In an exclusive interview with the music and audio staff of the new MMORPG Fae Farm, we were able to speak further with composer Cris Velasco, audio director Dorian Pareis, senior audio programmer Akshay Balakrishnan, and senior voice designer Dan Poole.
Fae Farm is a new cozy farm sim that blends the best features from well-known genre classics like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, with its own additional twists.
In this interview, we focused on more technical aspects of the music and audio production process not already covered during their industry panel here.
Q: Aside from what you talked about during the panel, where do you usually start with the music and audio? How did you all start with that? Did they give you scenes first, or did you come up with stuff because you knew it was coming up?
Dorian: What I try to look for is ‘who’s my customer?’ We typically want to have that creative director who’s very knowledgeable about the content, the aesthetics, direction. It’s really about engaging that person as the one source of truth. They’re gonna have the final say, and you want to get people engaged and communicating about it as early as you can. The earlier you get them involved, the more refined it’s going to be at the end, and the less likely it is that someone will be upset about the direction that might have been taken. So fortunately with a small team in a studio very well-versed at communication, the collaboration was really fluid and it allowed us to just all agree on the flavor of everything.
Q: I think one of the things I was really surprised with was, you guys worked on a lot of projects where, as you were saying, they were very impactful and intense, and this is as far as you can get from that.
Dorian: One thing that probably helped is that the tone was really intentional. “Cozy” was the theme.
Q: There’s tons of softwares and programs out there for audio and music creation. Could you talk a little bit about the ones that you used for your specific roles with Fae Farm?
Dan: Okay, I’ll start from this end. So there’s DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Pro Tools, Ableton, all that, and Reaper, which is a kind of more flexible one. But a majority of the work I do is in spreadsheets, organizing with actors, working live with recording, a lot of that kind of stuff. So it’s less a software gig and more of a trying to work with real people and find the tone and sounds.
Chris: It’s just different tools for the same job. I think in my video [at the Composing for Fae Farm panel], I showed you Cubase. I started using that because when I first started, I didn’t know what I needed equipment-wise. I went to Guitar Center and I said this is what I want to do, and he said well we have this one called Cubase and it’s on sale. *laughter*
Dorian: I cut my teeth on Pro Tools as sort of my main DAW. It’s great for media and marketing, and it’s good for multi-channel management as well. I’ve used Reaper as well, and it’s really popular and accessible, and a lot of folks like it to the point where it helps to know it a bit so you can share sessions. I’m always looking for new plugins and technology, but I’ve got a couple old standby Native Instruments. Reactor is a great one on a project like this. We’d go out and try and record more things live where there’s more practical effects than in Fae Farm, but on other projects I like to do a bit of a blend of synthesis and recordings, or some with a bit of Library content as well.
Akshay: I’ve noodled with Reaper a bit on the side. For coding and stuff though, we’ve covered it as being Unreal Engine focused and C++ programming. For audio specifically, we set up Wwise as our middleware product, which helps us just organize all those assets and helps us define how stuff gets triggered from the game.
Dorian: Wwise is a really robust music system. It’s very quick to get results and it makes it fun to work with because you’re not struggling with mechanics.
Akshay: That was the first thing I did on the project like a year and a half ago.
Q: I know you mentioned having a live band for the music. What about things like the foley sounds? Was that also live, was it mostly from a database, or did you create all of them in the studio from scratch?
Dorian: To be honest I wasn’t on the project when the Foley was tackled, but from what I understand, it was a mix of self-recorded things and certain things you aren’t going to record yourself, like explosions-
Dan: Although we did record some tanks. We did that once and then we just had tanks forever. *laughter*
Dorian: But a game like I was mentioning where there’s more practical effects allows you to collect more of the live sounds yourself.
Q: The next question is for Cris. This is a bit more technical, but do you have specific key signatures or modes that you usually like to work with for certain sound effects or songs? For example, Phrygian mode is often used for a lot of creepy dark sounds.
