The Sound Architect interviews Joris de Man. Joris is a Dutch composer and sound designer living in the UK. Born in The Hague in 1972 into a musical family, his father was a professor at the Hague Royal Conservatory and a well-known contemporary composer, his mother an internationally acclaimed Harpsichordist.
Joris’ own passion for music started with the violin. He joined the Gymnasium Haganum’s School Orchestra a year before attending school there. He would later exchange the violin for a synthesizer and computer, embarking a search for musical identity which would lead Joris from hard edged industrial to ambient, electronica and everything in between, though never leaving his classical roots too far behind.
After a year’s course in Sonology at the Royal Conservatory he attended the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht studying Music Technology, leaving to pursue a career in music for Games.
A 1997 move to London led to working for various games companies, including The Bitmap Brothers. He returned to the Netherlands 3 years later to join startup company Guerrilla Games and was Musical Director there for over 6 years. It was during this time he developed the acclaimed Orchestral Score and sound design for Killzone, the Playstation 2 game developed exclusively for Sony, which sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Joris composed and orchestrated the score, which was recorded with the Prague Philharmonic and Chorus.
In 2005 Joris was selected for the prestigious Ascap Film and Television Scoring Workshop and recorded and conducted his own cue with a 40 piece Hollywood session orchestra, and returned to the Killzone franchise after going free-lance later that year.
He created the music for Killzone Liberation (PSP), and later Killzone 2 which was recorded at Abbey Road with London’s finest session players for which he would receive an Ivor Novello, the first time in history the award would include a video games category.
More projects followed, including music and sound design for the stylish animated short ‘Codehunters’ for the MTV Movie awards, Killzone 3, numerous indie games including the much lauded Velocity, Surge Deluxe and Velocity Ultra and sound design on trailers for EA’s Need for Speed and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. He is currently working away on various game and tv related projects and is scoring his first feature film later this year.
Read the full interview below:
Firstly, thank you so much for agreeing to speak to us today, we very much appreciate the time you’ve taken for this interview.
Thanks, always a pleasure!:)
How did your journey into composition begin?
I’m fortunate to come from a musical family, where music was always around me and my brother; my mother was a contemporary harpsichordist and teacher, and my father is a contemporary classical composer and used to be a professor at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.
So my interest in music started early, and at age 6 I started playing the Violin, and later joined a school orchestra.
But the real interest in composition came when we got a synthesizer in the house; my brother and I both became quite obsessed, and after mocking around with onboard sequencers we later got an Atari with midi and Cubase, which really changed the game.
I’d also joined an Atari demo group, making ‘demos’ which were a combination of some kind of programming feat (such as real-time 3d or pixel bending), pixel art and a chip music soundtrack using the Atari’s in-built YM2149 sound chip; a fair few of the guys from that time ended up in the video game industry, myself included.
That was one of the first times I’d put synchronized music to ‘picture’, and when I finished school I started to realize that it would be very cool to do that sort of thing for a living….
Have you always wanted to work on video games?
Yes; during that demo group period (which lasted from about 14 till my early 20’s), even though we all enjoyed demos, we really wanted to make a game.
We did a multi-player pac man clone with split screen gameplay and cutscenes, and it was an excellent learning ground.
And though I’ve also always had a keen interest in film scoring, working in the games industry seemed like a logical and more realistic progression.
However, growing up and living in the Netherlands, there wasn’t at the time much of a games industry to speak of, so I decided to send demo tapes (yes, it was that long ago!:) to some of my favourite developers in the UK, and that is how I eventually landed my first in-house job as a composer and sound designer at The Bitmap Brothers in London.
What has been your most challenging project?
Most projects tend to have their own set of unique challenges, and there is nothing quite like a blank sequencer page and an impending deadline, with a feeling of ‘what the hell am I going to do this time?’ to hammer that home.
