Daria Novoliantceva (Daria Novo) is a classical singer, composer, and sound designer at nerdtracks in San Francisco. Before coming to the US, she earned her master’s degree in choral conducting at the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory in her home country of Russia where she composed and arranged over 80 choir pieces. She has also composed music for puppet theaters in Saint Petersburg and Krasnodar, and she was the orchestrator for five films and television shows, to include Velikaya (2015), Prizrak (2015), and Attraction (2017).
With such a strong foundation in classical composing and performance, what drew her to sound design and made her travel across the world to pursue it? Let’s find out!
(And be sure to check out Daria’s talk at GDC as part of the “What’s Next? A Game Audio Microtalk Series” panel on Wednesday from 9:30am – 10:30am in Room 3006, West Hall.)
So the readers can get to know you a little better, could you tell us a little about your background?
Daria Novoliantceva: I worked as a singer and choir arranger in a professional chamber choir for 9 years. I started working at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia when I was 20 years old and in my first year. At about 25, I met a very talented film composer, Maxim Koshevarov, who asked me to be his intern for film scoring. It was the first time I ever used a Mac computer and the first time I used Logic Pro. It looked very difficult to use but since I had already worked as an orchestrator, I knew how an orchestra worked and what my music had to sound like. After about 4 years of working with several film composers (doing orchestrations, some ghost-writing, etc.), I realized that I could support myself composing and arranging and I quit the choir. However, it was very hard psychologically to be a freelancer.
What was challenging for you as a freelancer?
DN: The most difficult thing for me as a freelancer was the seasons. I really think that in Russia there is a time after New Year where everything slows down since the budget has already been spent. In January I wouldn’t really have composition work, usually at all. I’m ok with that now, but when I first quit my choir job, I had a really hard time in January because I didn’t have any money.
So what did you do?
DN: That year I travelled to the USA for the first time, and I was super excited about this country. I visited a conservatory in San Francisco and liked it very much. They recently opened a new program called TAC (Technology and Applied Composition) and I decided to apply since it was only a one-year program and I could leave Russia for just one year.
Though you had difficulties freelancing, you had a lot of connections and musical experience in Saint Petersburg. What drew you to the San Francisco Conservatory and convinced you to apply to the TAC program?
DN: When I was travelling to the USA and in San Francisco, I accidentally met a composer, Sahba Aminikia, who showed me the Conservatory and told me about the new program. He listened to some of my music and said that I had to apply. I remember I called my husband in Russia that day and asked him what he thought. He supported me, and I was really surprised. We spent all our savings so that I was able to go.
I thought it could be a very interesting experience: I could learn English and musical technologies, and I could learn a lot about myself. It would be a real challenge. Before that year I didn’t know at all what sound design meant, and I never played video games. Well, I was a big fan of Mario when I was a kid but I didn’t know anything about this huge industry. I wanted to learn musical technologies because I knew that I had a very strong classical background but almost no skills in sound and production. After two to three months I came here, and I realised that I was already thinking about moving here because I discovered so many opportunities.
Since TAC is a tech-heavy program focused on sound design, what was your experience like having such a strong background in classical music but very little knowledge of designing sound?
DN: The first class I attended was a sound design class taught by Dren McDonald. The first couple assignments were very hard to do, but Dren explained it very well and by the end of the course I felt more comfortable working with audio, plugins and sample libraries. I became a fan of sound design and decided that from now on I was going to develop myself as a sound designer as well as a composer.
I then went to my first GDC and I enjoyed being in the game community. I learnt a lot and met great people. After GDC, Dren offered me work and I started helping him with games, writing music and doing sound design. Last fall I did a small educational game on my own for the first time – all the sound design and music – for a company called BrainQuake. I’m still learning how to use FMOD for implementation, but I am sure now that I can do sound design.
What do you like most about sound design?
DN: For me sound design is a lot of fun because you have to experiment a lot to find the right sound for a game. I love that when I can imagine a sound in my head I can find a way to do it even if it takes a lot of time. And it is such a nice feeling when you finally reach your goal. I try something new every time – a new plugin, or layer some different sounds – and sometimes I get a sound effect that I even didn’t expect to get. But it’s important to always ask yourself: why am I using this particular sample or sound? What does it add to my sound effect? You always have to check that all layers you use actually make sense.
Also, it’s cool to do music and sound design at the same time because I can control the balance between them so the styles match. I can balance the frequencies so that my music doesn’t mask my sfx, and if I do orchestral music for a game, I can create sfx using some of the orchestral elements as well. I think if you are a great composer and have great ears and taste, you can become a great sound designer as well.
Though this interview is for Designing Sound, and not Designing Music Now, I’d love to hear more about your work as a choir arranger. What was your favorite piece or series that you wrote while you were at the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg?
DN: When I started working in the professional choir in Russia, the conductor of the choir had an idea to do the whole program of “prohibited” songs of USSR. Though there wasn’t actually a prohibited list of music at that time, some bands and genres weren’t ok to listen to. My parents for example had some pirate recordings of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson.
So we made a list of “prohibited” songs (such as Deep Purple, The Beatles, Russian rock bands of the ‘70-80s, some songs that were composed in jails at that time, etc.), and I created arrangements for an a cappella choir. This project became very popular among common people. I think one of my favorite arrangements that I composed was for “Angie” by The Rolling Stones. I made a totally different version of the song with a solo of lyrical soprano and totally different chord progressions.
Beautiful! I love how the piece rises and falls in such a unique way compared to the original song. I especially enjoyed your arrangement of “Yesterday”, too. (And for readers who wants to hear more of the program, you can check out Daria’s other beautiful arrangements.)
As far as your work at nerdtracks, do you have a favorite project for which you created the sound and/or music?
DN: I worked with Dren together on some music for Cooking Dash and Gordon Ramsay Dash, as well as on a documentary movie, the Papumba kids app, the BrainQuake educational app, and a couple indie projects. I think my favorite was the music for Cooking Dash when we had to compose one track in Mozart’s style and another one with Klezmer music. I really liked these particular works because we had to record live performers and I really love to work with musicians. It’s a very nice experience and I always learn a lot while communicating with them.
What kinds of projects are you currently working on at nerdtracks?
DN: We are still in the progress of working on a spreadsheet of music and sfx for a new Glu game. There will be a lot of work and I can’t wait to start! Also, I’m going to speak on the panel at GDC and I’m very excited. It’s called “What’s Next” and my talk is called “Big Choices”.
Last fall I also started teaching a sound design class for pre-college youth at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had 6 students: 5 boys and 1 girl (13-15 y.o.). I was very happy to see a girl in my class because I feel that there are not so many women in game audio. In Russia I know only one woman who is successful in composing for media.
Have you noticed any differences in terms of gender representation since becoming familiar with the audio and music scene in San Francisco?
DN: I can’t say a lot about the USA, but I can say with Russia that I know several really nice female composers of classical music there, but it’s unlikely that they can financially support themselves doing only compositions, and I personally know only the one woman working with media. I’m sure there are more, but since I don’t really know them, it’s really hard to say. I know two female orchestral conductors who are very young, ambitious and, of course, have very strong character.
Here in the States I really like that I personally know a lot of talented women working in music – such as Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum (film composers), Piper Payne (mastering engineer), Dawn Harms (conductor), Leslie Ann Jones (sound engineer), etc. It’s really inspiring to meet all those amazing professionals. I know that I will meet more talented women at GDC this year.
I am also looking forward to that, as well as meeting you! And thank you very much for sharing a little bit of your life with us. Where can people follow you and your personal work and upcoming projects?