game audio is mostly a very servant one. Creating audio for elements created by other people to work for the audience to enjoy which is why I really have leaned on the Usability department at PikPok but I try and make the whole thing fun for myself and hopefully that translates across. There is a lot of fun to be had with a bunch of good people creating crazy stuff for other people to enjoy. That’s what you need to tap into as that’s what it’s about really.

Speaking of,  The most fun I’ve ever had recently on a project was ‘Monsters Ate My Condo’, that was just insane! It’s an iOS title created by PikPok for Adult Swim. Working the Producer We went for a really fun, catchy J-pop style. That whole thing is really hilarious actually, because the lyrics of those tracks are actually in Japanese. We used Google Translate and we typed in what we thought the lyrics should be, and through some mutual friends we found a lovely Japanese girl who had a great voice  so we invited her in to the audio studio and she did the track in one take, as well as helping us refine the translation so that it made sense in Japanese and sounded like a bad English translation of Japanese, You know how sometimes the translation and its wrong, its kinda like reverse bad subtitles but poking fun ourselves.

I also did a number of tracks in different styles for specific monsters, like the giant crab is a kind of lullaby, a campy unicorn that spurts rainbows out of its horn has some cheesy 80’s rock, and a broken robot puppy which is my favourite because it’s like a crazy dubstep version! I did that version by beatboxing the tune and then replacing that recording with synths in Ableton.

I then used an iPhone and a synth app called bebot and put it against a guitar pickup and started making all these crazy noises of this broken, angry little robot puppy (laughs)!

There was also a Green dancing Bulgarian Monster in shorts which I was quite surprised how well that came out, considering it was all just MIDI instruments running through guitar amps. there was also this ‘Megazone’ track for when players reached a bonus area, which is kind of a MotorheadAce of Spades’ style track It all just got completely out of control which was great.

That sounds awesome!

It was. It was insane! The whole intro menu track was actually placeholder, but we ended up using it anyway! It needed a vocal in the middle, so I just went “MONSTER! CONDO! RRRAAARGHH!” into the mic as placeholder as a demo for the Producer to listen to and it just worked so we just left it there. I didn’t even play the guitar parts properly, I was just mucking around with that kind of ‘Ren & Stimpy’ vibe. And because I gave our vocalist the demo she learnt her vocal parts to the placeholder guitar, which sounded really cool! The bass was one single take, and the drums were just played on a keyboard. The whole track came out with a really cool, loose vibe. It was a neat experiment in just letting loose and going with your gut instincts .

There are some other cool things too; I generated lots of really cool 1980s 8-bit sounds. we just made positive and negative tones rather than having to match each type of message. We completed this project in 2-3 months; 12 songs, the effects and all the audio and sound design

Each individual condo building has its own sound effects which I created by throwing wooden objects around the studio. I cut up the individual impacts and put them in random events in FMOD and touch detection on the buildings so when you drag them you are also dragging the sound.

We even had a professionally trained opera singer come in to perform the part of the Fat Lady singing on the game over screen! She was about to have her first child so she wasn’t offended by playing the part of the “The Game is over so now the fat lady is singing” bit. She is such a lovely person.

I also composed a cool 8-bit style piece of music for the results screen as a homage to Shatter. The credits screen is this rainbow man in white underpants that dances to a country track. I managed to get away with all that craziness and get in into the game(laughs).

In terms of the amount of audio, the amount of styles of music and different sound effects, it’s been a really cool project to work on & has had a great response because all 4 elements are at their strongest, Design, Gameplay, Graphics and Audio and that’s something PikPok games is really known for because of the great talent at the studio in all the different departments.

What tools are you using outside of the game environment?

I try and work as much as I can with external stuff as I love playing with real things. I’ve got some outboard gear, but essentially now its all done in Ableton Live or Pro Tools. Over the last few years, especially since becoming an audio/sound designer, I have found myself leaning on Pro Tools a bit more, because it offers a smoother experience in terms of editing and sound design and region editing and working with motion picture content.

