March 29 2024 - 2:30 pm

Operation Medic Bag: Blog Update #6 – Interview with PAYDAY 3 Composer Gustavo

+ + + + +

There is a massive variety of disciplines within the gaming industry. Thoughts may go immediately to coders, artists, or designers. Of course, there are many more, from 2D artists and visual effects to marketing and customer service. One of the most fantastic aspects of creating games is how all these disparate professions come together to create something beautiful as one.

Today’s blog is about one of those skills rarely mentioned when first thinking about game development but tends to hold a prominent position in the hearts of players: music!

We are fortunate enough to be able to work with Gustavo Coutinho. As a skilled composer and musician, he’s responsible for not only PAYDAY 3’s music but the last couple of years of PAYDAY 2’s musical journey as well.

Today we’re going to ask Gustavo about the process of making PAYDAY 3 sound so distinctly fantastic. These questions are about everything we could think of asking. If you want more interviews with the crew in the future, let us know, and let us know what teams you’d like to hear from in a future blog post.

What’s your name and role?

I’m Gustavo Coutinho and I’m a music composer and sound designer!

What’s your background?

My interest in music and sounds in general, came mostly from movies and games. Even without realizing, I used to pay a lot of attention to the music on those and I’d always be humming the soundtrack of a movie around.

But it was rhythm games like Guitar Hero that really sparked my interest in playing an instrument. I don’t come from a family of musicians or something like that, so I wasn’t exposed to musical instruments at a super young age. But when I was 15, I got a bass and got hyper focused on learning anything I could about music. I can now safely say it has become my lifetime passion and I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with two of the things I love the most, music and games.

How long have you been with Starbreeze?

I’ve been working with Starbreeze for over 6 years now (time flies!). We started working together in 2018 when I was called in to be SBZ’s in-house composer and work primarily on the score for Overkill’s The Walking Dead, which was going to be released later that year.

While I was working on OTWD, came the opportunity to try my hands at some PAYDAY 2 heists, which I did and it was an incredible experience. An awesome contrast – while OTWD was focused on the tension and emotional journey of living in a broken world filled with living dead and trying to stay alive, all of that conveyed mostly by acoustic instruments, PAYDAY was high stakes adrenaline and pure badassery with a focus on synthesizers and electric distorted guitars.

One of the reasons I started working with music for games was to explore several different genres and music styles, I felt right at home moving between two drastically different games and music styles!

After the warm reception of the community towards my music – something that I’m forever grateful for -, it was a natural movement for me to work on more PAYDAY 2 and eventually PAYDAY 3 and other Starbreeze projects.

How do you know what kind of style to go for when creating a piece for a new heist?

I think the style is something that I revisit for each heist. I try playing the heist and seeing what it tells me – is there something in the environment that points towards a certain style? Or maybe something in the story or the objectives that inspires me to use this or that instrument?

For PAYDAY 3’s “Rock The Cradle” heist, for example, the nighttime and the colors inside the nightclub, as well as the crypto wallet involved, made me think of something more bass focused and synthetic, but with organic movement. Since you’re indoors most of the time on this one, I also felt like I could enlarge the environment with something that had a slower tempo (slower for PAYDAY, at least). To me, slower tempo songs seem to make the world feel a bit larger while something super fast paced inside a small space can feel claustrophobic sometimes – which can also be used to great effect if we want!

Other than that, I also always try to take into consideration the huge sonic identity that PAYDAY has and try to inject that into every single heist track I make. it’s always a matter of balance between respecting what came before – both from myself and the previous composers who worked on the franchise – and bringing something new and exciting to the table.

What was the most challenging song to create for PAYDAY?

A few moments come to mind, one of them being the making of “On the Road”, the last PAYDAY 2 song. Trying to bring a western feel to the PAYDAY sound was already a hard enough challenge, but adding to that the fact that we were going to have lyrics, vocals and an orchestra playing it made it all that much more challenging, and also that much more exciting. It was a great team effort though, and I loved seeing the reaction of the community to getting a closure to PAYDAY 2, one that they seemed to like a lot!

On the other side of the stick, “Underground Lockdown” was also a huge challenge for me, being the first assault track I’ve ever made. Since I started working with Starbreeze, I always had a huge respect for the PAYDAY community, and I wanted to do right by them and honor the legacy of the game. That’s enough pressure for anyone! That’s also when I absolutely fell in love with composing for PAYDAY, I remember hearing the track in game for the first time and feeling that adrenaline rush, and I thought “yeah, I really love doing this!”.

What unique challenges are there in creating a piece for a video game?

Writing music for games is a rather unique task, especially when compared to other forms of media. For one, it’s not linear (like a movie or TV show), so you always have to take that into account.

You still need to hit emotional beats and important moments, but because of its interactivity, you never know exactly when those beats will happen, so your music always needs to be prepared to change to something different, sometimes rather quickly. That’s a challenge that actually influences a lot of my writing and that I embrace. I think this opens up the path for some unique musical explorations!

All of this interactivity also introduces some technical aspects that are inherently part of implementing all of that music into the game. And sure, some composers don’t ever need to touch that part, but I like to get my hands dirty when it comes to implementing the music because that makes me understand the technicalities of game dev better and that ultimately influences how I write for games while also opening up my mind for the possibilities at hand.

