Scoring the ‘Verse, with Pedro Macedo Camacho

Quick introduction

« Pedro Macedo Camacho » by OverMindpt – Own work
. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Some say space is silent. That no one there can hear you scream. Yet space has inspired its share of memorable anthems, from pop music hits to the iconic Star Wars’ main theme or 2001’s So spoke Zarathustra.

Pedro Macedo Camacho is the composer behind Star Citizen’s music. His is the task to underscore the great gig in the skies that will be taking place in Star Citizen’s star systems, to find the subtle musical « lighting » that reveals the true beauty of outer space scenery, and turn the hours of playtime into an unforgettable and immersive experience.

Talking about Star Citizen music

As a follow-up to his official video on the ‘Verse music, I sat down with the composer of the soundtrack to discuss the artistic direction and the musical approach of Star Citizen.

The man behind the music

As I wrote in the introduction email, I recognized your name from Audiosurf, which is a game I played a lot a few years back, for which you did the overture track. Was it your first video game music project?

No it was not actually, the very first game I did was a very small game called Darwin the Monkey, that was, you know, a kind of small platform game, but it was great. It gave me the opportunity to do my second one, which was called A Vampyre Story, with a y instead of an I, it was a point and click adventure game, a genre which I really liked in the nineties, some of my favorite games back then were the Monkey Island series. The lead artist, who was called Bill Tiller, then left LucasArts and created his own company (Autumn Moon Entertainment) and created a story about vampires and it looked magnificent. I really loved that game, and I did the score. I feel it a was a really pretty good one, much better than Audiosurf.

But again, these are not games that receive a lot of attention, as you can imagine.

Yeah, but at the same time, you get the opportunity to work on something you really enjoy, not something you do only for the paycheck, something you can put some of your soul into.

Yeah, I’ll link you to some of it, and you’ll see, the backgrounds are hand-drawn. It was a really great game.

I saw some of the screenshots on your website but I haven’t played that game, I’ll look a bit more into it, the artwork was gorgeous and the ambiance felt intriguing.

Yes, it’s true, let me see if I can find a playlist, I think there was one there. I made a playlist from some songs that others uploaded. There it is. This is the playlist. There are some tracks on it I really enjoy. Home sweet home is really fun. Some of the songs sound like Bach.

A Vampyre Story playlist

It’s also quite varied. I mean, even for the commercials of the Star Citizen ships, we’ve had so many different kinds of music types, there was something for everyone.

Yeah, I tend to write more orchestral and I’m much more efficient at it, when people come at me and say « Hey, let’s do this kind of music » , I look at it and I say « Oooh, I’ll have to work at it » ». For example, I really like EDM, electronic music, it’s something I’m comfortable with, but I’m also comfortable with orchestral music, jazz, which are really in my playground because I’m a jazz pianist so I’m very at ease writing these. But you know, when you have to compose something you’re not used to, let’s say jazz, you can end up creating music that you think is jazz but others will immediately be able to say « Ah, it’s not jazz », so I have to make sure that the details are fine. For example, in rock and metal, which I really like listening to, there are some things technically that you need to nail to do these genres properly. Probably the most weird thing for me to do was the Freelancer commercial. That one was not easy, very different from what I usually do, it was kind of a western style…

The one with laidback guitars on the background?

Yeah, that one was really different, but I thought it was okay in the end, it worked!

More than ok! From what I could find, you have a classical background, you said you were a jazz pianist, I noticed one of your compositions was for 2 pianos.

I was commissioned by two pianists who were going to present something in concert, a new piece for 2 pianos. I like it, it’s like telling a story with interactions between the two pianists, it creates a relationship with the breakup, the makeup and they have to respond to each other, kind of like real life.

You have to convey so many things in a few minutes of music.

It was challenging, but a great experience. You never stop studying, it’s learning, you keep learning and you improve.

