“Rockstar gives the composer full creative freedom to make pure timeless music,” divulges Woody Jackson, one of the composers involved in producing the stem-based score for the video game giants’ latest record-breaking masterpiece, Grand Theft Auto V.
From the start of arcade history, music has been a crucial concept. And Rockstar’s relationship with soundtracks has been crucial to the appeal of the Grand Theft Auto series: introducing a number of radio stations, providing a greater extent of free will into the gamer’s preference of in-game audio.
But aside from its catalogue of 241 licensed radio songs, Grand Theft Auto V goes above and beyond, with an interactive score composed by a selection of musicians: Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, hip-hop producers The Alchemist and Oh No, as well as composer Jackson, who started his career at Rockstar with the game Red Dead Redemption.
Originally rejected by Tangerine Dream, the input was arranged by Rockstar’s Soundtrack Supervisor, Ivan Pavlovich, who reveals: “This is the first GTA that has ever had an interactive score, so we were very conscious of the responsibility we were carrying. We had to find the perfect balance of creating an ambient subtext and tension, and at the same time supporting the experience as the action increased.”
He continues: “Another hurdle was to figure out how to make the hip-hop and rock score not sound like they were instrumentals of songs on the radio, but rather something unique to the score.”
“I feel the music sets a tone for the player,” adds Oh No, representing his collaboration with The Alchemist. “While watching the opening scene, where it’s presenting the lush Los Santos beaches and environments, I wanted to create a smooth West Coast vibe that embodied Los Santos. Then for the chase scenes, where the action picks up and the drums start moving and the horns kick in, to the electric guitars and walking basslines in the robberies… We wanted everything to set the right tone.”
“For each stem I gave to Ivan, in New York, up to 62 wav files, each five-minutes long,” clarifies Froese, for the initially difficult process of formulating an end result from four artists covering an array of genres. “He then created, very professionally, a mix down for each of the eight stems needed for a mission and sent out the material to the other artists involved. It has been the biggest sound production I have ever done, with a total amount of 67 hours of music and special sounds.”
Regarding the future of video game soundtracks, Froese explains: “It could become the blueprint for a revolution for new forms of high-tech visual entertainment, like the step from silent movies to sound films decades ago.”
It’s true: from the revolutionary four-note loop of 1978’s Space Invaders, or the Afro-Caribbean rhythm of Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros theme, video game soundscapes have evolved significantly, leaving us to ponder: whatever’s next for the often overlooked process of gaming music’s compositional feats?
Words: Jonathan Hatchman