The sounds of 'Saints Row 4' - an interview with Audio Director Brandon Bray

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 12:00 PM Written by 

SaintsRowCover“Saints Row 4” is regarded as one of the top games of the summer. Bringing super powers to the main character, not to mention the Presidency, firmly pushes the series over-the-top nature into another level.

The game’s soundtrack plays a major role in establishing its charm. Featuring over 100 songs on seven radio stations, it wasn’t something that came together overnight. I spoke with Brandon Bray, Audio Director for “Saints Row 4” at Deep Silver Volition, about the process of putting a soundtrack of this nature together, dubstep, and his thoughts about today’s video game soundtracks.

Here is our unedited conversation.


So, Brandon, have you been doing a lot of press interviews about the soundtrack?

Yeah, definitely. We had an exclusive one with Complex before the game shipped. [We’ve received] a lot of positive comments on the soundtrack. I’m more than happy to talk about it.


Good. I’m glad you’re getting your share of the spotlight, because this is a special soundtrack as far as game soundtracks go.

That’s so cool to hear. I’m so happy.


So let’s start from the beginning. The “Saints Row 4” soundtrack does a fantastic job of setting the tone for pretty much all of the ridiculousness that ensues throughout the game. When you’re faced with the task of forming a soundtrack of this magnitude, and this kind of theme, how does the process begin for putting this all together?

Music is a really big part…The “Saints Row” series has always had radio stations and good soundtracks on [the radio]. And then in “Saints Row: The Third” we started to introduce mission scoring and custom composition. So in “Saints Row 4” we cranked it up another notch.

We brought back the same composer. His name is Malcolm Kirby Jr. He composed roughly 90 minutes of original music for it. His work is in cutscenes, missions, [and] it’s in some of the open world on top of the radio.

We also wanted to make sure that the radio was top notch especially because we offer it to the player on foot, not just in the car. We look at our budget [and] we look at data logging from the previous title to determine what kind of music we want to put in the game. Then we have a consultant that we work with. His name is Josh Kessler with Heavy Duty based out of New York. He’s the one we deal with as far as licensed tracks, building the radio stations, and looking at what’s popular now [and] what’s popular in eight months from now when the game ships. [Josh] really tailors the radio stations so that fans of that genre can really enjoy. Plus it might introduce people to new music.

As far as mission moments that use license music, that’s where we have to work really closely with the designers to make sure that we get the track that best fits that moment.


Going back to the licensed music, did you go to [Josh] with a list of songs and said, “I think these fit with what we’re going for in this game,” or was that his job in coming up with the music for the stations?

For the majority of the licensed music, I would say that it was his responsibility to offer us options. Then for some of the other missions-specific songs - where we wanted to showcase a song in a particular mission – we would offer him some ideas. So it was both, but primarily it was him talking to his contacts, putting a huge list together. We [started with] somewhere from 100 to 150 songs per station, to narrowing it down to 15 to 17 tracks that are on each station.


How did the process of building this soundtrack differ from building the soundtrack in “Saints Row: The Third”?

It was actually very similar, except that we had to vary working on the licensed music versus the amount of music we were having composed. It was a much similar process. We took a lot of time this time around making sure we had more recognizable artists.

I think on “Saints Row: The Third” people might have been a little upset with some of the stations where there was good music, but there weren’t a lot of recognized artists on the stations like GenX, K12, and KRhyme. So maybe if we couldn’t really afford the most popular Jay Z track that’s out right now, or the most popular Macklemore track that’s out right now, [but] you’re still able to get a Macklemore track. So when people look at the playlist and say, “oh wow, they got Macklemore. I bet they got some really good stuff on there,” it offers a better opportunity for people to listen to [the music] when you have recognizable names.


Right. So, trends and names are constantly changing in music, like who’s big – who’s not, and that’ll change multiple times throughout a development cycle for a game. How often did the soundtrack change throughout that development period?