Orchestral music fits perfectly with the main theme of the game, but for different kinds of players with different kinds of playstyle it may not be the most adapted one for all situations, so we had a huge array of different music types in commercials. One thing that got my attention, I think it was for the Cutlass commercial

That one was not me. Cutlass and Constellation were scored by Geoff Zanelli, an immensely talented composer, he worked with Hans Zimmer, and he will be scoring Squadron 42 for the game. I will be more focusing on the big game. Well, both are big, and the game is too big for one person to score everything. At the moment he did these two commercials and he will be doing more soon on Squadron 42, and you’ll hear good music. He’s very experienced, I’m sure he will do a great job.

Tango is something I played in my real life, as a pianist, it’s also a genre that I know, and I can tell you he did it really well.

The ideas behind Star Citizen’s score

For Squadron 42, you have a campaign that will be very story-driven, so you already know in advance some of the experiences that the player is going to live through, so you can prepare the music to convey the emotions that fit with the story arc. As you hinted at, you can use some variations of the same theme, depending if you came home victorious or if you suffered some casualties during the mission. The question I wanted to ask you was « In the Star Citizen universe that is going to be so open-ended, where everyone will be living his own adventure, how can you compose the music, can you adapt the same kind of thinking or do you be more open-ended as well? »

I think for Star Citizen, which is less story driven of course, the music will either reflect the place you are in, which has a backstory or a culture, and the visual experiences themselves. Imagine, you’re going in space and you see some beautiful scenery. You are working towards making music and sounds reflect what you see. It’s more instantaneous, more about seizing the moment. I don’t think there should be continuous music non-stop in Star Citizen, it should be music in sudden moments. I personally don’t like to hear music all the time when I’m playing an MMO, it kind of bothers me. As a gamer myself, when there is something to underline when you enter an unknown territory or something like that, it should reflect the culture of the place, who lives around in these areas. I think that would be the best option for the game.

I make some of the music for Squadron 42 too and it’s still something for which we’re assembling some of the films for, with the idea of fine-tuning the timing here and there. Music usually comes in the later stages. I may end up doing some of the parts as it may end up being too much for the time frame. For now, what has been scheduled, I concentrate in populating the world music and Geoff will do a fantastic job on Squadron42.

I’m sure of it. To come back on what you said, if you try to be bombastic all the time, with music playing very loud, very heroic, I feel it just kind of defeats the effect. You have to know when less is more, for example when discovering a new place or exploring a planet with the ruins of a civilization, with an underlying theme that conveys a sense of discovery and wonder, it can be much better than blasting out music any chance you have.

I agree. You can remember that feeling. That would be the best way.

I feel that for MMO at least, you have plenty of people who start out playing out with the in-game music, and then after a couple of weeks, a couple of months, just grow tired of it as they know the places by heart, they end up just muting it and playing their own music instead.

Exactly!

It may be a phenomenon you want to avoid.

Exactly, I’m tackling those tasks now we have the universe coming out.

One idea is making music more ambient. Reflect the overall style, stay really subtle, in the back, and I like that approach. It’s not continuous music, but rather very laid down. It comes out in certain moments. I want to have some music in the background as you said, that makes you keep playing and if you start listening more closely, makes you feel in the mood. And then in those special moments, the music goes up a little bit, with new discoveries for example. That kind of music will happen sparsely, not all the time. I think that will be a very cool approach. Of course we will test as the game comes along before releasing, I will play it myself and I’m very critical. I play a lot of games, and sometimes it would turn out better not to have music in certain places, it sounds cool but then after a while it makes no sense.

Majesty of Space

Another approach could be to treat it the GTA way, with a selection of radios you can choose from to decide if you’d rather listen to orchestral music, rock classics, tango, or say « I want the EDM radio station ». It can work but it may not be the one that makes the most sense.

It’s different. I prefer precise music. For example, when you enter a planet and a beautiful nebula comes out and you see a beautiful view, I feel that special moment should have a special music, but radio is just radio. That’s my opinion about how music should behave. I want to make music that is made for the game, that makes these moments more special. I want music to come at the right moments, the most cinematic ones. Radio works but I feel it can go on for half an hour of music but it doesn’t feel as immersive, it’s more timeless, out of place. And then there are the special effects. That’s what I personally prefer, listening to the space sounds, the engines, the receivers… it creates the best experience in the game.

