Laced With Wax chats to the composition duo behind PSVR shooter Blood & Truth about being experimental pioneers in music for VR, how orchestral grime was the obvious fit for a blockbuster action story set in London, and their hopes for the future of audio on the next-gen PlayStation.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
If you’re more of a listener than a reader, you can check out this interview in audio form over at Cane and Rinse’s Sound of Play podcast feed (Apple Podcasts).
Released in May 2019, PSVR shooter Blood & Truth became the first VR-only title to claim #1 in the UK physical games chart. Developed by first-party team SIE London Studio, the game places players in the role of Ryan Marks, a shooty-bang man who must shooty-bang things in order to rescue his family from The Bad Guys — you know the drill.
What sets Blood & Truth apart — other than being a rare VR title with AAA production values — from other shooty-bang games is that it was made in London, set in London, and features a soundtrack uniquely tuned to evoke the contemporary feel of our beloved, grimey UK capital.
The project was a natural next step on from The London Heist, part of the PSVR launch compilation PlayStation VR Worlds. Blood & Truth also takes cues from the The Getaway series, which consists of a pair of Sony-developed, London-based, gangster-themed titles for the PlayStation 2.
We caught up with composers Jim Fowler, formerly Principal Composer at Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe (SIEE), now freelance; and his partner in crime Joe Thwaites, currently Senior Composer and Music Producer at SIEE.
Jim Fowler (left) and Joe Thwaites at a recording session at Air Studios.
The pair created Blood & Truth’s score, which was recorded at AIR and Abbey Road Studios with a 90-piece orchestra. Several tracks enjoy the grime stylings of producer Zdot, as well as vocal performances from MCs Eyez, JME, Kamakaze, and Ocean Wisdom.
The Blood & Truth music team faced a number of challenges and opportunities. The game was both introducing a new IP and running on new game engine, two notoriously difficult feats within game development. To top all of that, it was blazing a trail as one of the few AAA-budget VR-only productions.
As part of Sony’s PlayStation division, Fowler and Thwaites were working within the organisational structure of a console platform-holder; and, as well as the PS4 and PSVR being market-leading hardware, this meant that they had the benefit of significant resources. Says Thwaites: “We get an opportunity to use the tech before anyone else does and try stuff out. The whole remit of SIE London Studio is to be pushing the boundaries and testing out what is actually possible — to lead by example for other developers. This definitely applies to audio as well.”
The problem with working on the cutting edge, of course, is that there are fewer tried-and-tested solutions that the team can draw upon to solve thorny challenges.
Thwaites explains that one of the biggest issues with music in VR is start- and stop-points. “Music definitely enhances the experience of VR, but poor implementation is very noticeable — it’s obvious if a cue doesn’t come in at just the right point.”
Fowler adds: “Most of the time in a game or movie when the music starts you think ‘oh, something’s happening’; or you know the wave of enemies has ceased because the music stops. Normally, you can have things creep in. But we’ve found that in VR, the places where music might otherwise normally start don’t work at all.”
An example is in a chase scene in the VR Worlds experience, The London Heist. The music cue for the gun fight starts when the windscreen is punched out:
Fowler reveals: “In the original version, there was a cinematic cue that built and built up to the moment of the windscreen being punched out. It looked great when we were writing it to a 2D video of the sequence, but when it went into the game, it was just weird. The music started and wasn’t synced-up to anything — you didn’t feel like it was leading to something. We tried loads of different versions, but the best way was to hide the start of the music in the massive noise of the windscreen bursting out and the subsequent rush of air.
“That was a more effective way to bring the music in, without lifting the player out the experience because some disembodied music had suddenly started up.”
A nice comparison to draw is that between PlayStation’s music team and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the pioneering team of audio creators set up in the late 1950s to add sound effects to radio shows and, later on, TV. Fowler says: “I remember hearing an interview where one of the members of the Radiophonic Workshop said that they felt like it was always their job to be pushing and doing the best they could because they were this salaried group providing this expertise. I sometimes feel like we’re that same combination of research group and a creative services team.”
Wel’ome to Laandaan, the grimey ci’y
The process of scoring Blood & Truth began with extensive musical ideation. Thwaites says: “We did about 20 short musical sketches between us, and started circling around this idea of including elements of grime, as well as elements of orchestral music.”
