Dropping Gems: An Interview with the Composers of the Score for 'Steven Universe'
The popular cartoon's composers Aivi Tran and Steven “Surasshu” Velema discuss their process and influences.
For a TV show, picking the right song can be the difference between life or death, between making the binge rounds and gathering digital dust at the bottom of the Netflix queue. (Can you listen to “The Final Countdown” without thinking of Arrested Development?) And it’s even harder for original music—think about the thuddingly obvious swelling sounds of the Law & Order detectives preparing to elicit a confession, or the bouncy segues between Seinfeld scenes.
That’s one of the many things that makes Steven Universe, one of TV’s best-kept secrets, so remarkable. Creator Rebecca Sugar (a former Adventure Time storyboard artist and songwriter) brought her musical background to bear on the show’s DNA, featuring lots of well integrated, heartbreaking songs. Artists fill up the voice cast, including Estelle as main character Garnet and Nicki Minaj in a classically Nicki guest role as a giant purple woman.
But the show’s score is, perhaps, its secret weapon. Composing duo Aivi Tran and Steven “Surasshu” Velema bring a background in video game scoring to the show’s crystalline, beautiful backing music, which turns everything from fight scenes to conversations into exciting art. As part of the show’s return for five new episodes, we talked to Aivi and Surasshu, a self-described "permafusion," about getting their jobs on Steven Universe, the composition process, and some of their favorite pieces.
Noisey: How did you wind up getting your jobs on the show?
Aivi Tran & Surasshu: The whole thing came out of the blue for us. Rebecca Sugar, the show’s creator, approached Aivi after a tip from Jeff Liu [a storyboard artist and composer for the show]. At that point Aivi had a small Soundcloud / YouTube following for her compositions and was making her breakthrough in game music. Surasshu was a game music composer and sound designer. We had just released our first collaborative album, The Black Box, and we had no experience at all working for cartoons or television. We weren’t even sure if we’d be able to handle the workload. Aivi felt that we’d be musically stronger and faster as a team, and suggested that we audition together as Aivi & Surasshu. The cues that we made for our audition, such as Steven’s Shield and The Mother, were eventually used in the episode "Gem Glow."
What did Rebecca initially want the score to sound like at that point?
Rebecca pitched the soundtrack as theatrical and video game-inspired, capturing the show’s contrast between down-to-earth moments and grand fantasy set pieces. Both Rebecca and Ian Jones-Quartey, our supervising director at the time, collaborated with us to establish a lot of the show’s musical canon from the start, like the use of motifs for characters, objects, and locations.
How much room was left for you to shape that original vision?
We had a lot of creative freedom to fill in the details and nuances, and to develop the show’s music style.
Each of the characters is represented by specific sounds. How did you settle on those instruments and sounds?
We chose the Gems’ instruments by what we thought represented each Gem’s personality, and how they all sounded together as an ensemble. The crew pitched specific ideas at us, like Garnet’s bass being inspired by Michael Jackson, Pearl’s piano having ragtime elements, and Amethyst’s drums being loose and wild.
As we began writing more for the show, we gradually developed rules for each of the Gems’ instruments. For example, Pearl’s piano is often written in minor, with blocked chords and gentle jazz influences. We use a lot of piano throughout the show, but only a certain type of playing constitutes “Pearl’s sound."
Additionally, each Gem has one main instrument within a larger instrumental palette. Garnet is synth bass, but when we need to make “Garnet music,” we also utilize synth bells and pads that we specifically designed for her. Amethyst is an eclectic drum kit, with electric bass and some of her own synths. Pearl’s instrument is the easiest of the main Gems to pick out because it’s the most melodic--she’s represented by piano, with harp and some pads.
How you go about combining those themes for fusions?
When the Gems perform a fusion dance, the dance song is a duet between their instruments. For example, in Amalgam—Amethyst and Pearl’s fusion dance before becoming Opal—both characters are distinguishable in the music. After Gems fuse, the result is a completely new song that showcases the nature of the fusion. For example, in Sardonyx’s theme—Pearl and Garnet’s fusion—Garnet’s presence has influenced Pearl’s piano to become confident and bombastic, while Pearl’s presence has influenced Garnet’s bass and synth sounds to become theatrical and jazzy.
Since Garnet herself is a fusion, we reverse-engineered her sound to create Ruby and Sapphire’s instruments in the episode Keystone Motel. Ruby is a crude waveform in between a square and a saw wave, and Sapphire is a gentle synth pad.
I know video game music is a huge influence on the style of your work. Anything in particular?
Aivi loves Nintendo soundtracks, especially Super Mario Galaxy, the Zelda series, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and Bomberman 64. She’s a big fan of Koji Kondo, Kazumi Totaka, Yasunori Mitsuda, Michiru Oshima, and Masashi Hamauzu, who heavily influenced her piano style.
Surasshu’s biggest influence in game music is Shoji Meguro, composer of Persona 3 and 4. Other favorites that inform his work include anything by the SuperSweep team (Shinji Hosoe, Ayako Saso, Takayuki Aihara and others), Shadow of the Colossus by Kow Otani, and Hideki Naganuma. Also, Tsunku made a big impact with his Rhythm Heaven series of games.
