Inside the composer's (dead) space

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Jason Graves, the award-winning composer of the Dead Space soundtracks, gives Polygon an exclusive look inside his musical laboratory.

There are chickens in the backyard. That's the first thing you notice, walking up the path to Jason Graves' recording studio.

The studio itself sits under massive trees at the back of a good-sized yard behind an old two-story colonial in a posh, tree-shaded neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. It could reasonably be called a house itself, were it not behind another, larger house.

In a former life, it would appear to have been a garage. Now it is the place where Graves brings home the bacon composing music for video games like Blazing Angels, F.E.A.R. 3and the upcoming Dead Space 3. And the chickens, living in the coop next door, have as much to do with his success as anything.


Slappin' the bass

There's a common joke musicians tell about drummers: "What do you call the guy with no musical talent who hangs around with the band?" The punch line, of course, is "The drummer."

Like all jokes, this one is funny because it has the ring of truth. Drummers are seen, by other musicians, as one-note cavemen. Drummers beat things with sticks to make them go "bonk." They are the brawn to the other musicians' brains, and, as such, catch a lot of shit. Another joke: "What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless."

"Being a drummer I always thought I had this mental deficiency," says Graves. "All my other friends that are majoring in music are piano players or saxophonists and I didn't even know some of the chords that they were doing. I was like 'Jason beat drums.' 'Jason beat drums good!'

"So when I got out of school I was studying a lot of orchestra stuff on my own just to make up for the deficiency that I thought that I had."


Graves is standing in a small room, just between his main studio and the closet where he stores his four Mac Pros and various pieces of server equipment. The corners of the tiny room are filled with an odd tangle of instruments, some of which aren't instruments at all, but rather objects Graves has conscripted as part of his orchestra of unusual sounds. There are even a few items that look like wind chimes he's had custom-made, but he can't talk about those - or the game he's using them to score.

Right now he's holding an upright bass, a massive instrument, and he's slapping it like he's playing the drums on his dashboard sitting at a red light.

"[This] was one of my first purchases when I moved out here," he says, "and just being able to bow it the way you would an orchestral bass and get some crazy effects and stuff, I do that. But just this ... [I'm] getting all kinds of slappin'."

Graves beats the strings with his hands, each hit producing a thin, wavering rumble. It is a sound unlike anything you would expect from the instrument. Graves is using the instrument in a way it was never intended to be used, but the music he is making with it sounds so right you'd have a hard time arguing he's doing anything wrong.

The music he's producing also sounds strangely familiar. Listening closer, it's almost the music from the video gameDead Space, the music that won Graves some of the most prominent of his more than two dozen awards.

"That's the technique," Graves acknowledges, "but they use their bows in Dead Space, like this." Graves then produces a pair of bows and begins hammering on the bass strings like he's tapping a xylophone.

Suddenly we are in the game, with the music swelling around us. The resonance of the strings and the big bass echo and rumble. The odd melody sounds almost like a guitar, but not quite. It is as if 10 different musicians are playing 10 different instruments simultaneously, but instead it's just one guy - the drummer.

"[In Dead Space] they might mute the strings and it gets one sort of a sound and it's painful if you do it right," Graves says. "It's kind of like playing the congos but you hit it hard enough so you get that string slap, and it's just something different. This is a very popular thing that I like doing and ... I can have a piece of plastic holding the note up here, so that I can play different notes and it's just kind of a drone and you just record it into a computer, boost the low end and it's this percussive 'Is that a synth? Well it's not a drum, so what is it exactly?'

"That's what I really enjoy doing. Just beating on different things."

The studio

Stepping inside Jason Graves' studio is like stepping into a vault. The door closes with an almost noiseless thump. Solid. The air feels gone. It is a perfectly acoustically tuned space, designed board-by-board to retain the purity and tone of the noises created inside, and to repel the noises created from outside. It is what musicians and engineers call "acoustically dead."

On the other side of the door, you can hear the ever-present soundtrack of life in the suburbs: the rustling of the wind in the trees, the faint sound of air conditioning and traffic. The clucking of chickens. Inside: silence. Not the kind of silence that spooks New Yorkers when they travel outside of the city - the kind of silence that spooks anyone with a heart beat.

"I was paying cash as I went, so I could only afford to do it in stages," Graves says. "So I built the shell and then stopped for like nine months."

While he waited for more money to come in, he began re-thinking his plan for the studio, and how to go about building it. He eventually hired a professional studio designer to help him tweak the space and install the wiring, sound-dampening panels and microphone jacks - dozens of microphone jacks. There are microphone jacks in every room, giving Graves the freedom to record anything that strikes his fancy at a moment's notice.

"I would always try recording things [before]," Graves says. "There was this, you know those big, clear plastic pretzel canisters? It looks like a barrel and it's full of pretzels. Well I emptied it out and I'm like, that's kind of a neat sound. And I put a microphone up next to it and recorded it and I played it back in the computer and it sounded like a little pretzel thing and it just didn't sound like anything. But I had less then stellar mics and less than stellar mic pre-amps, less than stellar everything.

