Music for 'Grand Theft Auto V'

Smoky and shimmering, pools in every backyard, entire city blocks of tattoo shops, palm trees lining wide expanses of boulevards, windy canyons around each corner, vistas of endless cityscapes, and a sky that never quite gets dark—this is Los Santos, the setting for Grand Theft Auto V.

Smoky and shimmering, pools in every backyard, entire city blocks of tattoo shops, palm trees lining wide expanses of boulevards, windy canyons around each corner, vistas of endless cityscapes, and a sky that never quite gets dark—this is Los Santos, the setting for Grand Theft Auto V.

The latest installment in the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto franchise creates its environment in Rockstar Games’ interpretation of Los Angeles County. In Grand Theft Auto V—which grossed one billion dollars within three days of its release and ultimately became the biggest-selling entertainmnet product of 2013—there are three protagonists: Michael De Santa, a successful one-time bank robber pushed to come out of retirement; Franklin Clinton, an up-and-coming criminal who has been taken under De Santa’s wing; and Trevor Philips, De Santa’s former partner in crime. Players can switch between the three characters during the course of any of the missions in the game.

In Grand Theft Auto GTA, music is at the forefront of the user experience; character missions feature an interactive score that changes each time the game is played, and the game’s soundtrack features hundreds of tracks that can be played on a range of radio stations in cars acquired during the game.

Music for GTA V is packaged on three discs. Volume I: Original Music features tracks that carefully culled artists have created for the game; these play on the radio stations. Volume II: The Score is created by Tangerine Dream, composer Woody Jackson, and hip-hop artists/producers The Alchemist and Oh No, and arranged by DJ Shadow. Volume III: The Soundtrack features music licensed for the radio stations.

Volume I: Original MusicGTA V features 17 radio stations: two talk stations and 15 music stations. Various celebrities appear as DJs: Pam Grier hosts the low-rider ’60s/’70s funkand- soul station The Lowdown 91.1, under the guise Mama G. Grier reads a script co-written by Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser and GTA regular Lazlow Jones (who has been writing for the franchise since the introduction of the radio stations in III). On Radio Mirror Park, Twin Shadow hosts; he reads Jones’ script, but has also created original music for the indie-music station. The same goes for the experimental EDM station FlyLo FM, hosted by Flying Lotus. Then there’s West Coast Classics, the ’80s and ’90s West Coast rap station hosted by the legendary DJ Pooh, where Pooh—a veteran GTA entity since the San Andreas installation where he was co-writer and co-producer—also serves as a creative consultant and a writer for the station. Other station DJs include Soulwax, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bootsy Collins, real-life radio personality Don Cheto, Kenny Loggins, and Black Flag/Circle Jerks/Off!’s Keith Morris.

Music is programmed to match the locale of each game scene. After five years of game development, including numerous research trips to Los Angeles, the look and feel of the city is captured not just visually but aurally. “The music has to support the city,” says Rockstar’s director of music, Ivan Pavlovich, who also co-founded Chicago house label Guidance Recordings, which provided the music for Smuggler’s Run in 2000, the Rise FM station on GTA III in 2001, and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories in 2005. “The music connects to the environment; the DJs and hosts do the same. These are people who live here [in Los Angeles], know the scene here, so we want to incorporate them as much as possible, to make it feel authentic to this world we’re creating.”

The Original Music The select artists chosen to contribute original songs for GTA V are ones that are not only representative of “Los Santos,” but also ones that Rockstar is fans of and who felt can deliver material that will work for the game.

“[Rockstar] approached me in 2011 to do a track,” says The Chain Gang of 1974’s Kamtin Mohager, whose song “Sleepwalking” is featured on Radio Mirror Park and is used in the official trailer for GTA V. “They were secretive at first, wouldn’t tell me what it was for, and were very strict as to how many details they wanted to give out,” he says. “I asked for direction and they said, ‘Just do you.’ When I started working on my new album, Daydream Forever, I subconsciously wrote ‘Sleepwalking’ to go with the aesthetic of the game.”

Mohager presented Rockstar the demo for “Sleepwalking,” which was then beefed up by producer Tony Hoffer for Daydream Forever. The former leaked—to very little notice, until the game trailer was released, after which things went haywire online as fans found the original demo.

Mohager wasn’t told “Sleepwalking” was going to be the trailer song until a week before it was broadcast. “To be able to present something you’ve created through such a massive platform is a bit overwhelming,” says Mohager, a committed GTA player. “The second you create art and you put it out in the public, it no longer belongs to you. The public has the right to say whatever they want about it and do whatever they want with it. As a human, I have insecurities, but seeing people react positively to ‘Sleepwalking,’ and hearing the song when the game is being played is an incredible feeling.”