One of the examples I had in mind was FTL, which has only half of what you’re trying to describe: you had a different theme playing in the background depending on the world you were exploring, based on the alien race that inhabited it: rock, mantis, engi… You also had several variations depending if you’re exploring or fighting. At  first you really learn to appreciate the subtle differences in the main themes between the worlds, the problem is, after a certain number of playthroughs you knew all the music by heart.

I personally don’t feel that every second of the game should have music. I really don’t believe that should happen. We’re doing music for these modules release and there will be more music going on once we set up for the full game, but we also have to consider when the music should come out. I believe it should be calculated on the level of danger you’re having. If it’s just another random pirate camp, there is no need for music for that.

Let’s say, OK, you’re just flying in space and there is a pirate, ok, you know you’re not going to die, so there’s no point in having epic music to make you feel afraid of something that you’ve done a hundred times. Of course, that will be calculated based on your equipment value, if you’re clearly outnumbered there is going to be music. I feel there should be music if you have something that happens in front of say that makes you say « Oh gosh, I may really die ». In these moments the music should play out when there is a challenge. I think this is the best approach.

For planets, I don’t believe when you are on a planet there should be music each time you land. Maybe for the first landing but after this, you already know the planet. We should keep it for rare occurrences, for example if there is a special vista and you can turn it into a pleasant or unpleasant moment.

On top of my head I can remember several games which made the choice of having epic music blast out whenever you’re fighting 5 spiders for the hundredth time, and you get the same battle music for this and when you’re fighting a boss who has a big implication on the story. Same for a place that gives you a sense of awe when you first enter but feels like home after a few hours (for example the capitals in World of Warcraft).

I feel that when you’re trying too hard to make every encounter epic and heroic, you end up having the opposite effect.

I reaaaally feel that.

I love games, and I play games every day so I really feel why it’s annoying as a player, just like you, and the consequence when that happens is I turn off the music immediately and I never turn it on again. I do that when the music is nonsense. I don’t like to hear mp3 music only when playing, I like to hear the sound effects. I like the music when it’s needed. Two games which did the music well were World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls, which I both liked a lot. I want to go for a subtle, low-key approach which makes it more pleasant.

Witcher III

We’ve been testing a lot of stuff in Wwise, let me find open it up and show you what I mean.

At least you get the chance of the time to fine tune to get the desired result, you don’t have someone pushing you to release next month even if you’re not ready.

Well, we have to release at some point!

Of course, but it’s not like you have someone shouting « done is better than perfect », « we need the game out before Christmas! », « we don’t want you to take three months to do something incredible when you can do something ok in a week! »

There is always a time, you cannot stay on it forever and this is something we are really focusing on. The team is assembled, we have to release and even though we always have a chance to improve later on, for example with live orchestral sessions, we cannot wait for everything to come up and fine-tune forever.

It was clear just from the way you presented it that you are a passionate gamer, you play every day, you know your gaming references… From the video you made for CIG, you mentioned you got in contact with Christ Roberts by Skype because you were a fan of Wing Commander in the first place.

I played number 1 and 2, after that I had less time for games, I went on to study classical composition with one of the best teachers in Portugal, that was really hard work and I think it paid off. (Note: according to Wikipedia legend, Pedro completed the eight years program in 4 years, receiving A and A+ grades all along the way. Pedro being extremely modest, I did not want to embarrass him by pushing the question)

It requires a lot of work, sometimes you want to rely on inspiration, and yes there is a time and place for inspiration, but there is also a lot of technique involved and technique is very important as well.

Music’s legacy and video games’ future

Conservatoire education in Europe, I feel, is very attached to the technical aspect and the theory behind it, the history of composition, the roots of classical music… did you have some arguments with your teachers about « Is video game music respectable? ».

No, not really. Music is a legacy, which a lot of people don’t know. People like to separate into different genres and oppose them, but there is a lot more going on that most people realize. Let me find the piano so I can play to you. It all comes down from the same sources, and that’s really important for you to understand, when you learn to make music, you learn why you do this:

Pedro plays a progression of major chords on the piano

So people will say « Ok, that sounds good enough », like this sounds alright, it works, and this is what we use mostly in scoring. You understand why Bach did that interpretation of music at the time, music around Bach time was not so much about tonic – subdominant. Bach really liked this progression and used it a lot. For interpretation of ancient music, we can talk about someone like Ockeghem that we rarely heard, we can get to see how the kind of harmonies of that period evolved into Renaissance and created a legacy.

