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Dirt 3

Creating the perfect game soundtack

...and what not to do. We caught up with Dirt 3 composer Christian Stevenson to talk the dos and don'ts of licensed music in videogames. Here's eight commandments every game should follow.


With the game's soundtrack just announced and the title under a week from release, we talked to the man who was responsible for putting the music under Dirt 3's hood: Christian Stevenson.

The film director, TV presenter, DJ and all-round music lover serves as both Dirt 3 composer and in-game commentator. Given his background in creating and scoring a wealth of action sports videos and his hands-on approach with both Dirt 2 and 3 (check him here talking briefly about the soundtracks a recent Dirt 3 event) he seemed the perfect person to ask what the rules are for creating the perfect licensed game soundtrack (and where others have been going so, so wrong.)

Dirt 3

Okay, firstly: what shouldn't you do in tracking a game?

Christian Stevenson: I can tell you one: [1] you don't want songs that burn out.. Look at Skate 2, one of the best soundtracks out there. They crushed on that soundtrack - but they didn't put enough songs on there. You got great great, huge songs, but there's not enough of them. they burn out. You got get tired of hearing them.

You want those songs to sound fresh - look at Grand Theft Auto. They crushed it - huge soundtrack, they had the memory in that game to handle that soundtrack. You want it to feel fresh, and people stoked to hear that songs again.

[2] You also don't want it to date. You still want it to sound cool from the first time you hear it, all the way to going back to the game years later. I'm back on Dirt 2 with my kids and they're loving it, and they get still excited by certain songs.

[3] Its got to fit the visuals . When we narrowed down the soundtracks for Dirt 2 and 3, we put every song to the visuals. We have samples of how its going to look and feel.

I go in thinking it will; then you hear it with the visuals of the car going around Battersea Power Station, and it doesn't work. But then it works in reverse for songs you think won't. Putting songs to visuals is how you know it works, and that's why its such a long, time-consuming process. Six hours in meetings, just talking about the music and if it works. Try to take it down and find the perfect soundtrack.

Dirt 3

Is there a need to feel, especially in light of GTA, that you're covering all bases, all genres?

C.S: I think because Dirt 3 is a bigger game than Dirt 2, it lends itself to a bigger soundtrack.

So you got the indie vibe like Everything Everything, then Black Spiders - full on rock, perfect if you're driving really fast. Then I went and got some classic stuff like Leftfield.

Remember '94, when dance music starting coming into mainstream? I went back and got some of that, mixed it in with the newer stuff. Like I got a guy from Brooklyn called Penguin Prison. He doesn't even have an album out yet, he's got his own little label and there's a track on there that sounds like Michael Jackson - my best mate told me that was the best thing I'd played for him in the past five years, since he first heard Friendly Fires.

So it's about [4] getting a good range of music . But I'm telling you, what is different with this game is the front end. When you're on a loading screen you don't want to get bored. You got all these visuals happening - Codemasters spent a lot of time and energy on their front end. It's one of their passions, one of things they're known for - and they got these songs that work with the front end. Artists like Lorne, Hudson Mohawke, Phonat, Starkey.

Don't know whether you've heard of Starkey. The track is "Okay Luv" - he's an artist/producer. He's heavily in UK grime but I think he's also a total videogame freak, because it's the beautifully produced sound from a Commodore 64 or a 16-bit, or 64-bit machine. It's so overly-produced and it works with the front end [of the game].

It's funny how all the sounds and blips you heard from videogames the last twenty years are now being used as in songs. But because of the technology they can make it sound so much bigger and much better produced. We have a lot of that on the front end. When I found that tune and played it to the guys at Codemasters they were like: "this is what we want for this game". They said: "imagine Inception Christian, and all the slow-mo blow up scenes. Soundtrack that - but with a car going sideways at you." I found that Starkey track and it went from there.

Dirt 3

I hope people can appreciate all the work and time that we've have spent putting the soundtrack together. Because we're game fans, we're all inspired. I was playing Red Dead Redemption during the making of that game and the score was incredible. That's the beauty of Rockstar - they know what they're doing with soundtracks. Of course the FIFA guys too - they get all the big songs, you got your NME and stuff - but to me that stuff dates. [5] We're just there to find stuff that's a bit more fresh, that's not so obvious.