Fowler recalls: “We were saying to each other before our pitch meeting with the team, ‘I hope they go for this, it’s got to be this sound, I don’t know what else it can be.” Thwaites adds: “Whilst showing them what we’d been working on, we took the game directors on a journey from our initial thoughts through to how we envisaged the musical styles mixing together. By the end, they’d been on the same mental journey, and the conclusion was ‘obviously this is the sound of our game!’"
One of the demos that gained traction among the team ended up as protagonist Ryan Marks’ theme:
As mentioned, being an in-house music team benefitted them in terms of being able to experiment and take a bold direction, Fowler suggests. “The development leads wanted it to truly feel like the game was set in London — not ‘Hollywood London’ — the actual London you hear on someone’s mobile phone on the bus on your way to work.” After all, developers at the imaginatively named London Studio didn’t want to misrepresent their city of operations.
Thwaites emphasises that, as soon as they’d settled on including grime, they knew they had to enlist the help of a producer that was authentically part of that scene. “We didn’t want to do a pastiche. We wanted someone who was embedded in that world, but who would also be able to work with the orchestral material.”
They reached out to a few producers, but Zdot won the day with his demo remix. As well as his musical talents, Fowler says that Zdot was a great fit because of his gaming credentials. “He loves games, and he could see how the music was going to work, what it was going to do.”
Fowler and Thwaites would record their orchestral compositions in stems — isolating sections of music and groups of instruments in the studio so different elements can be parcelled out — and then handing over various bits of recordings for Zdot to build upon.
Then came the vocal tracks featuring grime MCs Eyez, JME, Kamakaze, and Ocean Wisdom, many of whom were affiliates of Zdot’s. The producer worked together with Senior Music Supervisor at PlayStation, Duncan Smith to bring the MCs on board and get the best out of them.
Laced With Wax proposed a few possible subgenre names to Fowler and Thwaites including ‘orchestral grime’ — which Thwaites says was the default among the team — and ‘grimey Bond’. Fowler jokes: “We never had a pithy name for it; we’ve never quite done any better than ‘cinematic grime’.”
Influences and inspiration
The obvious touchpoint for a score tightly woven-in with the on-screen action (or in-headset action in the case of VR) is the 2017 heist movie Baby Driver, where director Edgar Wright fuses music and visuals in an electrifying way. As with Baby Driver, some of Blood & Truth’s music also plays a role within the plot, and is synced up with the action — more on that later when we discuss the casino club scene.
Fowler adds to the list of inspirational films Kingsman: The Secret Service and John Wick, the kind of film where the music takes over at a moment of great intensity: “With Baby Driver and the like, the action is partly choreographed to the music, and the music also takes over from the sound design even though it’s a great big fight with explosions. In that sense, we varied it up throughout the game; for example, Blood & Truth’s casino scene basically leaves no room for the sound designers to do anything.”
Film music provided more direct inspiration to the team than the scores of foundational first-person shooters such as GoldenEye 007 or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Fowler explains: “It’s difficult not to have been influenced by those games because that’s the history of the genre, but we didn’t actively research them.
“We researched film scores in terms of how they score action, how they make you feel cool, and how they make the lead character seem like a badass. Blood & Truth’s Ryan Marks is a badass all the time, like John Wick, even if the player controlling him is doing badly. The music can score both failure and success, but it can especially boost you if you’re doing well.”
Thwaites mentions Total Recall as a reference point when it comes to a score that mashes up disparate genres; in that case electronic and orchestral palettes.
There’s an official Blood & Truth ‘Composer Inspirations’ playlist on Spotify, featuring work by film composers John Williams, Brian Tyler, Patrick Doyle, and more.
Jim Fowler blows his own trumpet.
Another crystal clear influence on Blood & Truth is the music of James Bond — in particular the brassy sounds of series stalwarts John Barry and David Arnold. As well as Fowler having a jazz background, meaning that he felt very much at home writing for brass, he admits that the Bond connection was inevitable: “We wanted it to sound like a big, British blockbuster action score, which obviously means treading on Bond territory.”
Brass dominates the Blood & Truth score, providing a lot of the rhythmic propulsion in the cues. Fowler continues: “We wanted it to be punchy and aggressive. Some of that sound came from us noticing the kinds of brass stabs that grime producers like to use and sample. We asked ourselves: ‘If we were making the perfect grime producer’s sample pack, what would the orchestra sound like?’”