"In the new studio I only wanted to do it once, so I spared no expense on anything. I can stomp on the floor and slap the desk and it sounds better when it comes out of the speakers than when I actually recorded it, because all this high-end gear adds to the character and the warmth and some musicality to the sounds. I've literally played the desk with my hands, just out of curiosity, and it sounded great too."

That desk-slapping sound will soon be heard by millions. It's in the game Graves can't talk about.

The desk itself was custom-made by a local carpenter. It's roughly horseshoe-shaped, each of its three surfaces approximately 10 feet long, three feet wide. It's a massive piece of furniture that dominates Graves' mixing room. When he ordered it, he says he wanted it to look like the bridge from the starship Enterprise.

"I said that I want it to completely wrap around because I want to have all my gear on one side and nothing on the other side so I can have my scores, my laptop and whatever it is," Graves says. "I need to have legroom, which really makes a big difference.

"And then they designed the desk ... and built the desk and it was beautiful. I showed up and looked at it and I was like 'well the next thing I want you to do is cut a giant hole in it.' And he kinda looked at me as if I told him to cut the fingers off his child."


The hole was for Graves' keyboard, which now rests in a sunken-in shelf made perfectly to fit, just below the mixing console, both of which are tied into the closet full of computers and servers that hold all of the sounds Graves has recorded or found, and the four computers he uses to shape and combine those sounds into music. Just above the mixing board are a pair of giant computer monitors, held in place with industrial-looking, adjustable arms, and behind those is an even more giant flat panel television, mounted directly to the wall.

The resulting effect is very much like being on the bridge of a starship.

"The day we put it all in I had butterflies because I wasn't really sure what I was going to do," Graves says. "And I don't think I could have planned it better. It looks like the monitors are built into the keyboard and when I sit here ... I couldn't have designed it to fit like this. It's kind of a semi-planned, happy accident but it's perfect. It's what I've always wanted."


"I've got four Mac pros that are all networked together, and the irony is that as awful sounding and terrible looking as this room is it's actually my favorite room in the studio," Graves says. "The amps for the speakers and the crossover are back there, all my backup hard drives, my redundant, redundant, redundant backup hard drives. Everything is in here, so even if I have something like this running that is going to be running and making lots of noise - no noise in my room.

"So everything is networked together just on a cat6 connection and it all runs through Vienna Ensemble Pro which ... it literally changed my life. I'm able to use this as my main computer and these three farms have between 28-32 gigs of RAM in each one and they're stocked full of all the orchestra sounds that I've got and I can call them up at any point in time. I don't need to load and unload; they're all sitting there ready to go. I can switch cues. I've got one template that I use, one game to another, one style to another and these sounds just sit here all week long just waiting, which is really cool.

"I don't really still understand how it works. If you think about me pressing a key and it triggers a sound like that, and it's coming through the floor up into the interface, into the computer, out of the computer, into one of the farms, the audio is going out of the farms back into the computer through a card, through an interface in the other room back into here into the preamp and out the speakers like that (snaps). It's wonderful (laughs)."


The naked piano and the chicken fence

Graves squats in a small room between the front door of his studio and its kitchen. It's little more than a closet, really. Against the wall, jammed into an improbably small space, is the inside of a piano. Graves is tapping on the piano strings with a tiny hammer and his fingers. Scraping them with a guitar pick. Making sounds.

"It's actually the biggest upright piano that they make," Graves says. Although leaning against the wall, minus its wooden cabinet, it looks less like a piano than the engine of some large machine.

"The idea is that it's basically just a giant sounding board, so even if I talk like this and then stop -- it's like a giant spring reverb almost." As he speaks, you can hear his voice echoing back, captured in the vibration of the piano wires and amplified in the instrument's giant resonating chamber. It sounds like when you say "Hello" into a spinning fan, only much more melodic.

"But usually what I end up using it for is either just doing something ..." He scrapes his guitar pick over the strings and they release a tortured, screeching wail, like a banshee running her nails across a chalkboard while dying. "And you have all the usual cliché kinds of sounds you can make. I kind of like using it as a rhythm instrument more than anything else. It cost me $100. Just an old used piano, and I get so much mileage out of it."


Graves composes music the way a child might: open-eyed, full of wonder. Inquisitively. Although a child wouldn't bring to bear almost two decades of experience composing for video games and films, nor classical training. And a child would almost certainly not create the sounds for which Graves is arguably most famous, like the haunting, terrifying soundtrack to Dead Space.

What a child might do, however, is build a musical instrument out of a trash can and some chicken wire.

"So I've got a chicken coop just outside the studio," Graves explains, holding the contraption. "There's four chickens out there and we had two [metal] garbage cans and obviously when we put the coop together we had some leftover fencing. I was just looking for something to bang on and this was kind of back in the corner next to the coop and I was like 'that's kind of neat; that's a cool sound.'"

