Features I by I 13.10.14

Level up: An insider’s guide to making video game soundtracks in 2014

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First off, fuck chiptune.

OK, OK. I like the saturated sadness of the 8 and 16-bit chip as much as anyone who grew up nudging pixels around a screen in the 1980s or 1990s. But isn’t it a bit depressing that pretty much every time the media has something to say on the subject of the video game soundtrack, it’s concerned with waxing nostalgic over past sounds? Retromania, it’s clear, isn’t confined to your record collection.

This is particularly strange because, going on figures alone, video gaming is the pre-eminent entertainment mode of the day. In 2009, The Guardian reported that the video game industry officially outstripped both the cinema and recorded music industries, with combined software and hardware sales in excess of £4 billion. Consequently, it should be no surprise that video games scores are starting to attract heavy hitters. Brian Reitzell, a long-term Sofia Coppola collaborator currently winning plaudits for his peerlessly sinister score for NBC’s Hannibal, has made extensive inroads in video game scoring, composing for 2011’s Red Faction: Armageddon and Ubisoft’s hacker-themed 2014 hit Watch Dogs. Rockstar Games’ record-breaking Grand Theft Auto V even wheeled out Edgar Froese of German kosmische wizards Tangerine Dream for a score very much in the spirit of TD’s boundary pushing ‘80s synth scores for films like Sorcerer and Firestarter.

Meanwhile, a new generation of indie games are out to push the envelope in fascinating ways. The interactive possibilities of the video game have given rise to figures like the Oakland-based composer David Kanaga, whose pioneering generative scores for the likes of Proteus and Dyad are woven deeply into the game’s mechanics (a frozen-to-CD version of Kanaga’s OGST for the synesthetic tube racer Dyad saw release on Daniel ‘Oneohtrix Point Never’ Lopatin’s Software Recording Co late last year). Other indie game soundtracks, meanwhile, have made waves just because they sound really cool. Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami, an ultraviolent 2D murderfest transparently inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has spawned a soundtrack almost as influential as, well, that of Drive itself. Despite consisting of tracks by relatively obscure artists such as Sun Araw and El Huervo, its peerless selections have helped it to a pretty staggering two million listens on YouTube. And then there’s all these quirky little iPhone puzzlers like Monument Valley or Rymdkapsel that I find myself playing endlessly on my daily commute, each one fitted with a gorgeous new age-tinged soundtrack that you could probably half-convince yourself was some long-lost modular synth epic recorded in a cave in the late ‘70s.

Now, video game soundtracks – just like movie soundtracks before them – are drifting beyond the titles that spawned them and being released as physical documents in their own right.  Invada, the Bristol-based label run by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Redg Weeks, have recently released Brian Reitzell’s score for Watch Dogs and the the Australian synth duo Power Glove’s score for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon vinyl and CD. “Neither Geoff or myself play video games – our knowledge of the gaming industry starts with Pacman and ends with Tetris,” says Weeks. “To us its just a continuation of how we’ve approached the movie soundtrack market.”

Sales-wise, says Weeks, the video games soundtrack market is a quiet phenomenon. “I go on soundtrack forums and people just seem to be genuinely hungry to collect high quality releases that have had effort and care put into them – whether that be a horror film soundtrack, or Far Cry 3. I believe that people are bored of the way music is presented, the way that it’s become so highly marketed. The media would have you believe this band are going to take over the world, headline Glastonbury this time next year, etc. With both movie and video game scores there is none of that pretence. The hype is self perpetuating, and market spend is a lot more in-tune with how much you can expect to make back on a release.”

The contemporary video game soundtrack can encompass everything from neo-kosmische soundscaping to boundary-pushing generative composition to pulp ‘80s synth cheese. Over the next three pages, we present interviews with three different artists and acts – Brian Reitzell, David Kanaga and Power Glove – to get an insight into the breadth and scope of the modern video game score.

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Brian Reitzell

Reitzell started his career as drummer for the Californian punk band Red Kross, but jumped ship with the hope of writing instrumental music. In 1999, his friend Sofia Coppola employed him as music supervisor on her film The Virgin Suicides – a project that marked the start of a long-running professional partnership with the group Air. Reitzell has continued to work with Coppola, receiving a BAFTA nomination alongside Kevin Shields for his work on the score of 2003’s Lost In Translation. Reitzell has, to date, composed two video games scores, for 2011’s Red Faction – Armageddon and 2014’s Watch Dogs, and released his solo debut album Auto Music earlier this year on Smalltown Supersound.

I was going to ask about your path into video game composing, but I suppose like your path into film composing, it’s been a sort of happy accident – I get the impression it was unplanned. How did the opportunity to work on Red Faction: Armageddon come about? Do you feel like industry-wise, there’s a natural bridge between film composition and games composition?

