May 11, 2020
Artist Interview: Oleksa Lozowchuk
Pop, video games and film/TV – three types of media that not only shape activities in our free time, but are also omnipresent in everyday life. Even as different as they are, they all require one common factor to be truly effective: music. Oleksa Lozowchuk, the former music and audio director at Capcom Vancouver, has made it his mission to manage this balancing act regularly. The Canadian-born composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist has worked with artists such as Celldweller and the Yoshida Brothers and is best known as the composer behind the soundtrack for the survival horror game series "Dead Rising". His latest big projects include music for the new VOLTA mode from FIFA 20, productions for Netflix and Disney, and being a primary composer on an upcoming highly anticipated AAA game. For almost 20 years, he has been relying on Samplitude and Sequoia for his workflow.
In our interview, we speak with Oleksa about the creative process behind the "Dead Rising" video game OST (original soundtrack), the democratization of music production and the relationship between pop and classical music.
Oleksa Lozowchuk - "Life, Death, Beauty"
What has shaped who you are as a person? What defines you as a composer?
In general, I try to pair down my creative efforts to focus on three main things: life. death. beauty. I love creating music that’s full of life and energy. It’s important to me to explore things that remind me of my own mortality. And I’m usually very moved by all things that have traces of haunting beauty. If any people or projects center on these things, I am usually drawn to them.
What excites you about making music? What is the essence of music for you?
Meaningful connection and goosebumps. Connection with my own life, and connection with others – it can feed me for a lifetime. But also goosebumps. I love sitting down and just improvising for hours at any piano I can find. It’s like a walk among leaves all over the ground during the fall season that you don’t want to end. Other times, I’m moved by just recording a single note on a simple instrument up close and very intimately, and then shaping it into something special or making tonal cluster swells out of it. I think we all look for those moments when the hair on the back of our neck rises.
Which instruments do you play?
I started on classical violin but eventually taught myself to play piano and guitar from an early age, and then most other instruments (flutes, accordions, banjo, mandolin, bass, drums, hurdy-gurdy)
What is for you the biggest difference when making orchestral and pop music?
Probably the sense of time and scale. Pop music has to fit within certain constraints (e.g., compressed bandwidth, 3’30 duration, hooks) whereas as orchestral music has more room to breathe and develop. Pop music can have a wide dynamic expression for theme songs or openings/closings of films, tv shows or games, but in general you don’t have the luxury of time to introduce an idea and reprise it in many forms. Orchestral music gives you quite a range of timbre you can explore. That being said, I think we all love amazing street food as much as handcrafted 5 course meals. Both can taste amazing and can be seared into your memory for a brief moment or a lifetime. Emotions are very powerful. That’s why actually I love creating in both worlds, and I try to straddle my work between them.
If you had one wish to come true, with which artist/producer would you love to work?
Artist: Chris Thile or Salif Keita.Producer:
Manfred Eicher or T-Bone Burnett
What is your new project "Interleave"?
Last April 2018, I started "Interleave" with Christian Hurst. We both had a passion for telling meaningful stories, finding ways to connect with others and to create world-class content in both interactive, immersive, film, tv, advertising, education and the concert stage. So we created a company that would allow us to work on amazing projects with amazing people without having a cost-prohibitive infrastructure or overhead for our clients. We’re a super collaborative collective of award winning music and audio professionals. We act as creative catalysts who come in from the very beginning of a project, and we stay until the very end. We take care of music, audio and voice direction, composition, sound design and implementation, as well as marketing initiatives. Our teams are based in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and London – we work globally.
Recent and current projects include: Gears 5 (Microsoft/The Coalition), FIFA 20 (EA Sports), Dauntless (Phoenix Labs), Doctor Who: The End Of Time (VR - Maze Theory/Playstack), Freediver: Triton Down (VR - Archiact), Scarygirl: Mission Maybee (VR - Dark Slope), Gabby Duran & The Unsittables (Disney) and many other interactive and immersive titles.
Sequoia/Samplitude - "I automate individual objects to have unique reverb/fx tails."
Oleksa, when and how did you start using Sequoia and Samplitude?
Almost 20 years ago I was co-producing an album in Montreal for the group Kinzaza (EMI). The producer at the time was using Sek’d Sequoia and Samplitude. It became part of our production workflow, I basically just dove right in and used the object based editing on everything (acoustic guitars, harmoniums, vocals)... And I got used to its internal dithering and sound neutrality, and I basically never turned back.
What do you like the most about Sequoia and Samplitude and which features are your favorites?
Comparisonics (I can see every element in my mix visually without hearing a single thing!), object based editing (life changing), in-line spectral editing and solid cross-fade workflow. Its sound neutrality is also key.
