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Interview with dBs - Composing

6 Nov, 2020

I am very pleased to share with everyone my very first interview about composition!


Now in her final year on the BA (Hons) Sound for Games & Apps course, Virginia Leo is already taking her first steps into the professional world of composing. Having recently scored the soundtrack for documentary, 'Peregrine Coast' as well as writing the main theme for the forthcoming 'Hover Cabby' video game, we joined her to hear more about her creative process and why moving out of her comfort zone has opened her up to new opportunities.

When we join Gin, she's back at her family home in Penarth in her bedroom. Photos plaster one wall from her various excursions to Comic Con and the famous people she's met - yes that is Christopher Lloyd . Elsewhere, her room is filled with an array of Japanese artefacts, shelves teeming with video games and emblazoned on her t-shirt the late, great Ennio Morricone - Gin's favourite composer.

Though she's a classically trained pianist and was in the Welsh National Opera when she was younger, her love for video games was definitely first on the scene.

"I was playing on my mum's lap on Windows 98 back in Italy before we moved to Wales, so it was before I was five years old. I have these memories and I still remember all the games, and they're super nostalgic to me. No one really knows them. They're very niche kids games, but I just remember being really obsessed - and I just love technology, so that's probably what spawned my love of games.'

Keen for her to learn an instrument, Gin's parents supported her through a brief foray in saxophone (motivated by a love of Lisa Simpson), clarinet (love of Squidward), until finally landing on keyboard which she's been playing since school.

However, it wasn't until a few years ago that Gin realised that her love of music and video games could be fused together.

"When I was a kid, I never thought I'd be doing this. If I told myself in the past that I'd be doing music for video games I'd be screaming, 'No! I can't believe it.' I never thought I'd be here because I studied music performance and in the last year, my tutors were pushing us all to start looking at universities, but I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"I didn't really want to do performance. I'm kind of shy and I forced myself to study performance, because I love performing, but I'm still in that shell. So, I decided that I was going to try something that feels more like me. Then I found dBs through a friend that came here and recommended that I check it out.

"In the end I only applied to the Sound for Games & Apps course at dBs, so it was really nice getting a place here."

Scoring to new heights

Fast-forward to today, where after only a few weeks back at university Gin has already hit the ground running with the release of documentary 'Peregrine Coast', which she scored. Though it should be no surprise to anyone working in the music industry, the opportunity actually came through an old friend.

"Andrew [the director] actually lives down the road from me. I grew up with his sister Cerys and we were best friends and went to school together and Andrew was her little brother. I hadn't seen him in years and we bumped into each other and I found out he was doing filmmaking with wildlife. I love David Attenborough and wildlife documentaries, so I said to him, 'I'm a composer, so if you ever need anyone I'd love to help.'

"A few months passed and funnily enough, when I was in Italy on holiday I went to a beautiful place called Faunistic Park Le Cornelle. It's like a zoo, but a lot more about conservation. I had such an amazing time and was super happy after seeing so many great animals and then when I got home I had a message from Andrew asking if I wanted to work on his project. It was the perfect day for this to happen and such a great coincidence. We recently finished it and it's now on YouTube."

Having never worked on a documentary before, the task ahead was daunting, but for Gin she took the challenge into her stride.

"I didn't know what to expect and I always just jump into things in the dark. I had never done this before, but I thought I'm gonna do it and see how it goes and to be honest, it went surprisingly well. I was really natural at composing for it. Andrew gave me a schedule and timestamps of when he wanted the music. I made a spreadsheet and included the timestamps, what is happening on the scene, what kind of music he wants and that worked really well.

"It's so important to get organised before you do anything, don't just open Ableton; organise yourself, then open Ableton. I'd never done documentaries before and I'd never worked with video in Ableton either, so I made a little blueprint. I created an empty track, made it red, so it's really bright and I know where it is. Then I plotted the timestamps of where the music needs to be and I put an empty track under it, so I know when it starts and when it stops. It was really useful to have that because it's not music throughout the whole thing, it's only sometimes."

The finished piece is a simple, yet elegant score and Andrew's feedback set a standard for Gin that she hopes to achieve with everything she creates.

"I listened to the suggestions Andrew sent over, but made sure to put my own spin on it. It was very basic in a way; very simple piano music, but I tried to make it as atmospheric is possible. He gave me a really nice word that I kind of want every piece of music I ever make to be. He called my music magical and I was like, that's exactly what I want my music to be like forever. I want everyone to think something magical is happening when you listen to it."

The first game audio job

Outside of her work on 'Peregrine Coast', Gin has also been working away on an exciting video game project inspired by The Fifth Element; 'Hover Cabby'.

"I met Alex Birke, who's the founder of Out of Bounds Games, at the Bristol Games Hub, which is a monthly meet-up where anyone can bring games they're working on, and that was when I first saw 'Hover Cabby'. When I played it, it was like pre pre alpha, but he's continued developing it over the years and now has a team working with him on it.

"We worked together during the last couple of Global Game Jams and then when I saw him again at the most recent Fuse Jam 3, which was hosted at dBs, he asked if I wanted to write the main theme for 'Hover Cabby'. It was so cool because it was my first game job and I was so excited!

"It's why I always tell people go to game jams because you honestly don't know who you're going to meet or what's going to happen next. You might make the game of the century, that's what happens in game jams. Some of huge indie games have come from there as well, like Goat Simulator, Surgeon Simulator and Super Hot."

Tasked with both the main theme and loading screen music, Gin was forced to move out of her comfort zone. Typically leaning towards calm, orchestral compositions, 'Hover Cabby' needed to reflect the gameplay; chaotic and energetic.

"It's very hard to make music in a limited amount of time. Someone could ask me to create a soundtrack, and I'd be like, okay, but it's gonna take me a while. I can't just sit and compose. It's going to take ages to get inspiration, to research.

"Alex sent me a Spotify playlist of the style of music he wanted and there was also a brief, and I listened to that playlist so much. I was constantly searching for inspiration, getting in the mood and setting the vibe, because I've never done music like this - I was really intimidated.

"I wasn't sure about the first idea that I sent to Alex and we both agreed it could've been better. So when I went back I started humming this tune and I thought it sounded groovy so I started playing some piano chords over it and all of a sudden it clicked and evolved into this crazy, energetic piece. I never thought I could create something like that."

'Hover Cabby' is still in development, and Gin's music is likely to evolve along with it. To stay on top of the latest news and also a release date, follow @HoverCabby on Twitter.

Leaving the comfort zone

Both 'Peregrine Coast' and 'Hover Cabby' forced Gin to stretch herself creatively in entirely different ways, particularly the latter which required a style she'd never tried creating before. With these challenges came doubts due to her inexperience, but Gin didn't let those thoughts stick around for very long.

"I was really scared about that with 'Hover Cabby' because I'd never done any energetic music in my life - it's just completely the opposite of me, but you've just got to get rid of those fears and work with what you have. Never be afraid of what other people are going to say about your music. If you think it's good and you give it one hundred percent, and you've done the best possible job, then I don't see why they won't love it."

"dBs definitely helped me there by really encouraging me to experiment, which I'd never even thought about before joining. That sounds silly, but I've always been really classically trained, very conservative and traditional. Then I came to dBs and they really pushed for me to do crazy stuff, to have fun and experiment.

"You've just got to be malleable, be a shapeshifter and make different types of music. And definitely, when I did 'Hover Cabby' I proved to myself I could work in that style. And now, I kind of think anything is possible."



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