As a senior sound designer, Oli Grant tinkles the Dreamiverse ivories whilst he composes music and audio in Dreams. Working on in-game live events such as DreamsCom '22 and All Hallows' Dreams, he delivers a symphony of soundtracks, sound effects, and audio. Here, we chat to Oli about local DJing, spooky soundtracks, and trusting your ears.
Hi Oli! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I'm the senior sound designer, so I look after the musical direction of projects, mostly on the live team, sometimes solely on sound design and sometimes solely on music. It's not just working in Dreams, although that's the bulk of the work. Outside of Dreams, I could be making tools and instruments for our library of sound effects. Or if we have trailers going out, I could be doing the post-production on that, tweaking the voices or working on the final mix. I love all things audio, whereas some people are very specific in what they enjoy.
What does that actually look like on a on a day-to-day basis? Are you making music? Are you developing audio and background noises as well?
It depends on the project or how many people we have available, because sometimes it's nice to just divide it up into someone's musical vision and someone's sound design vision, which is actually what we did for All Hallows' Dreams this time around. I looked after the music of the event but owned some scenes entirely, for example the chase scene with Connie, and the Llama council. The music concept work started about 3-4 weeks before we were starting to get the levels together, so that I could get an idea of what direction I wanted as it evolved. I like both aspects of the work for different reasons.
Sound design is very satisfying for a variety of reasons, one of those being that I get to put my logic hat on and delve into the left side of my brain, making sure that gameplay, logic contraptions and states work as intended. I'm a firm believer that good logic and good implementation makes for great sound design. You can have a contraption that's really well-made with a simple sound pass, which works perfectly, and feels really good to listen to and interact with. As for in-game music, I compose most of it in Dreams. Sometimes I create instruments outside of Dreams and import them in to give a little bit of extra flavour for the tracks, but it's mostly done within the tools.
So how did you design the audio for The Land of Lost Dreams? There's a huge amount of variety, from traditional horror sound effects to llama noises.
We set out wanting to create an interdimensional horror experience, so it's not super spooky. It's got some traditional Halloween elements, but became a different beast by mixing in a few different genres, which is completely up my street. I love when a combination of moods and styles combine to create something unique. So when I first started writing the music, I was writing traditional Halloween music, but in terms of inspiration, that came from shows like Adventure Time and Midnight Gospel. Kind of cartoony weird, and that's absolutely my jam. Particularly as they appeal to people of all ages, with in-jokes for older audiences. We had a playlist that contained the weirdest mix of inspirations. It had a whole range of tracks like hybrid orchestral electronic music, some really interesting composers, as well as old school hip hop, if we wanted to take it that end of the spectrum. There was also some sort of old 80s synthwave-sounding stuff.
For the sound palette, I had this idea in my head that I wanted to really lean into the 90s era of synthesisers, which relied heavily on sampling old warm vintage tech not very well, resulting in a digitally distorted slightly tinny and percussive texture which, for the lack of better word, sounded naturally janky. It felt like the perfect kind of crappy for a land of abandoned dreams. I was listening to a podcast recently and there was a noisy sampled keyboard interlude which sounded like a mellotron, which is this old-school electromechanical keyboard. It was just this 30 second little loop, but it completely sparked off my own interpretation of the whole Halloween event.
What's been your favourite thing that you've worked on so far since you've been at Mm?
DreamsCom was really fun because it was a small team of us, and we basically just went to town on the audio and visual direction, making a space we would all collectively choose to build in real life if we were physically there. And the venue we created for it allowed me the chance to make music I love to make, taking influence from hip-hop, reggaeton, electronica and garage, all with a summertime twist to fit the space. The VR content was really fun as well, because it was quite a blank canvas of a project. It was deliberately quite simple but I wanted to see how much over-the-top sound design I could add to very simple cubic structures and white backgrounds. Trying to breathe life into an environment like that was a really fun challenge. But I think the most satisfying part of working on the live team events is seeing the coMmunity react to everything we do.
How did you get into the industry?
Yeah, so I've had a weird route. I was never really put through instrument or music classes or anything as a kid but I've always been heavily into music. My mum ran a dance group, and she would cut together these mixes for it using some really cheap software. I was super ill once when I was like 12 or something and I had this software on a laptop and just the default Windows sounds to work with. I was like "I'm gonna mess around with this and see what happens" and ended up making track after track with these bleeps and bloops. It was fun, so I got a copy of MTV Music Generator 2 on PlayStation 2, and I spent hours every night playing that. And this was a hobby, but I was getting super into it because it was one of those rabbit holes I could never find the bottom of. I never got to a point where I was like "I've completed music" because you simply can't. It just sucks you in forever and keeps forcing you to reflect and improve, which is something I love about it.
Then I started producing electronic music and putting it out and I was getting a little bit of traction when I was 15. I was DJing locally and I had my first label signing, which was really exciting. But then I realised I was missing a few fundamentals and I thought, you know, I need to actually work on my musicianship and composing ability. At the time, I was just training my ear and ability to mix sounds, and engineering just through trial and error, trying to imitate my favourite artists. So I managed to get onto the course in college for music technology by just meeting the head of the department and saying, "Hey, I've been making all this stuff. I know I don't have a background in it. Can you let me on your course?"