The problem Graves soon discovered was that, although banging on the chicken wire made an interesting noise, it didn't carry. There was no resonance. So, back out to the coop for the garbage can.

"I picked up the garbage can and brought it into the studio. I was banging on it with the gong mallet and all these other things and getting all these percussive sounds but this ..." Graves reenacts his moment of discovery. He removes the lid from the garbage can, places the lid on the ground, then places one end of the roll of chicken wire on top of it, covering the handle. The result looks like a junkyard rocket ship, or the beginnings of something that might soon be covered in concrete at a building site.

Graves_fence-base_300x300"IT'S ALMOST LIKE AN ANGRY MINIATURE T-REX."

Graves calls it "The Fencenator" and the sound it makes is otherworldly. Each impact against the coiled chicken wire causes a cascading series of vibrations as the various pieces of metal interact and rattle. Each tiny sound is then amplified and slightly altered by the resonating garbage can lid underneath.

"Where it got really cool, is when I bowed it, because you get this 'wow that's scary' [noise]. It's almost like an angry miniature T-rex or something."

Graves commences running his bow against the side of the chicken fence and the resulting sound does indeed sound like some kind of angry dinosaur. Or rather, the ghost of an angry cyborg dinosaur breathing fire and eating your face. Listening to the melody Graves creates with it, you begin to understand why he's won so many awards for scoring video games. Particularly the scary ones.

"The neat thing about it is when I record it, I don't do a thing to it. I roll off the low end in case I'm stomping the floor, but no reverb, no EQ, no nothing just ..." he bangs The Fencenator. "That sounds cool just on its own."

The Fencenator was the first instrument Graves assembled in his new studio. Others followed, and before long he was purchasing objects specifically to use as instruments, and ordering custom designs, like the set of mysterious glass shapes next to his upright bass he won't talk about. Graves calls his fascination with making music from unusual objects a "disease."

"The cool thing is I can justify it because that's my job," he says. "And that's what's neat about games: The more unique and original and brand-specific the music can be to a specific title, the happier the developer is, because they want something iconic and unique. They want to hear 15 seconds of the score and know that it's ours, and that's what all of this stuff is."


Dead Space 3

Graves is sitting in the captain's chair at the controls of his starship. He's cueing up elements of the score he's working on now: Dead Space 3.

He loads up a scene from the game in which the hero, Isaac, has been ejected into space. It is a tense moment. The player has to fly after an object hurtling through debris, shooting away objects Isaac would otherwise crash into. As the scene progresses, the pace intensifies. More objects. More shooting. It is a typically tense moment in the Dead Space game, except for one thing: without the music, it seems silly.

"The thing I like about Dead Space is that it's relatively true to physics," says Graves. "When you're in space there's no sound unless something is hitting your suit. You hear yourself stomping around, you hear your heartbeat and your breathing, but outside of that there's not much sound going on. And we'll put music in there occasionally.

"Like in a really long sequence like this, we're going to start with no sound so that you get that you're in space - kind of void of audio - and then we're going to slowly bring the music in."

As Graves is describing the technique, he runs his hands over the starship controls and steers the scene towards the musical cues he's looking for. The familiar Dead Space sound echoes throughout the studio, softly at first, but still intense. You can't hear the emptiness of space around Isaac, but the music lets you know there's something wrong. And that something wrong is about to get wronger.

"This is just one of those classic Dead Space builds that has to start out super intense and then get three times more intenseby the end. So it's a matter of holding the intensity while still building it over a minute and a half and not letting it falter any ... and also hitting all the stuff that's going on on-screen."


Graves adjusts a few controls and the bank of computers in the next room delivers the sounds he is looking for. He layers them in.

"I've been a bit of a sample fanatic ever since the first Dead Space, so I've been going in and recording a lot of my own orchestra samples. There's a lot of commercial libraries out there that are available, and they do sound good but the problem is everyone has them. They all sound the same. ... Plus I've always felt frustrated not having individual control over six different trombones. You've got one trombone and you've got five trombones and those are the only kind of trombone you can play. And one trombone playing five times doesn't sound the same in these little sample libraries.

"Now I can do something like [this]." Graves layers in a section of music from his library - instantly. It is a blast of sound. "It's very brassy, but that's six different trombones and I'm controlling each individual note and I've got a lot of control over which notes they play, how long they play them ... we can sit here for a minute and a half - it just keeps going up."

As the scene plays out on the giant television, Graves continues making adjustments, and the music - and the tension - keep going up.


The scene, which at first looked silly, is now intensely dramatic. Just when you think the combination can't be any more tense, it becomes more tense. To the point where it's hard to tell what might happen next. And that, for the soundtrack to a video game likeDead Space, is exactly the point.

"What's wonderful is that [the game makers] realize what a primal instinctive reaction music gives you; especially when you're trying to be tense with something like that," says Graves. "It gets to basically mush at the end. All you hear is the strings and it's this kind of giant wall of sounds, but man if I was playing it it would make me just ... ahhhhhh! Which is what they're going for.

"For some reason people really like to be scared. Thank goodness."