Pumodi (Jeffrey Brice) is a composer and audio designer based in Portland, OR. He has been composing since 2009 in a variety of styles, trying to touch every genre under the sun. Some of his work can be heard in Dota 2 and the Holy Potatoes series.
Jeff talked with us about his work on a Dota 2 soundtrack and the Holy Potatoes series, as well as interactivity in music, including the procedural soundtrack of Mini Metro which inspired his love for interactive audio in games. Read or listen to the interview below.
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Today we are interviewing Jeff Brice. He is a composer and audio designer based in Portland, Oregon who’s been composing since 2009. Some of his work is in Dota 2 and the Holy Potatoes series. What originally led you to working on music for games, and how did this early experience affect your musical style?
In 2009, it was actually the first year that I went to college. I went to New York University primarily because I was thinking film scoring was going to be the way I’d make a living after I got out of college, but while I was there I partook in a lot of game jams, which I feel like a lot of composers have done. I think I did six every year, which was quite a journey. I really got to explore how music was affecting the games that we were making.
Beyond that, I got to work with a couple of indie developers in Los Angeles through some family and friend connections, which is always a plus, and I worked on a game called Alone in the Dark: Illumination which sounds like it’s a fun game. It’s not a fun game, but I had a great time working on the music for it. That was really my first major game. I worked on it for four months, and I grew an appreciation for the process of game development. I realized how much time and effort everybody had to put into it.[With games,] I’m not just making music that someone’s going to take and slot in. I have to test it to make sure it works right, plays at the right time, plays at the right volume, and has the right emotional effect [or] gameplay effect. I think that was probably the major introduction.
Do you have any experience with the actual programming side of that with FMOD or Wwise or anything along that line?
On Alone in the Dark [Illumination], I was the music implementer, so I didn’t really have anybody who could do that. But I didn’t really know how to do it either, so I kind of learned how to do it on the job, which was a learning experience–a good learning experience. I grew a greater appreciation for the interactive aspect of music. I hadn’t really done resequencing at all. I had to learn how resequencing worked in reaction to user input.
I think it’s a skill that composers should at least have nowadays. Not that you absolutely need [that] to do the compositional aspect, but knowing how to do it helps inform the composition process, and if you need to do it for the project [you can].
For example, there was a recent virtual reality game that came out for the Blade Runner series. It was called Blade Runner: Memory Lab, and I did audio implementation for that. So I didn’t really do a lot of design but I got the implementation of sound effects, and if I hadn’t had that experience with Wwise at the beginning, I wouldn’t have had a chance to work on that project.
Yes, that’s definitely an area of skill that is more and more required as we go along. I recently saw an audio talk from GDC from Mick Gordon who did Killer Instinct  and Doom , and he said it’s a no-brainer. If you don’t do [implementation] and the composition, then maybe games aren’t for you?
Yeah, totally. It’s a long time gone where it was just the composer makes the music and forgets about it. Once the music’s been sent off, they don’t have to worry about it. Nowadays, people–it’s not quite as common on triple-A projects because they have programming teams and producers and sound–but on indie teams, or even double-A development teams, they expect you to be this Renaissance composer, someone who can do a little bit of everything.
Yeah, I think it’s like that in a lot of things in games. There’s a lot of crossover and you have to kind of understand every piece. You don’t really get your own little corner.
I think it helps to inform the process. It’s not just a need to get the job done, but it’ll make you a better team, because you’ll understand how everybody’s working on the project [and] what you can do to make it easier for them through your composition or your implementation process.
What games, composers, and other music specifically can you name as inspirations for your work, and what specific techniques have you applied from your favorites? And also, are there any instances of audio interaction that influenced your work?
My inspirations are probably pretty common. Nobuo Uematsu is probably the first and foremost game composer that I could say was influential to me. That was the first one that I really dug deep into it, into his composition. Along those lines, Motoi Sakuraba from the Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean series. More modern day would be Jake Kaufman. I’ve been really enjoying his chiptune work and trying to take a little bit of his technique into my own.
If we’re talking film composers or classical composers, Jerry Goldsmith and Tchaikovsky. As far as technique that I’ve used from them, I like staccato things quite a bit from “Rite of Spring” and “1812 Overture.” Even–I don’t know if you’ve listened to much music from the Disney theme parks, but there’s the ride “Soaring Over California”–I guess it’s “Soaring Over the World” now–had a very wonderful score that I’ve analyzed to death. Things that do as far as key modulation, harmonic counterpoint between melody lines, and supporting instruments has always been something I fell in love with.
We could also talk about metric modulation. I’m a big prog rock fan. So, metric modulation and very mathy sequences are something I try to do a lot of.[For] games, Kingdom Hearts is probably the biggest inspiration to me. I’ve played Kingdom Hearts to death, and I’m anxiously awaiting the third game. The battle music in Kingdom Hearts is probably the closest analogue to the way I write. I don’t know exactly why, it’s something about the instrumentation that they use, a lot of fast-paced, bouncy-sounding things. And then a classic few that are other inspirational games: Final Fantasy X, VII. You could even say the music to Dance Dance Revolution has been a bit of an inspiration.
