VIP Client Story: Gareth Coker
Gareth Coker in his scores, combines unconventional soundscapes with melodically driven themes. His music for Moon Studios’ platform game Ori and the Blind Forest was met with universal acclaim, garnering numerous awards including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Award for Outstanding Music Composition and the SXSW Award for Excellence In Musical Score. He also wrote the original scores ARK: Survival Evolved, The Unspoken, and Minecraft: Egyptian, Norse, Chinese, and Greek Mythologies, as well as the Minecraft : Pirates of the Caribbean Mash-up Pack. At present he is composing music for Ori and the Will of the Wisps amongst several other exciting and unannounced projects!
Can you tell us about your musical background? Did you have formal instrument training as a child?
Piano lessons were a birthday present when I was eight years old, and then three months later I started boarding school in England. There’s not a huge amount to do at boarding school during downtime so I ended up practicing less because I wanted to, but more because I wanted to pass the time! As is the way with practice, you do it often enough and do it well, you learn quick. I then picked up trumpet and trombone along the way (lessons in both), as well as the organ, only really getting into composing and improvising when I was 14. I played in school orchestras, jazz bands, sung in choirs, so have a decent idea of what it’s like to play in a group. I applied to the Royal Academy of Music for my undergrad sort of on a whim not really expecting to get accepted as I had no pedigree and my portfolio was mostly piano works, no orchestral works! I got accepted because I could ‘write a tune’ and ‘the rest they could teach me’. Following my 4 years at the Academy I had a lot of knowledge but wasn’t ready for the real world. I moved to Japan to teach English for 3 years. Those 3 years were very valuable to my development as a composer in that I learned all the things I needed to learn in terms of how to run a business and how to deal with people. After Japan, I moved to the US, studying on the University of Southern California’s film music program for a year. That’s the last of my formal education, but of course the quest for learning and knowledge never ends.
We'll skip the obvious Trojan vs Bruin question, and instead ask something more important: what's the best place to work on student films: Leavey Library, Bing Theatre, United University Church, or The Shrine?
Leavey Library, no question, tons of nooks and crannies to escape in and if you get tired of working, you can just read instead!
How and when did you discover your interest and abilities in composition?
Really the moment was being the pianist in school jazz band. I was given totally free reign and was highly encouraged to improvise. From that I just explored doing my own thing on the piano and everything was birthed from there. That said, I’d been aware of music in film and games from a very early age, the two most important scores for me being Alan Silvestri’s score for Forrest Gump, and Nobuo Uematsu’s score for Final Fantasy VII. Both are rooted with iconic melodies. I didn’t decide to become a composer when these came out, but they were the initial sparks.
Can you share some of your favorite career highlights?
I think it’s obvious that I’d have to start with Ori, as the game really changed everything for me. Particularly hearing the first notes come to life on the scoring stage in Nashville, where I was going on no sleep, and was out of money and just really running on adrenaline, that moment made me relax and realize everything was going to not just be OK but turn out pretty good. What no-one could have foreseen was the reaction to the game itself. Another Ori-related highlight was being able to play piano on stage at E3 for the announcement of the 2nd game Ori and the Will of the Wisps. I feel lucky to be able to revisit the world and was delighted to be able to represent the studio and the game in that way at E3. From Ori came my work on the Minecraft franchise, as Microsoft publishes both Ori and Minecraft. I’ve written around 6 hours of music for Minecraft now and it’s cool to be able to reach so many people. Finally, I think last year recording the score for ARK : Survival Evolved at Abbey Road with 93 players was a pretty big deal for me. I’d never dealt with that kind of force before, and it was probably the first time in my life I’d felt imposter syndrome, just thinking of all the fantastic scores that had been recorded in there and now somehow, I was in this room too, having my own music played. Recording there was definitely one item checked off on the bucket list!
How do you balance technology, synthesis, and sound-design with traditional composition?
I think this just happens naturally with any 21st century composer. The traditional composition history is an amazing thing to have in the locker and can really speed things up when you’re up against it, but it’s when you combine that traditional knowledge with all the things that modern technology gives us that the truly exciting stuff starts to happen. I often wonder what the luminaries of the past (Mozart, Ravel, Bach, etc…) would have done with all our gear if they’d had access to it! Balancing all these elements is not something I even think about, I just focus on what I need to do to make the music work and use whatever technique is required to get it to that point.
Do you tend to compose first on piano, or with orchestral libraries, or synths, or does the process vary drastically depending on the project? Is orchestration, whether orchestral or electronic, a separate process, or does it start at the same time as composing the themes.
It honestly depends on the project. For Ori, it traditionally starts with piano and maybe some strings accompaniment and builds from there. However, when it comes to doing the environment music for Ori, a big part of it is finding the right palette and sounds for the area, this is a huge part of the process for me. I try to focus on finding some kind of theme first, no matter how simple, and then building out the palette, and then filling in the rest of the gaps with whatever makes the piece work. Orchestration sort of happens organically during the writing process, but the act of putting it to notation to be played by an orchestra (which is often not as simple as just transferring from DAW to notation software) happens quite late in the process for me. A lot of decisions are made long before this, so the final orchestration tends to come together quickly on my work.