Brian Reitzell: I was feeling frustrated working on an indie film that was falling apart. That had never happened to me before. I needed to get out of the project and do something else. Hollywood was getting me down. The timing for Red Faction was perfect in that regard. I was excited to take on this new challenge. I had to learn the language, which I found to be very different from composing for film. There were all these terms for things and some things that meant one thing in a film meant something different in the video game world. It is not a natural transition from one to the other – at least not for me.

I think of scoring for games as being more along the lines of running a kitchen. TV can be a bit like that too, but video games are the most extreme. I found the whole process to be like a military operation, compared with working on a film. Everything is so secretive and coded with passwords. I enjoyed it, though. The company producing the game sent someone out to give me some ‘assets’ – the content I would work off of – and tried to explain the process. It was all very confusing at first. The delivery schedule requires very precise pieces of music. It’s like working in the Navy compared with what I had gone through with film scores. I found the whole process to be too scientific and didn’t fully understand what I was meant to be doing.My first delivery was rejected. It was deemed too intense and had to be on a precise tempo grid. I hate tempo grids. Foolishly, I thought I could work around it. I figured it out after that first delivery and every delivery since has worked out. I refined the process and found ways to work around some of the restrictions by the time I got to Watch Dogs.

Working on, say, Hannibal, you’ve said that a lot of the sounds that you’ll reach for are character-specific – using an African drum when the character of Hannibal is on screen, for instance. Does that change in a video game, when characterisation is more about a player’s actions, or the landscape he finds himself in?

Yes, it’s not quite the same. With a video game it’s all about where you are in the game, the environment. There are some opportunities to use thematic applications and create sonic identity – like, say a specific instrument for a certain character. There are what they call ‘cut scenes’, where you are scoring the scenes that happen in between the gameplay. Those are straight up film-scoring cues. The bulk of the score happens during game play where the music needs to be more ambivalent. It’s more about creating an atmosphere for the reality of the place the player is in.

Watch Dogs seems to harken back to that ’80s era of synth soundtracks, the dark electronic krautrock of Tangerine Dream et al. Were any of those soundtracks a particular influence on you? What instrumentation did you draw on, and what techniques did you employ?

I’m a big fan of Krautrock and definitely early Tangerine Dream. Records like Phaedra, Rubycon, Zeit. Most people – especially here in Hollywood – don’t know that stuff and think of Tangerine Dream for Risky Business or Sorcerer. Or just as a general term for synth music in film: when the film Drive had just come out, all the industry people were talking about how it sounded like Tangerine Dream. Drive is great, but it doesn’t sound like Tangerine Dream. I wanted to do the real thing – analogue synths being triggered by analogue sequencers, no computer grid or soft synths. As time went on, though, I started incorporating real strings, woodwinds, percussion, piano and guitar. It was all played by myself and my usual crew of musicians that have played with me on my film and TV projects.

How did the theme of Watch Dogs – hyperconnectivity, hacking, espionage – influence your choices or approach?

Obviously the digital age and super computers were an influence, but not a big one. I was more interested in Chicago. I was originally trying to do something that sounded more like ‘70s electronic music but in the end it became more of it’s time, more contemporary – like that of the game itself. I still used all my old analogue synths but by playing guitars, drums and orchestral elements on top plus recording everything in super fidelity gave it more of a cinematic sound, which the game needed. It’s an open world game and it needed an open world score with lots of dimension. It couldn’t simply be ‘retro’ electronic music. Early on I did some hacking-inspired stuff – computer noise, things misfiring and such – and I learned then that that was somebody else’s department. On Hannibal, though, I get to do most all of the sound design which I love. Sound FX is so stock that it makes me want to puke most of the time. With video games, I surrender completely and just do the scoring.

How did you meet up with Invada? Was it a surprise that a label actually wanted to release this music independent of the game?

It’s funny – a friend of mine had met Geoff Barrow at a Beak> gig and wanted to connect us. She thought we would get along well. Geoff and I had emailed each other a couple times but had yet to connect when I heard Invada were going to do the release. It was just a total coincidence. Ubisoft had sent Invada the record and they liked it enough to want to put it out. I was pleased and honoured considering they had put out stuff like Solaris, Under The Skin, Drive, etc. It’s good company and feels like a natural fit. Geoff had seen me play with Air and I had seen him play with Portishead so we have that background as well as all this film and video game stuff.

What’s next? Do you have more projects in the works?

I’m taking a little time off, doing some travelling and instrument collecting. I will start another Auto Music record sometime this fall, and I have something top secret I might do before I start the third season of Hannibal in November. Next year I would like to do some concerts. I miss the stage sometimes and it would be nice to perform something like the Hannibal score live.