I’ll essentially create a whole sound project and not even go near the game, so that I can export it all out and chuck everything in FMOD and hook it all up. I’ll get Designers, Coders or Producers to throw me lists of sounds that they think the game might need and go back and forth a bit and  work against videos and concept art and then I’ll go about my merry way to try and create that through whatever means and change it around to suit. Ableton Live gives you a lot more options for sound design, as its easier to bounce stuff around and is a lot more streamlined in regards to busses, groups and chaining. I did all of the work for Shatter in Ableton Live including all the sound design.

How do you like the Ableton workflow?

Ableton is every paint brush you need for music and sound. It still needs to sort itself out with video and dual monitor support, having to flick constantly between 2 views to mix is a pain.  video scrubbing is not as good as protools and a few other things that protools does nice (exporting separate Regions/clips all at once would be great in the timeline rather than one by one) But It’s really all the same. The goal is to create lots of audio files and music that work with the game. And you could do that with a 4 track reel to reel and a freeware editor if you wanted. Might take a bit longer.

Overall, Live is really cool, Groups, Automation, Effects, Bus, Bounce, Freeze, Mix, Instruments and Render it’s all there and then some. The stuff I love the most  is the ‘Max for Live’ toolset which gives Ableton a “Mad Scientist in a audio Lab” feel in terms of things you can create.  MAX/MSP is very much like a lot of the API’s and middleware found in games and similar to what I am use to with FMOD so I have been looking at ways in which we can control other things, create our own stuff. I talked to FMOD a year or so ago and I asked about OSC (Open Sound Control) control and I actually think they have that support in the new FMOD Studio.

Yeah, that would be rad!

OSC is such a great platform, with so many options. You can create your own hardware devices and tune them in the way that you need to. If you want to build your own 24-channel mixer out of whatever  you need to, you can just send the data out and in for hardware and software control and that’s really useful.

How strongly are you driven by the Visuals ?

Video games are so heavily reliant on the visual element, and the audio serves those visual elements. Essentially, in games you are mostly making sounds for something, so its a very serviceable medium in that respect. You know, ‘this character needs to talk’ or ‘this event needs an explosion’, that kind of thing. The visuals & design tell you what they need, and in that respect I’ve always had strong visuals in my mind when making music, so I just make the music to the pictures in my head, and that’s what i love doing. I’m really influenced by architecture, geometry, colours, shapes, moods and abstract concepts like that. It is never anything specific, I’m not trying to create the sound of a lost girlfriend or trying to attract personal attention.(laughs) It’s more abstracts and observational moments in time and space that fascinates me creatively, and it’s why I really enjoy working in this medium, because you are creating worlds for people…Windows into other places. That’s what it’s about for me.

My latest album that I have just finished is like that, in the way that it is imagination music basically. I have been creating these detailed audio paintings; I have a strong visual image in my mind as I’m composing, I see audio quite visually. I’m think I’m really lucky in that sense.

Do you listen to many soundtracks for games?

When I did Shatter wasn’t very much aware of what was going on in the world of game soundtracks. I think that fresh approach really helped out, I came at it like a album and a musician, but was scoring the emotional journey of a machine exploring other worlds. I love the music out of Mass Effect series; it is beautiful, but at the same time i can hear everything that it’s paying homage to as well.

I can hear all those influences. Sometimes it sounds like Blade Runner meets something like the Inception soundtrack (laughs). You know, those two very strong elements. One of my favourite bands of all time is Pink Floyd and every time I pick up the guitar I have to resist the urge to just play David Gilmour guitar solos (laughs)

Are you planning a space rock-opera?

(Laughs) That very much might happen! I love guitars, and I love drums, and I love the whole band approach, but also i love the synthesised, futuristic approach too. No comment! (Laughs)

I’ve been listening to a few bits and pieces that are floating around, like Machinarium. That’s beautiful. And Night’s Sky was another one that I came across that I really loved.

Rez I also liked, in terms of interactive stuff and of course Limbo as mentioned before, which reminds me I have to finish it!

And speaking of interactive audio and working with coders.

Those things are very tricky to achieve if you are a mostly a content creator as you are relying a lot on other people to help bring your vision to life. Unless you happen to be an super ninja audio coder or something (laughs)! That takes time to research and develop those tools, finding that balance between being that audio creative and understanding the dynamics, psychoacoustics and psychology of sound, but then mixing that with an person who can program the heck out of anything, its always going to be a good thing.

