A relative newcomer to the video game space, Nikola Nikita Jeremic is proving to be a composer to keep an eye on. His appreciation for the medium comes through loud and clear in his latest project, Starpoint Gemini: Warlords. Geno recently had a chance to sit down with the up-and-comer and get some insight into Nikola’s creative process, his set up, and his inspirations for the soundtrack’s sci-fi soundscapes…
GENO: The sound of space is generally approached in terms of its scope: massive, formless and uncharted. It’s been well served when scored from this angle, but many struggle to maintain an LP’s worth of momentum and the message devolves into a meandering greyspace by record’s end. Your recordings for Starpoint Gemini: Warlords feel utterly counterpoint to this general working order. Everything feels 1:1 where you can reach out, interacting with even the furthest set points on your map; it’s an incredibly intimate score and all the more exciting and singular because of it. Can you talk a little bit about the origins of this record and why it feels so up close? Did you have a finite direction already in mind before ever scoring a single note? And what were the tenets that guided your early process?
NIKOLA: The idea for this type of soundtrack came from my initial meeting with development team at Little Green Men studios, and we’ve had a lot of brainstorming sessions before I even started working on the actual score for the game. I first got in touch with them in 2015 and I’ve sent them two demos (one ambient and one action) for review, and then we’ve decided to go for that type of Homeworld and EvE Online sound. Luckily enough, all of us in the team are big fans of those soundtracks and the stuff that Vangelis did during the 70’s and the 80’s. It feels so up close and personal because it is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I gave myself 100% to this score. I am a big fan of big analogue synth sounds and I always wanted to do a score based almost completely on synth sounds. I was mostly guided by concept art and gameplay of the game and my sheer imagination. To be honest, this entire score is one big one-man jam session with a lot of improvisation. I wanted to make the ambient tracks uniformed, so they can be played on a playlist inside the game engine, but still make it feel like a single track which is never-ending. The action music approach was a bit different, and I wanted to make them all driven by big percussion beds layered with sequenced synth basses and weird noises with some occasional orchestral elements here and there. The biggest challenge was making the three thematic cues for the credits and the main menu. I always wanted to write a memorable melody for a game franchise, so I guess SPG Warlords is my first shot at this.
GENO: ‘Horizon’ and ‘The Expanse’ are breathtaking; there is this texture to them, a melancholy that you have made exist in physical form. I’ve tried to tear them apart to try to get at what exactly makes them so genuinely bereaved, but there is this glistening, devastated warmth that you’ve achieved almost blessedly free of organic instruments (there are a few). Was this your aim with both of these compositions and how did you make these particular works so expressive and lyrical?
NIKOLA: Are you reading my mind by any chance? 😊 HAHA! 😊 Yes, that was the point for those two tracks, and a general feel of emptiness and melancholy was the driving force of the ambient tracks in the game. I mean, you’re all alone traveling through this entire galaxy with loads of dangerous encounters waiting for you behind every asteroid field etc… But still this loneliness is so soothing and relaxing. I dedicated special attention to creating original synth pads and textures in order to create this washy big soundscape for these tracks. I also wanted to make some sort of minimalist leit-motif to make them lyrical. I had the similar approach to other ambient tracks. ‘Horizon’ is a sort of an homage to Vangelis’ early minimalist works.
GENO: Starpoint Gemini: Warlords feels incredibly live, improvised even; this is brilliant because it feels absolutely unencumbered, unpredictable and this freedom translates directly to more affecting set pieces. Was this recorded in a semi or completely live setting? Your action cues ‘War Machine’, ‘Form The Line’, ‘Red Line’, and ‘Loose Cannon’ are inspired in their bestial clanging. What sorts of ideas did you want to get across about these tracks specifically, and what’s your general feeling toward the scoring of action in 2018? Are you more at home creating this sort of hard driven rain, or do you feel more aligned with the introspective, probing nature the likes of ‘The Expanse’, and ‘Horizon’?
NIKOLA: Like I said, the entire score for this is one big improvising jam session where I played everything. It is done completely “in the box” with software instruments and a few hardware synths and guitars that I own. So, it is sort of recorded with software instruments, but they were performed live by me. I played every single note, and there were no quantizations of notes. I really wanted to make everything feel live, even the sequenced rhythmic synths.
