Game Music

Interview with Deadly Creatures Composer Dave Lowmiller

April 14, 2009 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Interview with Deadly Creatures Composer Dave Lowmilleron Twitter

Deadly Creatures is one of those Wii casualties that deserved more attention than it received. While it appeared to be your typical 3D action platformer on the surface, there were a number of innovations that made it a worthwhile experience for those looking to get more out of their Wii. What I found particularly interesting was the game’s sound, both in terms of music and sound design.

The world of Deadly Creatures is experienced through the perspective of the a tarantula or scorpion, but the story is told through overheard conversations of humans that appear throughout the game. A pretty unique concept. And the music? It’s not what you’d expect, as it blends indistinctly into the sound effects and dark atmosphere generated by the visuals. Fortunately we’ve been able to catch up with Dave Lowmiller at Rainbow Studios to discuss his “music” for the game, which is an interesting discussion about blurring the lines between soundtrack and sound design. I highly recommend checking this one out on iTunes to get an idea of what it’s all about if you didn’t play the game.

Hit the jump for our interview with Deadly Creatures audio lead, Dave Lowmiller.

OSV: Dave, thanks for speaking with us. We’ve been enjoying the sounds in Deadly Creatures, and were excited about the opportunity to talk to you about the title and to learn a little more about your music. Would you like to start by telling us your official role as Senior Sound Designer at Rainbow Studios? Are you typically in charge of music, or are you normally handling sound design?
Lowmiller: Hey, thanks for having me! My role on the project varies from game to game and depends very much on the nature of the title we are producing. I am always involved with the sound design on all of our projects, but with the licensed titles we have developed, the amount of music I compose can be very limited. That was not the case with Deadly Creatures and I consider myself very fortunate to have been the audio lead on that project. We knew from the very beginning that this would be a game in which the entire soundscape would have to be created right here at Rainbow.

OSV: We mentioned that your latest project was Deadly Creatures. This game has a lot of atmosphere, and it’s pretty dark. What can you tell us about your approach to the title’s sound? Was it challenging tackling both the music and the sound effects for the game?
Lowmiller: Actually, I really like working on titles where control of both the music and sound design is kept in-house. It allows us to create a much more consistent and complete soundscape when we can build the whole thing from the ground up. In fact, there are places in the Deadly Creatures score where I was able to incorporate certain sound design elements from elsewhere in the game (like creature noises) and manipulate them in such a way that they just kind of blend into the music.

As far as the general approach to the soundscape as a whole, the best thing I can say is that sometimes these projects just tell you where they need to go. It seemed clear enough from the very beginning of this game that it MUST have a horror movie feel to it. No epic adventure music. No mildly sinister kids’ music. Just pure vampire-serial-killer-alien-monster dissonance. I’m lucky to be working with such a talented group of audio designers, implementers and programmers, because I feel we really ended up with an authentic sounding horror movie soundtrack running in real-time on the Wii. It was a massive group effort.

OSV: What exactly did you use to create the sounds featured in the game? There are scorpions, spiders, snakes, and all sorts of other deadly creatures in the game, so I’m wondering if you borrowed from existing sample libraries or produced original sounds for the title? How long did this take?
Lowmiller: A little from column A and a little from Column B. We did a lot of Foley recording here and destroyed a lot of produce from the grocery store in the process. We also ended up building some little Foley pits full of sand and rocks and poking at them with various sharpened instruments to give the little critters their footstep sounds. We did also pull some material from sound libraries, but one of our major goals was to make everything as unique as possible before it got checked in. For example, the wolf spider’s voice started life as a mix of a dolphin and a cat (an a couple other varmints) all readily available from a sound library. However, by the time it got checked into the game, it had been run through so many DSPs and butchered so many times in Sound Forge that we felt we had something very “Deadly Creatures” on our hands.

OSV: As far as the game’s music is concerned, we hear mostly brooding ambient patches with deep bassy pads. It’s quite effective, and I enjoyed what it added to the game’s already dark atmosphere. How did you decide on this non-music approach? Was it easy to create the score as an extension of the sound design, or did you find it difficult creating music that wasn’t really musical?
Lowmiller: That was just some good old-fashioned fun right there. It seemed to me that minimalist noise-scape was stock in trade for the horror genre and anything else would have been too much. One major advantage of that stuff is that it really made the combat cues stick out a lot more than they otherwise might have. That mix of the noise music with the more conventionally composed action music felt very cinematic to us.

