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So you want to be a... videogames composer: La Hacienda Creative's Brian D'Oliveira

Brian D'Oliveira
(Image credit: Brian D'Oliveira)

MTS 2020: Brian D'Oliveira set up the multi-studio facility that eventually became La Hacienda Creative, based in Montreal. His first ever video game, Papo & Yo, resulted in music that was both deeply personal and a part of something much bigger. 

These days, Brian continues to create and push my personal boundaries with every new project – experimenting with new tools and knowledge on a constant basis is his mantra.


A lot of MusicRadar's audience dream of making their passion for music their job, and you've cracked it, so we're asking a few select games professionals about their work, what it actually involves, and how to go about starting a career in the industry.

I am indeed blessed to be able to work with my passion! The one thing I would say is that, along with dedication and perseverance, is the commitment to also keep growing and pushing your boundaries with yourself and your creations on an ongoing basis. 

Every project, for me, is an opportunity to grow and re-invent my musical expression. In that spirit, I devote a lot of time to research and developing new sounds or skill sets to bring something new and magical that I had never done before. Having this kind of approach and mindset is a big reason why I get offered the projects that I am on.

My biggest advice for someone that is serious about working in the industry is to really take the time to find your voice as an artist before anything else

My day usually involves rising at 5am to practice 2 to 3 hours of music and meditation before actually going into work and spend another 6 to 10 hours in focused composing and recording work. 

If possible, I also intersperse my production schedule with research trips to learn more and get inspired. 

My biggest advice for someone that is serious about working in the industry is to really take the time to find your voice as an artist before anything [else]. Anybody these days can make music with a computer using stock soundsets and instruments, but if you have a sound that is unique and carefully crafted, it will automatically make you stand out of the crowd.

How did you get your first games work?

It was a pure passion project with game designer Vander Caballero that ended up becoming the game Papo & Yo, on which I was given creative carte blanche to both compose and audio direct. At the time it became a massively popular game, and the rest is history.

What was your musical background prior to getting involved with video game music?

I was originally an electronic music performing artist, as well as working extensively in film and TV as a composer and sound designer/remix engineer. To my luck, having experience in both these fields vastly helped me to quickly understand and leverage the demands and challenges in creating interactive music within games.

Games are more creatively open-ended and have longer timeframes, so you can experiment a lot more.

How does composing music for games differ from composing for film, or television?

This is one of the main reasons that I love to work on games. Composing for linear media is a lot more straightforward than games because literally what you see is what you get. You usually have a somewhat stricter set of creative parameters and timelines to work with. 

In contrast, games are more creatively open-ended and have longer timeframes, such as Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, which took nearly four years! So you can experiment a lot more.

Presumably, the music needs to be dynamic in many games. How does that work?
 
I find myself feeling like a musical sous chef that has prepared just the right musical ingredients that somehow has to work well in a variety of contexts and situations that you cannot control since it’s dependant on gameplay and player interactions. 

As a result, you have to use your imagination a lot more than with linear media, and create arrangements that are sometimes vastly more complex and diverse that will eventually be stemmed out and recombined within the interactive audio system of the game.

I usually end up writing a 'suite' piece that serves as the blueprint in terms of themes and musical sound aesthetics for the rest of the soundtrack

What is the common process you go through when making a game's soundtrack? How are you briefed, what milestones do you go through, and what deliverables are common?
 
I usually get a detailed brief as a document as well as meetings with the audio team and game directors. Whenever possible, I also do a playthrough of the current version of the game and then work with video screen grabs as a visual reference but not strictly follow any action – unless it's cinematic. 

After this, I spend as much as I can in research and ideation, and do a lot of back and forth with the team on how we will prototype the interactive music system and assets.  

Also, I usually end up writing a 'suite' piece that serves as the blueprint in terms of themes and musical sound aesthetics for the rest of the soundtrack. And then, once I am in full production mode, I am usually delivering a combination of stems, loops, stingers and individual elements that either I or the audio team will implement into the in-game audio engine.

Do you need to be able to read music in order to do the job?

Though not essential, I encourage anybody that is seriously wanting to work in this field to at least have a solid foundation.
 
Gear-wise, what are the essential tools for game music composers?

You don't need anything fancy in terms of gear, just a rock-solid workstation set up with a decent amount of sounds and effects, and my personal preference is also to have a decent mic and preamp so that you can record as much as you can live. I would also highly suggest taking the time to properly learn audio middleware such as Wwise and FMOD and go through a couple of online courses and workshops.

Go with quality over quantity and make a compelling demo that focuses on an aspect of your work that you are genuinely passionate about

What are some of the common mistakes you see people make when trying to gain work in the industry? 

I cannot say how many hundreds of demos I have seen that use the same generic orchestral patches on the other demos, and with no distinct personality or creative vision in the execution. And though doing rescores of already existing AAA games is a common practice, it usually backfires because it often does not come close to the production level of the original and ends up hurting how you are perceived.

What can budding composers and producers do to increase their chances of gaining employment in games music?

Immerse yourself in the industry and meet and spend time with as many people as you can. Also, go with quality over quantity and make a compelling demo that focuses on an aspect of your work that you are genuinely passionate about. This will resonate a hundredfold with the right people over a generic demo!

Finally, which of your projects are you most proud of and why?

That one is definitely Shadow Of The Tomb Raider! It was the first time that I entirely devoted my time to a single project over several years and did something more akin to a PhD thesis than a regular scoring job.  

I was able to delve deep into ancient music traditions and create an immersive score that embodies such a complex and iconic character in Lara Croft. During this process, I also perfected the ability to use natural space and reverberance as an instrument unto itself while performing all the instrumentation live on the spot, and which sometimes encompassed hundreds of tracks of live overdubs. 

To top it off, all of this rich instrumentation also became an integral element within the sound design used by the game’s genius Audio Director at Eidos Montreal, Rob Bridgett, who along with the rest of the team were a joy to work with and collaborate. 


With thanks to Laced Records, who enabled this series of composer Q&As, featuring some of the most famous and unique talents in the increasingly popular world of game soundtracks. 

Laced Records has worked with a range of partners - including Bandai Namco, Bethesda, Capcom, SEGA, and Square-Enix — to release soundtracks for handcrafted indies, classic gaming series and AAA blockbusters. The Laced Records label is part of Keywords Studios, a technical and creative services provider to the video games industry, with 50+ operational studios across 21 countries and four continents.