Regarding the action cues, the sole idea was to make them pounding and angry. ‘Loose Cannon’ is a good example of this idea, because it is this huge wall of sound which so intense and it really drives the action moments in the game. Your adrenaline really jumps when you’re surrounded by an armada of enemy ships and you need to take them out fast because your shields are going down from all the shooting. To be honest, I do like writing hard-hitting action stuff, but somehow, I feel more at home with these soundscapes and ambient music in general. If I ever get the chance to work again on another big MMO title (I worked on Destiny 2), I think that I’d be most helpful as an additional music composer for ambient music. You know those big ambient cues when you’re exploring the worlds of The Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars, World of Warcraft and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? That’s what I’d love to do! 😊
GENO: Let’s talk about ‘Unempty Space': there is this heavy, oppressive and otherworldly presence here and it’s really, really unnerving. Congratulations!!! It is no easy task making space frightening again. This is so much more than an application of stock reverb and looping dissonance. Talk to me about how you’ve made space sound terrifying again. Are there certain keys, scales, or chords you feel naturally lend themselves to fear? Is it something you applied to your work on this LP? What was your methodology as it pertained to balancing all the disparate elements of space? Is it chiefly about defining the color, the sound, or the ambient noise? Can it be pared down to a few simple traits?
NIKOLA: Thank you so much for the kind words! 😊 ‘Unempty Space’ is actually the very first demo I sent the developers back in 2015, and they’ve loved it so much that we decided to keep it in the game as a featured track. This track is really what I meant when I said that everything was improvised and played live. I just started messing with some sounds and started sketching and eventually ‘Unempty Space’ is what came out of it. I think this track was done only by using Urs Heckman Zebra 2 soft synth, I am not sure. When I approach a track that needs to be unnerving and dark, I don’t think about chords and notes, I usually think about the type of sound I want to achieve. So, here I was looking for the type of sound that would make me feel uneasy and I went with that. I played a few notes and go the track going. Most of it was revolving around the key of D minor I think and diminished neighboring chords. The reverb was straight out of the synth, nothing additional was used here. My personal formula for portraying the vastness and darkness of space is to have big low-end drones and layer some different pads and soundscapes on top of that. But you have to be careful when balancing the sonic ranges of the individual instruments in order not to make everything too washy and muddy, because that’s a common issue for me when working on these types of tracks. You can achieve this type of sound with a single software synth and one reverb that can glue everything together if you’re creative enough.
GENO: Let’s talk kit for a minute; I’m extremely curious as to what this setup would look like on the floor of a stage. The guitars, the line of instruments… the list/s of players. Is this something that could feasibly be performed by a small group of musicians, or would it be something on a much larger scale? What exactly am I hearing on this LP? Your synth sound is particularly wonderful, really daring. What sorts of synthesizers would you say are your “go to”? For this record, did you employ older, outdated synths? Would you say you have a passion for the instrument in general? Which of any instrument did you find most effective in conveying your message on this recording?
NIKOLA: I think this entire soundtrack could be performed on a stage with a few musicians on synthesizers, a guitar player and a smaller orchestra. I like smaller orchestras, because the sound is always delicate and intimate, plus it doesn’t get in the way of additional instruments standing out. What you’re hearing on this LP is exactly that. A few good synths, a Fender Stratocaster and a small orchestra. I don’t own many hardware synths even though I am a massive synth enthusiast. My go-to soft-synths here were U-He Zebra 2 and Arturia V collection (CS 80, Moog, Jupiter and ARP 2600). When it comes to hardware synths, I used my Yamaha DX7 and two KORG Volcas (Volca Bass and Volca Keys), and I can’t say enough praises about Volcas. Truly affordable and easy to use analogue synths with massive sounds. I ran most of my hardware synths through a few guitar pedals to make them sound a bit more massive, and I also had my electric guitars on top of that. I am a passionate fan of synths and guitars, and I always find a way to include them in every work that I do, be it a sci-fi or epic fantasy. The CEO of LGM studios said for example that the track called ‘Frontier’ sounds like something that Vangelis and David Guilmour would do together, and that’s probably the biggest compliment I ever got as a musician.😊
GENO: The completed work for Starpoint Gemini: Warlords, is lengthy. Making even short albums can be a painful experience. About how long did it take you to complete (start and end date), and what did your cutting room floor look like? Did anything stand out about the recording of the LP to you, i.e.: longer demo period, altering course, or starting over from scratch? Is there a particular song that you personally enjoy the most and why?
NIKOLA: If we don’t count the demoing period in 2015, the actual work on the soundtrack took no more than a month and a half in continuity, so that’s almost one track on every two days. From mid-November 2016 to first week of January of 2017 was the entire soundtrack done, including the mixing. You can say, I was highly motivated to work on this, because the genre is something I am really into. The developers actually had very few remarks for the soundtrack, and it is something that I have never experienced before, and I couldn’t believe it. I know it sounds unbelievable, and maybe I sound a bit full of myself, but they really had few remarks and they were signing off every track on the day it was finished and it went straight into the game. The best time I had was while working on ambient tracks, because I really experimented with the sounds for my synths. But what really stands out is when I sat down to work the main opening theme that plays in the main menu, and that was the last thing I did for this soundtrack. I got into panic mode because I didn’t have any idea about the melody that would represent the world of SPG Warlords, and it hit me quite by accident while I was improvising with this lead sound that plays the melody and I knew I had it. After that it was easy to create everything around it. My personal favorites on this soundtrack are ‘Warlords Ascension’ (the main theme), ‘Still Waters Run Deep’, ‘Unempty Space’ and ‘Frontier’ because they really represent what I was going for with this soundtrack, to present the vastness and loneliness of a space adventure.