David Kanaga

David Kanaga is a composer and improviser from Oakland, California. To date he has made music for open world exploration game Proteus – which was awarded Indiecade’s award for Best Audio and exhibited at MoMA – and Shawn McGrath’s psychedelic racing game Dyad, the score to which was released on Daniel Lopatin’s Software Recording Co last year. He is currently working on Fernando Ramallo’s music-and-landscape exploration Panoramical, and writes deep and thoughtful essays on the topic of video game composition – check his 2013 paper ‘Music And Games As Shifting Possibility Spaces’.

How did you find your way into video games composition? Can you tell me a little about your background?

David Kanaga: When I was young, I played at making music in Fruityloops and Soundforge and played Nintendo 64 games. things like Zelda and Banjo-Kazooie, mostly – single-player adventure games. A few years after that, I was playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends – long games with totally bastardised rulesets, which teach real-time game design. When I was a little older – and I think the D&D encouraged this – I started thinking analytically about what was going on structurally in games, just like I might think about some music theory as it relates to the form of a song.

Later, in my first year at college, I had been thinking about games more, and a friend told me I could volunteer to get free attendance at the GDC [Game Developer’s Conference], which got it in my mind that I could maybe get work doing music in games. Years later, I used Ableton for the first time, which sped up a lot of musical processes I wasn’t quick at or familiar with before. It allowed me to be much more playful with knobs and grids and no-grids and such – less planning, more action. All this playing with Ableton finally brought home the key notion that the games I enjoyed and the music software were not so formally different at all – that there was really no clear distinction between playing with music software and playing a videogame. They’re just different software ‘styles’, as it were. I’ve been following up on the implications of the idea since, trying to dig into the space between those categories. I made a game, Ada, with Josh Bothun, a friend from childhood who had shown me Fruityloops originally. After, I was reaching out to collaborate on work where I could do more music production, and connected with Ed Key to work on Proteus and Shawn McGrath for Dyad. Both games allowed me to develop the programmatic ideas that coding had taught me, but working more intuitively with the sound as music production, rather than being forced to get too analytical about it.

The games you have produced music for, Proteus and Dyad, employ music as a fundamental part of the gameplay experience, “woven in” to the gameplay (or as you put it in your essay ‘Music And Games As Shifting Possibility Spaces’, “music-organism shaping”). How does this process of creation differ from a more conventional music-creation or soundtracking scenario, and what problems/challenges does this present?

Scoring a movie, or cutting together a song or mix or album, everything is laid out on a rigid one-dimensional timeline. In games, the ‘line’ that the player is tracing out in play is always sort of wiggly and indeterminate, and more, it is almost always a complex of many lines being drawn simultaneously in many more dimensions than one. It’s like getting paint on all five fingers and drawing them around a surface at the same time – count it as five lines or one wiggly ‘hyper-line’. It’s more like creating a set in Ableton’s ‘scene view’ than laying a track in ‘arrange view’, but this image is too rigid still. Like an Ableton ‘scene’, a game is a ‘playspace’ to improvise in, but with the major difference that the elements available to play in a game are always contingent on what just happened. They are ‘context-sensitive’, whereas session view and other tool-spaces like it – consider Photoshop’s editor – allow for manipulation of any musical elements at any time, to appeal to our desire for total control in creative process.

In a game, there are all these buttons and levers and dials, but they’re all invisible sometimes and visible other times, and can be subjected to an essentially infinite variability if we learn how to analyse and then encode their potential morphologies. It is as if a keyboard’s keys were constantly re-arranging themselves, and were doing other strange things, like melting, growing or shrinking, shattering, and so on. So, the way I see it, scoring a game ought to sit halfway between scoring a movie and building up a musical instrument or live set or loose improvisational form. And then playing the game hopefully is likewise somewhere between watching a movie and playing a musical instrument, or improvising with friends – entering a space with other players in general. Many of these ideas are a lot more exciting than the practical implementations I’ve actually put into effect!

Are there particular techniques that you use to communicate informational or sensual qualities to players? What works? Are there hallmarks of your practice?

I have a law – ‘attempt to approach a 1:1 relation between game events and soundtrack events’. There is an idea I like to talk about, ‘music sprites’, which builds on the existing visual idea of a fixed ‘sheet’ of animation loops. For instance, when you play a Sonic game, there is a sprite or animation loop for him running, one for jumping, one for spinning, one for shooting forward, and so on. The same is basically true in any videogame, with the apparent exception of procedural animation. The environment, visually, is made up of these modular looping and triggering sprites. The idea, then, with scoring the visual environment, is to ‘read’ these sprites as if they were a notation which in some sense determines what sounds are to be made, most strictly in their duration and their proximity, size and vividness on the screen. If Sonic is built up of, say, five visual sprites, the idea is that there should be five musical sprites to accompany. There’s a strictness to this mapping, just like reading any classical notation, even while we have freedom of interpretation with those indeterminate aspects which aren’t specified in the notation. A musical sprite might be a simple loop, or it might a rule for how to modulate through a given array of sounds. And the sounds themselves can be… whatever, as long as it feels good – and this in turn is related to the global rhythms, resistances, attractions, colours, etc in the space.

