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 Interview: Jeramiah 'Module' Ross On  Shatter -ing Sound Barriers

Interview: Jeramiah 'Module' Ross On Shatter-ing Sound Barriers Exclusive

August 17, 2009 | By Jeriaska

August 17, 2009 | By Jeriaska
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[New Zealand-based Jeramiah 'Module' Ross talks to Gamasutra about the music he created for Sidhe's intrigung new PSN title Shatter.]

For Shatter, the game designers at Sidhe have taken the archetypes of the Arkanoid bat-and-ball formula across the second and a half dimension.

Your character, a high tech plank capable of maneuvering vertically up and down while sucking and expelling air, has just escaped its cell in a futuristic prison-like battery farm.

Over the course of the game, the bats personality is reflected not only through the driving hopefulness of the background music but by your avatar's occasional inclination to break out into electronic song.

Lending the downloadable Playstation Network title its sound design and score is New Zealand-based musician Module (Jeramiah Ross). Already an accomplished live performer, the title marks his first solo game soundtrack for the Playstation 3.

Since the music from the game was made available, streaming free from the Bandcamp website, it has had tens of thousands of plays online. In this interview with the composer and sound designer, Module discusses the one-and-a-half year development of the Shatter soundtrack.

The conversation offers an inside look into the evolution of the background music: from an oppressive industrial soundscape to a journey of liberation and discovery.

Module, thanks for joining us for this talk on the subject of your music for Shatter. Youve mentioned online that the soundtrack took about a year to complete. What were some of the reasons for the extended length of production?

Module (Jeramiah Ross): I came on board early in the development of Shatter, and as Shatter evolved, so did the soundtrack. I worked very closely with Jos, the music producer from Sidhe, and it ended up becoming quite a collaborative process between me and the game studio. We tried lots of different things, and at some point in that process the aesthetic of the game became solid and it all made sense to us.

This soundtrack has gone through two separate iterations. What were some of the revisions that took place between the prototypical score that youd worked out and what exists in the game today?

The biggest revisions were to the feel of the music. The initial feel of the soundtrack was quite machine-based. The soundtrack was focused more on the machines that the main character is fighting.

Later we realized it would be cooler to give the bat a bit of personality by basically creating the music from the bats perspective. It became less about these industrial-type soundscapes and more of an emotional journey. At that point it all just really fell into place.

If I were to mention a few of these tracks on the Shatter soundtracks set list, would you be able to offer a description of it from your point of view?

Definitely. Thats my favorite bit.

With Kinetic Harvest, what were you looking to accomplish for the soundtrack?

Following the storyline of Shatter, the bat character has broken out and is escaping from this battery farm. Hes escaping from prison, really. I wanted it to have this feeling like youre in a car, driving away from somewhere bad, where its like, Cool, Im outta there! Thats there in the bass line of the guitar, the sense of escape and freedom.

Where in New Zealand are you based, by the way?

I live in Wellington, pretty much around the corner from where they filmed Lord of the Rings. We like to call it Wellywood. Its a beautiful place, really. I live right by the ocean and have a studio here where I work.

Looking out my studio window, Im overlooking rolling hills and a beautiful ocean, a vast sky. Its an amazing landscape. You realize it if you go overseas and come back. Its also a great country for its support of the arts.

What are your thoughts on the music for track 2, Aurora?

In that part of the game, the bat is in a beautiful, peaceful environment, away from the machines. Its like youve driven down the road from the prison, and now youre in a wide-open landscape with beautiful hills and blue sky.

Like what you might view looking out the window of your studio?

Yeah, pretty much. Sidhe is based in the same town where I live. Because theyre local, I could go over to their studio and work really closely with them on a daily basis, which has helped Shatter evolve.

What is the meaning behind the studio name Sidhe?

The name comes from Irish folklore. A Sidhe is a magical fairylike creature. It has to do with ancient folklore and creating magic for people to enjoy, here down under.

