Composer Chats: Stephen Cox and Danny McIntyre on Taking VR Music & Sound Design to the Next Level in PSVR's Farpoint

Artwork for the Farpoint soundtrack, now available on iTunes and other digital providers
Artwork for the Farpoint soundtrack, now available on iTunes and other digital providers

Anyone who’s anyone knows that the best thing in virtual reality right now is Playstation’s PSVR gaming system. The game has been a smash success, garnering acclaim left and right. I was lucky enough to chat with Stephen Cox and Danny McIntyre of Unified Sounds, composers for the game. These guys have really taken the Virtual Reality gaming musical and sound experience to new heights through their work on Farpoint, and have contributed to the ever-increasing standards and expectations for quality sound in immersive entertainment.

Read on to find out about their inspiration for their score and what it was like providing music for one of the biggest gaming blockbusters in recent history. Also, be sure to check out their soundtrack for the game, which is now available on iTunes and Spotify, among other digital providers.

Also, check out a special SoundCloud playlist of the Farpoint score by clicking here! I’ve been replaying the main theme over and over.

Tell me about Farpoint -- it is such a breakthrough project for VR gaming. How did you land the gig and what is one of your favorite memories of working on it?

Steve: Farpoint is next level for many reasons. The story alone, in all its intricate sci-fi glory, instantly inspired some of the best work I’ve ever been a part of. I think it’s one of the first story driven games to come out for VR, one that feels like a real game from start to finish. That along with the use of the new Aim controller and the interaction with the environment makes it an immersive experience like no other.

Getting the gig was about 3-4 years in the making. I was working as a Professor for Music Production for Media at Full Sail University when my writing partner (Dr. Danny McIntyre) who is currently the Composition Department Chair at Full Sail, sent me to a VIP event to get some face time. One of the VIPs attending was Jonathan Mayer, now a good friend and Senior Music Manager for Sony Interactive Entertainment. He comes to Full Sail regularly to do guest speaking and Master Classes that I had attended over the years. We had some great conversations and I made sure we kept in touch. After over a year of sending random projects from my work with Unified Sounds he gave us an unbelievable opportunity on a project (prior to Farpoint) that we can’t talk about yet. I think it was our work on that project that allowed us a shot at the demo a few months later.

For me, the demo process sticks out as a favorite memory. Danny and I just wrapped a few projects where our collaborative method was really clicking, so we were itching to go big. Having no idea what we were getting into, yet putting everything we had into it creatively, i.e., experimenting with the sound palette, crafting the heck out of every single tone, hiring musicians... It felt like we were a part of the world-building process along with all the great minds at Sony and Impulse Gear. Even if we weren’t going to get the gig, we loved every second of it. Then getting the call: “Everyone loves this demo, can you do the whole game?” Pure elation.

Danny: Farpoint is an amazing sci-fi first person shooter that takes place on a distant planet. I think that’s about all we can say… I got the call from Steve to work on the score and orchestration with him. Our company Unified Sounds had recently finished an unannounced project for Sony interactive. We worked really well together and have some strong team of composer/producers. I think how we handled that gig ultimately gave us the opportunity to send in a demo for Farpoint. Steve and I went all in on the demo, which became the first draft of the theme for the whole game. I think my favorite memory of working on the game was when all the sound design we did started to gel together and inspire us. After crafting multiple sound design environments, melodies and harmonies started to pop out of the sounds we were inventing. It was so much fun!!

Stephen Cox of Unified Sounds
Stephen Cox of Unified Sounds

You had to utilize a diverse musical tool kit for the Farpoint, what are some of the styles and approaches you brought? Was there a particular style that was the biggest challenge that pushed your comfort zone?

Steve: We did have a little help in the beginning from Sony regarding style and sound. The project brief they provided was very detailed and well written, including screenshots and a list of cues from modern sci-fi films that were close to the style they were envisioning. If a picture speaks 1000 words, a reference track speaks volumes! That general style just happened to be right in our wheelhouse, but we still needed to invent Farpoint’s “style”. Our marching orders were to stay far enough away from that cliche sci-fi sound and bombastic action music (we may have a few hints of that) while creating memorable themes that matched Farpoint’s aesthetic and supported the emotional content. And doing all of this without disrupting the immersive experience. A small string ensemble over lush, detailed, creepy, ethereal textures worked very well for much of the game. It wasn’t until the action packed levels and cinematics where we got to take some risks. Go big or go home!

