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From Gamer to Game Composer: An Interview With J. Scott Rakozy

His career so far has proved the old adage: success is when opportunity meets preparation.

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By Zach Collier

A composer, sound designer, and audio engineer, J. Scott Rakozy has worked on some cool stuff in his professional career so far. He did recording sessions for the first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, ADR sessions for Paramount’s Yellowstone, as well as orchestral sessions for games like Warhammer: Chaosbane and Guild Wars 2. He’s worked with major companies like Ubisoft and Verizon while also creating sound effects and music for a new up and coming AAA video game.

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His love for orchestral music and soundtracks dates back to the mid 90’s. “The good ol’ N64 years!” he says. “Games like Banjo-Kazooie, Ocarina of Time, Perfect Dark, and many other classics really emphasized the impact that music had when playing those games. Perfect Dark had this amazing, synth-heavy, pulsating soundtrack whereas Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie had more quirky, light-hearted scores. And both N64 Zelda titles, although they used practically the same character assets, varied greatly as far as the score went.”

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Back then, all of these scores were driven by the chipsets inside Nintendo’s system. Instead of live sound recordings, they were all MIDI compositions. Rakozy’s mind was blown when his family got the first Playstation. “When we got a PS1, I remember Nobou Uematsu’s score to Final Fantasy IX just really tugged on my heart strings! Because the Playstation used CDs, you could get true 44.1khz/16-bit recordings and all the cutscenes within that game utilized a live orchestra – and it sounded amazing!” His fascination with video game soundtracks only grew over the years. He cites Metal Gear Solid 2 and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score as the work that cemented the idea that he needed to become a composer.

Rakozy had grown up learning the Suzuki method and received classical training on the piano. He had natural talent (even going to state competitions a few times), but he hated classical music. Once his piano teacher introduced him to jazz, everything changed. “That opened up a WHOLE new world for me – all the different colors, chords, extensions, etc. expounded upon what I was doing in my free time when I wasn’t playing the same sonatas over and over,” he laughs. He soon became the jazz pianist for the high school jazz band and ended up pursuing jazz piano performance at BYU-Idaho.

He began composing in earnest in 2010, creating a library of music and trying to make his orchestral samples sound as realistic as possible. Soundcloud gave Rakozy a platform to share his work and get feedback. By 2012 he landed his first client.

“There was one company that got in touch with me and wanted me to write 8 minutes of music in a weekend to one of their videos. We agreed on a price of $100 per finished minute of music. A cheap, poor college student rate,” he laughs. “It was an awesome experience and I believe it has the most plays on my Soundcloud page.” At the time of writing, the track sits at 222,000 Soundcloud plays and another 200,000 on YouTube. The idea of making almost $1000 in a weekend motivated Rakozy to keep going in earnest. After transferring to BYU, he met his teacher, mentor, and friend, Sam Cardon – himself a renowned composer. “Sam Cardon really pushed me into the library music scene which has now been a truly lucrative way of earning passive income between gigs.”

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Another big break came in 2018, when Rakozy teamed up with YouTuber Devin Graham and the Devinsupertramp team. His friend, local filmmaker Nick Sales, had used Rakozy’s music in a few videos as an intern for Devin Graham. “So, quite a few of Devin’s videos had my music already in them before Devin and I even started collaborating on projects,” he laughs. “Our first big project was actually back in 2018. I was working at Huge Studios in downtown SLC when they called me up and wanted to have me do music for one of their videos. Turned out the project was a Fortnite narrative video that needed roughly 9 and a half minutes of music. A week later, I delivered the final product and everything with changes and revisions, and they got it uploaded.” Almost four years later, it has over 44 million views. “So that was pretty awesome.”

But it wasn’t until the beginning of 2020 that Rakozy and the Devinsupertramp team really solidified their partnership. “Our true journey began with the Legend of Zelda project,” Rakozy says. “To this day, I think that might be one of my all-time favorite projects. That was just an amazing opportunity to really stretch my abilities and harness the emotions and connections of the melodies from previous Zelda titles. That ending with the Master Sword and Zelda walking on in was just such a magical moment. I was weeping little tears as I listened back over and over to the music I was writing.”

Since then, Rakozy has done a lot of projects with Devinsupertramp. “Contra, The Fast and the Furious, Lord of the Rings, Metroid, Pokemon, Sonic, State of Survival, Streetfighter, Uncharted/Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and then we’ve got a Prince of Persia project in the works along with a lot of stuff coming up in the next couple of months,” Rakozy explains. “And the amazing thing is with each and every project, it’s different and challenging. Contra, Sonic, and Streetfighter were all about bringing the charm of chip tunes with orchestral elements. Fast and the Furious was exploring that Cyberpunk 2077 vibe. Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia were all ethnic and exploring that realm, whereas Lord of the Rings and Pokémon were narrative focused and relied heavily on the score to sell certain emotional elements. And then State of Survival was focused on the textural side of scoring – more feeling instead of being heard with synths and ambient pads.”