I had done some music for them for a game called GripShift for the Playstation 3. A lot of them had come to performances of mine, gigs of Module, and I had become really good friends with them. I went and had a meeting with them, and it developed from there.

What can you say about the next track on the set list, Granular Extractor?

Here, the bat has left this beautiful environment and come across another machine world. You can hear industrial-type bass lines, while theres still quite a vibrant trance aspect to it. The Granular Extractor is basically this big machine, and I wanted to create a mechanical sound that still hints at the bat characters feelings in experiencing this world.

What was the thinking behind the track for Krypton Garden?

On this part of the soundtrack, hes come into an environment thats very surreal. Really, his journey is beginning now in a completely unknown environment, so I wanted to create a sense of exploration. The electric guitars and this space rock vibe start coming in, giving it that sense of adventure.

On Freon World, that is where he comes across this frozen wasteland that used to be his home. I wanted to create this feeling of longing and sadness, like what you would see in some of those sci fi movies in the 80s, where they would go back to what used to be their home and it would be all old and broken. I did that with a lot of emotional lead guitar solos.

Emotionally, track five is one of my favorites because of whats going on with the electric guitars. Its also a reference to adventure arcade games like Golden Axe.

You have been acquainted with games for some time?

Yeah, Ive loved games for years and years. From a creative angle, I can look at a game project and really appreciate the amount of time and energy spent on it. In my downtime, when Im not making music, Ill play the odd game here and there. I like checking out games and seeing whats going on in terms of the audio production.

Are there any memories of games from your youth that you can recall?

Xenon 2. I used to play that religiously. Almost every day after school I would come home and play Xenon 2. In particular I remember when you got to the boss level at the end and you went to the shop to upgrade your ship. I played the game the other day for a laugh and I ended up playing it for just as long as I did when I was a kid. Even after 15 years I still remember those tunes. Its a really good game and it stands up to the test of time. If there were a remake for the Playstation 3, I reckon it would be awesome.

Shatter shares aspects with lots of different games. I didnt really contribute to the design outside of the sound, but playing Shatter brought to mind the games I loved to play when I myself was a kid. Thats my driving force in approaching the soundtrack, to create music that gave you that feeling.

Is the 80s a special time to you, as far as influences for Shatter are concerned?

The 1980s in terms of technology and music was the age of discovery. Its when people were experimenting with digital synthesizers and computer systems. Its when computer games entered everybodys lounge. I just wanted to capture a bit of that and have it on the soundtrack.

How would you describe track six, Amethyst Caverns?

We were already hinting at this being an emotional journey of this bat traveling through these worlds, so I thought it would be awesome if he started singing away to himself. Here the bat has entered this beautiful environment and hes singing. Thats generated by a free VST plugin, written by a Japanese programmer, that I found on the internet. It was perfect for the sound that I imagined for the bat character.

Seven is Neon Mines. This one is almost Granular Extractor, Part Two. Its quite a machine-type environment and has a driving, gritty baseline. Again, its a mixture of the industrial machine world and the feelings the bat is going through. Hes traveled through all these worlds now, so hes got more of an attitude and feeling a bit more rock n roll.

Was it useful to you as a structural component to have motifs that emerge early on in the game return in later tracks?

I do that a lot through the whole soundtrack. If you listen to The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, they have a commonality of recurring sounds and structures that makes it a whole.

Argon Refinery continues in the same vibe as track 3 and track 7, while moving further away from what the bats feeling. Hes intimidated because things are getting a bit crazy now. It has a strong repeating melody, as hes going deeper and deeper into the machine empire. Its kind of like approaching the Death Star.

This is to set you up for the next track, The Xenon Homeworld, which is really quite dark. Track 10 is the bats final push through the heart of the machine world. I suppose I wont go too much further into it for spoilers.

Youve mentioned that Ableton Live was one music software program utilized for the score. What ways did you feel the software was useful?

In terms of audio software, theres nothing better on the market. Ive used just about everything there is out there, but Ableton Live is almost transparent in terms of the ways it interacts with the computer. Any idea I have musically I can achieve.