In an industry where oftentimes, popular game titles are quite violent, the projects you seem to work on are refreshingly edifying and generally seem to find entertainment value more through creation than destruction. Is this a conscious decision and how did your career evolve this way?
We’ll see how long that lasts…… No further comment ;) Winks to the future aside, it’s not a conscious decision at all, it just seems to have worked out that way!
Your work with Aeralie Brighton, another 2CAudio client, is very inspiring. We love her vocals! When you work together do you write the melodies, or do you two co-compose the vocal themes? How does the creative partnership work?
I introduced her to Aether and B2 when we started working together! Where’s my commission?! For Ori, everything except the final part of Light of Nibel is all written out by me and she performs what I’ve written. I did ask her to do some improv for the end of Light of Nibel simply because it was the end of the game and everything is resolved so I wanted her to feel freer when she was singing. With thematic material, it usually exists before Aeralie is involved so she ends up singing what I’ve written, however her improvisation capabilities are second to none and can really end up enhancing what is already there.
If you were stuck on a desert island and could play only one game, would it be Minecraft or Ori?
Ori, because with all its building implications, honestly, I could ‘play’ several aspects of Minecraft on the desert island itself!
Any cool upcoming projects coming up that you care to share with our readers?
Nothing that I can officially share other than the project referenced in a previous question. It’ll be quite different from anything I’ve put out there before and I’ll be curious for the reaction to it! I’ve just finished doing the first round of work for ATLAS, a pirate MMO game, and I’m obviously still working on Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
What computer hardware, CPU, OS, and host application(s) are you using with our software?
I’m on a Windows PC using the Intel 18-core 9980XE processor, 128 GB of RAM. One system M2 drive, one sample M2 drive, and then samples and project files spread over 6 other SSDs. I use the cloud for backups and a Synology NAS for physical backups. I’m writing in a heavily customized version of Reaper which I switched to this year. I had an engineer tailor my preferences to the program. This mostly helps with routing and deliverables but also some organizational stuff and UI tweaks that make the program a bit more user friendly. I keep SONAR Platinum around for legacy reasons as it was my DAW for so many years.
WORKFLOW AND REVERB INTEGRATION
What does your typical template look like? How many tracks are in a session on average?
Template? I don’t have a pre-baked template. I understand why other composers use one, but I prefer to create a template per project. One set of string recordings might not be the right string sound for all projects. I also just personally find the gigantic screen with hundreds of empty tracks the opposite of inspiring. It means I’ve already made decisions on sounds and that’s just not where I want to be at the beginning of the project. Not having a template to start off with means the beginnings of projects are often very painful, but it’s worth it when it comes to defining a sound for each thing that I work on. When all is said and done my largest projects have 60-100 active tracks in the DAW. Most of the time it’s between 25-50. Now obviously if we go record live that increases when inside Pro Tools due to all the mics, but in the mockup, it’s rare for things to get beyond 100 being used.
How important is having access to a quality reverb to your work and production style?
Essential, I can’t even begin to imagine working without a good reverb. I remember when I was getting started and I’d use all the free plugins or cheaper reverbs. And then one day I eventually invested in quality with you guys at 2CAudio, starting with Aether and it just changed everything for me.
Do you typically use reverbs on sends, or have you begun to use them on directly on track inserts? How many instances of our products are in a typical session of yours?
Both sends and inserts depending on how much fun I want to have! I usually have 4 reverb sends, one large space, one small space, one ‘special effect’, and one ‘something else’ which is usually undefined at the start of a cue, but it’s there if I need something to play with. I’m generally using B2 nowadays, but I always keep Aether and Breeze handy as well. Using the reverb as a special effect on a track insert can really result in completely new sounds coming out of the original source and that’s where things can get really fun.
When you use a real orchestra do you tend to try to capture it a dry as possible and then spatialize with our products, or do you prefer to include some of the real room/hall response from the scoring stage?
For me, the room is a massive part of the orchestral sound and there’s no point in trying to fight it. So, the best solution is to get the best possible room and make the orchestra sing in that room. Now, often what happens with my work is that sometimes samples and live orchestra are combined, and we need to get things in the same space. That’s when some magic stuff really can happen through use of different software or hardware reverbs. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules, only what sounds good!
Any reverb tips and tricks you can offer young composers and producers?
The success of usage of reverb is majorly dependent on a good clean arrangement. This is kind of a mixing tip in general, the first step to a good mix is a good arrangement! All the other choices that happen in your mix will be made much more fun and a lot easier if the arrangement is super clear. One of the things I often end up doing in my mix sessions is simply muting things that aren’t essential to the track. This ends up in having more space to give (for example) reverb its moment to shine. I also tend to be very careful about low-end reverb build up, a very simple trick is to gently roll off the lows on your reverb sends just to avoid boominess or mud building up. One final trick is to put a tiny stereo delay on the reverb. This is particularly good for pulses and/or pads as it really helps give the illusion of movement, especially with hard pans on the delay.
How did you originally hear about 2CAudio, what was the first 2CAudio product you used?
