In this edition of our bi-weekly developer interview, our community team took some time to chat with the Lead Composer for Galaxy in Turmoil: Dallas Crane.
(Pictured above: Dallas)
Hi Dallas, go ahead and introduce yourself.
Hello, I’m Dallas Crane. I compose music for films and video games.
How did you get into this field of work?
Before I got into music, I was passionate about animation, although I wasn’t very good at it. I enjoyed the way that directors were able to see and be a part of every aspect of production. I ended up finding my way into music, particularly jazz and big band. For the first few years of my composing career, I wrote big band charts for the groups I played with. Fast forward a few years and I ended up putting both of those influences together. Writing music for media means I get to interact with the director directly and interpret a lot of their ideas musically. My jazz background, along with my other studies, gave me the resources to create the music that each project needs. It’s a great job, and I get to interact with a lot of really interesting and respectable people.
Can you tell us what genre of music you are targeting for Galaxy in Turmoil?
Of course. Naturally, we want the music to fit into and enhance the experience that the game brings. What’s so interesting and unique about this project is its history and community. The game has progressed from a Star Wars fan homage to our own story and we want to include that in the music. There are musical colors that pay tribute to our past, as well as new sounds that establish our original story.
A big theme of our game is the player’s choice, how it can affect planets and galaxies and shape destinies. The music reflects that fatalistic approach. There’s a weight and a beauty to the sound that we hope will immerse the player in those choices and convey the seriousness of their decisions. We’ve looked into a lot of the classic works and symphonies, because they speak to the world and on behalf of communities and nations. We wanted each world to have an identity, a feeling, something the players would become more familiar with every time they play. In addition, all of these different musical feelings will support the overall philosophy of Galaxy in Turmoil, like the different movements of a symphony. We are using the orchestra and we are augmenting it with synthesized sounds and music that we might expect to hear on the streets if we were in that galaxy.
Describe the process of coming up with new ideas for musical pieces.
As a music department, we are lucky to be involved as early as we are. We are often brought in a lot later in production and we make the best product we can in the short amount of time given. It’s like with films where trailers are given to other companies to write. With Galaxy in Turmoil, we’ve been involved since the conceptual stage. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in with the writers and creative directors and work in a collaborative way. I was able to write some conceptual music and some trailer music, which has been fun.
Before we write anything, we like to pick the brains of the producer and writer. We absorb as much of their goals and intent, scouring through concept art and images of the game. We then look at the game as if we were a player playing it. What kind of music would enhance the game here? What would they expect, and how could we surprise them? We put the insider perspective together with what an outsider sees, and we shape the music towards that.
As an example, the latest demo video for Nak-Thi was given to me. I had seen the write-ups on the planet and knew how the writers wanted to incorporate it into the story. I spent a day or two writing the music and my team polished it with a solid mix.
Now, we know how you come up with the ideas and concepts. But how exactly do you go from turning a concept into an audio file people can listen to?
Once we know the moods and narrative that our music needs to bring, and we are sure of the musical approach, the process to bring the idea to a finished production can go a few ways. Getting the ideas out of my head is the first step, and I’ll use whatever is appropriate. I’ve written melodies on napkins because I was away from the studio, I’ve used notation programs like Sibelius to write out the music that a performer would read, and I’ve played the piece with virtual instruments straight into my DAW (digital audio workstation).
What’s most important is getting the music out so that I can tweak it and shape it. In a crunch, creating a synthesized version of the music (called a ‘mock-up’) is the fastest way, since the audio is all there. It’s also the least expensive approach.
If the music is going to be recorded by a live orchestra, we approve the mockup with the boss and then notate it so that the conductor and the musicians can read it. It’s a laborious task, because the parts need to look a certain way to speed things up and avoid unnecessary mistakes. In the studio, time is money, so we try and do all the work ahead of the recording date. While we aren’t working with live orchestras yet, Galaxy in Turmoil would be treated the same way.
You’ve mentioned that you write the music so that a performer could read it, but you’ve also played the piece with virtual instruments. How much of the music for Galaxy in Turmoil is going to be live, and how much of it is going to be virtual?
On one of the Sampler tracks I wrote for our discussions with Lucasfilm, my friend Danny Welsh recorded the trumpet parts. The rest of our music so far has been virtual instruments. Orchestras are expensive, and so it’s hard to say how much, if any, would be able to be recorded live. There would need to be a lot of support from the community, and I’m not particularly aware of how that works. I guess we shall see! In any case, we’re dumping buckets of effort into the music to make it the best it can be.
What would you consider to be your main sources of inspiration for your work on Galaxy in Turmoil?
When I do research, I try and draw from as many influences as I can, even if they don’t play a huge role in the final work. It’s good to be aware of the musical community on a large scale in order to understand where each project fits in. I had a blast listening to electric jazz bassoon, for example. They say that an original artist is simply one who knows how to hide their inspiration.
Star Wars, of course, is a big inspiration because of the history of our game. I’m a huge fan of Maurice Ravel and Jean Sibelius. There’s some really great vocal synth work in Minority Report, and really any 2000’s and 2010’s John Williams will have something I like. Gordy Haab’s work on Halo Wars 2 set the bar incredibly high for contemporary gaming.
You mentioned at the start that you work on video games and movies. Would you like to give examples of some of the other projects you’ve worked on?
Here is a project I did over the summer. It’s a parody on Lukas Graham intended to raise awareness for Utah’s illiteracy and help buy new books for kids in school. Here’s a secret – that’s actually my twin. I was in Europe when we did the session, so I woke up in the middle of the night and skyped the whole thing.
A lot of my other projects are still in production or signed on to different networks, so I don’t have much to show. I’ve done some short films, some Star Wars fan films, and various concert works. I was lucky to score Brigham Young University’s senior animation Taijitu. Here’s a link to a mockup (the live orchestral recording is still being mixed).
I’m co-directing a short animation that lets me write the score in a ’60s jazz throwback style. We record in a few weeks, so I wish I could show you that!
What would you consider to be a common mistake made by people in your role that you don’t want to repeat?
Being afraid of who you are happens a lot with artists, especially composers. There’s immense pressure to deliver a product that sounds good and drives sales. It can be easy to imitate what has already been done. It takes study, determination, and strength to forge an original voice that still gets the job done, but it’s infinitely more rewarding for everyone. Our music team is working hard to create works that have that original voice.
Talking about being afraid of who you are, let’s talk some more about you. What genre do you prefer? Any favourite songs/albums/artists?
I do a lot of listening to music for work, which takes me to a lot of different places musically. When I’m relaxing and listening for fun (a lot of times I’ll just sit in silence), I drift towards a few styles… Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis are my go-to jazz musicians. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin has some personal meaning for me, so that piece is always one that lifts me up. John Williams’ score to Artificial Intelligence (2001) is sublime. When I vacuum the house, I put on Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. My favorite YouTube artist is Gabe (Arf). His Bork covers are revolutionary!
And to finish off on a light hearted note, have you ever felt intimidated by a kebab?
No, but there’s a Korean leaf that scares me.