On creative process, collaborating with an orchestra and the future of music in video games. I had a pleasure to talk with Jon Everist – the composer for BattleTech and Disintegration.
There are composers I really admire who are extremely talented players like Sarah Schachner. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: Jon, some composers use only one main instrument that determines their ideas whereas you can play drums, guitar, piano and you work with symphonic orchestras combining some electronic parts with live recordings. It brings so much diversity! Do you have a single one instrument that is super close to your heart when you sit down and start doing new drafts?
Jon Everist: I would use the term “can play” very lightly here – I would say I’m fairly proficient on a few instruments (piano, percussion, guitar) but I rarely feel comfortable recording these elements myself if the passages are of any complexity. I leave that to the professionals. Synth work on the other hand, I do feel very comfortable with, so I’m always excited to incorporate those into my soundtracks.
Even then, I often rely on help from professional synth programmers like my friends Drew Jordan and Chris Burgess, whose work can be heard throughout the Disintegration soundtrack. There are composers I really admire who are extremely talented players like Sarah Schachner (strings) or Will Roget (flute), but I’m nowhere near their level of proficiency. I tend to write with piano first and foremost, to formulate my melodies, chords and harmonies, and once I’ve got a few ideas down inside of Cubase, then I start to orchestrate with other instruments and woodshed those ideas into a more realistic vision of what the cue can be.
gamemusic.net: What comes first while you’re creating your music then? Is it a melody, a rhythm, a mood? What is the most important factor you wipe your ideas around?
Jon Everist: It’s a good question, and for me it changes every time i set out to write a song. Sometimes I’ll get a melody in my head right away and then start evolving that with harmonies that continuously influence each other. Sometimes I’ll set out to write a melody first and then I’ll discover an interesting rhythm that I have to record – which then influences the melody or harmony.
Other times it is more mood-based, where I’m creating textures in in my modular synth and recording interesting moments when a melodic or rhythmic idea pops out for a moment. All I’m really doing in any of these scenarios is trying to create a moment of discovery. When you feel that ‘spark’ of “ooo, that sounded cool”, those are little sign posts that as a composer you are incredibly attuned to. You follow those wherever they lead and let things sort of unfold naturally.
gamemusic.net: Your score for BattleTech won a lot of awards for best video game music. Recently you worked with V1 Interactive and Marcus Lehto or Jack Menhorn on Disintegration, which we’ll talk in a moment. Do you still have any habits that haven’t been changed since your very beginning? Maybe you still use the same DAW or go through the same steps of a creative process or you’ve just accustomed to some details you can’t work without?
Jon Everist: I think I’m one of those composers who is constantly changing. I think if I keep doing things the same way or using the same processes I’d lose a sense of that creative spark. I guess that’s not entirely true, one thing that doesn’t change is that I get up and I allow myself to start exploring ideas in a very similar way. I don’t ‘force’ creativity, but I do believe that creativity comes from consistent exertions of work. Even if that ‘work’ is just sitting down and having a think. This job, to me, is all about action. It’s all about taking that first step and hitting a roadblock and finding a way around. Consistency of effort is something that hasn’t changed for me.
My first vinyl pressing was for Necropolis back in 2016 I think, and it was a very cool feeling.
Not to say I’m on every day, some days the well is completely dry or the idea of forcing creativity just doesn’t happen, but again I still find those off days to be their own form of ‘work’. The long walks or relaxing with family, unwinding and recharging builds up potential energy for future creativity. I’m also the type of composer who finds it difficult to write music when I’m not feeling well physically. I need a good night’s sleep, done some sort of exercise, and be feeling some amount of peace before I can feel truly creative and get into that flow state where I’m feeling the most empathy. I don’t align with the idea that writing music is a reflection of internal suffering. I think any empathic person (and I believe most composers need to be incredibly empathic) already contemplates the inequities and suffering of the world more than the average person.
Since first starting BattleTech, I’ve changed DAWs, changed my template probably 5 times, changed computer setups, added a few sampler computers, used entirely different orchestral libraries, grown my musical vocabulary, shifted my artistic sensibilities etc. I think many artists would agree that if you are doing and feeling the same things as 4 or 5 years ago you probably aren’t pushing yourself all that much.
gamemusic.net: Disintegration soundtrack is such a comprehensive album and it has pretty cinematic-ish vibes. Could you tell us how the project started?
Jon Everist: I was brought on for Disintegration in early 2018. It was a chance encounter. I saw an old friend of mine had recently gotten a job at this game studio that I hadn’t heard of before. I sent a congratulatory message looking forward to what she might be working on and jokingly added “Let me know if you need music”. I was very surprised when her response was “Well…actually we do”. I didn’t realize at the time that Marcus Lehto was at the helm of V1 Interactive, and of course I was obsessed with Halo when I was in middle school and continued to play the series through college and up until now, as well as Destiny.