It's seems more people have cherry-picked from whatever was in the top ten that week.

C.S: But that's your market, isn't it?

The cool thing is I'm a DJ. I was on radio for Kerrang when I was making Dirt 2, though I'm doing more live stuff now. And actually [6] playing songs to a crowd and seeing how they effect people, which is a great way of experimenting to see what what works.

I'm bringing those songs to Codemasters and saying "I played this song to thirty thousand people at Rebel X-Fighters and it went down a storm". I did a track of MIA called XXXO and it sounded so big and sick and awesome that I thought we got to get this song in. I'm kind of blessed to have that crowd to work with and experiment with my tracks.

Is that another rule? Test the material first, see if that energy transfers?

C.S:Sometimes yes. If it's the right kind of song that works on a live crowd. Some songs you stick on the front end [of the game] you wouldn't play for that kind of crowd. But I also make a lot of mix cds for friends.

I remember i made a mix cd and put a track by Manchester Orchestra, who supported Kings of Leon, with a track called "I've Got Friends". It's a track that builds and builds and builds. My friend came back and said "I can't stop listening to this". Its been out for a couple of years before I put it forward, but it didn't really go really big so it was kind of a new track to people.

I tried it out and thought it was going to be one of those songs that you have your playback from a rally and you're going to feel emotion and have like a religious experience with this song. Its that kind of song. [7] You find something new with it, and every time you play it and every time you hear it its going to be one of those moments that you're like "this is awesome, this is the best moment I've had in videogaming".

Dirt 3

Like when you're crossing that border in Red Dead Redemption, or on the barge and guys are throwing dynamite - those moments. I'm trying to evoke those...I keep going back to Rockstar don't I? [laughs]

Is there anything people should avoid?

I don't know. With Assassin's Creed II and you hear that Tiny Tempah track on the commercial - I liked that. I thought that was really ballsy. A great song, really cool. But then I heard people saying they don't like it, it doesn't really work.

So, there's certain things I think work - the problem is you can't please everybody and certain people just like their genre of music. But then there's videogames that touch metal and rock. And we've been doing that. Except for Brutal Legend which was full metal, thought it was a great game. Huge soundtrack.

Maybe...[8]just stay away from N-Dubz? I love all music bro, but I just think - stay away from music that's going to burn quick.

Avoid flash-in-the-pan, find stuff that's got longevity, is going to feel good and sound as good as it does three months, six months, maybe three years from now. The problem is that people play a game, finish it and it goes back on the shelf. Or as a trade-in or second-hand game. That's the last thing we want. we want people to hold onto that game, you want to make that game timeless. a great game, a great experience, a great soundtrack that people want to keep going back to it.

Dirt 3

Aside from the work you've done -what's the best examples of licensed game soundtracks?

C.S: The Skate series has been incredible. What did they open the second game with?
Showdown by E.L.O
? That was one of the coolest openings ever. Skate 3 had Joy Division...they actually had a few songs there I had ear-marked for Dirt. Joy Division, Pixies? And some classic Reggae tracks. I think those guys know exactly what to do but then look where they come from - our world. The action sports world.

Look at Ken Block. He's got the number one promo in the world with Gymkhana, which is in the game. That was released in September. And it had 30.5 million hits since then. Viral companies would dream to have this. The guys that make Ken Block's stuff? These are the guys that made snowboarding films for a living. These are people that did seminal films like Afterbang. It's funny how games are namechecking people from the action sports world. That's why Guy brought me in, he wanted that vibe. Look at Tony Hawk. I mean, he went crap at Project 8, but before that he was making excellent games with great soundtracks. Project 8 sucked.

Did you try Ride?

No. They tried to get me on the board to take photos of me. I said no. I don't believe in the game - they need to go back to basics. Because EA is crushing Activision on that. Neversoft has had it. I played the first Tony Hawk game, that first level Chicago? I played that for two months, all the time. It was brilliant.

Christian (left) with Ken Block and Bullet for my Valentine's Matt Tuck.

We'll be talking to Christian next week about how he went about selecting the music tracks for Dirt 3 (which you can check out the full track listing and listen to right here.)

Meanwhile you can check out what Ken Block thinks about Codemasters interpretation of the sport as part of our massive multi-part Dirt 3 presentation here and here.