Interview With VR Game Composer Stephen Cox

Interview With VR Game Composer Stephen Cox
Steve Cox is a game changing composer in the world of VR Gaming. I found out through a friend of mine that Steve is none other than the composer for PlayStation VR’s upcoming Farpoint, a game that could very well be the killer app us VR diehards have been waiting for. In preparation for the game’s release, Vivien Ralph caught up with Steve, whose music firm Unified Sounds is handling the game’s score in its entirety.


How did you get involved with Farpoint? It’s going to be groundbreaking project in the world of VR gaming.


About 3–4 years ago, when I was working as a Professor for Music Production for Media at Full Sail University, my writing partner (Dr. Danny McIntyre) who is currently Department Chair at Full Sail, sent me to a VIP event to do some schmoozing. One of the VIPs attending was Jonathan Mayer, now a good friend and Senior Music Manager for Sony Interactive Entertainment. I had admired this guy and the important work he does at Sony for years prior. He would come to Full Sail regularly to do guest speaking and Master Classes. During this event, I picked his brains relentlessly into the wee hours — we totally clicked.


For the next year I would send him random tracks from our CBS Sports work, game trailers and anything else that I or my production house, Unified Sounds was working on. Then came the “test gig”… Unified Sounds was commissioned to do a series of background tracks for an unannounced Sony project. It was amazing working on the proof of concept with Jonathan’s music team. Their workflow, efficiency and talent is second to none in this industry.


Only a few short months later, after our work on that project was wrapped, I was given the opportunity to do a demo for what is now Farpoint. I only had 5 days to come up with two fully produced themes, so I brought in Danny and we went to town. We did a lot of sound design in the beginning before writing a single note, which really set the tone (and key) for the entire score. We bowed, hit and blew into any random object or exotic instrument that we could get our hands on to keep it organic. We also paid for some live instrumentalists for the strings. Sony told us that we “killed it” with that demo and one of the pieces ended up being the main theme.


How would you describe your experiences with VR up to this point?


I had no experience at all before being flown out to San Francisco for the “composer kick-off” as they call it. When I was brought into Impulse Gear’sheadquarters for the first time a little over a year ago, they had a fairly rough demo of the game and a mock-up of the Sony AIM controller, which looked nothing like the final version. I was dreading the motion sickness I had heard about, but as soon as I was strapped in it was instant love. Perfect 1-to-1 head tracking, the AIM controller was insanely accurate and I blew up spiders for about 45min straight. I love the real vertigo you get when looking over a cliff. Seth Luisi, co-founder of Impulse Gear and the genius behind the AIM controller and Farpoint, kept encouraging me to jump over the cliff, which seemed like an initiation. So I jumped, awesome.


I got to play 4 or 5 other VR games that Sony was working on at the time, which were super cool, but nothing like Farpoint.


Are there any elements of VR that inform your scoring method, that would differ if you were scoring traditional 2D media?


That was the whole trick with scoring this game. No one yet knows the “right way” to score in VR. You have to be so careful not to kick the user out of the immersive experience. In the beginning we were told this should be very ambient, wide, sound designed and more or less blended into the background SFX and to avoid traditional big orchestral Sci-fi sounds. If the music was scored and mixed in a way to stand out or be more focused, the users may ask themselves, “Why the hell is there a violin hiding behind that rock?” So we went BIG with the reverbs and ethereal tones in the initial pieces to avoid that.


As the score progressed and we started getting into the cinematics and the action packed levels, we realized the other way could work as long as it was mixed properly. It almost became hyper-cinematic — big drums, brass, edgy sounding instruments… all of the stuff we were told to avoid in the beginning. I worked closely with Sony’s Music Engineers and Music Implementers (Anthony Caruso and Rob Goodson) to crack the code and find the right balance. Those guys were a BIG part of Farpoint’s overall musical sound and awesomeness.


Based on your experiences, what do you think the near future will hold for VR?


Arcades! I hope they make a comeback. I could see super-specialized VR rigs on treadmills and bungee cords in the future. The possibilities are endless.


Also cinema — when you’re in the scene with the characters, not as a viewer but a participant, it takes the emotional content to a new level. Getting to experience this perspective within Farpoint really opened my mind. Being able to look at the actors’ face from all angles, seeing their expressions up close, and hearing their voice perfectly panned as if they were right next to you… man, this hit me hard when I got to play the “almost finished” version a few weeks ago. Hollywood should take note and jump on this train soon.


What are some other projects you are working on? Places we can check out your music?


There’s always something cooking and I will broadcast it as soon as I can, legally ;-) My company Unified Sounds works on a lot of stuff for CBS Sports on a regular basis, which is a very fun gig. I have to thank our lead publisher Rob Aster of RRHOT who brought me into this gig almost a decade ago. We are tested on just about every style and genre of music and it changes up every few months. Music Production pushups. 

 Check out our site, there’s a lot of corporate stuff up there, but some very cool things as well. I’m very proud of my team. I also have some of my more artistic endeavors posted on my personal site


We will be digging into the Farpoint soundtrack very soon, so please keep an eye out for the release. Farpoint is by far the best work I’ve ever done and I can’t wait for you to play it!

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