You also need to enhance gameplay mechanics and also sometimes convey that something is happening – like when you’re only certain that you killed all the enemies in a place because the music changed, for example.

And if on top of all that you also have something that feels memorable to the players, that they connect to and that they bring with them even outside of the game, then even better!

How long does it take to create a piece of music for a game?

I know this answer is boring, but the truth is that it depends on many factors like complexity, style and length – a track can be 3 minutes or 20, depending on its purpose.

I’ve written tracks in a week and others in a couple of months. Ultimately though, the games need to be released, so there’s always a hard deadline that you have to deal with – and of course we all try to make those deadlines reasonable.

Dealing with a continually updated game like PAYDAY 3 though, you need to be rather quick when writing if new content with new music is being released frequently. So writing for a game that releases content monthly or bi-monthly can feel very different than writing for a game that will be released in a couple of years.

Have you ever had to learn a new skill or instrument to fulfill your vision for a track?

Oh yes, a few times. For PAYDAY 2, for example, I picked up a few different instruments to use on different campaigns between 2020-2023, like the banjo for the Texas Heat heists, the Hulusi to use on the City of Gold heists and so on.

While I haven’t become a master on any of these instruments as that would take decades, it was super interesting to have actual contact with them, and even when I couldn’t play them at all (like the trumpets on the Silk Road heists), having a more hands on approach with them also helped me learn how to better write for them.

For PAYDAY 3 I also learned and used a lot of modular synthesizers and a baritone guitar, which I didn’t even know about before.

Now for Project Baxter (our upcoming D&D game), I’m learning a lot again about medieval instruments and different orchestration techniques, all while having a blast to be working with fantasy again!

I think that’s one of the coolest parts of working in so many different styles of music, the fact that you always have to be stepping outside your comfort zone and learning!

You manage to write in a few different styles, what are the difficulties in creating music in such different genres?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that you can start to feel too “comfortable” within a genre and you start to get molded by its tropes. You absolutely need to constantly break that mold if you want to write in different musical styles or even to evolve within one genre and find your own voice. But to me that’s the beauty of working with videogames and being able to explore different sounds and ways to explore a story or a feeling. One big plus, though is that these different music styles don’t exist in a vacuum, contrary to what we seem to believe. All spheres of music are influenced by all the other ones, and you as a composer can always mix up these different styles and walk between them to create something unique. It’s also such a cool moment when you realize that you’re using on an orchestral track a mixing technique that is usually used on EDM, or when you’re mixing an 808 beat with some Mongolian throat singing!

How do you ensure that a piece conveys the emotion or feeling you’re going after?

I think one of the best ways to see if a track is carrying what you want it to carry is to simply show it to others. Even if it’s to people who don’t know much about what that track is supposed to be, just that feeling of complete vulnerability when you’re showing something you created to someone else will force you to be honest with yourself. At that moment, everything you might be ignoring while creating will show up inside you – you’ll feel that the piece is not melancholic enough, or doesn’t pack enough energy, or isn’t tense enough, whatever the track needs to be.

And when it comes to videogame music, nothing beats actually trying out a level or a moment in the game with the music. You’ll have a good grasp then of what’s working and what’s not!

For the aspiring creators out there, what software do you use to make music?

My DAW of choice is Studio One 6 because it is the one that felt more comfortable for me to use. I think basically all DAWs nowadays can produce fantastic music, it’s more up to you to find the one that feels best for you, and that has a workflow that suits yours. When it comes to software synths, my main picks are Pigments, Serum and Zebra 2, although I do use Massive X every now and then and some other synths from Arturia like the Korg MS-20.

For drums, I usually use either Addictive Drums 2 or some drum kits that I build myself on Studio One. I also use a plethora of Kontakt Libraries, especially when it comes to orchestral and organic stuff.

When it comes to effects plugins, I use a lot of FabFilter, Soundtoys, Valhalla, some UAD plugins, everything from Cableguys, The Grater from Yum Audio (which is absolutely amazing) and a few amp emulations by Neural DSP.

Ultimately though, I always try to spend a good amount of time at the beginning of each project recording as many interesting sounds as I can from some of my instruments like guitars, basses, synths and anything else I have lying around. I also take this time to design a bunch of my own synth patches. That way I can build a small library of sounds, samples and presets that I made specifically for that project and that will help me create and define a solid sound palette for the game. These samples can range from single notes on a guitar to entire synth sequences that I can build on top of later on.

I absolutely love nerding out about this stuff, so if anyone wants to chat more about it or ask anything specific, hit me up on Twitter!

Where can people get more of Gustavo?

You can find my music on Spotify and Soundcloud, and I’m also on Twitter if you wanna chat and keep up with what I’m doing!

That’s it heisters! Join us again next week when we’ll explore the functionality of a currently unreleased throwable.

More PAYDAY 3 News

View All
Sign up to the Starbreeze Nebula Newsletter

Be among the first to get all the latest news for Nebula on all Starbreeze projects, including PAYDAY 3!