Volume II: The Score Composers were assigned to each of the game protagonists to create their signature scores. Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese created De Santa’s score, Alchemist and Oh No (who worked with Rockstar on Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars; Alchemist also contributed an original song for GTA IV, “Dirty New Yorker,” with Mobb Deep) for Clinton’s score, and Jackson (who has worked on numerous Rockstar games) created Philips’ score. But the music heard at any point during the course of the game or on The Score disc is an amalgamation of the composers’ sounds in a true collaboration.

The score kicks in when a mission starts; it is delineated from the radio station music by shifts in action such as getting out of the car and having a conversation with another character. The score reacts to game play throughout the mission: Eight music stems function as tracks within a song; these stems stack upon each other according to action requirements, as well as play on their own. For example, fewer stems play during the initial, stealthy shoot-out of a mission; more play back during the next, bigger shoot-out; and all eight in the final, full-on shoot-out. This way, different music is heard each time. As characters and environments change, the score evolves seamlessly.

“It was really important that the different scores don’t feel disconnected,” says Pavlovich. “We describe each mission in detail to the composer(s). They record music, we go through it, pull out elements, and place them in the mission. When we find the right moment for them, we go back to the composers and ask them to develop that. Then they’re scoring the different movements in the mission with those in mind and start adding layers. We go back and forth a lot. We then start passing everybody’s music to each other. It is a complete collaboration, even though they aren’t doing it together. They didn’t know what was in the game until they played the game.”

“Oh No and I were trying to wrap our brains around how this is going to work,” says The Alchemist. “Each time you play the game, things are going to happen differently. It wasn’t so much about the automation of it, but about creating stems that were interesting. They explained it to us, but we didn’t completely understand because there were so many things for us to deliver. It was different from making your own album because as an artist, being stubborn, it’s got to go one way or you can’t deal with it. It was good to have a task. You just have to deal with it. In the end, it was a trust thing.”

The Alchemist sampled Woody Jackson’s recordings and overdubbed horns and orchestral parts. Jackson is the bridge between Tangerine Dream’s electronics, The Alchemist and Oh No’s hip hop, and his own desert rock, putting together a makeshift band of topnotch musicians called The Navin Johnson Memorial Barbeque (a reference to The Jerk), featuring Money Mark on Rhodes and Roland SH-101; Joey Waronker on drums; Alfredo Ortiz and Davey Chedwiggen on percussion/drums; Gus Seyffert and Gabe Noel on bass; Zac Rae on Hammond B3, Clavinet, Rhodes, Farfisa Soundmaker, RMI, and Memorymoog; Mike Bolger on Hammond B3; Dan Hastie on Clavinet, Rhodes, and Mimimoog; and himself on guitar. The group recorded onto 2-inch 24-track in Jackson’s storied, wholly analog Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Cutting 24 tracks of structured jams, each running between six to eight minutes long, in two days, the resulting material is informed by the early ’70s Quincy Jones funk. (Think “Hikky-Burr.” the theme song for The Bill Cosby Show.)

From these recordings, The Alchemist and Oh No took their samples and choppings. Upon creating their beats, they brought them back to Vox and Jackson’s team to record overdubs, including horns, orchestration, bass, and guitar. The music was then sent to Froese for final touches.

Wavves’ Nathan Williams and Stephen Pope record dialog for alternative rock station Vineland Boulevard Radio. Jackson was also the troubleshooter for the three scores; when the hip-hop beats landing intentionally behind the beat sounded off instead of gridded, Froese struggled with the sequencing, because each bar had a slightly different BPM. Jackson had the extraordinary Hammond B3 player Zac Rae play those sequences live with the same result that Froese had with his machines.

For his own score, Jackson put together another supergroup called Jaws with Mars with Volta drummer Deantoni Parks, T Bone Burnett keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, Queens of the Stone Age bassist Michael Shuman, Black Keys bassist Gus Seyffert, and himself on guitar. Pulling together ideas on his iPhone while practicing, Jackson quickly wrote and tracked 16 desert-rock-style songs and had the group play over those as live jams, which they recorded in three days. The result sounded like instrumental songs rather than a score, so Jackson was left to troubleshoot his own creations. To resolve this issue, he first stripped back heavy guitar riffs, bringing bass and drums to the forefront. He then played guitar sequences in the vein of Tangerine Dream, using tempo-synced delays with a Strymon Timeline and a Vox King wah pedal for filter sweeps. Rae and Palmer added keyboards, and the mix was sent to Froese to complete. Layering Tangerine Dream’s sensibilities on top of the other styles pulled everything together.