OSV: What sorts of tools did you use to create the music? I noticed some brass stabs at times, that added a lot of tension, and was curious as to whether the score was entirely electronic, or if there were any live elements?
Lowmiller: I composed and mixed all of the music in Cakewalk Sonar using various VST instruments and mastered it in Sony Sound Forge. Of course, I relied very heavily on my virtual instruments to get the DC score done. Of particular importance were NI Kontact, East West Colossus, Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan Orchestral Strings, and Project SAM Horns, Trombones and Trumpets. Even the acoustic guitar is virtual. The only instrument actually recorded was an electric guitar that had various metal objects dragged across the strings.

OSV: How many minutes of music did you create for the game? I noticed some repeated patches, but I never really got tired of the sound given that it blended in so well with the rest of the sound design and the in-game action.
Lowmiller: Thanks! All-in-all I think I checked about 40 minutes of music into the game, but since it’s an interactive score, how much each user hears will vary.

OSV: Did you handle any of the voice over work featured in the game? I thought it was interesting that the story was told through the overheard conversations of the human characters in the game.
Lowmiller: I think that Jordan Itkowitz (DC game designer) did a tremendous job with that story. As far as the audio department’s involvement goes, beyond editing and implementing the VO sessions, all of that recording work was handled off-site.

OSV: Were you involved with the audio implementation in the game? With so many sound effects, background music, and the previously mentioned voice work, was it challenging balancing the game’s overall sound?
Lowmiller: Like everyone on the team, I did spend a lot of time implementing content and killing bugs. It is a very difficult process, for any developer, to balance artistic vision with technical limitations. Luckily, I am working amongst some of the most talented and diligent people one could ever hope to meet. We were able to overcome some significant technical hurdles in enough time that we were able to give the game a really thorough mix pass to balance the soundscape.

OSV: Would you like to comment on the game’s interactive music system? I noticed that during battles, the music took on a more intense sound to highlight the action.
Lowmiller: We actually had a very cool visual scripting tool on this project that allowed non-programmers like myself to set up complex events (like interactive music) without having to make a nuisance of ourselves in the programming bay. It ended up being a fairly simple system. When the player enters a combat area the ambient music fades out over a couple of seconds, while the combat cue fades in on a quick horn crescendo and continues to loop until the fight is over. When the “end of fight” event occurs, a one-shot stinger plays and the combat cue crossfades to an ambient cue over a couple of seconds. Simple, but it gets the job done.

OSV: I noticed you have a lot of television credits under your belt. Tell us a little about what you did in television, and how you think this experience applies to what you do in the game industry. Given the level of technology used in creating games these days, is there much of a difference? Do you prefer working in one media over the other?
Lowmiller: Those television credits come from a time when Rainbow Studios was in the business of producing videogames as well as television content. I actually got to work on both scoring and posting TV content as well as developing game audio at the same time. In my experience, they are VERY different beasts. Linear editing work (like film and TV) gives the sound designer the opportunity to really finesse a mix because you have absolute control of the timeline. Games on the other hand bring a few unique challenges with them. First, you don’t have as much control of the mix. Everything has to be mixed in a way as to best allow for anything a particular user might do. Secondly, you’re limited to what the hardware and game engine will allow you to do. Despite these challenges (among others), I really do prefer games.

OSV: I also noticed that you’ve written music under the name “A Dark Halo” in the past. Is this handle still active, and would you like to tell us about the kind of music you’ve released under this name? I doubt you’re familiar with the demoscene, but you may be interested to learn that there is a famous electronic artist known as “Darkhalo” also based in the United States.
Lowmiller: No, I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that artist, but I’ll definitely look them up! “A Dark Halo” is an industrial-metal band that some friends and I started about four years back. Everyone needs an excuse to put their foot up on a monitor and yell into a mic, right?

OSV: Looking back at your work on Deadly Creatures, do you have any final thoughts or comments? Does the project hold any kind of special meaning to you?
Lowmiller: You know, I’m really gonna miss this one. I really, really am. It was an awesome dev-team, it’s an awesome IP, we were given complete auteur over the soundscape and I just plain love writing creepy music. This is also the first videogame score I’ve ever done to make it onto iTunes (shameless plug). If that’s not enough, DC will also always be special because TWO members of the audio team welcomed new babies into their homes, one of them being my beautiful little daughter!

OSV: Are you able to tell us about your next project at this time? We’re looking forward to what you do next!
Lowmiller: I’m actually working on some very cool projects at Rainbow right now, but I’m afraid that they’re all still under wraps.

OSV: Thanks for speaking with us today. We’ll look forward to your next project.
Lowmiller: Thank you for the opportunity, I really appreciate it!

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