There were plenty of important composers like Mozart and Beethoven and everyone studied Bach to death. Just like I did. That turned music into what it is right now. Learning at the Conservatoire gives you an overview of what music is and was, maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to write now.

Requiem for Ines de Castro

Also, I think people like to find conflicts between one kind of music to another, for example jazz to classical, rock n roll to hip-hop, they also like to play on the generations aspect, saying video game music is for children and classical is not for the same public. Were it not for the first composers learning from one another and proposing different interpretations, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

In my case, if I felt classical was supposed to be the top-end of music, I would never compose for video games. I just feel people should stop classifying, just listen to it and decide if they like it. It hurts me when people look down upon a genre as a whole based on principle alone. For example, I like dubstep, there is some good dubstep and some bad one, like everything. It’s just my taste.

Music is about feeling, not theory. When you hear this

Pedro plays another progression on the piano

You don’t appreciate it because the theory is elegant, you appreciate it because it feels good.

What is good for you to understand is that every idea or rule has its time, some of them really make sense in certain occasions, some of them don’t. If you understand the real reasons for that, even when you write video game music, you have a big advantage.

I feel that it’s not so much of a difference, but if you pay heed to the details, it all adds up.

I feel that based on new technology and a lot of new talent coming to the field, it seems the overall level for video game music is increasing, and it’s possible we may follow the same trend as in movies, where the score ended up being a big part of the experience. It all started from silent movies, then fast forward a couple of decades and you have soundtracks that can make a break a movie by themselves (Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s westerns, John Williams for Spielberg, Hans Zimmer…).

I feel that the more we go on, the more interactive games and music will be. I believe people don’t expect to have someone dictate what they should see on TV, it’s « I want to have the power to decide what I want to watch ». That’s why I feel that games are getting more attention, most of all it has to be fun, you want to have an experience that you could not have otherwise. That’s why I play games. And because of that, as there are more people coming in, the level of detail and talent will increase. When I play a nice RPG, I expect a player-centric experience. If the music is cheap, and there is plenty of cheap music around, it’s a immediate turn-off.

You know, there are different kinds of producers. Chris Roberts is in to make a spectacular game. His goal is to make a great game, not to earn money with it. He started with a small budget, and he didn’t have to ask for a big one, it just happened naturally. He has a dream and he wants to make it really nice. If he wanted to just get away with money, he would have made what he promised initially, we probably would have the game already done by now, and he would have 75 million dollars. He was done! But instead he said no, I fulfilled my promises, I fulfilled my goals, but you know what? We are in position to make the best damn space sim ever. If they don’t want it, it’s ok, but if you do, we will strive for a higher level of quality that what is usually done.

The other kind of developers makes something to fulfill the need of a public and to get rich. I hope the public gets more and more picky. I really hope that with players’ expectations going up, more developers switch their business model and that can change how we’re playing games.

I was a pro gamer when I was younger so I really wanted Starcraft 2 to come over but it didn’t come out for a while. When it did, it was extremely well done, not something that seemed rushed. Do you imagine how many years Blizzard has taken to make sure it was polished? I mean, we’re talking about Star Citizen here but the motive, the will behind was to release the game in the best possible state.

For example it’s not normal when you have a company and you have the CEO who doesn’t know or care for the product. Even for small sections of Squadron 42, Chris wants to keep improving, for example for helmets. You can say, it’s just a helmet, nobody will pay attention to it…

…and plenty of people will just tick the « hide helmets » box in the options anyway!

Yeah, but it’s a NPC helmet in this case. You could say it’s just a guy who is doing the chores, nobody will ever look at him, but Chris will fall in love with that helmet. That’s the kind of developers we need, people who really care about what’s going on and they don’t want to make the game to make profit, but to create something very well done. He built up several studios and hired so many contractors, from developers to motion capture, to people who do concept art, it cost a lot, but he hired them all.

That’s the kind of developers we should support. If a game is done with passion, you can see the difference.

