Interview with Vibe Avenue Co-founders, Composers and Creative Directors: Mathieu Lavoie and FX Dupas
by Marie-Anne Fischer
Vibe Avenue is an award-winning company established and located in Montreal by Mathieu Lavoie and FX Dupas, specializing in music composition and sound design for visual media. Vibe Avenue have worked on numerous game hits like ‘The Darwin Project’, ‘Oddmar', ‘Omensight’, ‘Stories: Path Of Destinies’, ‘Ultimate Chicken Horse’, ‘Livelock’ and recently ‘King Of The Hat’, ‘Speed Brawl’. They have also created the soundtracks for movies such as ‘Aqua Incognita’, ‘La Magie de Casee-Noisette’ to name a few and as evidence of the great breadth and variety of music Vibe Avenue provide.
Mathieu Lavoie is an award-winning composer in his own right, a specialist in orchestral music, a sound designer, author and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He has composed music for dozens of video games, films and commercials, as well as many concert pieces.
FX Dupas is a specialist in orchestral music and holds a doctorate in dynamic music composition for games and other interactive media. He teaches game audio, composition for the screen and orchestration as an invited professor at the Université de Montréal.
Thank you both for making and taking the time to share your thoughts with us Mathieu and FX.
Marie-Anne: It was wonderful meeting you at Soundtrack Cologne and a great privilege to have been able to attend your interactive game concert, Stories: The Path of Destinies. You scored the soundtrack and also performed in the concert. The music was performed by the gRoBA Orchestra and conducted by Rodrigo Lopez Klingenfuss. We watched the game being played live in conjunction with the musicians playing the score. It was so nice to experience the music effortlessly transition through the different levels of the game. Can you please share your experience with us how you worked together on the soundtrack and how the musicians managed to stay on track responding to each live decision the game player made?
Vibe Avenue: Stories: The Path of Destinies, as its name implies, is all about narration. From the beginning, we wanted the music to focus primarily on the main character’s personality and choices. But, since the player is constantly revisiting the same environments, and there is also an alternation between combat and exploration, it took a complex interactive music system to balance those gameplay elements.
Since every “story” is about one hour long, the game has a very interesting format for a live performance. However, the complexity of the music system makes it hard to translate it to a live performance. To simplify things, we decided to focus on one particular “story”, so we knew in advance what choices the player is going to make. However the progression through the story and the combat/exploration system still happens dynamically on stage. For the latter, every music in the game (and the concert) is orchestrated twice. The musicians can switch from the exploration staff to the combat staff (or the other way around) on a specific gesture from the conductor. As for the progression of the story, every transition from one part to the next is custom. Usually, while most of the orchestra is playing, a few players are waiting for a cue from the conductor to start the next section.
There are some key elements for such an experimental concert to succeed. A lot lies on the conductor’s shoulder, he/she has to know not only the score but also the game perfectly well. The live player, on stage, is extremely important as well, as he/she dictates the rhythm of the performance, and sometimes has to collaborate with the conductor for the music to work.
M-A: You are both the co-founders, composers and creative Directors of Vibe Avenue, which offers a great selection of services, music, sound design, professional audio mixing, multi platform integration and voice recording & localization. It is ideal to be able to offer all those skills under one roof. Could you please talk us through your workflow and planning process once you have been commissioned to create the soundtrack, sound design, voice over and final mix for a game, for instance, do you have a specific order of action you regularly follow?
VA: We find it ideal as it allows us to control the complete soundscape of the game. This way we can fine tune the exact balance between music and sound design, create connections between the two or focus more on one aspect or the other in specific moments of a game. It also puts us in control of the integration of the music in the game, something still very few video game composers do, but we feel in an integral part of our compositions. The order of action really depends on the project, how early we are brought in, the artistic direction, and the specific challenges presented by the music, sound design, voice recording and mixing.
M-A: What made you decide to follow a career in music and what significant events occurred that led to you working together today?
FX : I started the piano at the age of 7 but, coming from a scientific family, I was much more into gaming than music when I was a kid. My passion blossomed at the age of 15, with the discovery of jazz, more advanced classical piano pieces and my first high school band. I finally studied classical composition at the conservatory in France, while experimenting with jazz and tons of other musical genres on the side. I’m a very open minded musician :). At some point, I wanted to combine my two passions and tried to get into video game music, but at the time french copyright laws made it very difficult for french composers to work in this field. I eventually moved to Canada, where I met Mathieu right after my arrival, already a University lecturer and well established film composer, and we have worked together ever since. Vibe Avenue was born a few years later. In parallel, I completed my studies with a masters in film scoring, followed by the first french doctorate in interactive music composition for games and multimedia.
Mat: Like FX, I have always been a gamer and started piano lessons around the age of 6 or 7 and followed up with flute lessons after asking for one as a Christmas present, near the age of 9. Also, my dad had an old guitar laying around, so I started playing every day with it after school, during high school, with a good friend. This led to getting my first Heavy Metal band called Stolen Soul at the age of 15. Metal made me rediscover and love classical music as my rock idols of the time would quote themes from Bach and Mozart. So I went to school in Quebec City in classical guitar, where I met Dominic Brown with whom I worked to lay the groundwork for a gaming studio called ‘Beenox’ that would eventually become quite big. I sold my shares of the studio to move to Montreal and study composition. Very quickly, I got into film music, but this was shunned by many teachers. Luckily, my teacher at the time, Michel Longtin, was one of the most open minded composers of the University, who greatly encouraged me to continue. Funny enough, film music eventually would become an official program at my school that I helped create and in which I would teach, even through my doctoral years. Then, knowing of my past years in the gaming industry, the University asked me to create a class on game audio and music, which was, to my knowledge, a first for a Canadian university. I met FX just a few days later, as he had just arrived in Canada. We both felt a great complicity and I asked him to work with me as a T.A. His first Canadian job was to come to my apartment and play video games in order to capture clips of specific moments I needed to explain concepts to my students. The American dream! As we both were part of a very select group of composers in academia that really understood the concepts of dynamic music for video games, we quickly became recognized for our skills. It wasn’t long after that that we started composing together and we co-founded Vibe Avenue to make it official.
M-A: Livelock is described as being a co-operative top-down shooter game where you can play solo or with up to two allies to break the cycle of infinite war between machines. How did you come up with the soundtrack? Did you have specific themes for the characters?
VA: Livelock is very different from Stories in that it doesn’t use many themes. It’s a much more textural music, which fits the post-apocalyptic setting. We worked a lot on the sound components, looking for strange, uncommon sounds, recording broken instruments (i.e. a rusted table harp mixed with Chinese Erhu) or contemporary techniques, and then blending them with more traditional instrumental sources.
The result in an eclectic soundtrack, ranging from post-rock to orchestral to contemporary music or electro-acoustic. We didn’t put any limit to our creativity, just continued to experiment until the soundtrack was written. Afterwards, we were happy to read some articles mentioning they had never heard such a combination of instruments and styles, but felt that nevertheless the soundtrack had a great cohesion and a very distinctive personality.
M-A: Can you please share with us, whether you believe a composer needs distinct and specific skill-sets which are unique or essential for writing music for video games?
VA: For us, a video game is a very specific medium, very different from a film. Therefore, we believe that a game composer should know the game he/she is working on, play it, assimilate the gameplay mechanics and feel its inherent “rhythm”. For us, understanding the game and designing the perfect interactive system is essential in creating a successful game music experience. That is why we implement all our music dynamically in the game ourselves, most of the time using Wwise. This attitude is not very common and, even today, few composers are directly involved in the integration of their music. Overall, if you go this route, composing video game music becomes as technical as it is creative, but we love this kind of challenge.
M-A: Congratulations on the recent launch of ‘Speed Brawl’ which is out on PC and Consoles. Could you please tell us what your role was in developing the game. We would like to know, for example, how you achieved a reflection of the speed and momentum, as is the nature of the game, in music?
VA: At first, we thought about highlighting the speed and momentum of the characters via a layering system. We finally abandoned the idea, as the pace was just too fast and it wasn’t compatible with the multiplayer aspect of the game. We finally felt that the speed factor was better highlighted by the sound design - that was also done in-house at Vibe Avenue. So, in the end, the speed and momentum is more reflected in the style of the music, a mix of progressive rock, electronics and retro elements. The music is not necessarily fast in terms of tempo, but it’s extremely energetic and high profile. Lots of guitars, lots of drums, lots of solos… We also have several different music intensities in every level, which allows to raise the energy and excitement even more in the most intense battles.
M-A: You scored the documentary ‘Aqua Incognita’ made in China and directed by Nathalie Lasselin. You also did sound editing and mixing. How did you consider the mood, scenery and culture in capturing your musical ideas?
VA: This was the 7th underwater feature documentary from Nathalie that we’ve scored, having previously done Facing Darkness, Axis Mundy, H2O Secrets, Heen Taak and Sustainability at Sea, on top of other shorts films for her, so many musical reflexes were already established. However, Nathalie asked us to create a score with more epic and orchestral moments than we had in her other films. Unlike the previous documentaries that were mostly scored by Mat, before Vibe Avenue existed, we scored this one as a team, collaborating with composer François Beauvais who was working in-house with us. Before starting the composition process, we did a recording session amongst ourselves, using many of our own Chinese instruments, such as Bawus, Dizis, a Liuqin, an Erhu, and even a Guzheng that we borrowed from our friend, composer Luc St-Pierre. These recordings gave us much material that would give a local flavor to the film (which takes place in China), and that we could blend in a more orchestral setting.
Before sending in cues, we did a lot of back and forth internally to make sure our creative vision was coherent and of top quality. We believe that scoring for pictures taken underwater is very similar to scoring for an outer space movie, as both environments still represent the last frontiers for human exploration. They are perfect canvases for music, as they can accept pretty much any genre without clashing with listener expectations. The fact that we also did the sound mixing in-house, with our sound engineer Francesco Ameglio, allowed us to better control the end result, having moments were sound was more up-front, and others, where music dominated.
M-A: As a successful, well known and established company, what percentage of personal time do you still devote to networking, client relations management, marketing and advertising your service?
VA: Giving an exact percentage is difficult, it varies, but it’s still a major part of the job. In terms of networking, every year we go to some of the big networking industry events, like GDC, MIGS, Gamescom or Game Sound Con. It allows us to stay connected with the rest of the game audio community, the game industry in general… And even our current clients and other Montreal based studios.
We also have someone in our team handling everything related to our website, social media, press articles, etc. Finally, keeping good relations with the studios we work with is instrumental in the success of a project. We usually have two people responsible for communications on every project: one for the sound design/integration, and one of us (or both) for the music and global creative direction. When a game is in full production it can become pretty intense, with a constant flux of text messages and meetings (either in person or via Skype/Slack) several times a week to stay on track with the game’s developments.
M-A: Before creating sound design for a specific game, do you already know exactly what objects you need to record in order to create the sound, for instance, how do you create the sound of breaking bones or smashing skulls? Once the sounds are created can you reuse them on other projects or are they only created for one specific game?
VA: Even at the beginning of the production, we usually have a good general idea of the range of sounds needed, which allows us to record stuff and make some R&D right away. Those recordings, synth/FX patches and other experiments go into our ever-expanding sound library, and can potentially be reused on other projects. Plus there are of course some known foley techniques, like using celery as a layer for a bone breaking sound. However, the definitive sounds are always created when the final visuals (animations, visual effects…) are done. Therefore, the end result is always unique and custom, tailored to the visuals and the artistic direction of the game, whatever the basic assets are.
M-A: Is there any advice that you can give to composers breaking into the Games industry?
VA: Get out there! Show your stuff. Even if you compose the best music in the world, nobody will call you if they don’t know you exist. Your network is usually your biggest asset, so any way of expanding it is worth looking into. As for video game music composition, I would say play games, go talk to game developers, study how a video game is made, the game engines, audio integration engines… Doing some sound design can help as well, as small studios are sometimes more inclined to have one single person do the whole audio of the game. Game audio is very creative but also very technical.
M-A: What is happening next? Are you able to talk about current and future projects in the pipeline that you are particularly excited about?
VA: There are several dream projects on the works, but we’re unfortunately not allowed to talk about most of them yet. Let’s just say we’re part of our first AAA game, a major franchise that everybody knows, and it’s super exciting. We’ve also scored the recently released Star Trek Fleet Command, and it was a great experience to be part of this incredible musical legacy. We even worked with the original theme of the movie series by Michael Giacchino, that was very special for us.
M-A: What equipment and technology does your studio currently have? Can you please provide a brief summary of your hardware and software?
VA: Oh, God. As a team of about 10 people, we have a lot of equipment… Actually, managing and upgrading all the computers, monitors, MIDI controllers, mixers, microphones, recorders, musical instruments, sound libraries and software is almost a full time job in itself! We have someone in the team helping us with that and other tasks like managing our orchestral composition templates, organizing and editing recordings, that sort of things. In terms of software, we’re all using Cubase and sometimes Reaper as DAWs, alongside dozens of virtual instruments from all the major providers.
M-A: Finally, I ask this question to everyone and would appreciate your thoughts: What is your favorite Soundiron instrument?
VA: We use Olympus Choirs and Apocalypse Percussion as part of our main template, but we also love some smaller and more “exotic” instruments, like Rust or The Struck Grand. They’re often a good source of inspiration and allow to find some more original, out of the ordinary sounds.
M-A: Thank you very much for being part of this interview Mathieu and FX, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to share this valuable information with us.
VA: Thanks a lot!
Vibe Avenue’s Website: https://vibeavenue.com/en/