It helped that the quality of the session musicians available was second to none, many of them having repeatedly worked with the PlayStation music team on scores including that for Bloodborne. Fowler enthuses: “They’re all such phenomenal musicians, playing so rhythmically and tightly together that it sometimes sounds like one person — it’s extraordinary. You can trust that if we give, for instance, the trombonists a particular line, it’s going to sound wicked.
What gives the score a brassy edge is the use of the bass trumpet, a rarely employed instrument with a rough, almost rude punch to it. Fowler explains: “The polite European rotary valve version of the bass trumpet gets used in Wagner and Strauss, but you can also get big B-flat bass trumpets that some jazz trombonists play.” They found a willing collaborator in trombonist Andy Wood. “He said it’s like the sound of a trombone with the ego of a trumpet.”
The bass trumpet, alongside another signature of Fowler and Thwaites’ sound — the Wagner tuba — became cornerstones of the orchestration.
Blood (& Truth) on the dancefloor
Again, having the resources and head space to experiment meant that the team could suggest and trial mechanics in a proactive way — leading to standout ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ music moments.
In a playfully contrived moment early in the game, the player must fire up some DJ decks in an empty club in order to distract the bad guys. Different buttons on the decks set off various music, sound, and pyrotechnic effects. Thwaites explains: “We pitched the idea because it would be a great opportunity to showcase what we can do with ambisonic [or diegetic] music — putting music in the world. Positional music in virtual reality using 3D sound is a good way of placing you in an environment.”
“We played around with the idea of mixing between a couple of club tracks, and then that evolved into being able to put different filters on them. We had loads of fun adding all kinds of stuff that you can do in a DJ booth: use a whistle, press the stutter or air horn buttons, scratching, trigger high-, low-, and band-pass filters that all have different reverbs on them. It’s all synced up with VFX going off.”
Fowler recalls that there was some healthy one-upmanship going on between Joe Thwaites, audio programmer Nick Ward-Foxton, and, for VFX, Principal Artist Dave Skilton: “Joe said to Nick ‘we need our own stutter edit’, and Nick just went off and made a Wwise plug-in. Then Dave would try to up his game in response to each new idea. It was getting more and more bonkers.”
Thwaites explains that a challenge came in figuring out how to transition to a ‘straight to ear’ music cue “more about narrative, action, and drama” as the gun fight moved out of the booth and into the club. In much of Blood & Truth, ‘straight to ear’ music bypasses the 3D sound engine and plays in stereo, as if the protagonist of the game were wearing headphones (a bit like Baby Driver’s titular character.) The team took the subtle, work-intensive route, transitioning from the club track into a complementary orchestral cue that syncs up musical key, tempo, and rhythms without the player noticing.
The future of PlayStation (audio)
Back in April 2019 (a few months before this interview was conducted), Sony released details of its next-gen PlayStation, with lead system architect Mark Cerny specifically mentioning that the audio capabilities of the machine would see a significant boost from the previous hardware generation. 3D audio, ray-tracing — the sonic possibilities seem exciting to those in the know, even if the majority of gamers look to graphical leaps as an indication of how much more advanced a console is over its predecessors.
From a music implementation perspective, there is one major aspect that Thwaites is looking forward to addressing: “Ideally, I want the music to be more predictive than reactive. That doesn't necessarily come with more hardware power, but with smarter software and game design, where we better know the trajectory of what's going to happen because of certain decisions the player has previously made, allowing the music to develop more slowly and preemptively.”
Fowler improvises an example: “In Blood & Truth [SPOILERS], there’s a bit where the character of Carson is making you various promises. His dialogue is delivered in a linear way, so the music can build, and then, in a different version of the scene for instance, he could hold his hand for you to shake.”
SPOILERS for the end of Blood & Truth:
“In an action film, the hero might shake his hand and the theme explodes in and it hard-cuts to credits. In an interactive environment, especially in VR, the player might stand there an not shake his hand, so all we can do is have a sustained note playing. If we could be more predictive, maybe the game could sense when you were reaching towards his hand — the music system could begin preparing something that feels more bespoke overall.
“We’re always aiming for the player's experience of the music to seem as if a composer was scoring a linear video of them playing the game. We don't want them to hear the joins, which should all be smooth and tailored to them.”
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