Original artwork by Dan Quintana for the Carrion soundtrack release.
The LA-based composer — a specialist in scaring the crap out of listeners — has worked on some of gaming’s biggest series, including Mass Effect, God of War, Borderlands and Resident Evil.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
There are composers hired to fill a game with melodies that will make players shed a tear. Some are hired to get the player’s blood pumping while they dodge a million bullets.
And then there are those composers hired to send a chill up the spine; to increase the player’s sense of foreboding.
Cris Velasco’s long career isn’t defined by soundtracking horror — his credits span action, virtual reality, real-time strategy, battle royale, and more — but he is undoubtedly an expert in eliciting discomfort through audio.
We got in touch to find out more about his D.I.C.E. Award-nominated music for the monster hit Carrion, a stunningly animated “reverse-horror” metroidvania where you are the thing that goes bump in the night. The game was developed by Phobia Game Studio and published by Devolver Digital.
We also touched on some of his work on titles including Starcraft II, Mass Effect 3, and Warhammer 40k: Space Marine.
A fresh (blood-splattered) canvas
Velasco has worked across many fictional universes including Star Wars, Assassin’s Creed and Tron. Unlike those projects where he has to hew to an established sound, or keep in line with the work of co-composers, Carrion is a new IP made by the small Polish studio Phobia.
He explains: “Every project is its own fun challenge. In a way, it’s easier to slot into an existing style: you know what’s expected but you can also expand on what that sound might be. It’s also great fun to work on a franchise that already has a huge fanbase built-in.
“On the other hand, creating music for a brand new IP is possibly more rewarding, especially when there are so many avenues to go down. To really embrace the [horror scores of the] past, yet strive for something new and unexpected — that’s a hard task but one that’s creatively exciting!”
The horror of it all
This is a fairly sensible interview. Video game music as a wider topic is quite sensible. But, let’s be clear: Velasco’s day job often involves him trying to scare the shit out of people. He admits: “It’s actually a LOT of fun! A horror score is music at its most visceral. I’m actively trying to make the listener uncomfortable and that’s why I love it so much. You can get away with anything. From a sweet melody sung by a child, to the harshest atonal cacophony. It all works.”
Things got a little… viscous: “I recorded a ball of slime for this one — an idea I had after watching my friend’s kids playing with one. We wound up borrowing his daughter’s slime and turning it into a very cool sample library. It was just a neat ‘what if’ sort of idea I wanted to play with, but it wound up being heavily used throughout the score.”
A cursory listen to the Carrion soundtrack album might make one think of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing or Jerry Goldsmith’s for Alien, but Velasco is not one for reverential reference listening. “I actively tried not to listen to other scores too much. It’s inevitable that if you [do too much reference listening] it’ll become apparent in your score. There’s a definite nod to both Morricone and Goldsmith in my work, but I tried hard to forge my own path.”
In terms of tropes he wanted to avoid, Velasco says: “I absolutely did not want to do anything related to chip tunes. While the graphics may be retro, I thought the score should be fully modern and cinematic. It also needed to be a blend of orchestra, electronics, and sound design. As long as something sounded interesting, it was a contender for the score.
“That’s the cool thing with horror — you can find a way to make almost anything work.”
Keep on moving
A screenshot from Carrion.
Quite often in games it falls to the overall audio, and especially the music, to keep players moving forward and maintaining their sense of momentum. The Carrion score is suffused fast-paced, rhythmic synth sounds, subtly placed in the mix.
Velasco says: “Some of those rhythmic sounds were even created by recording a heartbeat. I thought that it might help to subliminally invoke your fight or flight mechanism. Carrion is all about movement and it’s definitely part of my job to help create that sense.
“It’s like Jaws with the famous two-note motif: it’s all about propulsion, move and eat. Carrion is sort of a move-and-eat simulator and the music definitely helps to create that energy.”
On the point of keeping players moving, there isn’t a Soulsborne game in existence where players don’t have to be pin-point accurate with their movement, especially in boss arenas. Here’s Velasco’s audacious cue for the spectacular Amygdala fight in Bloodborne:
For a lot of modern titles, composers have to generate hours of subtle, atmospheric ambient music, bringing with it its own challenges.
Velasco admits: “I definitely struggle with paring things down. I’m always wanting to add more, but I think that stems from writing music in a vacuum. On its own, an ambient track might sound fairly dull and uninspired, but, once you add the visuals and sound design, it all works well together.
“The trick is to find interesting sounds. Just a [synth] pad or a delayed piano isn’t going to be very exciting or help tell a story. That’s one reason why I like to work with a custom set of sounds.
