Video Game Scoring with Sensory Percussion: An Interview with Composer Joris Daniel
A collage of 3 photos: an orchestra, a screenshot of the alien videogame, and a photo of Joris playing Sensory Percussion.

Joris Daniel is a Los Angeles-based composer/producer who has worked on many musical projects for television, film, video games, and theatre. He's also a longtime Sensory Percussion user, and he recently brought these two worlds together by using Sensory Percussion on the Grammy-nominated score for the video game 'Aliens: Fireteam Elite,' a game based on the legendary 'Alien' film franchise. In our conversation, Joris details how Sensory Percussion added organic sound design elements that allowed him to channel the slithery textures of the iconic Xenomorph alien creatures.

A behind-the-scenes look at the recording process for the Aliens: Fireteam Elite OST

What’s your musical background and how did you first start using Sensory Percussion?

My background has always been music production and drumming, and they’ve always augmented one another in some kind of way. I went to school for music production and drums in the Netherlands, where I’m from originally. When I found out about Sunhouse, I was already working here in the United States as a video game composer. I was already into finding weird ways to manipulate sound with MIDI controllers and stuff. Then I saw Ian Chang using Sensory Percussion and it seemed like it did the drum equivalent of that: electronic modulation in the most organic way possible.

How did you end up using it on the 'Aliens: Fireteam Elite' project?

Well, I was working with the amazing composer Austin Wintory. He had asked me to help make synthesizer sounds and additional patches for the scores to be used within his orchestral setting. He wanted sounds that evoked aliens, and his idea was that they should sound super organic because we're thinking about these biomechanical alien creatures, right? So everything needed to be slithering and just, like, moving at all times.

I knew a regular percussion pack wouldn’t really cut it. I hate when I hear a sample and I’m just like, “This is a Battery pack,” or “This is some Splice sample.” So that's why I told him we had to bring in Sunhouse for that kind of stuff. I sent him a little demo video of me using Sensory Percussion to show him what it was and he was sold immediately. After that, I would just do various passes over the track playing percussive sounds with Sensory then I’d edit a little bit and send it back and forth to Austin.

The proof of concept video Joris sent composer Austin Wintory to show the potential of Sensory Percussion

The way we used SP in 'Aliens: Fireteam' was pretty abstract; I wanted to provide a rhythmic layer of alien sounds feel like they're always on the move, just like the Xenomorphs in the game. So each hit had a randomized sample start time and a pretty long release time for a nice tail. This meant I got some overlaps that made them sound more like drones, so I always made sure there were some envelopes with a short attack controlling the volume for a nice punch. I also randomized panning with the random LFO for that nice "chasing" horror effect that's coming from all sides. Sometimes I would also control the playback speed to my playing velocity or speed for some really distorted weirdness. Anytime you hear some weird fluttery percussion, it's most likely Sensory Percussion. It really helped add a grimy layer of rhythms.

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Are there any particular features of Sensory Percussion that allowed you to achieve these alien-like textures?

Well the Xenomorphs (aliens) in the game are always on the move, so I wanted sounds that feel like they’re moving. Each hit has a randomized sample start time as it cycles through a pool of fx, and a pretty long release time for a nice tail. Naturally, I'd get some overlaps, making it sound more like drones, so I always made sure there were some envelopes with a short attack controlling the volume for a nice punch. I also randomized panning with the random LFO for that nice "chasing" horror effect that's coming from all sides.

Sometimes I would also hook up the playback speed to my velocity or speed for some really distorted weirdness. There's a track called "Anytime" where you hear some weird fluttery percussion, that's that effect in Sensory Percussion. It really helped add a grimy layer of rhythms.

For some of the lower monster sounds, I’d control the pitch of a longer sample with the speed of my playing. When I’d play faster, I’d get a super attacking sound and then when I’d slow down, it would become more of a grimy sound.

The actual acoustic percussive instruments in the orchestra were panned to the center, so anything I did with Sunhouse always used a very wide stereo field. I wanted it to feel almost binaural, as if it's like, “Oh it's behind me, now it's to the left.” Similar to the feeling of watching a horror movie. The feeling of the creatures being all around you is part of what makes it so scary.

In addition to your professional scoring projects, you also use Sensory Percussion heavily in your band EMAEL. How does your approach differ between these two musical contexts, if at all?

I love using Sensory in both contexts, but it's slightly more traditional the band setting because I’m actually working with drum sounds. We used to have a tagline that was, “shapeshifter of the electronic and organic” or something like that, and I feel like you could say the same thing about Sensory Percussion.

I’d say I use a lot of the similar parameter controls in both. Like in EMAEL, I’ll sample some white noise from my synth and then manipulate it inside of Sensory Percussion with speed or velocity controllers. But it’s usually a bit more functional as a traditional percussive instrument, like a hi-hat sound with just some extra spice. I’m stoked to use it in a live setting because up until now, I’ve mostly used it in the studio.

The tracking period for 'Aliens: Fireteam Elite' happened before Sensory Percussion 2 was announced, so you obviously used v1. An an early adopter of v2, how have you found the experience? Any new features you've been using?

I've been having a BLAST integrating v2 into my workflow. In my opinion, v2 did the unthinkable and improved every aspect of what made v1 already such an inspiring tool to work with. There are 2 stand-out features that makes v2 a gamechanger for me:

  1. The layers approach and the modular nature of it: being able to have a virtually endless hierarchy of nested modules, that can all react to one another but can also be completely independent if needed, is a dream come true. I love that we're not necessarily tied to a "per-drum" setup anymore, but rather a collection of percussive, melodic, and textural layers that are controlled by maybe one zone on a drum, OR all zones on all drums, depending on the situation.

  2. The addition of non-sensor inputs into the software is amazing! I've been loving running synths and mic'd acoustic instruments into the software and being able to control FX parameters with my playing. For video game audio, it's been inspiring to run the output of my DAW into SP, let my playing influence the sound of my track, record Sensory drums, and send it all back to the DAW. These workflows capture sounds that were previously impossible to create or program, so I've been digging into this a lot.

Do you think you'll use v2 on any video game projects in the future?

I know I'll be using it all the time. Being able to create unique performances and mangle them together with other sources of audio creates an endless amount of possibilities. It's easy to get lost in just playing, so I like to keep the recording going and select my takes afterward. For one project, I wanted to mimic a granular synth/processor, but play it live. I ended up splicing a 4-bar phrase into 250 snippets of audio and laid those out on my snare as a sequence so that my playing speed dictates the speed of the phrase. SP v2 had zero issues playing this 250-step sequence, and it ended up sounding way cooler than my granular synth. So, yes, v2 will be all over my future productions and projects.

You can hear the entire 'Aliens: Fireteam Elite' soundtrack on Spotify

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