Is the object editor your main tool when working with Samplitude or Sequoia?
It’s one of the main ones for sure. I typically will cut up tracks into very tiny fragments and automate individual objects to have unique reverb/fx tails, and then I’ll automate track volume and VCAs on top of this to shape things within an overall mix...The object editor allows me to control premix volumes of all my elements while leaving all of my track volumes at unity… I try to keep the math clean, and not adjust volumes if I don’t have to. I also like copying and pasting FX chains between objects. One of the handiest features for me is the ‘Save Track FX settings’ whereby I can create interesting settings for different instrumentation or styles and then simply load them up when I start a new session as a quick starting point. I also love resampling sounds up or down 2 octaves and reversing them and adding fx chains to them to see what I can derive from the source sounds. For example, sometimes I have a percussive sound that’s great in its range, but it lacks sub bass, so I’ll copy the sound directly underneath on another track, pitch shift it down one octave, and FFT filter out everything above below 14Hz and above 150Hz and voila, I have an extended bass percussion sound.
I also prefer to have the main VIP window open where I can zoom in and out of tracks quickly, and view various sounds quickly simply by looking at their colours via Comparisonics, I don’t even have to listen to the tracks, I can tell what is what... I can spot plosives, esses for de-essing, and I can see if something is in the beautiful blue hue which is a most pleasant frequency range similar to the cello and the mother’s womb! Then I’ll often have the peakmeter open as well to check LU levels, phase, and correlation, and to make sure I have enough head room for the mix to breathe before mastering.
Composing and producing - "Worrying about things or comparing yourself to other people’s music is a real waste of time"
Where do you stand in the never-ending analogue/digital discussion?
Both are wonderful for different reasons. Class A tube chains give you perceived increased gain, particularly at the mastering stage and great tubes can really add a lot of pleasant harmonic distortion on vocals, bass sounds and overall mixes. I track acoustic instruments through tube mics when I can depending on if I need it to be clean or have super fast transient responses. That being said the precision of the digital domain and the ability to experiment and iterate quickly is wonderful. In particular, the ability to sketch musical ideas with different shades and timbres very quickly and to enhance creative flow is quite unique to the digital paradigm. You could do it before with analogue gear, but it just took longer or you had one or two pieces of equipment which would define your sound... Now with quicker turnaround times for deadlines, digital allows us to still see our families. That being said, when i record my own personal passion projects, I always incorporate tube/analogue gear either at the recording, mixing or mastering stages. Just like live musicians, there’s something really pleasant about analogue circuitry – it’s analogous to the real world – go figure.
Which plug-ins/VST's do you like to use when composing?
When I compose, I do a lot of it with my voice, in terms of overall form, structure and melody, so I tend not to use any plug-ins/VST's during the improvisation or idea phase. However, once I’ve established a firm idea, I will often record live instruments to bring things to life and to create moving textures. I enjoy creating different FX chains within Samplitude/Sequoia with a variety of plug-ins, and using them like a creative outboard FX chain which I can perform into. Whether that’s by feeding an electric guitar, and acoustic instrument, or a wind instrument into the FX chain. I’m also able to re-order the plug-in chain so it can be a lot of fun hearing the different combinations and ordering. Some plug-ins I use:
AM-Munition, AM- Track, Multiband Dynamics, FFT Filter, EQ116, Multiband Stereo Enhancer, Other: Kontakt for VIs, Omnisphere and U-he for Synths/Satin/Presswerk, Soundmorph Dust for granular, Valhalla Vintage Verb/Shimmer/Room/UberMod, Soundtoys Bundle, Izotope Ozone, Maag EQ4, Sonnox Limiter/Suppressor, Unfiltered Audio Sandman Pro.
How do you create your sounds and tones? Do you use pre-prepared samples, VST instruments? Or do you record live musicians?
It depends on the score or project that I’m working on. Sometimes I look around my studio and pick an instrument and just start writing whatever I feel to picture. Other times, I’ll load up Piano in Blue VSTi as a scratch pad and start there. Lots of times I workshop with musicians and record everything I possibly can during our session, and then sift through the best things in editorial afterwards, and then rebuild a new track around the new structure. Other times, I’ll create combos of different instruments where I’ll take something and hit it, or bow it, and maybe place another resonant cavity beside it and capture that with two pairs of spaced omnis/cardioids so I have a 4 microphone set-up that sounds great in my earphones as I’m tracking a performance while using the proximity effect of the mics to give me lots of options with tones afterwards.