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His most challenging and rewarding project has been the Uncharted crossover with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. “It REALLY pushed me into the realm of creating a score similar to John Williams’ earlier works with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so on,” says Rakozy. And having to do it all with samples? That was the tricky part. “But the end result was phenomenal. It was probably about a week of writing just because John Williams’ stuff is so dense musically that I had to write it like that. And luckily because of that project, it has been carried over into the world of the AAA titled video game I’m doing, harnessing those Williams-like vibes throughout.” 

While J. Scott Rakozy has definitely had a good run so far, he says there are always hurdles when establishing yourself as a career musician. “Surprisingly it wasn’t so much of ‘where’s my next gig going to come from?’ It was more mental hurdles,” he explains. “Am I good enough? Will I be able to provide for a family with my skills and expertise? Is this just a pipe dream? And I remember specifically sitting down to work on a project with those thoughts and emotions weighing heavily on my shoulders until Sam Cardon called me up wanting to purchase one of my songs for his library.” This, coupled with Cardon’s encouraging words, were all Rakozy needed to keep going. “That has kinda stuck with me over all these years.” Now Rakozy has finally landed his dream job: working on that AAA video game.

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Rakozy has some great advice for young composers in the Provo music scene. “Your attitude will define you in this field,” he says. “This path isn’t easy. It’ll really push you. But don’t let it push you away from your talents and gifts. Being true to yourself and enjoying what you create should always be your main focus in this field. Don’t let others dissuade you from creating, because that’s what makes you unique. So with the right attitude, some good timing, and a dash of luck, you’ll be able to achieve those dreams of scoring a film, a video game, doing commercials, what have you.” He also has a warning. Sure, you can meet up with film directors and producers to try to find work faster instead of growing your network over time. “But if your attitude and mindset is, ‘you should give me this gig’ or ‘I’m not going to change what I’ve written because that’s the way I think it should be,’ you’re in for a rude awakening, my friends,” he laughs. “A good attitude will gravitate people to want to work with you. Once you’ve got that down, it doesn’t matter what you create as long as you and the whole team are having fun.”

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Rakozy realizes that technical advice is also really important for aspiring composers. “With music, if you want your stuff to sound as realistic as possible, you’re gonna need the best sample libraries out there (and a powerful enough computer) to achieve that goal,” he says. “To get into the nitty gritty details of my orchestral template, I strictly use Cinematic Studios Series stuff – woodwinds, strings, solo strings, and brass. And for percussion, it’s Spitfire Jory Burgess Percussion. And that’s it – I do all my orchestral stuff with just those libraries.”

Back in the day, he used EWQL Symphonic Gold and achieved the required realism by utilizing automation (modulation, expression, volume, etc). “Granted, that’s JUST for orchestral stuff,” he says. “I write more than just orchestral music. Any trailer scores needing those big hits, I lean on Keep Forest. For wacky, out there sounds, I rely on Output and Audio Imperia. Since I’m not really a guitarist, I use Orange Tree Samples for all my guitar stuff (even acoustic stuff).” In addition, he says that understanding your DAW’s features will greatly increase your efficiency and writing skills. For example, he suggests learning your articulation sets in Logic Pro and Expression Mapping in Cubase and others.

“In addition, if you’re solely focusing on writing orchestral scores, listen to the scores you want to emulate and then try that with your libraries,” he says. “I did that numerous times in my career, recreating specific cues like the James Bond theme, Mission:Impossible, Metal Gear Solid 3, and numerous others. This helped not only figure out how to get around the limitations of my samples but also improve on my sound.”

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Looking toward the future, Rakozy hopes that the kinds of opportunities he has now remain plentiful. While he’s finally realized the goal of working on a AAA video game, he loves it so much he hopes to do more. “I’m loving every second of it! Taking my assets I’ve created, implementing them into Wwise and Unreal, and playing it back to hear how everything fits is just a dream come true!” he says. “One specific goal that I would hope to see is to get my music placed in the Olympics or some sports event. I’ve done quite a few fanfare projects over the years that are now circulating in the production library world, so I just gotta get lucky with one of those placements. And honestly, the key to that is to write a lot of great quality music and hopefully your publisher manages to get a spot.”

For Rakozy, it’s just a matter of time. His career so far has proved the old adage: success is when opportunity meets preparation.

You can follow J. Scott Rakozy on Instagram and check out some of his music below. You can also catch his music in the Netflix show School of Chocolate, now streaming.

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