Not as much as you’d think. We definitely weren’t able to get a handful of things that we wanted early on just because of how popular they became. Right out of the gate, when we first started to look at licensed music was when – I’ll go back to Macklemore – was when “Thrift Shop” came out. It blew up. It was huge. So we were like, “We’ve got to get that track!” “Well should we? In eight months from now, is it still going to be popular?” And of course it still is, and he’s had a couple other tracks since. But we didn’t run into too many issues of people coming back and saying, “Our song is more popular now. We want more money.”

That’s why we have [Josh]. That’s his job. His job is to know how things are going to pan out 2, 3, 4 months down the line. So I feel very fortunate that we had him helping.


Were there any songs that were a done deal in the game. And as ["Saints Row 4"] is inching closer to release the song started to lose steam, or people started to get sick of it because it was overplayed, and you had to cut it last minute?

No. Not at all. Once we got the list finalized, we were really happy with it. We didn’t lose anything. We actually were able to add a couple extra tracks towards the end to help with some of the mission moments. Surprisingly, it was a very smooth process. That’s another reason why we’re really happy that people are enjoying it. Because we didn’t have to fight very much as far as the tracks we wanted. We were really happy with the tracks we were presented with.


Yeah, that’s great. Were there any songs that come to mind that you wanted but couldn’t get because they were too expensive or you just couldn’t get the licensing or anything like that?

Hmm [pauses] off the top of my head [pauses] Man, it’s been a while. [laughs] It’s been like five months since everything got finalized. Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of anything. I know there were instances where a track was too expensive, or the licenser didn’t quite understand the “Saints Row” tone and it felt like their song didn’t really belong in the game, which is fine. It happens. Off the top of my head, I’d have to go digging.


Well that’s good that you got the songs that you wanted on there.



So let’s talk about dubstep for a second. Dubstep plays a pretty big role in “Saints Row 4” between the gun and the marketing material, and there’s the all-dubstep [radio] station. How did that come to be?

Dubstep is a difficult genre, because people that love it, love it, and people that are kind of on the fence, really don’t like it. We’re all pretty big fans of it here. Some more than others.

The idea of the Dubstep gun; we needed a signature weapon in “Saints Row 4.” Like we had the penetrator in “Saints Row: The Third.” So we had been talking about it. Actually the idea first came up for a music gun back on “Saints Row: The Third,” but we didn’t have the time or the resources to do it well and properly. So with “Saints Row 4,” we wanted to have a signature weapon that people would enjoy, and the idea came back up. SRdubstep

All of us got together: art, audio, programming, design. We all sat down and tried to figure out how to build the system. So we prototyped it, made some tweaks, and added some of the polishing items that make it really fun like the people dancing and the cars bouncing up and down, and the popping and locking.

As far as music goes with [the radio station] K12,that was our chance to really put together a station that sells the idea that you’re in this gritty, mean simulation. And I think that station really represents that style and the environmental tone of the simulated Steelport.

Then the Mad Decent station, that was first brought up…On “Saints Row: The Third” we had the Adult Swim station. That was our first step in doing something that was a collaboration. But that was really geared towards marketing. And it was more for comedy purposes.  

This time we wanted to do something for music fans. We looked at a couple labels, but we decided to go with Mad Decent since their stable of artists really reflects the tone of “Saints Row.” We got Riff Raff to be the DJ, and he’s the epitome of the over-the-top tone of “Saints Row.” And that stable of artists tended to be more electronic music.

The fact that the soundtrack has so much quote-unquote dubstep music, personally it’s a happy accident for me. I know some people aren’t really going to like it as much. The only station that was styled to be like that was K12. The rest of the electronic music that made it on Mad Decent just kind of happened.


You mentioned wanting to put a music weapon in “Saints Row: The Third.” Dubstep wasn’t what it is today back when “Saints Row: The Third” came out. What type of music did you want to have as a weapon?

No, it was dubstep out the gate.


Oh, wow. You were ahead of the curve.

When “Saints Row: The Third” came out was when dubstep started to go mainstream. I remember when we came out, and there was a movie trailer that came out that used dubstep, and now all the movie trailers use dubstep. That’s why it was dubstep then. It grew in popularity and we just liked the idea.