If it’s orchestral music then I’ll often use my entire Spitfire library and then enhance with solo musicians afterwards for melismatic or single note performances. And very often, I’ll record pieces and prep them in midi, and then go and record live musicians and replace the midi/samples or enhance them. Sometimes, I’ll even write for string quintet just using my voice, and record all of the different parts to different tracks, as I find that using a string sound within a sampler via midi often limits what I’m able to express and what the musicians are capable of interpreting. My rule is that it needs to get me excited, so whether that’s using a timpani mallet on a metal water bottle, or an e-bow on a banjo string or tuning a kick drum with an open cavity to a root note, then using Samplitude/Sequoia to change each of the hits to a different pitch like an acoustic 808... Anything is possible. If it feels good it probably is good.
Do you have a pre-defined workflow when you start working on new projects or is it always different and spontaneous?
Always different and spontaneous, but using Save Track FX presets helps speed up the process. There’s nothing more annoying than having to start at ground zero each time, unless it’s for a purely acoustical recording. The other thing is, I do a lot of music direction, so I will get music from other composers, editors or post-supervisors to picture and I often have to massage what they give me, so using Samplitude/Sequoia as a glorified music editor where I can add some live instrument fixes or some VSTi’s to help fix another composers’ work before we send it back to the director, really makes a big difference. I can have multiple sample rates and formats in Samplitude/Sequoia and video as well, so it really makes my life 10x faster than using other programs. If I’m composing for my own AAA game or feature films, I have time to set-up a palette and a workflow for each project within Sequoia. Whereas for tv projects, advertising or music direction projects, we don’t have time, we have to react, so having an object oriented workflow with little restraints allows me to deliver on time and keep the focus on the creative flow.
During your work, I would imagine that you often have to fight against your own personal musical taste to compose music, which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise listen to. Where do you find inspiration and how do you overcome writer’s block or a lack of inspiration with impending deadlines?
Working in games for the last 13 years where you can work for 8 months on something amazing and have it all thrown away because a game changes direction, you learn to not be so ‘precious’ about what you create. I try to focus on having as much fun as possible and trying styles, instruments or methods I haven’t beforehand. I find going for walks/runs or being in nature very helpful, as does driving or having a shower – peripheral vision somehow helps me hear things differently. I also find that listening to my music with my wife or someone else listening, helps me hear it in a different way, and immediately I know when I’ve lost perspective. I’ve also learned not to fret about writer’s block, but rather to go with the flow... So when I have an idea or a melody that moves me, I will pull out my iPhone and use the Memo recording feature, so I don’t lose any ideas... Then I’ll upload it to Dropbox, and when I get back to my Sequoia station, I’ll import it, and I’ll know right away if there’s something of substance. Worrying about things or comparing yourself to other people’s music is a real waste of time, unless you are using it as a chance to better your own voice. Many times I’ll listen carefully to mixes, or particular instrumentation in different registers or look at an oscilloscope in Sequoia to see how the mix is using all of the soundfield. I think If you’re always pursuing how to maximize both your input and output, you have less time to be overcome by any writer’s block. If you do get a block, then start muting things to the bare minimum, or use one instrument or only your voice, and soon you will find the DNA you need for the rest of your piece or score. It’s usually there, you just need to quiet down, or clear out the clutter to let it come through.
Dead Rising OST - "Dead Rising 4 had over 12 hours of music, 100+ people involved."
How did you became the Music Director of Capcom Vancouver?
The Vancouver Symphony was premiering a piece of mine in the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics. I was flying in for the premiere and an old high school friend of mine who was previously at Electronic Arts, had just joined Blue Castle Games, and said they were looking for their first Audio Designer. I was working in film/tv in Montreal at the time, and I put together a demo for their Studio Director. I downloaded a trailer from Mass Effect. Muted the audio and music and rescored and sound designed it in Samplitude. I sent it off with my CV, and they asked me to come for an interview during the premiere weekend. I got the job, and then for the next 5 years, I didn’t do any music composition, but rather I learned everything about game audio, speech design, sound design and implementation and even parsing through C++ code. But when the time game that BlueCastle started work on Dead Rising 2, the Studio Director knew I had a whole other career in music, so he asked me to put together a new theme suite for the Capcom game creator, Keiji Inafune (Megaman). Keiji and others heard my music and loved it, and the rest is history. From then on I was the Music Director at Capcom Vancouver, and I ended up working on 13 more Dead Rising projects including the Legendary Films feature ‘Dead Rising: Watchtower’.
How much time did it take to get from the first idea to the final OST?
