Trevor Gureckis on making Dead Space’s score sound like a “massive heart attack”

EA’s remake of the sci-fi survival horror classic Dead Space was released earlier this year – completely rebuilt from the ground up, offering a deeper and more immersive experience, all new experiences and expanded narrative elements. Composer Trevor Gureckis explains how he wrote a space horror score for his first AAA game project…

Being a remake, it was important to Gureckis to maintain the authenticity of the original, unforgettable score by Jason Graves (which is still intact in the remake) while also blending his new ideas and adding his own signature music to bring out the new narrative elements, expanding upon Dead Space’s lore and offering a wholly new playthrough experience.

NYC-based Gureckis is no stranger to film and TV scores, and as a frequent collaborator of M. Night Shyamalan, he has scored four seasons of the director’s hit Apple TV+ show Servant as well as his recent feature film Old – however this was his very first game project.

Primarily set in a 26th century science fiction universe, like the original game, it is set on a mining spaceship overrun by deadly monsters called Necromorphs following the discovery of an artefact called the Marker, and players controls engineer Isaac Clarke as he navigates the spaceship and fights the Necromorphs while struggling with growing psychosis…

As a gamer I'm super thrilled to hear my own music in a game that I loved.

How does it feel now that Dead Space is finally out in the world?

It's great! It took a long time to put together, compose, go through orchestration and record and mix and the whole process, to then finally see it – and now I'm actually playing the game myself! This is my first game, so this is my first chance to hear my music in a game. As a gamer I'm super thrilled to hear my own music in a game that I loved way back in 2008. I was so thrilled to be part of this remake. It's been a lot of fun.

Had you always wanted to score a game prior to this?

Yeah, definitely. There are incredible musical opportunities and great composers working in the field. I ended up sort of following whatever was in front of me before, which for a long while has been film and TV projects. But this came along and at the right time. I've always wanted to do one and it was like a dream to actually do Dead Space.

we wanted to explore things like corruption, insanity and an illness that happens as you go further into the game.

This is your first ever AAA game project, and on a high profile remake – no pressure!

Thinking back, it was pretty intense! I tried to narrow my focus on what my initial goals were, which were to have some narrative aspects that they wanted to expand upon in the remake and to explore some new sounds and aesthetics that they thought they had the opportunity to do now they were doing a remake. 

Not only were they going to use some of Jason Graves’ original score in the game in some very key moments, but they also had very specific plans about expanding on the relationship between the main character Isaac and his girlfriend, who he’s searching for in the game. 

But we wanted to explore things like corruption, insanity and an illness that happens where as you go further and further in the game, you lose your mind and start seeing visions, so they wanted to see if music could be a part of that.

I'm not trying to rewrite Jason Graves' score

EA’s remake of the sci-fi survival horror classic was completely rebuilt from the ground up. Where did you start in terms of coming up with a sonic landscape and how it should sound, and being a remake, how important was it to maintain the authenticity of the original score by Graves (which is still intact in the remake) while also blending your ideas and sonic signature?

I'm not trying to rewrite the score. That's not what I was trying to do. But I was expanding on certain narrative things and looking for opportunities in the remake. I was definitely a fan of Jason's score since playing the original myself and know a lot of the influences that he's talked about publicly about where he got some of his ideas. I kind of went to a similar well [of inspiration], like Krzysztof Eugeniusz Penderecki, a 20th century Polish composer, in the way I was looking for performance techniques to get the orchestra players to perform in a certain way to create shocking, eerie and otherworldly sounds.

I would do that myself because I play violin and cello. I mean, I [does air quotes] “play” but just enough for a horror score! I used a lot of choir in my score, and that was because I was searching for similar influences, which I think was because Jason created the DNA across three games. So when I would write something, we would listen back with the audio team and ask ourselves, ‘Does this feel like it's gonna fit that space?’ That was an important question to ask: does it have the right shock value and is it delivered correctly?

That was a way to make it so that the player doesn’t feel like it is a really big shock of a composer jump – it's going from the original score and then suddenly hitting the new score.

My use of electronics was very intense in the score but it's still in the ambient universe, it's not too pounding or anything, it's got arpeggios and craziness but that's to make sure that we're not having that bump between the two scores.

Even in the opening scene, it starts out with his score, and then it jumps into my score within five minutes. When I was playing it, I was kind of surprised at how early that came in! But I also didn't really notice the transition, because it was like we're speaking the same language – the language of a space horror film score, like Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score.

we're speaking the language of a space horror film score, like Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien.

Tell us about one of the action battle sequences in Dead Space, which you called the craziest thing you’ve ever written…

There's a kind of language in the audio programme that runs Dead Space and it's based on intensity – so level four is high intensity and there's four layers of a track. When you get to layer four, it’s the biggest boss battle – it's really nonstop, high intensity, but it needs to grow the entire time because it's basically an entire run to the end.

It has these driving percussion parts, and percussion is not my favourite thing to write because it's not my strength. So whenever I have to do percussion stuff, I'm always like, ‘I'm gonna do big battle music,’ and I really went for it. It has all sorts of stingers and metallic sounds and they're all affected by all sorts of crazy reverbs.

Then we get into the actual fighting and get into the groove of the fight, and each step up is like a little bit of a bumper where the boss is transitioning to a different state. Then you go into the phase two section and everything's changing around you – and it needs to be more than the last time.

So then you go to the next bumper, and you're picked up and you're thrown around. It's pretty insane. I'm playing my cello like it's the monster itself screaming, putting it through distortion effects and stuff. I was throwing everything I could at this to make it a high intensity track. 

This is as big as I could make it. In all these cues, tracks are recorded with a full orchestra: 50 strings, 15 brass players, choir, wind instruments – the whole thing! The hive mind is like a massive heart attack of cello sounds.

It's pretty insane. I'm playing my cello like it's the monster itself screaming.

You mentioned that manipulating the instruments was key to creating these frenzied pieces of music. What is some of the studio kit you used to achieve this?

I’ve been using Waves plugins for 10 to 12 years – all of our machines at the studio have Waves Gold plugin bundles, so we have a complete set. 

We utilise a lot of things in a bit-by-bit situation. I use a lot of the tuning software like Waves Tune Real-Time and SoundShifter – the latter is really important for my workflow. I'll often shift my violin pitch down an octave to make it sound more like a viola or cello; it's a really clean sound. 

I also use a lot of the Limiters and the Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter in the mastering channelstrip, and then some of the synths as well. It's definitely in the workflow of the main things that go on here.

Waves' SoundShifter is really important for my workflow; I'll often shift my violin pitch down an octave.

What do you usually use Tune Real-Time for?

The tuning would be for pitch correction because I'm not a great violinist! [laughs]. So it’s mostly for correcting my playing on violin and cello, plus it's really easy to use and it's quick, so I can just get through it. It's really helpful and I've been using it for years.

I also love using Doubler, which is really great for creating an ensemble effect so that it sounds like more people are involved. It has a great lout of the box setting called dark fader which I also used on my other creepy thing that I work on, Servant by M. Night Shyamalan.

I play clarinet on this but I make it sound more like a bass clarinet using Doubler, and it just sounds really clean. Sometimes with these auto tuning inserts, you get a lot of flubbing sounds, but this particular one is pretty cool. It’s just a really great effect!

Game screenshots via EA.