Danny: I don’t think there was a particular style that challenged us too much. I think it was more about being mindful that we were pioneering the world of scoring for virtual reality. What does that mean? Where does music fit into a world that mimics reality on such a high level? You can’t turn your head away like you can when interfacing other mediums. There’s a balance between reality and story telling and I think it’s the score that actually keeps it dramatic. It really helps push the story, especially in this context since it looks so much like real life, which of course has no score. Maybe that’s too philosophical, but I kept thinking about this. In the end, this became something more interactive than a movie or your average game and the music keeps it fictional, which is important. That’s the fun. That’s the story!

Danny McIntyre of Unified Sounds
Danny McIntyre of Unified Sounds

What projects are your currently working on? Which are airing or about to release?

Steve: Right now we have several things cooking that I wish I could shout from the rooftops! We couldn’t talk about Farpoint for an entire year, so I guess I’m getting used to zipped lips. However, I can talk about the music we do for CBS Sports which is always on. It’s a year-round, super fun gig because of how stylistically eclectic it can be. Giant orchestral cues one day, rock the next, hip hop, pop, country, etc.. Being able to compose and produce music in all of these genres effectively takes work. I have to give a shout out to my main man Rob Aster, who brought me into the fold over a decade ago. He’s not your average publisher, more of a producer and songwriter. I’ve learned so much from him over the years in matters of music production as well as business. Our two production houses have been teaming up on projects more frequently. I’m looking forward to the next venture.

Danny: We always work on music for CBS sports. This is what I call our default gig. We write music for highlight reels, feature stories, show opens and anything else they want. CBS sports is a year-long project, which changes with the seasons. Currently, we’re building a package for the NFL 2017/2018 season. We’re having another great golf season and we did very well through the Master’s Tournament and NCAA March Madness. We have a few other things brewing, but I can’t talk about them yet. Just know that much more is coming so stay tuned!

What do you wish you knew in the beginning of your career about the entertainment/video game industry or being a professional composer, that you know now?

Steve: I think when you’re starting off as a young composer, or any creative field, you have grand visions of creating timeless masterpieces, alone, growing a beard (or unexpected leg hair) in a dark room, without any input or feedback that would compromise your perfect vision or artistic integrity. And then you become famous. Of course their are masters among us that have gone this route and have succeeded, but they are the exception, not the rule. Collaboration and being able to come up with something great with a bunch of cooks in the kitchen is the most important skill set you can master in this industry, especially this industry! In games you’ll have opinions and creative input coming at you from all angles, up and down the creative chain. Collaborate in all things and start working out those muscles, because they don’t grow overnight.

Danny: I think it’s all about connections and people skills. I kind of always knew that but ignored it in favor of sharpening my composition and tech skills like a hermit… Graduate school was great and that’s when I really started to make meaningful connections that eventually lead to bigger and bigger things. A word of advice to my younger self - Stay in touch with everyone you meet and stoke the fires dailey! Promotion and connections are 50% of the gig.. Or more...

When you are given a project or scene to score, what is your process like? How do you decide how to score something?

Steve: Usually there is a conversation about sound palette, instrumentation and the overall emotional arc. We’ll spot it a few times and put in markers for important hit points or scene changes. Sometimes you just hear melodies and rhythms in your head, like little voices guiding your fingers across the keys. Or in the case of Farpoint, we might hear actual melodies coming from within the harmonics in a random gong, bowl or tin can we were bowing.

I used to be in some rock bands and experimental ensembles in my early years (hoping to try that again soon) and I remember the creative high I got during those jamming/writing sessions. The whole process of taking a song from start to finish with 4-5 guys throwing noodles around. It is so organic, occasionally magical and by the end you have something greater than the sum of its parts, something bigger than ‘you’. We got to do a lot of that during Farpoint within Unified Sounds and with the Sony music team, who were a big part of this game’s sonic awesomeness.

Danny: When Steve and I work together, the best results happen when we start together in the same room and throw stuff at the wall until something sticks. Eventually, we’ll take turns “steering the ship” (controlling the DAW) and give each other some space to create. Then the next person takes over and tweaks, deletes, rearranges etc. Sometimes it all gets thrown away, but you know you have a solid writing partner when both go in ego-free and come up with the best solution together. It’s all about problem solving and two heads are better than one. Sometimes we’ll come up with a general shape of a part and mock it up and bring in a player like Dave Kropf (of Unified Sounds), who has the ability to help refine the ideas live. Dave is a great composer and percussionist and we brought him in to track some percussion parts for Farpoint. It’s great working with players that are compositionally sensitive and understand the dramatic needs of a project. Instead of being a skilled player that solely reads down parts, most of the players we brought in were fun to work with because they bring ideas to the table as well as virtuosity.

Where can we find you on social media?

Don’t forget to find our album on on iTunes and Spotify and please check out our social media and websites below!

Stephen:

Danny:

Check out more interviews from writer/editor Dan Light:

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