Cris: I don’t analyze music when I’m writing. In music school you have to do all these Bach choral analysis all the time, and I remember asking my theory teacher, “Did Beethoven really think about that when he was writing his 30th Symphony?” and he said, “Yes he did.” So as I was writing in school, I thought I must be the worst composer of all time. Like, I never think about that and I still never think about it ever.
So my orchestrator will sometimes help flesh things out. He’ll actually do a chord chart and when I’m looking at it, I’m like “Wow that looks fancy. I didn’t know I did it like that, like that’s some extended harmony that I didn’t even think about.” But no, I don’t think about modes at all beyond major and minor.
But I do feel like D Minor…I started out doing everything in that key because it was super easy to play, but it turns out it fits so perfectly with orchestras. Like when somebody’s in D, they’re like okay we got this, it’s gonna be fine. When I’ve gotten fancy with some key signatures because I just thought, man I can only do C, D, and G for so long and I just feel like I get bored of it, and I feel like people are gonna listen to it and be ‘this whole soundtrack is in D.’ So I’ll play around, but it just makes everybody upset on stage because it’s like, look at all these flats! *laughter*
Dorian: He also likes time signatures and manipulating them if you look at some of the Dauntless music. Switching time signatures can get pretty fun and interesting.
Q: Was there a song or audio clip that you really wanted to make into the final game but it didn’t make it, or was everything used?
Dorian: I think the way we approached it was: we found the need for the queue in question, and then we knew that we wanted to get that in, so it’s essentially a one-to-one relationship. It might take some small iteration before it makes it into the final game, but I don’t think that we would ever have excess music that I can remember of.
Dan: I used almost every little bit for even the UI. I was just pulling little bits of music and was just like okay that’s a button now, so we really tried to use every piece.
Dorian: This is a lean project in terms of the size of the team, especially with the start of the timeline and the amount of features and content that made it in were such that we didn’t really have excess.
Dan: I’ve worked on projects with more waste than this. This one’s very efficient.
Dorian: We got our money’s worth. *laughter*
Q: How big was the team if you don’t mind me asking?
Dorian: *to Akshay* You know the history?
Akshay: Oh boy, okay, so it started with three people in the core team, and it was like the concept and character art, environment art, and designer/programmer. Composer as well. Then I joined for tech work, and it was about 10 people and then Nintendo got interested. *laughter*
Dan: It turns out that turns a project into a real thing quickly, when they knock on your door.
Akshay: By the end, I want to say our peak was around 40 to 50 somewhere around there, and I don’t think I’m even including outsourcing teams.
Dorian: Yeah, there was a fair amount of art outsourcing.
Dan: I think it started as a small project and ended up as a much larger thing.
Q: Is 40 to 50 team members large or medium?
Akshay: For a triple A product, it’s extremely small. For an indie game, it’s pretty big.
Dorian: For something like Fae Farm, I think you would expect a team that’s a lot smaller. You would also expect a lot less things going into it.
Q: (To Dan) So when I first heard your job title for this game, I wondered what exactly is a voice designer?
Dan: I kind of made it up. What I do can be called a bunch of things, like dialogue lead. I mean technically dialogue in this just says like mouth sounds. Like if you’re having actors do “ARGH.” So when I started the position, they asked me what do I want to call myself, and I said, it’d be cool if I was called a voice designer.
Q: The voice sounds in this game were wordless noises that convey emotion. Was that mostly up to the voice actors to do that, do you usually tell them to give you an emotion, or a situation for them to react to, or maybe very specific directions?
Dan: We did have a really clear vision for what we wanted to do, so because we wanted to do that style, we’re like we need these characters to emote in certain ways. We have these animations that we want them to react to with these emotions, but there is a bit of improv with actors. It’s hard when you don’t have language, and as I’m not the artist and professional, I don’t want to tell them to say specific “oo”, “ah”, grunts, and the like. I rely on them and their expertise, especially since voice actors that work a lot in games are used to doing a lot of emotive reactions. They have to do a lot of acting for characters, like punching, kicking, hitring, and jumping around; they’re used to improvising. We call it ‘going wild,’ so you just put the mic and record, and tell them ‘you’re getting hit a bunch of times’ or ‘now you’re being shot by bullets,’ and they’ll just improv and figure it out.
