What happens when a soundtrack is written for a video game character rather than the game itself? Today, Philip Sheppard, virtuoso cellist and composer (or “noise designer”, as he calls it), is here to answer that question and let us in on some of his trade secrets. As one of three composers for Quantic Dream’s latest hit Playstation 4 title, Detroit: Become Human, he dove deep into a world of human emotions, sentient AI and distorted string sounds. Grab your favorite beverage, lean back and enjoy:

(Click here if you prefer to listen on Youtube.)

Luckily, scoring for a person instead of the world surrounding them comes very naturally to Philip. “Most of the music I write away from projects tends to be for specific people, tends to be dedicated to friends or people I’ve worked with because I find it much easier to write music about people”, he said. “I don’t write music about myself, I mean, that’d be terrible.” And the leap to a fictitious (quasi-)person wasn’t too far. “I had to make [Kara] real in my head. […] Weirdly enough, I didn’t work very much from the computer-generated images. I had nearly all of the motion capture film of Valorie Curry, the actress, who is amazing. So I actually wrote it really about her. […] Because until the thing was rendered fully, it was impossible to get that level of expression that you see in the final game. And it’s a bit like being a poker player: You’re looking for those little signs and tells that you get from a totally human interaction.

This very personal, emotional approach wasn’t at all what Philip imagined when first getting on board with the project. “I thought I was going to write mechanical music. […] But then, Kara is suddenly put into a position where she suddenly has to be more like a mother than a robot. And I’ve got kids, I’ve got three daughters, and actually I found myself pretty quickly thinking about: What’s it feel like to protect somebody? What does it feel like to actually have that fear that any parent does? The kind of father’s fear, it’s quite strange. It’s that I want to protect and I want to make you free at the same time. I really just tapped into that.

“You just have to write what you hope will give one person goosebumps.”

Throughout our conversation, Philip occasionally opened a veritable treasure chest of advice for young composers. Like some of our previous interviewees, he highlighted the importance of staying true to yourself: “I think when every composer starts off, there’s this aspect where you’re trying to find out: What do people want to hear? That’s a really dangerous path to go down. You just have to write what you hope will give one person goosebumps. And if the first person is you, sometimes that works. Not always, but that’s kind of a good place to start.”

As for his personal approach to creating music, Philip said: “I think I’m a noise designer, and what I’m good at isn’t necessarily writing music. But I might be good at removing sound until what’s left sounds nice. Does that make sense? It’s a bit like if you’ve got a block of marble. You can remove a ton of it until you end up, hopefully, with a statue that looks nice.” In more concrete terms, this philosophy translates into a composition process of recording a lot of material and then going on a search for the really good bits: “Just write hundreds of ideas. Draft many, many ideas and then throw a lot of them away. Very happily. […] So the trick is to maybe sit and play for an hour and record it all. And you know what, one minute of it might be really good. That’s plenty. That’s great.”

“Some of the finest meals I’ve ever had have had three ingredients in them.”

For Philip, it’s all about the quality of the material itself, both its composition and its sound: “You should draft things, even writing or music, in a really ugly way, and then you should edit beautifully. What you do is you edit as much as possible. And like you say, you just remove, remove, remove. It’s the same with cooking. Some of the finest meals I’ve ever had have had three ingredients in them.” Kara’s strictly string-based soundtrack is a stunning testimony of this puristic approach. Watch Philip himself perform the piece live with just a cello and a loop station:

Detroit: Become Human | Kara's Theme played by Philip Sheppard | PS4

Want to hear more?

During our podcast, Philip offered free keys for downloading his music to anyone who asks! Just hit him up on Twitter (and follow him while you’re at it).

Posted by Julian Colbus

Freelance composer, producer and sound designer at Mediacracy Music.

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