GENO: I mentioned earlier that the record feels free of interference from the outside. Were you given total artistic control or were there guidelines via concept art and storyboards? Do you find this sort of guidance helpful? Were there ever moments during the process where you hit a wall and had to walk away from the project for a few days? What was the most difficult composition for Starpoint Gemini: Warlords?
NIKOLA: This is one of the very first projects I ever got where I was given total independence and artistic control, and that’s a double-edged sword because you’re the one who’s here to create this new sound from scratch for a big universe, and there’s always this small fear of not being good enough when the clients are taking their first listen. It’s a horrifying experience when you’re looking at faces of your clients while they are listening to your music for the first time. Regarding SPG Warlords, I never hit a wall and I was never away from the project during the composing process because I was truly inspired to create something that’s really me. Concept art and a short brief about the game were very helpful and one of my screens always had a scene from the game on it while I was composing, because I really had to immerse myself in this world. The hardest challenge was the main menu theme honestly. I always have issues when trying to compose something that needs to be minimalistic and simple enough, but still sounds big.
GENO: With any type of project comes stories, hilarious and horrifying. Did the sessions for Starpoint Gemini: Warlords yield any of this sort of folklore? Were the master reels stuck in transit for three weeks in Alpine, Texas? Did the studio get snowed in during a blizzard? Are there any memories you’d like to share about your time creating this score?
NIKOLA: Well the studio was snowed in during that period because it was a tough winter that year and I didn’t get out much. 😊 A couple of weird situations happened during those times. Once I was recording this guitar melody for ‘Frontier’ and I played something that sounded really awesome to me and I improvised all over the track, but then I realized the recording button wasn’t on. 😊 Another thing happened when I prepared the masters to send you guys for publishing, and when I started uploading them, I realized the master output was muted, so I almost sent you 60 minutes of silence haha! 😛
GENO: Music is generally a lifelong occupation. It starts with admiration at a young age that moves to active creation shortly thereafter. Is making music something you’ve always wanted to do or did you have other plans that were put aside in favor of this goal? And… one of my favorite questions that I always ask musicians: did you have a high school band, did you record with them, and can I hear it? What was your first instrument?
NIKOLA: Since my early childhood I was always surrounded by music. I remember I learned to use cassette tape and record players to listen to music on headphones that were bigger than my head at that time. I started dreaming about doing music in my teens and I kept nagging my parents to buy me an electric guitar, but then I got an acoustic and I was bored to death because I wanted to make loud noise that came from the radio. Of course, I had a band in high school with a few of my friends. It was a heavy metal band but it didn’t last for long, we had only two songs at that time and thank God there are no recordings of them! 😊 During my time with the band I got interested in soundtracks and started experimenting with keyboards, so I got hooked on synths pretty fast and to the so-called “cinematic” sound. I never got a formal musical education, I learned everything I know by myself from reading books and listening to music. When I talk about music I don’t talk about theory or harmony or counterpoint, I talk about feelings and where I want to take the listeners. That was the only thing I wanted to do and I have invested every cell in my body to make it a living profession for me, because it’s rather difficult to be able to do it here in Serbia and it is why I started networking via Facebook (Thank you Mark Zuckerberg 😛 ).
GENO: Finally, what’s next for you? Are you planning a string of new recording projects or are you currently looking to take a break and decompress? Any final thoughts for listeners and fans on Starpoint Gemini: Warlords?
NIKOLA: I am very bad at having breaks, because I am really enjoying what I do, so right now I am mostly working on smaller indie games for local developers here. There will be a couple of interesting projects here and there during this year, I hope. I am looking forward to seeing anyone playing SPG Warlords on Xbox One and they are always welcome to join me on my adventures in-game while we are waiting for future releases. 😊 I truly hope the people will like the soundtrack and enjoy listening to it as much as I have enjoyed creating it.
GENO: Thank you so much for stopping in today and letting us get this fantastic behind the scenes look at your incredible score. We wish you the very best in 2018 and are looking forward to all of your future recordings.
NIKOLA: Thank you for having me here as a guest, and I wish you all the best in your future releases! 😊
Starpoint Gemini Warlords (Original Game Soundtrack) is available on Sumthing.com!
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.