How Stephen Cox, Farpoint’s composer, turned an old trumpet into a sci-fi drone

stephen cox farpoint interview

Although virtual reality is very much a visual experience, it wouldn’t be the complete, immersive package it is without strong audio.

Just as with movies, TV shows and traditional games, a seamless and engaging soundtrack can go a long way to making you feel you’re there when blasting space aliens or exploring a VR landscape.

But of course, audio that’s all around you is different to the kind that comes pumping through speakers. To find out just how different, we reached out to the composer for PSVR exclusive Farpoint, Stephen Cox.

Digital Trends: What was your first experience with virtual reality?

Stephen Cox: I dabbled with the Oculus Rift when it came out, and played around with a few things that were in development at the time. I got to try the PlayStation VR headset while it was still in beta, during the Composers Kickoff. Sony took me into that room on a floor with top secret clearance and I got to try out the Aim prototype at the time. It didn’t look like it looks now, it looked like the gun from Farpoint, and I fell in love with it immediately.

How many of you worked on this project?

Danny McIntyre was my right hand man and co-writer, he and I did just about everything, but I also brought in David Kropf, who was our big percussion guy. He came in a few times with a kitchen sink – literally – of percussion instruments. We were like a band, a group of guys sitting around throwing ideas at the wall.

My other guys, were Stephen Wheeler and Michael Schiciano. We had them involved in field recording, so we could get even more crazy sounds that we couldn’t create in the studio. They created some awesome sample libraries that we ended up turning into instruments. They slammed dumpsters with their fists!

How do you go about building the soundtrack for a game like Farpoint?

We started with sound design first, where we’re designing tones and impacts – a unique sound palette that we can build on with traditional musical instruments. We rummaged through my garage and the local junkyard to find all sorts of metal and glasswork to bow or hit and with that we created a palette, or a toolbox, which we then brought into the game.

“We were all reinventing the wheel with VR sound.”

We mangled them a lot in computer software, but some of those sounds can be heard raw in the game itself, like an old trumpet my brother used to play in middle-school. It’s all beat up now, but we turned that into an otherwordly drone.

Everything was in the same key – B – a real pain in the neck for the cellists and violinists – but after we made that sound palette the notes really started to come together. From there it was a question of, ‘how deep do we go?’ but that was all dictated by the Sony project brief that we had.

Musically that made things a lot easier, as we had examples and an idea of the tone of the game. We wanted to create a sound that was original, that no one had ever heard before.

How did working on a virtual reality game change the way which you craft the soundtrack?

It was a process. We were all reinventing the wheel with VR sound. Does this wide thing work? Or is it better if we have instruments that are pin-point focused like a solo instrument that comes in? There were cases where both worked, but we had to try certain cues to find that out.

We dived into player driven cues more in the heavier action portion of the game. We used a ‘thermometer’ of intensity. There would be a base loop that’s around four minutes long, and then layers come in based on that thermometer. They all worked together, so could come in every two or four bars; it was really fun to figure out that musical puzzle. How do we write something where these stings and complimentary layers come in on top of the base loop?

We also had some stings which were location and player view based, where different parts of the cue would be triggered, and as long as the music is written in a way that it can come in every two bars and make musical sense with the base loop, then it works nicely.

Was it your choice to include a couple of karaoke tracks based on Del Amitri songs in Farpoint?

That was part of the script. That was written by Rob Yescombe, who put together a great script. We originally thought we’d have to write music to go along with the character singing those songs, but that wasn’t the case in the end. I don’t know if that was a copyright issue, but in the end we just had her singing.

You and your company, Unified Sounds, have done a lot of work with sports replays and stingers for some big sporting organizations. Are you excited about what you can bring to the table when it comes to VR sports viewing?

That’s something I’ve been doing personally for over a decade, and I think it’s really where I learned the ropes of developing sound for media. I’d love to see music like that incorporated into VR sports viewing, like adding virtual speakers to the stadium, so that you can have that music make sense in context.