You were also asking about interaction. It’s not something that you see a lot in indie games, just because there’s not enough time and budget to really implement something that’s ultra-interactive. But games like Mini Metro are very strong when it comes to interactivity in music.
So, Mini Metro is this subway designer. You get stations and you have to draw subway lines between the stations. It’s kind of a puzzle game. But the way that the audio works is that–it’s made by Disasterpeace, the music. Instead of having a score, the whole soundtrack is procedural, so whenever a station pops up, draw a line between it, and a subway car stops at the station, it plays a note depending on who gets into the car. Then, as it’s traveling down the track, it plays this kind of repetitive ostenato, and then it gets to the other station, plays a different note. So, the more stations you draw, the more complex the score sounds.
It’s not cacophonous in any way. It’s very tranquil-sounding. But you get a feel for “What am I doing now? Is that having an effect on the game state?” through the sound, which I think was very effective as interaction.
That does sound super interesting. I’m definitely a fan of procedural music in games. We don’t see that enough. Which of your past projects was your favorite, and why? And what made your approach to that project special in terms of tools and techniques?
Working on the Holy Potatoes series has probably been my favorite, but before jumping to that I want to mention the Dota 2 thing.
The Dota 2 music that I did was submitted to the Dota 2 workshop. That was before they had music packs as a submittable item. I did this thing where I made a track for their Chinese New Year’s event, posted it to Reddit. A lot of people on Reddit suggested that I keep working on it, even though there wasn’t a guarantee it was going to get into the game. It was something like 2,000 responses.
So, I spent the next three days writing a full pack which was 26 minutes of music. And that was a special project to me just because of how much community support there was an how much music I wrote in such a short period of time. It was just interesting to me, because I felt like it was pretty quality and I usually don’t work that fast. 26 minutes in three days is a bit absurd and unhealthy, I think. [laughs]
Holy Potatoes is probably the series I’m most proud of simply because it’s the one I’m consistently being asked to do. I did the first project back in 2016, towards the end of that year, and it was a space-themed game, so we were writing music that was very epic in scale, [a] large, triumphant fanfare thing. Depending on which galaxy you were in, there was a different style of music so the location could have electronic music, a little bit of hip-hop, jazz, something that reminded people of Phantom of the Opera. It was a really good chance to explore different styles while keeping similar instrumentation.
After that project, the developers, who are Daylight Studios in Singapore, decided that they really enjoyed working with me and wanted to keep working with me on projects, so since then I’ve been contracted on two more projects on the same series. So, it’s starting to feel like you talk about the Holy Potatoes series and then you can say that I’m the composer for the series. It feels kind of nice to be able to say that.
In terms of tools and techniques that made that project special was the ability to explore different stylistic techniques. In addition to that, I really expanded on the types of plugins I was using. I didn’t just stick with the tried and true that I’ve been using for half a decade now. Really pushed myself on my mixing technique. I didn’t want to stick with “Oh, everything sounds good with the levels, I’ll just push that out now.” I spent some time making sure that things were sonically perfect as much as possible, which was kind of nice because this fell in line with when I started teaching. The things that I was improving on were also the things that I happened to be teaching.
That sounds like a pretty nice synergy, there. What projects are you working on now, and are you using any new techniques or tools for those projects?
I am working on a new Holy Potatoes game. They have a spy-themed one that’s coming out in summer, so I just started working on that a couple weeks ago. I’m working on a new Dota 2 music pack that I’m going to be releasing hopefully very soon. I have a couple personal records. I’m doing a synthwave thing.
As far as new techniques and tools, I’ve actually been slimming down the tools that I have. I used to be a pretty big plugin hoarder [laughs]. I had a lot of the gear lust, so to speak. So, I’ve been trimming down what I’ve been using to just have the stuff that I need to get the job done. In the past I had something like four terabytes worth of Kontakt libraries and I realized I was using maybe one terabyte of it consistently, so I started trimming down to the specific ones that were used on every project and put those on my main hard drive. The other ones I have separate, just in case I ever need them in the future, but I don’t have them always up front.
As far as new techniques I’m using, I’m actually using analog tape again. I used that when I first started recording bands, but I haven’t been using it for a while. Just kind of experimenting with it as far as how it affects music in games. The big problem I’ve been running into is syncing because the tape machine doesn’t have the best motor, so it tends to wobble time-wise a little bit, so tempo’s not 100% consistent on it. I’m trying to see if I can fix that, but I do like the effect that it’s giving.
That sounds like a very interesting thing to experiment with. So, where can people find out more about your music?
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