Having a piece of software that Im comfortable with and that I know inside and out really speeds up the process. Its great to walk into the studio with a clear mindset, knowing what youre going to do, because having to spend time messing around with too many software settings can really kill the creative process.

You perform music live. Was this a relevant experience to the creation of the music for Shatter?

Im playing everything on the soundtrack, from lots of electric guitars to lots of synthesizers and drum programming.

Do you find it a very different process to be on tour compared with writing music at your studio for a videogame like Shatter?

Yeah, theyre almost opposite ends of the spectrum. When youre performing live, what you really need to do is engage people. The energy of the music has to be high impact to get people out there to dance. Maybe it doesnt have to be as detailed as a videogame soundtrack would be. As long as it has a good beat, you can almost get away with anything.

In a game soundtrack the experience is deeper. You need to flesh out all those subtle details that you wouldnt really need in a live gig. Youre taking the player into an audio world of your creation. Its completely different.

Do you improvise on stage?

Constantly. Im quite known for it. The way I have my Ableton Live set up, if I want to stretch out a song for thirty minutes, I can. I write the songs for the live environment to allow for that improvisation to happen, to play around with the crowd and get everyone clapping and making noises. Thats something Ive been doing for a number of years, but lately Ive moved more back into the studio.

On Shatter you were responsible for the sound effects as well as the music. Is it a consideration that the effects not clash with the background music and diminish the emotional impact of the audio?

That very fact was a main reason for taking on the sound effects job. Because I had spent so long on the sonic frequencies of the music, I knew exactly where the sound effects needed to be.

I worked really closely with Antony, the programmer at Sidhe, and we went through all the events in the game looking for sounds for the world of Shatter. All the sounds of the ball being hit by the bat were generated with various software and synthesizer plugins. That was to give the bat a bit of a character, so that when he is hit and reacts to things he has his own voice. Each of the individual brick sounds had to be different in type. It was a very intensive project to take on straight out of doing the music.

I felt my working relationship with the game company was good enough to do it. In making music I want to take people on a journey, and Sidhe are very much the same. Working with a company that shares the same creative aspirations, you couldnt really ask for anything better.

Has planning the release of the soundtrack online been in the works for awhile?

Thats something that really evolved after Shatter was finished as a whole. We used Bandcamp, which is an online service for putting your music online. Within the space of three days weve had 30,000 plays. Its pretty crazy, really. Its a lot of attention for the soundtrack. On most reviews websites, were getting 9s and 10s for sound, along with lots of highly positive comments.

Was the soundtrack for GripShift made available on Bandcamp as well?

Yes, the tracks I wrote and a couple of remixes are also available on Bandcamp. We decided to stream it for free, and its really nice that people want to listen to it. People can purchase it as well, directly from Bandcamp.

Do you foresee the possibility of other digital or physical media for the Shatter soundtrack?

Ive talked to Sidhe, and its definitely going up on iTunes within the next month. Then there is talk of it being released as a proper compact disc, with extended artwork and things like that.

How long ago was the live party to celebrate the release of Shatter?

That was just under twelve hours ago. It was awesome. We had Antony, the programmer on the game, sitting in a chair, playing the game. I had the soundtrack playing through Ableton Live alongside each level, and I played guitars and keyboards.

A couple years back I was doing shows all over New Zealand, so that prepared me for working long hours on Shatter and making commitments that I had to meet. And at the end of the day, what else would you rather be doing? For good stuff you have to put in long hours. After a year and a half of hard work that we all put in, its a good feeling. And I also had a baby girl the day the game was released.

Thats good planning. How'd you manage to time that?

I didnt. It was just random.

It must be especially rewarding to have completed the game project because this release was such a long time coming.

Its a really satisfying feeling creatively to release this project and have a worldwide audience. Just knowing that its tied in with a really good videogame, you couldnt ask for a better dream-come-true job, really.

[Images courtesy of Sidhe.]

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