I honestly can’t remember. I think you may have posted on Gearslutz or some other similar website and I thought I’d try you out and I really haven’t looked back since. Aether was the first product I bought, and it is all over Ori and the Blind Forest. Aether/B2 are my go-to reverbs. I’ve spoken up several times to other composers and sometimes at panels about how amazing Aether and B2 are for a long time (can’t wait for CPU enhancements to B2 based on your Breeze update!).
What is your current favorite?
Without doubt, it’s B2. It’s my desert island reverb. It is simply unbelievable how flexible it is and the quality of sound that it puts out. It’s in every single project I work on. I can’t imagine not using it! B2 is without doubt my favorite reverb of all time and I’ve told people that to be honest, I think I would be happy paying $2,000 for it, rather than what you guys are currently charging! (I’m not complaining though…)
What features make it most attractive to you?
Honestly, it comes down to quality and the range of features. The only limitation in B2 is the user. There are other reverbs out there that do certain things that B2 does, and they do them quite well. But to me B2 does all of them to a ridiculously high standard. What always really shows in reverbs like this is the quality of the sound dying away and that’s where in my opinion B2 is peerless. B2 is also capable of some fun modulation and delay effects within the engine itself. There’s a lifetime of fun to be had in there.
How do you choose between B2 and Aether? Are their specific instruments or musical styles for which you prefer one over the other?
I still know Aether very well, but I can honestly say that since B2 came out it’s been the main reverb for me for a long time. That said, Aether without doubt has a far more user-friendly interface but if you’re willing to dive into B2, you will be rewarded. I feel like B2 started out as an experimental reverb, but then came the addition of all those wonderful presets that show a ‘simpler’ usage of the product and now it really can be used for anything from orchestral scoring to special FX.
I’ll now probably end up spending several hours again with Aether now reminding myself of just how good it is too! It was my ‘main’ verb before B2!
Have you also integrated Breeze 2 or Precedence into your templates yet?
Not yet, but after I finish Will of the Wisps, I’ll be taking some time to dive into a lot of the new toys I have and see where they fit in. I’m excited about Breeze 2 to see what you’ve done under the hood (and how it might be applied to your other verbs.
Do you have any favorite "magic presets" in our products that you tend to return to, or do you usually design your own presets based on the needs of the current project? Do you find our preset expansions helpful when facing tight deadlines?
B2 – Duo Den – Cinematic Long Hall. My goodness it’s magic! I’m so familiar with your reverbs that I’m able to get what I want pretty quickly. That said, your preset expansions are so in-depth that if I can’t get what I want quickly, a preset can help and then I can tweak accordingly.
Is there anything we could improve in our reverbs? Any feature requests?
There are two main things, probably both of which you are aware of. First, CPU efficiency in B2. Not really a problem for me, but this is a very heavy reverb compared to others, which to be fair, you do mention in your manual. Second, surround options. You guys would have one of the premier products in scoring if you could make a surround version of your reverb.
How exclusively are you using 2CAudio products for your reverb needs? In the work below for Ori and the rest is the reverb entirely 2CAudio?
Anything that I do inside the box I do all with 2CAudio products. The amount of times I switch to an alternate reverb is maybe 1 out of 50…. It’s usually because I’m deliberately looking to do something very different. I have tried many others, and I’m sure if I spent more time with them, I’d get better results from them, but my familiarity with 2CAudio’s line of products means I can get great results from them almost instantly and thus I stick with them. Only when I’m actively trying to do something radical and different might I reach for a different reverb. But on the other hand, if I’m trying to do something radical and different, why not just dial up B2 and experiment….?! I’ll run through a couple of tracks from the playlist below. In Light of Nibel, B2/Aether are used heavily on the vocals to make that cascading vocal sound that is one of Ori’s signatures. The 3 tracks from The Unspoken, all make heavy use of B2, especially on sustained pads and on pulses. I am quite aggressive on filters with the synthetic elements in tracks so that reverb doesn’t overload the mix and stays more focused on certain frequencies. On the more orchestral stuff like the tracks from ARK Survival Evolved or the Minecraft work, as well as the core hall sounds for the orchestral parts (which are often handled by my engineer through his hardware units), I generally like to put B2 or Aether on certain solo instruments to really make them shine or standout, this is particularly the case in Folkvangr where a lot of the hardanger fiddle sounds ‘linger’ because of the reverb and it creates that beautiful wash that I only really associate with 2CAudio.
Some of the work for Ori is going through a hardware reverb unit (Lexicon / TC 6000) but it’s mainly the orchestral stuff as it was recorded live. For live recordings I work with an engineer, Steve Kempster, who has mixed almost all my work from Ori and the Blind Forest onwards. (He has purchased B2, where’s my commission?!). When mixing, I often supply him dry/wet stems for tracks that I have the super long / dreamy reverbs on (vocals, pads etc..). He’ll try and emulate them with his hardware but if it’s not possible, he will fire up B2.
What would life look like without 2CAudio in your workflow?
Dry and cold! And no-one wants that. I’d be able to adapt of course if you weren’t around, but honestly 2CAudio’s a huge part of my overall sound, it would take me some time to emulate it with other products, so… please don’t go anywhere!