“On Carrion, I spent a lot of time trying to make my bespoke library. A lot of it might even be initially heard as sound design. In the end though, I felt like there was a good balance of the music working in-game and also on its own.”
His favourite ambient cue is “Containment Unit”: “I was doing some experiments with using granular synthesis on different sounds. For the fun of it, I tried it out at a very fast rate on a percussion rhythm and it produced this interesting, otherworldly soundscape. It felt just right for the monster. Sometimes my favorite stuff comes from these happy accidents.”
Velasco doesn’t always have to show such restraint, as evidenced by his work on the gloriously melodic soundtrack for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (alongside collaborator Sascha Dikiciyan), which has all the sonic scope of the biggest cinematic orchestral scores.
He recalls: “I fell in love with the orchestra because of its ability to take a simple motif, a chord, or even a single note, and turn it into an epic aural experience. John Williams, James Horner, Basil Poledouris [Conan, RoboCop], Wojciech Kilar [Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Pianist] — these composers laid the foundation for me as a young composer. Their scores helped define what my own sound would become.”
“Writing this score for [protagonist] Captain Titus and the other space marines was an excuse to go big and thematic, and I definitely drew upon my influences throughout this score. There are some synths in there, but the score is around 95% orchestral, played by some of San Francisco’s finest at the Skywalker Ranch.”
And we have a special treat: here’s four unreleased bonus tracks from the Space Marine soundtrack:
The importance of mixing (things up)
Depending on their niche and workflow, game composers across the board continue to expand their musical knowledge and experiment with different palettes.
“With every year that goes by,” comments Velasco, “there are more and more interesting sounds that composers have at their disposal. It’s important for all composers to challenge themselves and find new ways to express emotion through sound.
“Synths have been around for a long time of course, but now literally anything can find its way into a score and become musical. I tuned water pipes for [murder mystery VR title] The Invisible Hours: it’s always fun to affect something with water for an otherworldly sound. I also used the sounds of insects for Starcraft II.”
He maintains: “The orchestra will always be where my passion lies though.” Here’s a particularly rich and melodic cue from the second soundtrack volume of Velasco’s score for co-op action RPG Dauntless.
“I’m always trying to learn new ways to compose and push myself creatively. That’s what makes composing fun."
Velasco recalls having to expand his musical tool set while working on Borderlands 2: “Until then, I had always been known as a fairly traditional orchestral composer. Borderlands 2 allowed me the opportunity to incorporate electronics and more modern sounds into my palette. Giving yourself a crash course in an unfamiliar genre — in the middle of scoring a AAA franchise — can be daunting! But it taught me so much and I found that to be an invaluable opportunity to become a better composer.”
“With Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, we used a technique called ‘musique concrète’. It’s something I’d glanced at in college but never actually used. It was developed in the 1940s and uses a lot of found/recorded sounds with traditional instruments. All the audio is manipulated in various ways and, ultimately, it becomes a very strange musical tapestry or montage.”
The first piece of musique concrète was by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948:
And here’s an example by Velasco from Resi 7:
Looking back and looking forward
At the time of writing, fans are eagerly anticipating the release of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, which revisits and remasters a trilogy of games that had a gigantic impact on the industry.
“Mass Effect will always be a franchise that I’m so proud to be a part of,” says Velasco. “It’s truly amazing how many lives it’s touched over the years, and that everyone’s still so invested in it.
“Probably my favourite cue is from the last DLC, is the last track in the game, and happens to be the last track that I ever wrote for the series. I named the track “End of an Era” [although it’s credited as “The End…” on the official soundtrack.]”
“I always wished it could have been longer, but it was written to a cinematic. Maybe I’ll expand on it one day if there’s ever an opportunity to have it performed live…”
As we transition from the PS4/Xbox One generation to the PS5/Series X — plus advances VR and cloud gaming — Velasco is excited by the fidelity of next gen: “The latest games just look so good! If anything will change with the next generation, it’s that I’ll feel even more inspired and lucky that I get to do such cool stuff.
“One thing that remains pretty exciting to me is VR. The technology is still so new but it’s moving so fast. Of course, we all want the Star Trek Holodeck. Until then though, I remain pretty optimistic about where VR is at. Vader Immortal and The Invisible Hours proved to me that it’s an amazing way to tell a story.”
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––Cris Velasco is a composer for media – www.crisvelasco.com | Twitter @MonarchAudio | Instagram @MonarchAudio | Spotify Artist Page