The orchestral sessions for the last few Killzones were challenging, mainly because they came at the end of the projects, when all the cutscenes were finished with only a few weeks to spare to compose, orchestrate, record and edit/mix all the music, so that meant barely any sleep for 2-3 weeks while doing some of the most important work:)
As another example, for my upcoming score for Futurlab’s excellent Velocity 2x I had to write in an entirely different musical style (retro chip music fused with more modern styles such as D’n’B and Electronica) with not an orchestral instrument in sight, which really put me on my toes; each project will hopefully have something that will challenge you…and it should, it makes you grow as a composer.
What has been your proudest project so far?
Crikey, that is a tricky one! The last 2 Killzones will always have a special place in my heart, as I wrote some of the best orchestral music I could for it and it seemed to have really resonated with the players, as they felt it added gravitas to the story.
And the title music to Killzone 3 (‘And Ever We Fight On’) has special meaning to me, as it was written just as my mother had passed away.
What would be your dream project if you could work on anything past or present?
I’d love to work on an RPG or Fantasy project. Having done a fair bit of sci-fi, I’d relish the opportunity to write something in that style.
I’m also a huge fan of the original Fallout series and the music of Mark Morgan, and was sad to see that they didn’t enlist him for Fallout 3, though some of his music found its way back into Fallout New Vegas; I’d love to write music for a game like that, I’m a complete sucker for post nuclear settings.
Is there anything you’ve written in particular that will always stick with you?
Well, as mentioned the title music for Killzone 3 was quite special to me; I tend to hold of writing title music sequences until later in the project, as at the start you’re often still finding your feet musically and thematically; but once you’ve worked on a project for a while you really get into the grit of the project and what it is a about.
On KZ3 I’d done a similar thing, and having already had a few tricky months emotionally due to my mothers failing health, tragedy struck just before I was due to do this piece, and buy generic xanax online cheap at the same time there was this weird symbiosis between what was going on personally and what I felt the project needed for this theme emotionally. On KZ2 the player’s side was that of an aggressor, a conqueror as the player’s side launched a pre-emptive strike on the Helghast, their enemy.
But on Killzone 3 the story was different; the player was trying to escape from a hostile, aggressive planet, their troops severely decimated and with a real sense of ‘we might not make it out’, so the music needed to be solemn, sad but with a flicker of hope.
I found myself in the perfect place to write it, and I don’t think it would have been as poignant otherwise; and I ended up dedicating it to my mum as a musical tribute.
How did your composing skills develop throughout the Killzone series?
I started to learn how to pace myself, how not every piece has to be that intricate, detailed and complex to serve its purpose.
Sometimes, when you have the opportunity to work with a live orchestra there is a real tendency to overwrite, as you really want to make it count; the learning process for me was to realize that ultimately it isn’t about my personal objectives but what the project needs at that time.
Did it change your approach towards other projects?
Definitely, especially in the prep stage; it’s important to get your themes in order if you can, before doing anything else, as this will allow you to find a common thread that you can weave into other parts of the project.
How do you begin the composition process, what’s your first step?
The first step for me is to immerse myself in the material as much as I can; read the story, familiarize myself with the concept and the characters, and research as much as possible.
The other thing I like to do is talk to the game director and have them tell me about the project; what bits matter most, likes and don’t likes, what I should be paying special attention to; you can get a good sense from them what the project is about much more than a script or some reference material, though that is important too.
And then I gather reference; usually they send you things, but I also like to research my own stuff; pieces of music that I think might fit, particular sounds or instrument that I’d like to use, a ballpark sense of where I think the project should go sonically.
How do you progress from there?
Then it’s just a case of sitting down with a blank sequencer page, a piano patch and do some sketching; or alternatively I might start with creating or sampling some sounds or instruments that I might use on the project.
I often find myself procrastinating a fair bit before I get things down; sometimes you’re afraid of committing to ideas, but at the same time I find just improvising away can yield some real gems that you might be able to use later on.
The strangest aspect of this process is that you might spend a whole day sketching out ideas like this, and nothing really sticks; and then, just before you switch of in the evening you decide to have one more quick play and suddenly happen upon a theme or motif that can carry a big part of the project!
What hardware/software do you use?
