Jeremy Tisser, the creator of the soundtrack to Raw Data, shares his experience creating music for VR.
How do you captivate an audience? Some of the more obvious responses are stunning visuals, an engrossing storyline or relatable characters. However one of the most powerful tools for capturing a viewer’s attention often goes overlooked by the masses: Music.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the right song at the right moment can elevate the emotion of a moment and create an atmosphere that envelops spectators. Whether it be film, television, video games or any other form of entertainment, music has the ability to make or break an experience. This is especially true for VR, a medium that relies heavily on deep immersion.
That’s where Jeremy Tisser comes in. The award-winning composer has worked on everything from film and television, to video games and other forms of new media. However Tisser’s most exciting work lately has been his efforts in music production for VR. The artist has lent his talents to the popular VR shooter Raw Data with a compelling soundtrack that touches every genre imaginable. Whether it be rock, techno, New Zealand Hakka, throat singing–no type of sound is off limits in this incredible musical journey that changes with each level you traverse.
I recently had the chance to chat briefly with Tisser to get the low-down on what it’s like creating music for the immersive medium and how it differs from creating for standard forms of entertainment:
VRSCOUT: First things first: Big fan of this soundtrack, especially Watson Genomics. It’s heavy and emotional and right up my alley. What initially got you interested in producing music for virtual reality content?
TISSER: “I’ve always been fascinated by this medium, ever since I was a kid. I remember going to the arcades, and they always had that gigantic helmet suspended over your head, and the graphics were terrible, but it was virtual reality! Ever since then I’ve been intrigued. When I got to graduate school at the University of Southern California in 2011, an opportunity presented itself to score a VR project. The developer was a student who pitched her idea to my class, and I took away 3 things from her pitch: VR, alien worlds, and Disney-esque. I knew I had to write the score to this project, so I did! I’ve been hooked on writing for VR ever since.”
The soundtrack seems to take elements from dozens of different musical styles resulting in an eclectic catalogue where no two tracks sound alike. Didgeridoos, techno, rock, throat singing, etc. What lead you to incorporate so many different sounds into the project? How did you go about selecting each theme for each portion?
“I wanted to do something different with this score. The goal was to give each level its own unique sound while always contributing to the story, and yet it still had to sound like one cohesive score. My favorite part of virtual reality scoring is that you can create worlds and literally transport the player, so the opportunities become endless! That being said, every instrument and every note serves a purpose in this score. In the Skyport levels, there are a lot of cranes and mechanical parts, almost like a giant outdoor warehouse.
It’s essentially the shipping docks of Eden Towers. I wanted to represent that with metallic and industrial sounds, so I used chains, oil drums, anvils, electric guitar solos, and others. It also felt like an urban jungle, so I used ethnic drum patterns to evoke a jungle feel. For the Data Chambers, we needed the rooms to feel vast, dark and brooding, but they also felt like the epitome of science fiction. I chose to bring in the Blaster Beam from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to try and evoke those emotions.
For the Botanical Gardens, well it’s a Japanese-inspired garden with a Genomics lab and a terrifying backstory. The Haka (which you can hear in “Teleshift” on the soundtrack) is actually a traditional Maori funeral poem called “Miru of the Reinga”. In the Maori culture, Miru is the legendary deity of the underworld, through which all souls must pass. It just seemed so fitting to be fighting these robots that [SPOILERS] are actually being controlled by human souls extracted from visitors to Eden Corp while hearing a Haka in a foreign language talking about the God of the underworld. The Didgeridoo and the Throat Singer come in when you enter the Attunement Chamber and are greeted by the giant Buddha. So as you can see, every decision had to do with the storyline, and where you were in the game. It took a lot of careful thought and research to find all of these sounds, but it definitely paid off.”
You’ve worked with the game’s creators before on projects such as Zombies on the Holodeck. This will actually be your third collaboration with the fellas over at Survios. What keeps you coming back to this team in particular?