So with this, we brought these animations, we brought these characters into the studio and showed them off. We tell them ‘now this character’s angry,’ loop the animation bunch of times, and tell them to be angry in different ways. Then from all those improv clips, we cut down them and then we have a palette of sounds to combine it with. So it’s really a combination of giving really clear direction and having a lot of reference for the actors, and then them getting to experiment in the session.
Akshay: There’s a connection between your answer and Dorian’s earlier where for Game Dev, you don’t go into things thinking, “I’m gonna create a bunch of stuff and figure out where to put it in later.” Earlier, your spreadsheet had a list of all the emotions that you wanted to capture, and these are going to be used for these scenarios, so you’re just filling those out.
Dan: Yeah, the amount of takes down to like what I needed was all captured in a very precise spreadsheet. The actors got to improvise within that very strict frame, but I knew how many performances, variations there are.
Akshay: Dorian, you knew that oh this scene in this space, we need sound for that, so you gave that list to Chris, I’d imagine, right?
Dorian: For sure, and it’s the same with concept art or even better, those basic animations. Even if they’re not finished, the actors get a sense of the character that they’re trying to voice. And with Chris, he would get to see the game in development and earlier versions of the town, and in scenes where it’s busy, it’s active, it has a ton of character, he’d go what can I write that’s going to match that. So you get inspired by all the art that we’re seeing–we have amazing concept artists–and they get us all jazzed on what’s coming up and psyched up because we get to see what it’s gonna actually look like when it comes to life.
Q: For Cris, you’ve worked on both films and video games. How do you feel the process is different or similar when you’re composing for each?
Cris: I think that composing for games is nicer, but I also find writing for games much harder than writing for film because games are non-linear, so everything I’m writing is written to a scene in my head but not one that actually exists. So when you’re doing film, it’s like okay you know the tiger comes through that door and eats Dorian. *laughter* But when you’re scoring that, it happens at the same time, every time, so I’ve got this set amount of time to tell action to Dorian, in a game that’s never happened. Or there’s combat, so everything is just written as a standalone piece almost with nothing visual to really help guide it. I’m super used to that now but it feels like writing concert music almost every time, instead of something that’s very much dictated by what’s happening on screen
Q: As more of a trivia question, does anyone here play any instruments, compose, or have any background in it?
Dorian: I’m gonna go ahead and say this: Most sound designers grew up playing music and thought they were going to be rock stars, and then it didn’t work out as a career path and we had to fall back on something else. So if you talk to a lot of sound designers directors, they will play. So for me it was conservatory piano and then drums and now guitar.
Akshay: As a small kid, I learned piano and then in school, played the saxophone and clarinets and a whole bunch of other kinds, and then stashed that all away to learn programming. Now I’m trying to get back in with the bass guitar and the saxophone, and the like.
Dan: Yeah, I was in band with my friends growing up doing music for fun. I think everybody plays around or does that kind of thing, I think. The love of audio also kind of translates to a love of music and they get mixed up.
Q: As audio director, in terms of management, do you still do some of the roles that everyone else does, or like you mostly manage them?
Dorian: It’s different on every game and every team. A lot of it has to do with the size and scope that makes up your group. In this particular game, I’m very much a sound designer as well, so what we’ll do is we’ll divvy up different sections of work, and who has the capacity, who’s most inspired by this section of the game, will be the person that we try to get to work on it. So in this game, I was super inspired to get in and make a bunch of sounds too, and I really enjoyed it. On previous games, like maybe a larger AAA title, and you’re in more of a management role where you’re checking other people’s work, giving feedback, managing resources and lists and lists of sounds and mastering that goes into it. Right now, I love doing both; I’m managing the game, but also being a sound designer, which is what I’ve done this whole time to get here.