“We wanted to create a sound that was original, that no one had ever heard before.”

That’s actually what I’m most excited about with VR, making the music, source music, where it makes sense in the world. Traditionally cinematic music has been an underscore, where the actors aren’t hearing the music, even though the audience is. That boundary is gone with VR, the audience and the participant can all hear it. I’m not sure what the template for how to do that is, but I think it’s very exciting.

Are you working on any other VR projects at this time?

I wasn’t able to talk about Farpoint for over a year, and that was really hard. If I was working on anything else right now, I wouldn’t be able to say, unfortunately. All I can say is that we have nothing official lined up at the moment.

Right now I’m just enjoying being on the ground floor of such an exciting new industry.

Farpoint is available to buy right now, alone and with its Aim Controller bundle. You can also pick up the official soundtrack from Stephen Cox and Unified Sounds on iTunes.

Photography

For Monaris, it’s a photography career launched on an iPhone and Instagram

On Instagram, she's known just as Monaris. But street photographer Paola Franqui has built a following largely with an iPhone and a smile. We sat down with her to talk photography, style, and Instagram, of course.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Music

Listen up! These are the best movie soundtracks of all time

Whether you're a lover of beautifully composed original scores or a fan of perfectly compiled background music, these are the best movie soundtracks of all time — from Star Wars to Garden State.
Home Theater

5 gorgeous turntables that spin stacks of wax in style for less than $500

Vinyl records are awesome, but they're also finicky. To get the best out of your stacks of wax, it's best to play them on a quality turntable. Here are the best turntables to be had for under $500.
Gaming

How to take your 'Madden NFL 19' Ultimate Team from zeros to heroes

Our Madden NFL 19 Ultimate Team progression guide walks you through the ins and outs of Training, the new upgrade system in the card-collecting online mode, and provides tips for quickly improving your team.
Gaming

Fortnite's latest challenge tests your golf skills under fire. Here's how to complete it

One of the new weekly challenges this week is the Fortnite hit a golf ball from tee to green challenge. We are going to guide you through where to find the golf ball and tees and how to successfully hit it to the right location.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robo sidekicks, AC for your bed, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Gaming

Earn a trove of 200 skins and victory poses in ‘Overwatch’ Summer Games

Blizzard has unveiled the Summer Games 2018 running from August 9 to 31. It includes three Lúcioball stadiums, over 200 cosmetic loot box items, nine new skins, and a smattering of new game options.
Gaming

Want to kill unwilling players in Fallout 76? You can, but it will cost you

Fallout 76 is taking an interesting approach to unwanted PvP encounters. You will be able to murder other players, but doing so will place a bounty on your head that will be paid out of your own caps.
Gaming

Arcade junkies, get set: Halo is coming to Dave & Buster’s

The next Halo game won't be on the Xbox One. Halo: Fireteam Raven is a new arcade cooperative shooter coming to Dave & Buster's this summer. It takes place during the events of the original game.
Computing

AMD’s new 32-core Ryzen Threadripper chip is out, and you can get one for free

AMD’s 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX CPU is now available for $1,800. It’s compatible with motherboards packing the TR4 socket and the X399 chipset. The only other new Threadripper chip arriving this month will be the 2950X.
Gaming

'World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth' goes live today. Here's what you must know

'World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth' is the latest expansion for the now 14-year-old MMORPG. It goes back to the roots of the Alliance vs. Horde conflict. Here's everything you need to know including features, armor, races, and launch…
Gaming

New HyperX MicroSD cards give you plenty of space for Nintendo Switch games

Peripheral company HyperX is jumping into the Nintendo Switch accessories business -- kind of. Its new line of microSD cards are designed to work with Nintendo's console and come in several capacities.
Gaming

‘Forza Horizon 4’ reportedly includes famous ‘Halo’ level

Playground Games' upcoming racing game Forza Horizon 4 will reportedly include a race based on Silent Cartographer, a mission from the original Halo game. The racer is out on October 2.