As mentioned in the previous post, we've sent your questions to Borderlands 2's Sound Designer, Raison Varner, and here are his answers! Thanks to everyone who participated, and make sure to check out Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep if you haven't already!
Did you use a live orchestra for parts of the soundtrack (particularly DLC4)? If so, what was their reaction to working on music composed for a video game?
RV: We did not use any live orchestral elements for DLC 4 or the main game. However, sample libraries are always getting better and richer in content, so it is getting easier to sound closer to a live orchestra as time goes on. However, during the main game and some DLCs, Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco and Kevin Reipl all recorded solo musicians for various pieces at one point or another.
How much leeway were you given in regards to establishing a distinct sound and musical profile to this DLC compared to the other DLC packs and the game itself? Also, what is your favorite piece of music you produced for the game and why?
RV: We’ve always been given a great deal of freedom by Gearbox and the project leadership to explore new music directions. As an organization, we are always looking for ways to be creative and stand out. We have been blessed with a lot of talent in the composers we work with as well and they make it easy to be trusted with the freedom we have here to experiment.
My personal favorite of the pieces that I’ve contributed was for the Flamerock Refuge music for our Tiny Tina DLC. I felt like it had a really satisfying and upbeat sound while also maintaining a sense of mystery. When I wrote it, the level was still in a graybox blocking state so I mostly had to work from verbal descriptions. I was nervous that it wouldn’t end up matching well so it was a great relief when the level started coming together a bit more and we got the music in and it ended up feeling pretty good.
How did you get into the video game industry? Were you always interested in video games?
RV: I was very focused on music for videogames at an early age. It was around 6th grade when I made the decision to pursue video games. Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy 6 was very influential to making that decision. As I got closer to graduating high school and learned a bit more about the industry, I realized that music alone would have been a really difficult career path and I started focusing equally on sound design. I did not attend college, but I spent about 6 years working on mods and indie projects and doing some smaller contract work before I had my break into the industry as an intern at Human Head working on Prey. That internship turned into a paid contract position and opened up all the other doors for me into the industry after that. I have really fond memories of Human Head and my time there. They were a great group of people to work with.
Music is so integral to video games because it creates such emotion while you're playing. Without it, games just wouldn't be as good. If you know there is going to be a really intense, dramatic scene, or a really mellow, slow scene, is there a method you use to create a specific feeling in your music?
RV: I don’t really have a specific method, but I suppose if I were to try to break the decision making down to a fundamental level, the intensity or emotional content is basically a combination of tempo and timbre. Timbre is the subjective quality a sound or overall piece of music has (ie… is it harsh? Grating? Smooth? Airy?) and tempo is the general speed at which the music is performed. Sometimes all you need is a loose transition of tones without any identifiable rhythm to convey the perfect emotional content for a scene; sometimes you need more melodic content or specific instruments to reach the tone you need.
It’s a hard question for me to give a summary to because context is king. It just totally depends on the project, the attitude of the game and what music motifs or melodies you’ve already established to the player before the scene. To give an example from Tiny Tina’s DLC, the ending cut scene was more emotional and serious in tone than we usually are in Borderlands. But all it really needed was some strings and a brass arrangement to communicate that. So it became a very simple underscore in comparison to the larger and more complex music we have to write for in-game usage. Had we gone more complex with that music, it would have become too much and worked counter to supporting the emotional content of the scene.
I'm interested to know what influences your music choices when composing for a game? What games or movies influence you when you're composing? Is Hanz Zimmer and Beethoven in your Spotfiy playlist? Like movies and television, a game would almost be lost without sound -- do you feel like you set the tone for the world the character play in?
RV: I have a ton of influences in a lot of different genres. I’ve always tried to be a well rounded composer and I’ve had a lot of different phases of music that I’ve gotten stuck on over time. Right now, I listen to experimental electronic artists the most and occasionally put on more aggressive EDM, especially if I’m doing a little spirited driving! Some of my favorites are Bonobo, Royksopp, Trentemoeller, Wolfgang Gartner, Deadmau5, Emancipator, Apparat, Zero 7, Air, etc… Hans Zimmer’s work has always been inspirational to me and his scores for Inception and Man of Steel have definitely influenced me on other projects. Generally speaking, a film score styled piece doesn’t fit into Borderlands universe very well so I wasn’t able to draw too much from film when writing for most of Borderlands. Other composers I really enjoy are Philip Glass, Bach, Nobuo Uematsu, Joe Hisaishi (Ni No Kuni) and many others.
Hello! I'm a 16 year old aiming to become a music composer and sound designer. What helped you most when learning the basics? Books? Advice?
RV: I’d say projects, absolutely projects. Books are great for some general knowledge and forming a frame of how the industry is structured, but getting involved with mods and indie or student projects forces you to internalize the problems and solutions in a powerful way that also advances your intuitive knowledge of what works or doesn’t work for a game. I personally don’t think there is any substitute for project based learning. When you have to take a concept from the collective imagination of a group and build something tangible from that, the amount of experimentation and testing of your theories involved is invaluable. I’ve never found anything that worked better for me.
When I was in highschool and very early in my development as a composer, I would always write to a visual scene in my head. Whether that was a fantasy village, a field of blowing grass, a burnt down landscape, whatever it was… I tried to focus all my writing to communicating the narrative of that scene/setting. Sometimes I would play pieces for people and ask them afterward what it made them visualize. Many times, they described something very close to what I was imagining and over time I tried to emulate the things that seemed to work and try to figure out why some pieces didn’t. But to be honest, sometimes it still just feels like dumb luck to me! That approach made sense to me because of how visual of a learner I am. I also tend to think of pitch as physical distances and spaces when I’m writing so using a visual in my head to write to as a self training device was a natural marriage for me. I’ve had conversations with composers as well where that idea of physical distance as notes sounds totally alien to them and they have a much more mathematical frame to their thinking.
I think in the end, it’s really more about discovering what your creative process is and learning how to tap into that unconscious mind and how to mold the work that comes from that creative center into accessible and organized musical ideas. But to get back to games specifically, the short of it for me is that if I had not had the experience I did with mods and indie projects before I got my first internship with Human Head, I never would have been able to hit the ground running and I’m not sure I would have been valuable enough to earn a paid contract position. The early mod/indie projects I worked on taught me the problem solving I needed to be valuable to a larger professional team.