Ask anyone who works in audio for screen production, and they’ll tell you that sound is the most overlooked aspect. But whether it’s in film, television, or videogames, sound is also one of the most important things to get right. And while the skills are universal across a range of different jobs and applications, to an outsider, the workload demand for sound in videogames seems staggering, at least after having a chat to Brad Derrick, lead composer and audio director at Zenimax Online Studios.
Dozens of tracks need to be composed to accompany a range of scenarios and be of a high enough standard to be listened to and looped for an indeterminate amount of time, depending on what the player may or may not do. Audio effects need to be considered for every single possible interaction. Composers often work in teams, and frequently the idea of creating something that someone will listen to as a standalone piece of music takes a backseat to something that sufficiently serves a functional purpose.
Derrick, who has worked for a decade on the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls Online, spoke to us about finding the joy in a demanding role, and why you can’t expect to get a job in-game sound if you don’t have the capacity to sell yourself as an audio Swiss army knife.
[The following interview has been edited for clarity]
ScreenHub: So Brad, how would you typically describe your job to someone at a party?
Brad Derrick: The short joke-yet-true version is: I go to work every day with my best friends and I make silly noises into a microphone and giggle a lot and have lunch and then go home, and then do it again the next day. Which is not that far from the truth.
The more poetic version is I get to do my favourite thing in the whole world, the thing that I would be doing anyway even if I didn’t have to do it for work. But I actually get to go and do it Monday through Friday as well, and get paid and hang out with my best friends and make silly noises and do a microphone and go home. So it’s kind of a dream job.
You’ve been at Zenimax Online for a long time, almost from its inception as a studio. The Elder Scrolls Online is currently in its seventh year of operation. How has your job and the audio work for the game changed over that time as the project began and started to ramp up?
It has shifted greatly over the last, I guess, 10 years or so. I started in 2009, very early on in the project, and for a good while, I was the only audio person. There wasn’t that much to do early on, it was a lot of infrastructure and design and trying out and middleware and software and things like that, so I did all of that. And that meant doing the earliest sound effects and the placeholder voiceover, the earliest sort of musical experiments and things like that.
With each passing year, we staffed up and got more sound designers and voiceover specialists, QA, programmers, so on and so forth. So more work came along, and I delegated more and more things to my bigger and bigger audio team.
And, for better or for worse, I don’t do sound effects anymore. I don’t do voiceover anymore. And it left me to divide my time pretty evenly between being a composer and being the audio director, which is obviously overseeing that team and sort of being an executive producer, if you will, of all the work that they do.
I still get to obviously get my hands good and dirty and lean over their shoulders and, check on their progress. And I suppose I’m the one who ultimately has the vision or whatever you want to call it – the buck stops with me.
So they do all the hard work, and I get all the glory (laughs). No, that’s not true at all.
I used to do a lot of things, and now I just sort of supervise and write music, which is an ideal situation. Because of all the things that I’ve done in my career, writing music is by far my favourite. So I’m more than happy to bring on a lot of people who are way better at that stuff than I am anyway and let them do all that.
So there’s obviously a lot of nuances when it comes to working in different aspects of audio, a composer might not be so great at directing voiceover, stuff like that. I’m curious as to what kind of early training you took on before you came into the games industry?
I played instruments as a kid – piano lessons, drum lessons, that kind of thing. I was always a big music fan amd I love playing music, high school band, rock bands, all that kind of stuff. I went to college, got a music degree in college, really still had no plan. Like where I was going with any of this. I just knew that I was incredibly passionate about music and there wasn’t really anything else I wanted to do or could apply myself to and stick to.
So I finished my music degree and then continued my education. I got a master’s degree in electronic composition a long time ago, and using computers to make music in the early 90s was a kind of emerging concept anyway. And so I cut my teeth on digital audio back then, and still really had no clear roadmap as to where I was going with this skillset that I was accruing. I just knew that I liked to be writing music, producing music, playing music live, that was in my DNA, I had to do that.
And completely by accident, I got a part-time job at a local game studio that needed somebody to make sound effects part-time, like 10 hours a week, 10 bucks an hour. Like, just come in and edit machine gun and aeroplane noises and things like that.
And it was total dumb luck because that was the exact skill set I had been going to school for: using computers to edit digital audio. So I took that on as a part-time job and it became a full-time job. That was a studio called Kesmai Studios in the 90s… that was 25-26 years ago, something like that, and I never looked back.
How do you think the process for writing game music differs to a standard mode of composing?
Well, it’s one thing to walk into the studio and just have a listen to a piece of music out of context, it’s another thing when you hop in the game, and you see how the thing is used.
You might have a piece that you think is nifty, and you can’t find a place to use it in-game or where you try to force it into the game, it doesn’t work. And it can go the other way: you might put something in the game, you’re like ‘I wrote this, I put this in the game and I like it in the game. It’s perfect.’ And then you go and listen to it outside of the game and you’re like, ‘this is boring!’
But it serves the game well and ultimately, that’s what the music is supposed to do: serve the game well. It’s not so you can sit around on Spotify and listen to it, that’s secondary. The primary function is to serve the game.
So you’re a composer on a well-established fantasy game franchise, and there’s obviously a certain style you need to adhere to with your work. But can you tell me about your own personal musical influences, and whether that part of you manages to sneak into your work?
My first love is drums. And musically, my first love is really heavy music. So I’ve played the drums in lots of very heavy bands for my whole youth and young adult life. And I listened to very heavy music even to this day, which some people at work don’t understand.