I’m a big fan of Nuendo, which I use in conjunction with an RME Fireface 800, on a 6 core I7 rackmounted PC that I built myself. Then I have a couple of slaves with Vienna Ensemble Pro that run samples and synths; I have a few outboard ones as well such as a T1 Virus and Waldorf Microwave that get some use, and I’m still holding on to my Roland SRV-330 which has some great reverb and RSS type programs.
I use a TL Audio Fat Track to add a bit of tube grit to some of my recordings and use it as a preamp and summer.
And for editing I love my Euphonix MC Control and X-keys keyboard for shortcuts.
Other than that, I’m sure I use most of the stuff that other people use, except for Brass, for which I use a non-sample based plug-in that I’ve customized quite heavily.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Get to know your tools really well, so that they don’t get in the way of composing.
Build a good template so that you don’t have to do too much patch selecting/editing while you’re working, and listen to as much other music as possible, especially music outside of your field of work, it can be really inspiring.
Don’t dismiss music you don’t like; if it’s popular and lots of people like it, there must be something in there that is turning them on; try and figure out what it is and how you might encapsulate it in your own work.
In terms of breaking in the industry I would say target the indies; they’re doing a lot of fun, interesting and exciting games and you never know where they are going to go; some indies end up doing well and landing much bigger projects, and it’s great if you can be there along for the ride.
Any go-to plug-ins?
I love the Virus, and recently I’ve really gotten into Zebra, which has an amazing set of filters and possibilities.
And Omnisphere is very versatile; it seems to end up on a lot of things I do, though rarely untweaked 🙂
Oh, and Metasynth; it is a crazy program with a very unusual and sometimes downright awkward interface, but I’ve been able to coax sounds out if it that I can’t create anywhere else…
Have you found any specific techniques that work really well?
I think the main thing is customization; learning a synth or plug-in well and creating your own sounds is important, as it can provide you with a signature sound.
The other is bouncing down; it is often good to commit to sounds rather than tweak them and have unlimited undo available; I remember from my Akai/Emu Sampler days that once you processed a sound in them there was often no way of going back, so you really had to commit to them; I still try to live by that as otherwise endless tweaking ensues!
The final point or feature I would suggest is a thing called ‘retrospective record’, which Cubase/Nuendo has, but which I know a lot of other Daw’s like Logic have as well, it’s a way to record midi and audio without actually being in record mode.
Far too often you’ll be noodling away on the keyboard and find yourself saying ‘what the hell did I just play, and wtf didn’t I press record!?’ This allows you to capture a buffer that has captured everything since you last pressed stop on your Daw….a real life saver!!!
Any major Do’s and Don’ts?
DO make lots of contacts; I was in-house for quite some time before I became freelance, and hadn’t really appreciate how important building up a network of contacts is once you are freelance; and that building and maintaining a network was a much bigger part of the job than I had anticipated.
DO make connections that go beyond the ‘I just want to get to know you to get work from you’…usually people know. Be genuine and you might make some new friends that end up being friends for life.
DO master your tools; DAWS these days have some amazing features that can really speed up your workflow, be it music or sound design; get to know them inside out…
DO listen to lots of music; I like to sometimes put a track on repeat and examine every detail, be it in the arrangement, production or themes/melodies used, and this goes for any type of music.
DO play games, if you want to get into the games industry; get to know what makes them tick, and take the medium seriously. I sometimes get composers from other media coming up to me and saying how they’d like to get into the games industry, but they don’t really play games (or even like/understand them).
That’s like me saying I’d love to score films without ever going to the movies or watching a film:)
DON’T work for free, unless it is for a friend. It devalues yourself, your music and ultimately harms the industry. If you’re creating something that’s artistic, well-conceived and that people like to listen to then it has value, and should be treated as such.
What lies in the future for you now?
I’m excited about Futurlab’s upcoming release, Velocity 2X for which I wrote 16 tracks of music and provided the sound design which is coming out later this year. Their previous title Velocity scored a 9 in Edge amongst other high scores, and I had a lot of fun working on this one.
In addition I’ve just received the script for an animated feature that I’m scoring later this year and there are a few other projects in the pipeline that I unfortunately can’t talk about right now; but I look forward to doing a lot more composing this year!
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The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes