Gareth Coker: Crafting Iconic Game Music & Using Sonora Cinematic Instruments

Gareth Coker in studio

Two times Ivor Novello Award-winner Gareth Coker is a significant figure in the world of video game music. Born in the UK, but now residing in LA, Gareth is known for his evocative and richly textured scores featuring unconventional soundscapes and melodically driven themes.

His broad scope of critically acclaimed video game work includes Ori and the Will of the WispsThe Ruined King, Halo Infinite, multiple soundtrack albums for Minecraft expansions, and much more. His most recent work includes the powerful soundtrack for ARK: The Animated Series featuring a soaring orchestral score recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London.

We’re very proud to count Gareth among our customers and were delighted to have the opportunity to ask him about his work, his studio set up and how he’s been using Aria Vocalscapes and Harmonic Bloom.

We read that music as a career wasn’t really something you considered until a teacher at school suggested you apply to a music university – what led to that moment?

That’s correct! The development took place over my final 2-3 years of school. I was in the jazz band and as a result had become very adept at improvisation. While I was practicing piano – my main instrument – I would often end up noodling melodies and harmony. A teacher overheard me in the practice rooms and suggested I start taking composition more seriously and consider music school due to having played piano for a decade and also having a very high level of music theory. And here we are! I’ll be forever grateful for that recommendation because while I was considering it, I didn’t think it was realistic, I just needed a push in that direction.

Gareth Coker sitting at mixing desk

You then went to the Royal Academy of Music and later joined a film scoring program at the University of Southern California before starting to build your portfolio of work, can you recall whether there was a particular moment, or project, when you realised, you’d ‘made it’?

I think the moment you think you’ve “made it” is very dangerous because you’re only as good as your last job. In the creative fields you are constantly being evaluated and you must keep trying to push your sound to a new place while also retaining the overall aesthetic and feel that made an impression on the public in the first place.

However, I won’t chicken out of your answer! I think the most cathartic moment in my career was sitting in the audience in March 2022, at the Royal Festival Hall hearing the Philharmonia Orchestra play back two symphonic arrangements of Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps in a concert that we did with Game Music Festival. I was finally able to get a taste of what players and listeners felt from my work because I was not under any pressure that evening, but more so, it was about being together with the rest of the audience and feeling how immersed they were and how they were thinking back to their time playing the game. I’ve not had a moment like that before where I truly and directly felt firsthand the power of what my own music could do for other people. I don’t know if I felt that I ‘made it’, but perhaps it told me that I might know what I am doing!

Gareth Coker Abbey Road Studios

Whilst each project is different, what’s your typical creative process when scoring for games? Do you have a specific template that you build upon each time?

I must learn the game, inside out, as best I can. Ideally that comes from playing it, and being overwhelmed with concept art, documents, as much information as I can get. For me, to deliver good game music, it’s not just about following a brief with musical requirements. I think you really have to understand how the game works and feels, the gameplay, the animation, the art, the aesthetic, all of these things need to be understood so you can best know what kind of music you need to provide. There is no one correct approach for any game. All of them require a unique thought process.

As a result I don’t use templates, I simply build them for each project. So yes, I truly start at the blank canvas and then build it out. This extends even to what kind of orchestra sounds I’m using, because not every orchestra is recorded the same or sounds the same. Some scores require a more elegant, nuanced sound, and others might need a more aggressive sound. It all just depends on what the game needs.

When composing the music, how closely do you tend to work with the sound design team? How does that relationship work and what are the challenges?

It’s unbelievably important and almost always results in better, more cohesive work. I don’t find it challenging because the sound team is usually glad to hear from me. I enjoy working with sound effects and dialogue and always relish the conversations which revolve around what audio element should take priority at a given moment. When you have those conversations, you get a much better result.

Ori and the will of the wisps poster

Are there any specific tracks or moments in your game scores that you're particularly proud of?

The entire ending of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, right from the Willow Tree Ceremony through the final boss fight all the way to the final frame of the game, was all designed to be a continuous piece of music and I don’t think I could have executed it any better in terms of flowing with the gameplay, the cutscenes and matching the correct emotional tone throughout. No matter what I do for the rest of my career, that will always be a highlight.

On a completely different note, I really enjoyed making the Ruined King: Inns of Bilgewater music. Inn/tavern music is great fun and I got to do my own flavour of it for Ruined King: A League of Legends Story. The album was recorded in just a day in Nashville. Amazing efficiency and I think the final product is very enjoyable to listen to. It was also fun putting musical easter eggs in Gathering of Heroes.

Can you tell us about your set-up? Mac/PC, DAW and which plugins are consistently used in your music composition process?

I’m using a PC which I built myself, and generally the best tech I can get my hands on at the time. 5 x M2 drives and 5 more SATA SSDs. Intel’s latest processor, 128 GB of DDR5 RAM, and of course to help work on the games and increase the frame rate due to things being unoptimised, a Nvidia 4090 card. I use RME interfaces, and my speakers are by HEDD Audio. It’s a single computer setup. I work in Cakewalk Sonar and Reaper. I have considered switching to Mac, and especially the new Mac Studio with M3 chips (whenever they come out) are going to be very tempting, but ultimately I need to stick to PC because so much game development is done on them and it’s the platform I’m most familiar with. I’m really surprised a company hasn’t done a Mac Studio equivalent for PC, there’s nothing that even comes close.

As far as plugins go, I can’t live without the Fabfilter plugins, and the 2CAudio reverb plugins, notably B2. B2 is an absolutely massive part of my ‘sound’. I’m amazed more people don’t use it because it’s sound quality is second to none in my opinion. As far as reverb goes I also use LiquidSonics Cinematic Rooms Professional. For fun things I like using Cableguys Shaperbox and also any of the Audio Damage plugins. I could list a ton more plugins, but the ones mentioned above are reliably on every single project I start.

Gareth Coker at console in Abbey Road Studio 1

You’ve bought a number of Sonora Cinematic instruments over the years (thank you!), including Aria Vocalscapes – have you had much chance to use that and if so what do you think of it so far, and how have you been using it?

The interesting thing here is that I’ve also been doing my own vocal sampling for an upcoming game project and what you did for Vocalscapes has a little overlap conceptually (not stylistically). It’s very impressive work. For me personally these kinds of sampled instruments are great for setting beds to write over and not feature too much (they are too recognisable – in a good way – to be featured on a project). I wish you had explored more of the rhythmic element, but overall the sound quality and implementation of the idea is amazing.

Harmonic Bloom and Aria Vocalscapes

Harmonic Bloom is another sound design tool you’ve been using for the past year or so, talk to us about your experience of that so far.

Harmonic Bloom is dangerous because I can spend a lot of time tweaking and playing around! (It’s a nice ‘problem’ to have). I am generally using it for creating beds and pads which if you’re familiar with my work is a big part of what I do. It’s also a super nice interface which means using it for extended periods of time isn’t a chore. This is often something that’s overlooked by sample developers so thank you for paying attention to it!

Have you tried importing your own sounds into Aria Vocalscapes or Harmonic Bloom rather than utilising the included ones? 

It hadn’t occurred to me with Vocalscapes, but I think I will try that now and import some of the vocal samples that I’ve recorded for this specific upcoming project.

You’ve written beautiful scores for some incredible adventure games, from Ori to ARK. Is there a game genre you're keen to work on in the future that you haven't had a chance to try your hand at?

I’m working on it right now. It’s my dream project. The chance to create and establish a new IP in the science fiction genre at a AAA level. My involvement hasn’t been announced yet, but when it is, I’ll be sure to let people know as it’s something I’m already very proud of and can’t wait for the world to experience this game!

ARK: The Animated Series

ARK: The Animated Series Vol 1 (Original series soundtrack) is out now via Lakeshore Records and the first 6 episodes are available to watch now on Paramount+. Check out the behind the scenes video below!

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