With more than 15 year’s experience working as a composer and sound designer within the gaming industry, multi-instrumentalist Damjan Mravunac works for Croteam and is the man behind the music for PC/Xbox/PS3 franchise “Serious Sam” and The Talos Principle.
How did you get into music composition for games?
I dreamed of being a rock star, probably like every other college kid who plays the guitar, so I started several bands back in the nineties, having high hopes of reaching Wembley one day. The main problem at the time was studio costs. If you wanted to have a decent sounding demo, you needed to spend some decent cash. Being a student in a country where war literally just ended, I explored other ways of recording future #1 Billboard hits, and borrowed Tascam Portastudio from a friend of mine. Two hours later and I was out of available audio tracks, and my masterpiece was not even remotely finished. So I set about finding some new and cheap ways to record everything I needed. I then discovered the existence of multitrack audio software Cool Edit Pro. What a revelation! That was, until I found out the limitations of my computer setup, which was a cold shower.
Whilst being a student, I got a job to try and earn myself newer and better hardware, but in the end my parents saw my enthusiasm and bought me a new PC with a decent sound card (which was able to pull off only 1/100 of what I had in mind) but that was a start.
Being a pioneer of computer recording in Croatia had its benefits. I was able to quickly rearrange and rework anything I recorded, which in the end was crucial for my collaboration with Croteam. The guys were searching for a musician who was flexible (and fast!), and with whom they could try various styles of music in search of a perfect fit for an Egyptian themed FPS, and I was bringing new tunes weekly. Once we had the initial song, everything else fell into place and I was welcomed into team as “a new guy”, kind of a nickname that they still call me sometimes.
You are a multi-instrumentalist but which instrument is your favourite and what’s been the most useful to you in your compositional work so far?
I assume I’m not the only one who is doing initial music sketches using a piano (these days it’s a MIDI master keyboard to be more precise). It’s easier to compose melodies and try different harmonies for me on a keyboard then on a guitar (or anything else). But I also consider my DAW (Cubase) an instrument, and I’m so accustomed to working in it and use many creative MIDI manipulating tools that it features, so it has become an invaluable tool for me during the composing process.
What’s your preferred gaming platform?
Here comes blasphemy, since Croteam is primarily PC oriented – it’s Playstation. Ever since I first picked up a gamepad (I think it was SNES that my neighbour had), I loved the feeling and got pretty proficient using gamepad as a controller. And then I got my hands on a PS1 and that was a beginning of a beautiful friendship that’s still going strong, courtesy of PS4 Pro.
What projects have you been working on recently?
I’ve been doing music and sound effects for a Croteam Incubator, an initiative that Croteam started here in Croatia to help local underdog indie teams create and publish their own games. The game I Hate Running Backwardswas the first to come out of the incubator and was set in the Serious Sam universe. The dev team reused some of the old Serious Sam music, but I also composed several new boss tracks which resonated very well with faithful Serious Sam fans, as they were inspired by Serious Sam 3 boss tracks, featuring blazing guitars and epic beats.
I also composed the main theme for the Steam survival hit called SCUM, and I’m currently working on another incubator game called Tormental, as well as writing tunes for our flagship title Serious Sam 4: Planet Badass. It’s been a really busy time for me, but I don’t mind, as long as I keep doing something I love.
Tell us a bit about your process when composing music for the Serious Sam series.
Whenever I start a new project, I try finding an initial first tune, cornerstone song that will define the complete soundtrack. With previous Serious Sam games we had some very specific environment settings that basically defined the atmosphere of the scores (Egypt, South America, ancient Persia…), but with Serious Sam 4 we are raising the bar, making the orchestra more prominent this time. The game will retain the familiar vibe that fans are hoping for, but will push the limits of the genre as well, in terms of technology and things happening on screen.
The main process usually involves using temps, mostly from other games and movies, until we settle on something we like. I then analyse the type of music and instruments it uses and try to work out specifics that made that tune stand out and how it will work in our game. After the research and based on the data I dig out, I then build my sound palette that I plan on using for the complete soundtrack, to keep it cohesive and even.
However, there’s always something new that I add to keep things fresh and give them a little twist. No-one wants to listen to the same stuff over and over, but there are limits to how much you can stray away from what the series has established so far, so I try to keep new tunes within those limits.
How do you incorporate Krotos Audio software into your workflow?
The biggest challenges I face in sound effects design are creature sounds and weapon SFX. Games we create are like space operas, there are aliens and races never before seen, and each new creature needs to have its own distinct sound. I’ve used various plugins (pitch shifters, delays, saturators…) chained together to achieve what I today do with a single instance of Dehumaniser. It’s a really nice “everything in a box” tool that is perfect for creating grunts and screams for those pesky aliens, and comes with a cool set of presets that are an ideal starting point to create your own nightmares.
The real-time processing helps when I have to sync audio to a picture in cut scenes. Previously, I had to shift imported audio back and forth, but now I just hit record and pretend I’m a big bad ogre.
The other software I’m using lately is Weaponiser. It’s quite unique and it has also become a part of my arsenal because it’s a huge time saver when designing weapons, even futuristic ones! The ability to quickly change stuff and try new things is integral to all Krotos plugins and with Weaponiser, I’m able to rework the gun sounds in a matter of minutes. With the agile development process we have here in Croteam, that has become something we highly value. The ease of use is another big thing – everything I see in a plugins’ user interface has an actual USEFUL purpose and I find myself using almost 90% of the plugins’ capabilities, as if it was designed by sound designers for sound designers.
How do you see audio technology evolving in the future?
I’d actually love to be able to create and edit audiomore when using everyday tech. The scene from Bladerunner (“Computer, enhance 34 to 36”…) always fascinated me, and I can see we are getting there, but I still have to fight (and argue and beg…) current voice assistants integrated into everyday items like cell phones and cars, and some of my voice commands yield pretty funny results 🙂 But I believe in a few years what Philip K. Dick imagined will become a reality. Hopefully, just the good part of it.
In terms of technology that will benefit us composers, the automated AI mastering system that LANDR and others are developing sounds like a huge timesaver to me. In general, having AI helping in a studio, doing boring “ordinary” tasks, would be really great, and it’s fantastic seeing such things in this area already happening.
And finally, what’s the greatest sound design-related tip or piece of advice you’ve ever learned?
Don’t look at filenames! As almost every sound designer out there, I use many sound libraries, mixed with sounds recorded with my portable recorder. It might sound stupid, but I used to rely on the filenames or tags to audition sounds for certain purposes, and during that process, I missed many sounds that might have been a better fit, that would give a dose of originality to an otherwise boring ‘traditional’ sound. As an example; when creating a Freezegun weapon (which is shooting freezing bullets), my first search could’ve been for “ice”, “crackling”, “wind”… etc… (and it was!) but by listening to other “non-shooting” weapons, like swords, I discovered that with the sword sheathing sounds added as a sweetener, weapon sounds much better, and that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t keep my mind open (and ignored the damn tags/names).
Find out more about Damjan Mravunac here.