Outside of videogame music, we draw inspiration from a variety of genres for the show’s soundtrack. We’re often influenced by jazz, musicals, film soundtracks, anime, pop, prog metal, classical, and electronic genres like future, trap, and drum ‘n’ bass.
At what point in production do you come in to an episode?
We are one of the last stops in the production chain. We receive animatics in advance, so we know what to expect, but we don’t start composing until the timing of the animation and dialogue are finalized. We work simultaneously as the sound effects team, so we try to keep in mind how we’ll share space with sound effects when we’re composing. For example, if we see things exploding in the animation, we know that the sound will be loud and dominating, so we’ll ease up on the music in those moments.
How in the loop are you about where the show is going, plot-wise? (And does that change any of the music at all?)
Rebecca keeps us in the loop, but she doesn’t spoil us unless it’s important for the music! We often feel like we’re special fans who get to watch the episodes first, and we get to have our theories about the story confirmed with the source! We guessed that Garnet was a fusion the second the concept of fusions were introduced to us. Though Rebecca doesn’t always give us a straight answer…
Rebecca usually tells us when a character, location, or object might return. In these situations, we make sure to save our instruments for future use and compose the music to be flexible and malleable.
Have you ever had to scrap a piece for the show and go back to square one?
The crew is excellent at communicating what kind of music they’re looking for, so we generally don’t do this! But occasionally, we’re asked to make a major revision. For example, in the episode "Fusion Cuisine," the restaurant music originally sounded fancy and pretentious. We were asked to scrap the idea and compose a new piece that sounded intimate and sweet. This worked out much better—in hindsight, the original song would’ve colored the conflict between Connie and Steven’s families as a class difference, while the new song better portrayed two loving families having an awkward time.
Does your work change at all for the full songs you've worked on?
Absolutely, when it’s not our composition. Most of the full songs are written by other crew members (except for “Love Like You”), so our role changes from composer to arranger and producer. Sometimes we’re given fairly complete demo tracks to work with, like "Steven and the Stevens" by Jeff Liu and Ben Levin—we used Jeff’s guitar performance since it was excellent! And sometimes we’re given a rough ukulele track by Rebecca with vocals by the voice actors, that we compose the instruments for, like "Do It For Her." Our main goal is to bring out the songwriter’s intentions, while keeping it in line with the show’s production values and musical canon.
What was your creative process for the full song, "Stronger Than You"?
“Stronger Than You” from "Jailbreak" was a huge collaborative effort! Rebecca wrote the song with some help from Estelle, the voice of Garnet. Jeff Liu arranged a demo version, which we used as inspiration for the final production in the show. When the song reached us, we gave it the “Garnet Treatment,” rebuilding the arrangement with Garnet’s signature sounds and Garnet’s musical rules. We also worked with the crew to integrate it with the events in the actual episode, like slipping into a darker tone when the ship goes down. After the composition process, we worked with Jeff Ball to record the string melodies, and we mixed the song.
What are the guiding principles of the show's music? For example, I always feel like the music that backs the fight scenes serves to make them beautiful instead of tense, or at least both at the same time.
The music is made primarily from Steven’s point of view. Since Steven thinks most things are awesome, we bring out his positivity in the soundtrack. We’d forgotten that it’s unusual for a fight scene to sound beautiful—we just see this as “normal” now.
A lot of things change slowly over time in the show, including the music. By giving most of the characters instrumental palettes instead of strict melodic motifs, their songs can be more transient. In the same way that a photograph of a person reflects one moment in time, not a complete picture of who that person is, the Gems don’t have “true versions” of songs that encompass who they are. This gives the soundtrack a bit of a jazz improv element, where the music expresses feelings more freely.
When a character goes through a major change, we sometimes modify their palette as well. For example, when Peridot loses her limb enhancers, she loses a lot of the effected mechanical sounds in her music.
Which track are you proudest of?
That would be the full version of “We Are the Crystal Gems,” the theme song of Season 2! Rebecca Sugar composed the melody and lyrics, and we had the honor of composing and arranging instrumental parts. We drew from the complete musical canon that we had established up to that point. It’s one of the longest, most narrative songs in the show, and we loved having the opportunity to showcase many different sides of Steven Universe’s music.
Can you walk me through the process of writing that track, from assignment to inception to instrumentation?
Rebecca sent us a ukulele draft of the song with the voice actors’ performances. She walked us through the whole song, explaining her thoughts about each section and what emotional moments we should emphasize. Between the two of us, we divided the sections of the song according to whose skillset was most suited. For example, Aivi handles most of Pearl and Steven’s music, while surasshu handles Garnet and Amethyst’s music. Once each one of us had laid down the musical foundation for their section, we swapped and built upon each others’ parts, and workshopped everything together.
After we finished the track, we ran it by the crew for feedback and incorporated their suggestions. We then contracted musicians to record instruments—for this song in particular, Jeff Ball on violin and Stemage on electric guitar, two top-tier musicians from the videogame music scene! Finally, we mixed the song and shipped it to Tony Orozco and Melissa Waters, the show’s sound team.
And... what else do you wish fans knew about your work that they don't already?
Steven is triangle wave!
Eric Thurm can show you how to be strong in the realest way. Follow him on Twitter.