“Well, for one, Survios is a wonderful company with an extremely talented team and brilliant leadership. They trust the people they hire to deliver what they want, but they also continue to push the limits. In my “show and tell” meetings with James Iliff, I’d come in to present the music that I wrote for whichever level, and often times I’d show restraint in the music. He’d say “can we go bigger? Can we add more percussion? Can we make this more heart pumping?” I’d say “heck ya we can!” I never felt unsure of what I was doing, and they always made me feel encouraged and empowered. I think that’s important because too often in the media music world, people don’t know what they want, and they make you write 4 or 5 different scores until they hear what they want without any encouragement. Survios was never like that. It was such a joy to work with them, and I will continue to be there for them as long as they keep calling!”
You’ve worked in the music production scene for years such as Jurassic World and more recently as an assistant composer for the upcoming Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox film. What are some new challenges you’ve come across working with music in virtual reality that you don’t have to consider in standard film and TV?
“That was a thrilling project to be a part of! The composer, Freddie Wiedmann, did a brilliant job with it, and it was an honor to play even a small role in helping him bring his score to life. As for Jurassic World, I was one of many proofreaders on the music preparation team. Our job on that team was to make the parts for the musicians to play on the scoring stage. It was a big team working tirelessly from 5 in the morning until whenever they finished for the day. As a composer, it was eye-opening to be a part of that team. I learned so much about the process of putting together a major scoring session, and how much time and money it takes to pull it off. Most people in the entertainment industry, primarily the independent markets, tend to overlook how much time and money goes into making a proper score. Music does not just magically appear, but it has to be written, orchestrated, printed, parts created, then recorded, mixed, and finally delivered. Music is its own process and it can require a huge team of talented and focused individuals in order to be pulled off successfully.
As for the challenges of VR, I think it mainly comes down to being a new form of storytelling. As a film composer, the dialogue always comes first, sound design second, and music third. We have to use music to tell a story, without getting in the way. But with VR, at least on the projects I’ve been a part of over the last 6 years, the dialogue tends to come in at the end, or sometimes halfway through the project. Often times, I’ve started writing the music before the dialogue has even been drafted. So how do I create a musical story that falls in line with the game, while still remaining interesting and not getting in the way of the player’s experience? That is the ultimate challenge for me. I don’t believe the music has to stay quiet, or be subtle and force itself to get “out of the way”, but the music always needs to be aware of the experience the player is or is about to go through.”
So what’s next for Jeremy Nathan Tisser? Any exciting new partnerships with upcoming VR experiences we can hope to see? Or will you be returning to your roots in conventional media?
“I have a couple feature films I’m getting ready to start coming up, but there are definitely some VR projects in the pipeline. I can’t talk about them just yet, but I am very excited about the opportunities. I’m also always looking for new VR projects and companies to collaborate with, so keep a look out for that as well.”
Last question. I heard a rumor you actually appear on screen in La La Land as one the musicians in the films infamous highway dance sequence (insanely jealous by the way). How did that come about? Also is Emma Stone as gorgeous in real life as she is in my dreams?
“It’s true! That was crazy! The lighting is a little dark, but when the door to the big blue truck opens on the freeway, if you look closely, I’m the guy in the back of the truck playing the marching bass drum! Ha!
So my contractor who puts together the orchestra for my sessions is a lovely gentleman named Peter Rotter. His company, Encompass Music Partners, also contracts union musicians for on-camera work, known as “sidelining”. Peter sent my headshot, along with all the other musicians in the film, to Damian Chazelle and Steve Gizicki (music supervisor), and I was selected for the opening scene. I had no clue what the film was at the time. I just knew we were shooting some musical number on a freeway, and that I had to be there at 3:30 or 4 in the morning!
Unfortunately, Emma and Ryan were not there on our day of shooting. They shot their scene the next day, so I did not get to meet or see them in person. But Damian did tell me that both Emma and Ryan were an absolute joy to work with.”
Tisser’s soundtrack for Raw Data is available for download via Steam right now for $9.99. So if you’re a fan of incredibly diverse musical competitions that take you through a roller coaster of intense emotions, then this is exactly the soundtrack for you. Also be sure to follow Tisser over at jeremynathantisser.com to keep up with his future projects.
Raw Data is also available for purchase on the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and now the PSVR for $39.99.