When I first met Marcus it was very clear to me that he had a very clear vision for this game and had big aspirations for what he wanted it to be. It was a unique take on the first person shooter with a strong emphasis on story and world building. Marcus talked a lot about the musical language he wanted for the game, and it was clear that he wanted to be very involved in each aspect of the game’s development, including music. After that first meeting, I wrote the Main Theme for the project as a test exploration of the musical palette I thought would be appropriate. Luckily, he loved it.
gamemusic.net: Your compositions were recorded in collaboration with Budapest Scoring Orchestra, as well as BattleTech music had been. Have you known each other very well yet or did something surprise you this time?
Jon Everist: It was an excellent experience. Myself and my orchestrator attended the sessions personally before the pandemic had hit, and it was lovely. I’d decided to record with a smaller ensemble than BattleTech, opting for only 19 strings and 10 brass low brass players. It ended up sounding very cool and gave me a lot of flexibility with our recordings. I was very concerned about being able to record everything we needed in one day, we had almost 190 pages of music to get through, almost 55 minutes of music to record, which is a lot for one day.
The players were stellar and really nailed each piece. It really put my mind at ease after they played the Main Theme for the first time almost perfectly. A big part of that is having good orchestration and copying, which was done by my friends Brendon Williams and Landon Ashby respectively. When the score is well notated and readable, the players can just relax and focus on the music.
gamemusic.net: It must be a really special feeling for a composer to hold a vinyl with his own music. I guess it’s incomparable with digital playlists since it’s very substantial and quite intimate. Do you remember your first thought while physically holding your music in your hands?
Jon Everist: It is very special. I never thought something like that was possible for me. I’m always amazed when I press a record or a CD and people actually want to buy it. I think my first score that got a physical release was the Shadowrun Hong Kong and it was on a double CD. I couldn’t believe people were buying it and actually wanted me to sign it. Felt very surreal. My first vinyl pressing was for Necropolis back in 2016 I think, and it was a very cool feeling. The game wasn’t quite the hit everyone had hoped, but I am still incredibly proud of that score and the vinyl is still hung up on the wall in my studio.
gamemusic.net: As a video game composer, you surely must be often asked about your video game musical roots or inspirations, but are there any bands or music genres not related to games that impact you as well?
Jon Everist: So many. I grew up with an eclectic taste in music. I first got into music from video games, Final Fantasy III (SNES) was probably the thing that got me interested seriously in music making and music appreciation. I really got into drums and, though I couldn’t afford my own set, I gleefully destroyed my neighbor’s drums playing Rage Against the Machine for hours and hours. Literally – I broke every drum head and cymbal and had to work to pay them back for letting me play! The ‘90s and early 2000s were a cool time for music; I got very interested in electronic and hip-hop production from listening to people like Aesop Rock, Mos Def, MF Doom, Radiohead, Wu Tang, Mr Lif, Bjork and Aphex Twin.
I never thought it was feasible or possible for me to become a video game or film composer, but I loved film and game scores. Amon Tobin was an artist I really respected, so when I saw he wrote the score for Splinter Cell Chaos Theory I finally thought “Whoa…maybe I can do this!”. My love of hip-hop production was what first inspired me to buy a sampler keyboard, an old Ensoniq ASR 10. I would have never known it then, but it’s pretty similar to what I do now, using samples on a keyboard to construct and orchestrate music. Instead of 100 floppy disks I have 4 terabytes of samples on SSD’s…welcome to the future!
gamemusic.net: Indeed, let’s dive into it. Disintegration takes place in the distant future. Too far away from where we are now to guess anything. But let’s take a look at creating game music in the upcoming 100 years. How do think, what will be the direction of the video game industry and music in general?
Jon Everist: It’s hard to say. I hear a lot of people convinced that composers will be replaced by AI. I think there’s some truth to that for things like underscore for TV or online content, but it’s hard to imagine the composer going away entirely. One thing I’ve clearly seen as the years progress is that our technology continues to get more and more out of our way. What I mean is that only 15 years ago, you needed an insane budget and a series of supercomputers to make convincing music. Or when I wanted to load up a project on my ASR 10 I had to manually load 12 floppy disks and wait 20 minutes for the thing to fully boot up.
It could be that 50 years from now, you turn on a game and the game writes the score for you as you play, depending on how you play. – Jon Everist
Now I can walk into my studio, turn on my sampler PC and 5 minutes later I have the entire orchestra and thousands of other instruments directly at my finger-tips. It’s hard to imagine what other barriers can be removed from the creative process, but I imagine AI will have something to do with that. As for video games specifically, it’s so hard to predict. I imagine computing power getting to a point where once impossible ideas become commonplace. It could be that 50 years from now, you turn on a game and the game writes the score for you as you play, depending on how you play. We do a lot of that interactivity manually ourselves now, but if we could essentially store the DAW and all the samples inside of the game itself, and teach the game our compositional language, there’s no reason why the computer couldn’t write the score for us.
So maybe in the far future, the composer for a video game sets the constraints of the score and inputs some sort of musical language (major theme motifs etc), and the game audio engine does the rest? That sounds like a terrifying future to me, honestly. I enjoy the idea of writing scores myself by creative instinct rather than through a complex program, just like an artist may prefer to draw a landscape rather than have it compiled by a machine learning AI. For now, I’m glad I get to write the tunes myself!