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Interview: ARK Composer Gareth Coker Talks Dinosaurs and Composing a Score as Epic as These Legendary Creatures

September 26, 2017Written by Keri Honea

In the world of video game composing, these brilliant artists constantly switch gears on a dime. Composer Gareth Coker had to do just that, as he went straight to work on the score for ARK: Survival Evolved right after finishing up Ori and the Blind Forest. While both soundtracks are beautiful, the games could not be more different from one another. As much as I adore the Ori and the Blind Forest OST, I was not prepared to be blown away by the OST for ARK: Survival Evolved. I knew, with Coker at the helm, it would be good, but I didn’t expect it to enter my weekly rotation of music-to-write-to.

As such, I was more than a little elated to have an opportunity to talk about the ARK soundtrack with Mr. Coker regarding its challenges, the overall experience, and of course, dinosaurs.

PlayStation LifeStyle: What were your influences for composing this soundtrack? I definitely hear some aboriginal inspiration as well as similar beats and themes from Jurassic World‘s score.

Gareth Coker: It’s funny that you mention Jurassic World for two reasons. First, I have not seen the film nor heard the score. Second, Studio Wildcard, the developers of ARK, were pretty adamant that they didn’t want the score to sound like Jurassic Park-lite. That said, the legacy of Jurassic Park is loud and strong, and there are some elements that can transfer from “Park” to “Ark.” First of all, one of the main goals was to have a strong, memorable theme. These don’t grow on trees unfortunately, but as it turns out, the main theme that is in the game, is actually version 1 of the very first piece of music I wrote for the game!

Secondly, there is obviously the “blockbuster” element of the music. It’s a very large, epic-sounding score, recorded with a large orchestra of 93 players at one of the best studios in the world.

Finally, there is a tribal element to the score, with influences from Pacific (including Australia, hence the didgeridoo!) and African music. Those raw primal rhythms are evident in both the drums and percussion, but also in the orchestral parts too. These are just some of the ingredients and source material that shaped ARK’s sound, the traditional cinematic “Hollywood” element combined with something raw, primal and also “evolutionary,” something that suggests we are starting somewhere and trying to progress to somewhere else, which ultimately is a goal for ARK, to survive, and to progress. Tribal music has been around forever, and will be around forever; it just comes in different forms through the ages! Essentially, the goal was to have a big orchestral score, but one that was also accessible.

Did you play with any sound engineering to evoke sounds from the environment or the dinosaurs?

I generally try not to get in the way of sound effects. That said, it’s a dinosaur game and there are certain expectations. One tries to create sounds that feel like they are from the era or setting. One of my favorite effects is to use a shofar (goat’s horn) – record it doing some crazy wailing, and then digitally pitch it down so it sounds like this truly deep ship’s horn instead. One can do this with any instrument really, just record it, put it into any audio editing software, and pitch it down! You’d be amazed at some of the crazy sounds that come out. The transformation is at its most effective when the instrument is already slightly bassy.

Also, with the orchestra writing, we had a very meaty brass section to help give weight and power to the setting. Even though brass was the latest subset of instruments to be added to the orchestra, there is something super powerful and primal about it, especially when you have 4 trumpets, 6 french horns, 1 tenor trombone, 2 bass trombones, a cimbasso, and a tuba! That’s a lot of air and a lot of power!

This isn’t your first dinosaur-based video game soundtrack. Did any of your ideas from Primal Carnage sneak in, was the completely fresh, or was this a project where you built upon what you learned from Primal Carnage?

Primal Carnage is a very different game with much more of an arcade feel! That said, thank you for bringing it up as it was one of the first game scores I finished! I would say some of the ideas from the dinosaur writing maybe transferred over, but the music written for the humans definitely didn’t, as each piece for Primal Carnage was tied to one of the playable characters in the game. ARK’s music is more about identifying the setting, location, and environment, or in the case of the bosses (Broodmother, Megapithecus, Dragon, Overseer) enhancing the experience of fighting them. Primal Carnage was more about a personal soundtrack for whatever character class you chose.

Which pieces of a soundtrack do you generally start composing first?

It really depends on the project. On ARK, it was the Main Theme, though that was also my pitch for the game. Generally I’m not looking to write a specific piece first, but trying to find the main hook, motif, theme, texture (all of these could be plural), and give myself something strong that I can build the score around. Sometimes it’s all those elements, sometimes just one. Once that “ident” is found, it can provide a launchpad for the rest of the score. Most people would think of an ident as a melody, something that they can hum back, but it could also be a sonic signature. An example of this is the famous Inception horns, another example would be the opening stinger on the Gears of War main menu. This goes for sound effects as well, such as the Star Wars lightsaber, or Sam Fisher’s goggles in Splinter Cell. Our brains are capable of recognizing these “hooks,” so if you have one or two of them you can build around, it helps the score to feel unified and also can be inspirational for yourself as a composer. Of course, finding these hooks is easier said than done….

Do you spend time playing the games before you compose for them?

As much as possible, and if I can’t play the game myself, then I try to make sure I have footage of someone else playing the game. In a game world as huge as ARK, it’s impossible to test every scenario (fortunately that’s why we have Twitch!), but one still has to play the game to understand the overall feel and vibe. With the endgame for ARK, which is more linear, it’s nice to have something a bit more streamlined to compose for, so those are the times when I play or watch video a lot to really fine tune things. Any time you are dealing with narrative, I think it’s an essential part of the composer’s job to play the game.

Did you work with a live orchestra?

We worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, utilizing a group of 93 players. I didn’t assume that we would be working with an orchestra, but I made sure to set things up so that if we ended up in that situation, we’d be able to scope up fairly easily. Evidence of this is that we only greenlit the recording at the end of March 2017, with the recording happening in May 2017. Not an impossible length of time by any means, but for 135 minutes of music, that’s a lot of prep work, a lot of orchestration, a lot of music preparation, a lot of printing, and that’s before we’ve even pressed record! I will say that I certainly never expected to be working with such a large group, but I’m very fortunate that Studio Wildcard fully backed my vision for the recording, and thus it was something we were able to execute with no limitations and really getting the best possible people involved, which really helped make my life a lot easier with such a gargantuan recording!

ARK composer Gareth Coker

What was it like recording at the historical and rather famous Abbey Road?

I’ll be honest, it was a little overwhelming. The walls of the room are seeped with history. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Iron Man, so many major works have been recorded within those four walls, and that’s just Studio One. Next door you’ve got Studio Two, which is where The Beatles recorded. While we were there, the composer Thomas Newman was in the building. There was a point on the first day just before the first take of the first cue (the main theme) where it all sort of hit me. I’m standing in front of one of the best orchestras in the world, in a historic room, with the engineer – Simon Rhodes –  who recorded Avatar, Skyfall. The list of luminaries went on and on and it sort of made me freeze a little bit. I snapped out of it, introduced myself and the project, and then listened to take one, which was almost perfect, and from that point I was at ease and able to enjoy every minute of it! I don’t think there’s a composer alive who wouldn’t want to record there, the room has such a magnificent sound. I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend three days there!

If you could tame and ride a dinosaur, which would it be?

Who wouldn’t want to ride a Titanosaur? It has an even better name than the T-Rex, and it’s bigger. Go big or go home, it’s kinda what we did with the music for ARK!