Like I’m covered with tattoos and piercings, and I listen to extreme, extreme music. And then, I write some pretty little flute quintet or something and they’re like, ‘Dude, I don’t get it. How did that come out of you?’ And I’m like ‘Well, you know, it’s in there. It’s part of who I am also.’
I’m a huge fan of orchestral and classical music over a host of different periods. I like anything that’s sort of curious or interesting or adventurous, you know, I like Bjork, Thom Yorke, things like that. I love ABBA, I like The Police. I like things that are just well done.
But I obviously have a predilection for rhythm. I love rhythm, and I’m kind of lopsided in that regard. Because I’ve been so immersed in very sophisticated rhythmic things for so long, and only came into melody and harmony later, my skillset to this day is a little lopsided, where I could sit down and write something and focus way too much on the percussion and the rhythmic elements of things, and end up with something that is just far beyond what even needs to be there. So it influences a lot, I really get into interesting rhythmic concepts.
I don’t want to sound snobby, but a lot of music has very simple rhythmic elements to it. They may have very complicated melodic and harmonic elements, but a lot of the rhythm stuff almost feels like an afterthought to me, or are just sort of the obvious thing that you would do rhythmically.
So I end up really sort of focusing and obsessing on those kinds of things, sometimes to my detriment. I need somebody to come in once in a while and they’ll be like, ‘dude, settle down. That’s ridiculous.’
At what point in your career do you think you learned the most, what experience really transformed you?
The obvious literal one would be the master’s degree that I got in electronic composition, where I simultaneously learned a lot about music, just in general: music theory, music history performance, and began to sort of close the gap between ‘I’m really good at rhythm’, and ‘I’m no good at pitch’. Because I got into a music program, I had to get good at pitch. And of course, I was also learning to use computers to manipulate digital audio. So clearly, those two or three years were very focused on learning a lot.
The other thing is that the last five years here on the job have been tremendous for personal and professional growth. Like, I will listen to music that I wrote for the game seven or eight years ago and I can hear the difference. I’m mean, I wasn’t bad at what I was doing and I could see what I was trying to do, but I just don’t write music like that anymore. I’ve become a completely different composer having had done this incessantly for the last five or six years.
Okay, so what kind of advice would you give someone who was wanting to take the same kind of journey you have today?
The thing that I say over and over again, is to not specialize or focus too much on one thing. If your goal is to get into game music or game audio, it will really pay dividends to be a little bit of a jack of all trades, to be able to do some sound design, be able to write some music, understand voiceover, and have some experience editing VO. Get good at mixing or cutting things to picture, get good at field recording, just a little bit of everything. Because in my personal experience, and in a lot of the people that I’ve hired over the years, it’s been that right-person-at-the-right-time, opportunity meets preparedness kinds of things.
I did not go knocking on somebody’s door saying ‘I want to write music for video games.’ It was ‘I know how to edit audio, I can make your sound effects for you.’ And that wasn’t even a creative thing, I was just like clipping, cutting and pasting library sound effects. I was sort of functionally like a library, just ‘chase down this particular file in the database, crop it, drop it in the game, do that 100 times and call it a day.’
I see a lot of people who are like ‘oh I want to do music in video games,’ and then their background is purely in music, or even ‘I’m a DJ.’ That’s tough. It would really help you to have a much, much broader skill set than that, because then you get hired for something else. And then you can ultimately work your way over to the thing that you want to do.
What’s a recent piece of work you’re really proud of?
It’s hard to answer that because at least in the scope of The Elder Scrolls Online, I’ve written literally hundreds of pieces of music. And it’s not that they all blur together, but it’s almost easier for me to think in terms of the game update releases rather than individual pieces, because they’re kind of grouped like that.
Those three or four weeks when I got all the Mountain Dew and locked the door and wrote all the music for Summerset, like, that’s kind of almost like one really big piece for me even though it’s an hour’s worth of music, and the same goes for any other update.
But I think it’s true that whatever the most recent thing I’ve done tends to be my favourite, not just because it’s the freshest, though that’s certainly a factor. But because of what I was alluding to earlier – like, I honestly feel like I get better each time. And assuming the people I work with aren’t just a bunch of kiss-asses, they say the same thing too. When I showed everybody the Blackwood stuff, they were like, ‘this is the best stuff you’ve ever done.’
So aside from your own stuff, who else do you think is doing great work in the game space?
The Last of Us franchise is… well, it’s no secret that is a benchmark of game music, not only just the music itself, but also in how it’s used. That one always gets me.
Bloodborne is also a soundtrack that I’m obsessed with because it lines up a lot with some of the ‘classical music’ that I write for The Elder Scrolls Online and some of the classical music that I like just as a fan – that sort of angular, dissonant, atonal, anything goes stuff. I adore that soundtrack completely.
And then and other things like Journey, like I never stopped listening to Journey, it’s just awe-inspiring.
What’s the last great piece of media you consumed?
I watched Nomadland and that scratched a good itch. It’s just a nice tone piece or a character study. You know, one of those movies where certain audience members might be like, ‘Hey, nothing ever happened,’ And, well, it’s not really the point, right?
It’s like a Debussy piece or something where nothing does happen – you just get in there and you be in there for about 90 minutes and you just soak in it, and then it’s over. And then you’re left with this residual sort of echo, like the next day, just sort of can still feel it on you. It was that kind of experience for me.