After college I went off to university in Bournemouth, and while I was at uni, I decided I did want a job in this field afterwards, and they're not exactly just handed to you. So me and my friends set up our own business doing post-production, sound and music for basically anything at that point so we could build up our portfolios, gain experience and pay rent. We got our first few commissions for student films and mini-games, but then we managed to land one of the BT adverts, just through word of mouth from working with someone. And we were super excited - we actually went on a bit of a mad one.
We did all sorts of weird things for it, like there was a scene where there was someone whisking eggs, so we went to the shop to get eggs to record it really close up at multiple angles. We just sat there whisking eggs for ages. From there we got a Sony Experia advert which started to get traction and at this point we sort of realised that we'd worked on a whole range of projects. So I started to apply for game audio jobs, fully expecting to continue freelance after getting some in-house experience. And then I saw this voiceover designer role at Media Molecule posted somewhere online. It was a short contract initially, but I worked there for a little while getting my head around the studio workflow and just completely fell in love with the Dreams tools instantly. Then they kept me on as a sound designer, and later promoted me to senior sound designer.
How do you find using the audio tools in Dreams compared to professional audio software?
I think that to me that the bonuses outweigh the limitations - because there are a few limitations, so we might as well start with a negative. It's hard to do final mastering and the little 5% tweaks that give your tracks a radio-ready finish in the Dreams tools, because we lack a couple of the dynamic processes and extra things you need to give it that final polish. But saying that, it's almost laughable how slow working in traditional music software feels in comparison, because everything you could want is two clicks away in Dreams. To get music on a timeline and to have access to every scale immediately without, as it is in traditional software, trying to get the correct drivers to work... and then by the time you're able to work, you’ve lost the fleeting inspiration. There's just a complete fluidity in Dreams from ideas to actualising it, which I can't quite believe isn't the normal workflow for these other tools.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone looking to get into audio design?
Yeah, I would say trust your ears. It sounds silly, and it sounds obvious, but if it sounds good to you, then it is good. The important part is to expose yourself to a range of inspiration and push the boundaries of what you consider to be good. I feel like the biggest skill I've developed over the years as an audio designer is trusting my decisions, and not letting comparison or fear of judgement stop me creating, or if I'm hitting someone else's bar, as ultimately my decisions are what give me my voice. And the same goes for every other creator out there. But more to the point, to get into audio design as a career, I think it's quite important to have a varied background, but be specific in what you like the most. Find what you enjoy the most because there's so many different branches the role can take: you could enjoy processing dialogue which requires a very refined ear for subtlety to be able to do properly, or you could be someone that really enjoys throwing paint to the canvas creating previously-unheard sounds for sound design.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
So while I'm working I get idle hands - they have to be doing something - or if I'm waiting for a level to save or something to upload, I'm immediately trying to find the next fix of entertainment. So on my desk I have a JX-03, which is a little synthesizer, which is teeny tiny and it's super fun to just immediately start plonking away on, and it's actually what made a lot of the sounds for The Land of Lost Dreams. I also have this little Maschine Drum Pad, which is great fun for just bashing about on when I get bored. And then we'll just set up and be ready to go whenever. So basically in between talking and typing, I'll be smacking out drum patterns to my left and on my right I have a cauliflower sandwich. But, you know, that's neither here nor there.
So to wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
So my first shout out goes to an absolute banger of a track made in Dreams, Ethlx, by sacboy2003. They’re a Dreams audio artist putting out some amazing tracks, but Ethlx is definitely a standout. It’s this excellent electronic track that blew my mind when I first heard it that someone could have made it in Dreams. Give it a listen. I also want to give a shout out to Lady_SnipeShot. I don't know if she's been talked about before, but she's this creator in the Dreamiverse that's been uploading really high-quality vocals and making them remixable, which is just brilliant. I feel that’s the one thing we’re lacking in the Dreamiverse library and it's great that she's adding that for everyone.
I played this rhythm game not too long ago called Musicalum (by Computer_Cat and Nicco555), and I absolutely loved it. It's almost like an old EyeToy game where you're hitting the different beats in time with the music, but they managed to get the feel of the interaction spot on like in Beat Saber. I don't know how they did it because I've tried a few times to make rhythm games in Dreams but because I'm not a game designer, I’m still learning all the tiny little psychological gameplay tricks that makes this game feel so good. They completely nailed it though, plus it has really great music in it, and a variety of levels which is always a bonus.
My final recommendation, not for the music, but more so for the sound design is the PROTOLAND demo by Paulo-Lameiras. I really appreciated the stylistic approach to the sound design, which worked really well. Like it could have easily gone all massive explosions and everything. But there was lots of subtlety added there, like the details of the robots falling apart. I honestly love it when creators go above and beyond with their sound design, as it really takes their creations to the next level.
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