The classical station that has Zinyak as the DJ. How did that happen, because it was hysterical.


SR42The character of Zinyak - he’s this British, arrogant [guy] - but he has this penchant for classics and classical music. The original idea was to have his own station, not have him part of Klassics, but have his own station where he did the readings and the monologues, but the music on the station was going to be showtunes. We thought it would be funny that this intergalactic war lord loved showtunes. Unfortunately we weren’t really able to get that style of music cleared for our game.

We really wanted to keep the idea of Zinyak reading Shakespeare and “Pride and Prejudice,” and expressing his love for classic literature and classical music, so that’s why we put him on Classics.

Yeah, it was hilarious going through the different missions and just having him monologue in the background. It was a really great addition.

So, let’s say hypothetically tomorrow you start working on the “Saints Row 5” soundtrack. How would you want to make - off the top of your head, and after seeing what you did in “Saints Row 4” - what would you want to bring to this next sequel: “Saints Row 5”?

Wow, that’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it.


You have complete creative control over what type of game it’s going to be. What would you want to put in there?

Well, ideally what any music lover wants is to have as much variety as possible. There are some system limitations where we have to draw a line somewhere. With next gen, who knows? Ideally, I’d love to have ten different radio stations with 20 tracks on each one, but we just have limitations that don’t allow us to do that.

Or allowing the possibility of streaming [the player’s] own music. With a game like “Saints Row,” the big thing is customization. The big thing is about player choice. So anything we can do outside of character customization, weapon customization, clothes customization, [or] car customization - anything we can do with music customization - I think that would be fantastic. That’s what I would want to do.


You mean like letting someone bring in their own music?




Don’t you think that kind of takes away from what you worked on. Because you worked on making a theme for all these stations and worked hard on getting all this music together, and then someone could just ignore it by putting [his or her] own music on.


Well, you have to understand, audio is the only part of the game what we allow a player to turn off if [he or she] wants to. So offering the player a reason to not completely turn off the audio by letting them replace the music and listen to what they want to… It’s difficult with a game that’s about player choice. You want to make it accessible to as many people as possible, and then - you’re right - you still want to maintain your creative vision of it. I think that’s something that we’re willing to sacrifice if it means that people will get more enjoyment out of the game.




The big thing is about player choice. So anything we can do outside of character customization, weapon customization, clothes customization, [or] car customization - anything we can do with music customization - I think that would be fantastic.

 -Brandon Bray - Audio Director for "Saints Row 4"


That makes sense.


When you play “Saints Row 4,” what station do you listen to? What’s your favorite station?


Well, I’m a 90’s kid, so The Mix a good one. I really dig the Gen-X station. I think there are a lot of good bands on there. I’m at the age now where I don’t listen to the radio much. I’m on Spotify and Pandora, and podcasts and things like that.


SRkrhymeI played a couple nights ago, and I was playing around with KRhyme. There’s a lot of really good hip hop on there. I think that’s one genre where mainstream hip hop tends to be...not my favorite. I think we got some really good acts on there that really showcase what true hip hop fans really enjoy.



Yeah that was actually my station of choice. Really good station.


Yeah, I was really happy with [getting] Atmosphere, LP, [and] Killer Mike. [There is] really good stuff on there. It’s nice to even read one comment where somebody says something like, “I normally don’t like hip hop, but there were some really good songs on there,” that vindicates our decision.



Were there any songs on the soundtrack that - I don’t want to say that you disliked, because obviously you like them - but were there any that you were just sick of by the time the game released, but you knew people would like it so you kept it on there?


When you hear something over, and over, and over, and over again for months, that might get on you. I don’t want to be too specific about that, honestly. I don’t want to come across like I don’t enjoy any of the music.


When you’re working with something, say, in a mission, and you’re working on that mission for three months. You edit the music, so you’re listening to it constantly, or you’re in the game and you’re tweaking how the music plays back, or you’re testing, or you’re doing all those other things and you’re hearing [music] over and over again. Yeah, it’ll wear on you.



