The accidental excellence of GTA 5's soundscape (2023)

One of Grand Theft Auto’s most iconic elements has always been its soundtrack.

Ribcage-rattling beats blaring from a dozen different radio stations and bawdy tongue-in-cheek commercials have become the staple soundtrack to players' adrenaline-laced adventures. For the streets and hills of Los Santos, Rockstar vowed not only to continue the tradition, but ramp up the volume.

If Grand Theft Auto 5 is a picture of Los Angeles' more underground and (sometimes) criminal culture, the game's soundtrack is a substance of sound that feeds that culture directly into your soul. A soundtrack can make or break a game, and many game composers and series have cult followings fervent for the music alone — just look at Final Fantasy or any other popular Japanese role-playing series, and the fans who still blare old Kirby and Castlevania tunes from their car speakers.

In Grand Theft Auto 5, a lot of the city's and the characters‘ heart is something that can't be conveyed in boisterous dialogue alone. Even the narrative is helped along by the game's culturally-driven music.

Five of the game's composers sat down during the New York Film Festival this week to discuss creating the sounds of Los Santos. The panel, moderated by Pitchfork Media founder Ryan Schreiber, featured Rockstar music supervisor Ivan Pavlovich; Woody Jackson, whose composition credits include films like Oceans 12 and 13 and a handful of Rockstar titles; founder of German electronic music group Tangerine Dream, Edgar Froese; hip hop producer Alan Daniel Maman, known as The Alchemist, who is currently working as rapper Eminem's official DJ; and Maman's partner in the power duo Gangrene, Michael Jackson, also known as Oh No.

For the first time in the Grand Theft Auto series, the score — which has always been an integral part of the experience, Schreiber noted — is fully interactive, changing with mood and tension as players move through Los Santos. This project was a mammoth undertaking, he said, and the final product is that extra "umph" that brings the world to life.

"You could argue that the soundtrack doesn't supplement the narrative, but is a part of it," Schreiber said.

Grand Theft Auto 5's final soundtrack includes 241 songs, much less than originally planned. Pavlovich said in terms of licensed music, the team initially shot for 900 tunes, trying to get the rights to as many as they could and then scaling back as they went along. The pick of the litter went into the game, spreading out across 17 radio stations.

The accidental excellence of GTA 5's soundscape (1)

As for radio station personalities, Pavlovich said that this time around the team knew what kind of stations they wanted and looked for personalities that matched. But sometimes, they had a personality that they just had to use, and so they built stations around the individual.

"Once we have a good understanding of where the station is going, generally the host will relate to the songs that are selected," Pavlovich explained. "So with Kenny Loggins... the direction of the station just started to take a turn. There became more of an easy rock, 1970s kind of feel, and Kenny became the natural person to host the station."

Loggins, a singer songwriter known for his affinity for soft rock, jumped at the chance to host a radio station within Rockstar's game. But he wasn't the only celebrity to join the Los Santos airwaves. Actress Pam Grier hosts Lowdown FM, the game's soul station packed with low rider classics, while renowned funk bassist Bootsy Collins takes charge of the 80s funk station, Space 103.2.

"Sometimes it's based on personalities of hosts, like with Bootsy, then the reggae station with Lee "Scratch" Perry — gotta love that, since it's a little hard to understand him anyway," Pavlovich said with a laugh. "So you know, each one is decided as the stations are coming together."

"All we want to do is create an authentic world and have that sound experience reflect the world we create.'

This was a different approach than the route Rockstar took with Grand Theft Auto 4, Pavlovich noted, where the music wasn't such a high focus. This isn't the first time we've been to Los Santos, but now we're being told a different story. This gave developers the opportunity to rebuild — with new places, people and of course, sounds.

"So much of [the soundtrack] has to do with the world that's created," he said. "Look at at how those stations play a role in the overall game. In this version of California, we wanted to have a lot of the stations to have that Cali feel — like the classic west coast hip hop station hosted by DJ Pooh. We'd never done a pop station [before in Grand Theft Auto,] but for us... The first time you get off an airplane in L.A. and you hear the radio and the pop just seeps out... We wanted that. It really connects you to the world.

"All we want to do is create an authentic world and have that sound experience reflect the world we create," he added.

Compiling mixes for a radio station is one thing. But composing original music for other segments of the game is quite another.

"In terms of score, the challenging thing is that, when you're creating a score for Grand Theft Auto ... Grand Theft Auto never had a score before," Pavlovich said. "We had to be careful to how we were approaching it. It was a little bit daunting.

"With a game as big as GTA 5, our approach was to be very subtle in the score," he added. "And as we filled out the game — the three characters and lots of different environments — we wanted to focus on what those environments were and how the score would interact with those environments and the characters. That was our process."

Pavlovich called GTA 5's soundtrack a "truly collaborative score." The team of five composers began writing for the game long before most of it was finished. They saw it running once in the beginning, Pavlovich said, and from there built their music. Most of the score was done by the time they were shown the almost-final product, but even after that the soundtrack continued to grow until finally Rockstar made the call to cap things off and prepare the game for shipping.

"With a game as big as GTA 5, our approach was to be very subtle in the score."