Q: Have you guys all played the game already?
Dorian: I’m almost done.
Dan: He’s done the most full–as if he were a player–playthrough, because it’s very important to understand the game when you finish. If you work in pieces, at some point, you’re like, I need to sit down and experience being the player. That’s an important part of the process, so Dorian has been more high level on that stuff. It’s a deep game; it would take many, many hours to go through all the content. So what we do is we check, from the player perspective, the general quality of the mix and that nothing’s missing, nothing’s changed or modified since we last did it. That’s all very important. As fans of the game, we’ll get to take it home, play with our families, and experience it that way.
Q: After playing it do you guys have a specific part of the game or scene that you like the most? Like a favorite part of it?
Dorian: There’s a section called the faerie realm, the Faerie Forest is a signature kind of area for me personally. It’s the most magic-filled spot and the music for that is my favorite music in the game. I think I’m drawn to that one. How about you guys?
Cris: I didn’t have a plan.
Akshay: It’s hard to pick a thing because I haven’t played it for real, but I think after you get through the initial tutorials of the basics of the game and you’re sort of just let loose on the world, you’re like ‘all right let’s go figure it out’ and you’re wandering around and seeing all the cool things peppered around, that’s pretty impactful.
Dan: You’re literally jumping around, it’s more fluid than your average farming game. You can jump anywhere you want, kind of like parkour around the world as your first discovery. I like open world games, so I just wander and it’s like ‘oh my God this is a lot of map, and there’s a lot of sea, and there’s a lot to do and jump off of, and secrets to find. Everytime I get back into it, I’m just having fun exploring.
Dorian: You’ll be playing the game and three hours later, it’s like ‘Oh really? I should go home.’
Q: So along the lines of what Dorian said about liking the fae realm because of the music, was there a specific song, music, or theme that you liked working the most in the game or a funny part about it you’d like to share?
Dorian: I think my favorite’s probably the Rainy Day music that was shown in the video during the panel. I love that tune.
Cris: The fun little thing about those is that I have a very classical background and not a jazz-influenced background at all. I’m just kind of learning to appreciate some jazz, not all Jazz, but I had never ever in my life written anything even remotely Jazzy sounding at all, so I just watched some videos, went over some jazz chord charts and practiced playing a little bit of piano and then I just felt like I was totally faking it on that, but in the end I was like, I think I’m pretty good at my sound.
Dorian: Yeah, I think it sounds close enough.
Dan: You incorporate some of the jazzy sound, put the main theme song in there very cleverly; it’s cozy but kind of weird.
Cris: I like a little bit of wistfulness so yeah, I like that.
Q: Was there anything you found most challenging that you weren’t the most fond of working on?
Dan: Challenging for me…it’s nice when the actors can speak words because then they can say what they mean. *laughter* So when you’re doing something untraditional, it can be nerve-wracking to figure out the best way to communicate. Given infinite money, infinite time, I would love a fully voiced project and where everyone’s talking and you get a ton of scenes and we’re going back and forth–
Dorian: Localizing 15 languages
Dan: –yeah exactly but with the feeling we wanted to evoke and the kind of resources we had, I was really excited about doing this another way. It’s just a challenge and we got through it, and I think it sounds amazing.
Dorian: Worked out restraints creatively.
Cris: We had to keep the score small, so that’s why we went with just a handful of soloists and there’s nowhere to hide in that. If it’s a full orchestra you’d have to be the worst composer to not be able to make it sound decent. *laughter* Anything you put in front of them, it’s gonna sound amazing, but if you only have a few string players and a few winds, and everything is heard because there’s a spotlight on them. So it’s tough creatively too, because I have to be very conscious of everything they’re playing.
Fae Farm is available now for pre-order on Nintendo Switch and PC, and will be released this coming September 8, 2023.