Yeah, I bet. That’s understandable.


What are your thoughts on video game soundtracks on the whole today? Do any games come to mind that have really exceptional soundtracks?


I’m a big fan of composed, original composition. I think the stuff [...] in “Mass Effect” was fantastic. The stuff in “BioShock Infinite”: awesome.


I’m actually really easy to please when it comes to video game soundtracks. Unless it completely doesn’t make sense, or it outright [isn’t] mixed well, it usually doesn’t phase me. It’s one of those things where it always sounds wrong to me if the music sticks out.



Do you find yourself - because that’s your work - concentrating on a soundtrack more than the typical gamer? Do you obsess over the soundtrack when you play a game?


No. Actually, I typically obsess over the sound design. That’s primarily what I do, like sound effects, weapon sounds, animation sounds, [and] environment sounds. I’m more obsessed about how the game sounds as an environment. I’ll obsess over little things like - I just heard that blurb for the fourth time, or the sounds that go along with this animation is like four frames off. Those are little things that I can pick up on that will kind of make me “irk” a little bit.   


When it comes to music, I know how difficult it is. So, unless it’s - and honestly I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I’ve played in the last couple of years where it’s like, “oh the music sucks. Shut it off.”



Well, that’s good.


I have a few reader questions for you. Josh Major - and you already touched on this briefly - writes, “Mad Decent is my favorite station. How did you go about getting Riff Raff in the game?”


SRmaddecentEarly on in the game, when we first started working with Josh and getting the licensed music, we were talking about Adult Swim. Do we do it again? Do we do something else? He mentioned that there were a few labels that had come to him after we worked on “Saints Row: The Third”; that they were interested in working with us on “Saints Row 4.”

So we vetted the catalog of the labels, and we decided to go with Mad Decent. They know...Dillon Francis, Diplo. We’re all huge fans of Diplo. Actually, I think we tried to vet him for “Saints Row: The Third,” but it just didn’t work out.


Three Loco is actually hilarious.


That’s who we decided to go with because we felt it fit the tone of “Saints Row.”



Was Riff Raff familiar with the series. Was he totally onboard with getting involved?


Yeah, he was totally onboard. [Recording Riff Raff] was one of the last things we did. I was a little bit removed from it when it happened, so I wasn’t listening in on the sessions. I just listened to the final delivered lines. In a couple interviews I’ve seen with him, he seemed like he enjoyed himself and had a good time.



Matt Heywood asks: “Can you track what stations people listen to most? If so, which one gets listened to the most?”


Well, I don’t have any data for “Saints Row 4” yet, but we did use [“Saints Row: The Third”] data to determine what stations we would have for “Saints Row 4.” We looked at logging.


It broke down into total minutes listened to a station, and how many times a station was switched to something else.

That’s why in [“Saints Row: The Third] there was Blood and there was Kabron, and in “Saints Row 4,” there isn’t. It’s because although there are huge fans of those genres - it wasn’t meant to be a disrespectful nod to any fans of that music - but we have to look at approaching the broadest audience that we can, and with the budget that we have. In order to do that, in order to get bigger tracks with more recognizable names, we decided to cut Blood and Kabron so that way we could utilize the budget better and fit a wider range of music.



@Sleepineyes on Twitter requests a J-Pop station in “Saints Row 5.” Have you ever considered anything like that?


Yeah, actually we have. We’ve talked about all kinds of things. we wanted an 80’s TV theme song channel. We wanted an epic action movie station. We talked about J-Pop.


We threw out pop. It’s pop for a reason. Does that fit with “Saints Row”? And currently it just doesn’t.


We’re always thinking about new stations. Like I said, I’d love to have ten radio stations, and cater to every genre possible. We just have to look at the resources we have, the time we have, and do the best that we can do to appeal to the broadest audience possible.



That’s all, Brandon. I appreciate you taking the time to talk. Fantastic job, again, on the soundtrack. It was really great.


It was my pleasure.

“Saints Row 4” is in stores now for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC for $59.99. I gave it a 9 out of 10. You can read the review here.

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