And how many people were involved in actualizing the OST?Most AAA games take 2-3 years to make. Dead Rising 4 had over 12 hours of music, 100+ people involved (including composers, musicians, orchestrators, editors, mixers, mastering engineers, copyists, recording engineers, etc.) from all over the world including Nashville, LA, New York, India, Tbsilisi, Vancouver and many more places. We also built an entire custom built interactive music system while creating the music assets for the game. To be honest, I don’t focus on how long it takes, I focus on maximizing every opportunity to create something unique and memorable, so I don’t even remember how long it actually took!
What's the mix of virtual and real instruments in the Dead Rising 4 OST?
Jazz, BigBand and Americana (90-100% real) Orchestral (60-70% real instruments, 30-40% virtual): for example, a lot of percussion isn’t worth spending time recording as programming it is much quicker and usually sounds a lot better, whereas recording Shostakovich-like string aleatoric FX with real string sections is so much more convincing with real musicians that it’s often not worth attempting only via midi. It really is dependent upon the style and the nature of how the instruments are used in the mix (with or without vocals, short form/long form).
The Music Industry - " I think having kids and a family has helped me find a balance between artistic endeavors and commercial success."
Most of the hollywood movies and „Triple A“ games are part of the pop culture and are often accompanied with orchestral music in order to place emphasis on the emotion and story. Nevertheless the genre of classical music itself doesn't receive as much recognition and appraisal in the pop culture as for example Hip Hop or Rock music. Do you know what causes this dilemma?
To be honest, I think it depends on the specific type of classical music. When I speak with maestros or program directors, they are often desperate to find new ways of connecting with audiences. In the age of Netflix and on demand access to the very best programming in the world, it’s hard for average orchestras to compete... Whereas, when they focus on what makes their group or audience unique – the ability to perform music with a large group of people in a live space, focusing on connecting with their audience by sharing beautiful or memorable music, it can leave a lasting impression upon listeners.
People love hearing music from films and games at live venues with full orchestra and choirs, precisely because they have an emotional attachment to the music and their first experiences hearing it – it helps connect them with the fantastical world of their imaginations. I think when classical music programmers and musicians find ways to connect with their audience in meaningful ways, they can have an impact on people’s capacity to hear things differently. For now, at a global scale, that happens to be in the world of media – and not primarily in the concert hall. I believe listeners do feel the difference between live musicians and programmed instrumentation, but each person has to experience it for themselves, and sometimes a starting point is a pop song with live musicians, or a AAA video game score with live orchestra, or a feature film with a piano sonata with electronics... You can have a real impact on thousands of people’s daily lives via their Spotify playlists which become the soundtrack to their lives yet still not have pop culture recognition. I think it’s all a matter of perspective. We all make a sound, and sometimes we don’t know what kind of an impact our unique resonance has on others through our music or our lives. So I focus on connecting.
Through increased “accessibility to production equipment”, more people are able to get equipment for less money and collectively finish a song from start to master. This has positive but also negative aspects. What do you think about this new trend?
I think it’s great. We are encountering artists we would have never heard had it not been for this new paradigm. I do think it provides new challenges when trying to uphold or increase world-class standards and raising the bar of production quality when more and more recordings take place in bathrooms, bedrooms, garages, or in compromised locations. That being said, a great song is a great song, whether it’s recorded on a Fostex 4 track cassette tape recorder, or an iPad... If it’s treated with respect and given the proper love and chance for artistry to shine... It can still be a work of art. Cream rises to the top, and hard work and talent always shines. So as long as we are all trying to make music that outlives us, I think it will keep us in good stead.
The demands of artists and the industry often diverge when it comes to artistic self-fulfillment and the pressure to commercially succeed. Do you have any wish for the future for this complex relationship between both?
To the degree that I’m able to use my voice within commercial production for different mediums, I do because it’s what keeps me interested, and it also resonates with the people that hire me. So I try to involve real musicians as much as I can, and to create music that is full of life, death and beauty. Sometimes I can achieve 20% of that artistic goal, other times 80%, but I always try, otherwise I feel like I’m losing my soul. That being said, I think having kids and a family has helped me find a balance between artistic endeavors and commercial success. I have to feed my family, and that depends on my artistic and commercial success. So keeping both in a tension helps provide a balanced framework which forces me to be much more efficient and focused in my creative and business pursuits. Restrictions are a good thing. Deadline restrictions or budgetary restrictions, can often force you to make creative choices you otherwise would not choose, and they often force you to improvise and to create unexpected results which are not reproducible. Nowadays, I think one of our challenges is to not get caught up in branding yourself, particularly with the advent of social media. I honestly think, you’re best served by being humble and keeping things simple. Develop your own voice at your own pace, and listen to what resonates within you, and what sparks you to want to create beautiful things or express emotions that connect you with yourself and others around you. The rest will take care of itself.