You can be the composer, and you can write the best music ever for your game, but if the audio coder or studio or person you deliver too doesn’t understands that musical or audio vision then it can go wrong and just not sound as awesome as it could have been.

That person is implementing that vision and the success of that vision. They are almost if not completely responsible for the audio as you are. I’m really lucky that I have people that I trust that  help me bring all of my work to life. That relationship is really essential.

Right, building systems to support composing styles or technical aesthetic.

That’s essentially where you are moving more into the realm of Audio Design where you are literally becoming the architect, and building that vision as best you can with the resources given to you. And that’s become one of the enjoyable part of the process for me as time has gone on. I feel like a Director for film sometimes that needs that scene and that shot to make it all happen. I really love it.

I’m finding myself doing that along with the content creation, the design and implementation. But working with the coder is such a strong essential part of the process of all of that. It’s great when Creative and Technical are racing side by side on the same road heading towards audio awesome town.

Where do you see things going in the future?

As more as time moves on you know like, “we’ve done this with movies, we’ve done this type of thing with games and we’ve got these types of things that have been done with sound before. So where can we go now?” With all the current media and technology changes you’re going to see more interesting stuff happening like 3D audio beyond 7.1 somehow maybe holographic audio?

Whatever happens with the visual component of technolgy 3d or whatever, Those types of things are going to need more interactive and more immersive audio to support those more immersive visuals.

I think that We’re at the 90% mark of our current entertainment technology and what we’re using to support these creative visions us humans have so until the technology goes further we’re going to see a lot more interesting things come out as a part of that.

Part of what will happen is that people will need all this extra code support for new technology so coders will become a lot more commonplace and people will be exposed to that side of it a lot more. seeing that blend of the creative and technical. the emotional and metal.

While making the process more accessible for sound designers and composers.

Yeah, definitely.The options and tools now are definitely a lot better than they were are few years ago. Game audio is almost now becoming like using Ableton live or Pro Tools and that’s exciting.

A lot of people working in the creative industries on interactive media content will be able to achieve those things on their own through various tool sets and middleware and interfaces to the buckets and bolts but right now it’s very important that you have your coder working with you to help deliver your sonic visions in the interactive audio space.

But pretty much looking ahead…The future is complete media immersion somehow.

What are some of your creative processes and how do you manage it?

In regards to working on projects there is always a scrunch at the end, but that’s because game audio is so desperately, heavily, reliant on things working properly when the scope is large or time is tight it can get pretty wild.

Just finding that compromise and balance between what I need to make versus the time I need to implement it and other things like space, delivery and memory budgets to factor in as well. It’s a challenge. It’s also about managing your creative energies as well, getting yourself into the right mood so you can pump out music constantly is no small task in itself. Its like a creative exercise you have to go through.

You really have to switch focus, or find a way to creatively pull out of that feeling or genre and put yourself into another one. There’s a lot of creative stuff that goes around doing this stuff, but I don’t think it gets much attention because its not as flash as maybe something that’s technical. It’s the creative management that’s just as essential to being a full time audio creative as well.

Exercise, eating and sleeping properly, Stretching, hanging out with friends, spending time with family. Doing other stuff non audio related, Have some fun, big walks ! Relaxing, laughing at yourself. Those are some of the most important things. That stuff is the gas in your tank. I learnt the hard way but luckily enough I did learn this.

But in regards to work, It’s something that fascinates me because it your job and you have to come up with the goods no matter what. If you’re working in Television. Games or Movies and you’re working with Music, it needs a certain emotion to suit what it needs to. Like I was saying earlier, people react to projects imbued with passion. Just trying to tap into that emotional reservoir and deliver content that has that emotional feeling to it can be just as hard as trying to use a set of tools that might not be doing what they should. But I think if you can find ways to let the emotion drive you while technically leaning on your tools. You can get whatever you’re working on to a good place.

My advice is to let love for what you do drive the need to keep exploring the world of sound and what it can offer both creatively and professionally, while pushing towards something people will enjoy listening to and you yourself had fun making. It is what it is all about really.

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