"What we'd do is we'd give them direction for certain missions, and a lot of times just told them to make some [unassigned] music as well," said Pavlovich. "They were sending us music and then we'd figure out what missions those pieces would fit into best. Then we'd go back and ask them to build the music out even more."

Pavlovich said the music was built on what he called a "stem-based" system; each piece had to have another component that would change to reflect what players were doing in the game, making the sound interactive. Once a piece of music was assigned to a mission, the composers had to break it down into different stems depending on what the turn of events might be. They wanted the music to relate directly to the mission, so each heist and confrontation was scored with the utmost care.

Interestingly, it wasn't just one composer working on one tune at a time. The music was sent around among them, and each would add their own elements and pieces to the song, "building out" other composer's elements and creating melting pots of beats and rhythm.

"The hope was, in the end when we would see all these missions, a certain continuity would be achieved," Pavlovich said. "By having them all collaborate throughout the game, there is that continuity."

Froese said he was familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series, but when he got the call about possibly scoring the game, he didn't bite right away.

"I get offers from game companies. I would refuse because the game seemed really stupid."

"I get offers from game companies," he said. "I would refuse because the game seemed really stupid."

Froese though Grand Theft Auto 5 was "another stupid game." But after flying out to see what Rockstar was putting together, he had nothing short of a 180-degree change of heart.

"They flew me in and to be honest, my first impression was, that game right there puts cinema to shame that we know it," he said.

"It's that innate effect of it being so big and it's always an adventure," he added. "And even if you play the game a hundred times, there's always new aspects, and in my opinion, that the future of cinematic graphic development."

Grand Theft Auto 5 is the first video game Froese has scored. Over eight months he composed 62 hours of audio for "the most massive world," as he put it, and assisted the other composers by layering his own elements on their own pieces.

"I just wanted to work on it."

For Jackson — who has also worked with Rockstar on Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption — this is his first Grand Theft Auto score as well.

"I just wanted to work on it," he said. "I live my life with music and struggles and I'm not the perfect musician, but I love a challenge, and that's what it's like working at Rockstar. They let me do whatever I want — but it's also like a brick wall."

Jackson expressed trepidation when he initially learned that the composers would be building on each other's music. His biggest worry was how the group would create something fluid if there were so many cooks in the kitchen. His own first steps in creating the soundtrack focused around Trevor, the more unhinged member of GTA 5's trio.

The accidental excellence of GTA 5's soundscape (2)

"I decided his music was desert rock," Jackson said. "And when I first did it, I started to live these little fantasies. I formed a band and we called it Shark Week and we were a desert rock band, me and [the Mars Volta's] Deantoni Parks and Michael Shumen from Queens of the Stone Age... And [the music] was so good we had to make it not so good.

"First I thought, okay we'll just wing it and then I'm like wait, this is a job. So let me make sure I have a backup plan."

Jackson didn't hear a lot of his own pieces again until they had already been passed around. What Froese added to his music in particular moved Jackson emotionally.

"Edgar evolved the music, made it into a whole other thing," he said." It's this magic thing that doesn't really ever happen."

DJ Shadow — who is credited in the score but not the game itself — then took all the songs the group made and pieced them together. Jackson said once DJ Shadow had gotten his hands on them, it was like the pieces "exploded and then came back together."

"We all wrote these songs and then he sampled it and made it into these other crazy great things and it go twisted and convoluted into video game music that just suits the game," Jackson said. "The gameplay felt like a movie and it's never felt like that [for me], it's usually [for games] this heavy rock thing going on and you're shooting... But now, you'll go into a tunnel and the music changes, it puts up another level of entertainment."

The Alchemist said that when mixing tracks, he tried to "work around Los Santos" and make it really feel like that fictional L.A. Rockstar was striving for. While he and Oh No played things by ear with their first batch of music, as they began to receive pieces that had been built by Jackson and Froese,they decided the final overall sound of the score had to be "free and clear."

"They gave us a bunch of jams, almost 30 sessions worth," The Alchemist said. "They gave that to us and we went back and we treated those sessions the same way we treat a record. We were sampling, taking a piece form here, a piece from there. The first time [they all] heard it they were kind like, whoa, because we pitched stuff up, chopped it, tweaked it. Then we chose the tracks that worked and everyone came in and layered on that."

"It really is magic."

"It was almost like incest," he said, laughing, of the group's piling on each other's music.

"Edgar evolved funk into the hip hop then put his [style] over the top of it, and it was another magical moment," Jackson added. "It felt like, this music shouldn't really gel like that, but it did, and it just took it all to the highest level."

"This music is so laid back," he said; the music does sound almost effortless, whether you're listening to hip hop while blasting down a highway or waiting for something to queue up with the soft overtones of the loading screen music. But as the five men could attest, this was not the case, with the constant chopping, layering and mixing. "You almost think it's a mistake."

"My belief is, music is much more than what you listen to," Froese said. "It hits your consciousness... hits right into it, right at the moment before the visual image does. That is a magical moment. It really is magic."

Alexa Ray Corriea is a reporter for the website. Her most recent report was about the PS4's launch titles.

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