Clearly, we can tell! I had a discussion with gamer friends about the time in development and the final result, along the lines of « A delayed game may be eventually good but a rushed game is forever bad ». I don’t know if you have played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic?

Yes, I played the first one.

The argument is mostly about the second one, which was rushed, LucasArts insisted to have the product delivered in 14-16 months time and delivered ahead of schedule so it could be out after E3 and before Christmas to maximize revenue, so the game was released with several game-crashing bugs and glitches. A lot of content was cut, so there were gaps in the storyline and no resolution to several characters’ arcs, no sense of closure and conclusion. What I like about the story of this game is that eventually, it was not the publishers who worked hard to make sure the game was as good as Obsidian intended, but the community of fans themselves, as they released a restored content mod, and you could clearly see the amount of effort the developers had put into it, and stored in an unused disk.

I think for Star Citizen, you have a unique opportunity with the support of the fans who really want you to make the best game you can, everyone is on board and you have the chance to put so much passion and detail into the game.

It takes a bit more time, but it’s normal, it happens. I think it’s coming out really great. I like it. I’m just checking now, I have something I want to show you, it’s something I’ve been testing. It’s not final, but you can imagine how it’s going to play out, with the dynamics of the sound, where it’s coming from.

I rushed this, it’s not supposed to go so much from one side to another, but this is something that I believe was never done. So far, what has been done in games regarding interactive effects on multiple layers and dynamics is just the beginning, but I’m sure the end result will be fantastic.

I’m not a specialist about the system, but apparently the Wwise sound system opens up a bunch of new options to play with, with hooks, cues, modulation of the background music…

Exactly, so far, we have played with Wwise but not yet revealed its true potential . What we’re doing is actually something different, when you have a violin playing on, you hear it strongly, and with the volume it can sound like multiple strings instruments at the same time. It’s not only volume and layers, but modulation of the levels and intensities. It’s not just going up and down, but there are changes in the music, more notes, it’s not coming from the same side…

Let’s see, it starts at 7… here comes the bass, ok, the violin just came in. It’s not the volume, it’s the intensity. It doesn’t get so loud that it becomes difficult to perform. If you ramp it up very slowly, it will not sound outlandish, it will sound like a normal transition.

So you are taking something I had never heard about. And when we do it once, it will be easier for the next time. The difficult thing is to figure it out the first time. You can see how many layers I have done. I feel this will make the music as responsive as it needs to be for Star Citizen. And then, on top of the music, you can add all the sound effects, the pew pew from everywhere, and combine everything.

We can place so many medleys on top. That would be great, the music would never be static, but interactive, something that always makes sense in the situation you’re currently in.

There is a compositional aspect and then an implementation one, it also needs adjustment and fine-tuning, and when we’re done it will be fantastic. We’ve been working really hard to make sure this comes out. Let me show you how it is done so you can have an idea.

He opens a Wwise file containing the variations of the sataball music, with several files depending if the player is at the start of the game, the hardcore moments or the baseline

Oh, ok, Sataball. If I remember correctly it’s the place where you play space football with paralyzing guns.

I just wanted to show you what it looks like for the normal state. If you look at this layer, you can see it grows to maximum volume and then it starts to fade out. There are 9 layers, each one specifically composed, not just for the fadeout thing. That will be quite an interesting way to do it. It’s something that hasn’t been done before and will take a little bit more time. We’re all doing this hard work to make it different and better than what has been done before, I don’t want to do something that is usual. I want to hear what is usual and ask « how can we make it better than what has been done before »?

Even though I don’t want to have the music always going on, when it happens I don’t want it to be always the same, but have some subtle differences. With this amount of interactivity in scoring your own experience, I really feel it would be a shame to change this into a mp3 soundtrack, I feel that would be nonsense, but everyone does what they feel is best. But I wouldn’t do that!

I hope you’ve been enjoying the work I’ve done, because I liked doing it.

Then keep doing it, and we’ll keep enjoying it, don’t worry about this!

Thank you very much for your time, if you have any more questions, just let me know

It’s been a pleasure, thank you very much for your time, and have a great Sunday!

To learn more about Pedro

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrfoUPC0UzFwbKOSASXw5uw

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