Tyler the Creator records tracks for GTA V. Scripting In Action Scripting matches the stems to the moves in the mission. Here, there are two main factors to consider. One: In a mission, how can you make each action feel different and also focus on everything happening between the big moments, making it all feel cinematic? Two: With players performing at various speeds and skill levels, how to keep the music from becoming tedious and interfering?

“There are so many different possibilities in an interactive game,” says Pavlovich. “Music has an effect, in movies and in video games. If you don’t notice it, but you feel it, it’s accomplished its job. When you focus on the music too much, it detracts from the game play. This is where we work with the team at Rockstar North in scripting and scripting again to find a balance. If we start getting sick of the music, we have to re-script and change the music, bring certain elements down and off to the side. For people who have a tough time in the game, the music can really throw you out. Last thing I want to be responsible for is somebody not playing the game.”

Woody Jackson assembled an all-star band to record desert rock for GTA V. Under DJ Shadow The methods for mixing stems for the game and The Score disc are completely different: In the game, there is no beginning, middle, end, or structure to the stems. For The Score, DJ Shadow created songs out of each mission’s stems.

Before Shadow was handed over the Pro Tools files from each composer, Jackson went through all of the material—a combined six terrabytes worth—and filtered out redundancies, labeled sounds, and organized files; this portion of the process took three times longer than the 10 or so days Shadow had to complete his part. Shadow was given each mission’s eight stems, comprising five to six elements, as well as additional material that didn’t made it into the game, titled either with the mission’s name or a quote from the mission; he was given free license to work without any consideration for how the stems fit into the game.

“Shadow is a crate-digger, a beat-miner,” says Pavlovich. “We liked the idea of taking someone who’s not involved, completely unaware of how the music works in the game, and asking him to find samples in our stems and create a song out of them—without adding any production. Some of the songs feel really close to what’s in the game, but some of them—the ones we appreciated the most—were the ones in which he dug something out and made the focus the part of the song that we would never have thought of. The elements he pulled out made it exciting to us again, especially after we had spent so much time with it.”

Volume III: The Soundtrack There are 241 songs at the player’s disposal on the 17 radio stations of GTA V. Just like on a terrestrial or satellite station in the real world, the dialog on the stations includes jokes and references to the virtual world. There are commercials for brands created for the game. Plus, the stations broadcast news that relates to the progression of the game, depending on a player’s progress in the storyline, changing as the player moves through the missions. The radio plays on V’s own 24-hour clock, so at any point, players can get back into a car, turn on the radio, and be mid-song, or mid-commercial, or mid-dialog, or mid-news, or at a station ID. The Punk Rock station, Channel X, features 12 characteristically brief punk songs clocking in at far under an hour, total. Elsewhere there could be a 22-song station without a time limit.

For stations such as Flying Lotus’ FlyLo FM, the majority of the music is his own and he had input on the tracklisting. Tracks that aren’t Flying Lotus’ material are chosen by the Rockstar team; still, the balance of the tracks on FlyLo FM flows with his own music.

“It’s such an open time to share what you like that I don’t believe people judge you based on your playlist,” says Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison. “People might try to box themselves to be part of a smaller group. But in this Internet age, you can’t be separate. We’re all in it together—whether you like it or not. I almost wish there was one station of all random music that was more personality-based, not genre-specific. We’re living in genre-less times where everybody listens to everything. Nobody’s into just one thing.”

Reading the script Jones and Houser wrote for him marked Ellison’s first time doing voiceover. He portrays a stereotyped version of himself: a snotty, self-righteous, self-obsessed, indie musician who hates the mainstream— which may be how the public perceives him, but not what he is at all.

“At first, I thought I was furthering the stereotype. Then I thought, it’s always good to laugh at yourself and your peers,” says Ellison. “It wasn’t the easiest or the hardest thing, but it was a good time, and [Jones] is a really funny dude and such a nice guy.”

“It’s about picking the right people—not because they’re big names, but because they are talented and you have trust in them and faith that they’re going to do right by the project,” says Pavlovich. “My respect for the composers, for Shadow, for the artists is beyond. To know what the expectations are before starting and being very clear on everything, once you set up these understandings, the working relationship is incredible.”

Lily Moayeri is based in Los Angeles. Visit her website at