And of course there is the touch experience of games. I think that what is most characteristic about visual sprites in a game is the way in which our touch-input affects which of them is used, and how, at any given instant. The transition from a run to a jump is key – a properly amplified micro-gesture of the thumb. Music sprites ought to really hug the tactile experience of whatever part of the computer the player’s body is touching, and these bodily and touch dynamics are also like elements of a ‘graphic score’ to be read.

Listening to the Dyad score, I’m reminded of all sorts of contemporary or club music – The Boredoms, jungle, rave, Rustie, free jazz. What non-soundtrack music interests you? What is influential on your practice?

Dance music and free improv have been sort of lifeblood for me. I’ve grown up with both. Cutting sounds in Soundforge and sequencing spaces in Fruityloops is a big part of why I got into house and garage music when I was young, since I could really feel my own virtual-participatory presence in these tracks – clicking in the 16-steps, I knew roughly what was entailed in making them. I started playing free improv music with friends when I was in high school, and free styles have the same appeal for me. I enjoy feeling myself ‘virtually present’, as a participant in the music. Many of the free jazz players and groups are a huge inspiration, amazing teachers – I really think some of those records are some of the best ‘games’ out there, though we’ve only got the footprints or fossils of the game, as it were, and not the immediacy itself with all of the different possible outcomes that might have occurred.

These two styles also establish together something like limits of what I feel is an important polarity, as regards videogames – from ‘mechanics’ to ‘organics’. Free improv is non-machinic, wobbly, animal, plant-like, fleshy, etc – riding on pure real-time which is not spatialised in the least. Whereas computer dance music is totally machinic, totally computable, totally spatialised, and has bodily attractions of a different sort, which feel essentially disciplining, though not necessarily in a bad way. So, I think exploring the space between these styles feels exciting. There’s a need in videogames, at the very least, to discover their organic pole, where dance music’s patterns, loops or grooves etc might function as the raw material from which a new organism can be built. Though the raw material will need to be cooked first – and its pieces won’t survive the melt.

I love dancing, too. Full body activity is great. Music in general that engages different bodily aspects is an inspiration. I much prefer physically playing, transforming and modifying music to listening to it still, and I think this is partly because of all the extra body parts and energies involved. I consider dancing to be ‘playing music’. And it is the same with feeling a musical quality entering through our eyeballs. It’s possible to ‘listen’ through sight as well, and pictures often have more novel musical qualities than do sounds. I guess sounds per se are not what interest me most about music these days. There is the body, and then there’s the patterns the body enters into, and these are not necessarily sound-patterns – except insofar as everything is sound, if ‘sound’ be allowed to mean and vibration. Tunnelling into videogame pre-history, I’ve been trying to learn more about the theory of computation, and its origins in pure math and logic, and have been enjoying a kind of ‘number-feel’… like thinking about ‘one’ thing feels very different from thinking about ‘many’ things, and I think there is a feeling of that in the whole body, maybe not just the brain. It has a ‘formal sound’ of sorts, which I understand mathematicians are able feel very deeply.

Are there any video games soundtracks that have been particularly influential on your work – on an instructive or inspirational sense?

A number of mainstream games – kids’ stuff like Mario Galaxy, Banjo-KazooieRez was exciting, of course. And Rock Band was a useful sort of ‘nemesis’ – the way ‘wrong notes’ were replaced by mistake sounds, rather than left in place, which would have allowed for bizarre and amazing on-the-fly remixes of Beatles tunes, or whatever. I always thought that was a horrible design decision, grading mistakes rather than saying ‘yes’, welcoming them and bouncing back. That stood for everything that I wanted to push against in designing music spaces. Electroplankton isn’t so exciting for me as it once was, but its format ‘album of musical games’ continues to feel like super-fertile terrain to dig into. Ian Snyder’s UN EP is a sort of gold standard for this kind of work.  And Jono Brandel and Lullatone’s Patatap got big online earlier this year, which I loved. It really nails that ‘music sprite’ formalism I mentioned above.

Where is the interesting stuff currently happening – is it all in the indie marketplace, or is there good music coming out of the mainstream studios?

One of my favorites is a game called Become A Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds, by Michael Brough and Andi McClure. It has good music, different each time. But what I like more, related to the ‘music without sound’ idea, is the musicality of its visual movement and patterning. Liz Ryerson has been making some brilliant images with it, and it’s not at all obvious how to tame this thing – though it is very easy to use, and difficult not to enjoy at least for a few minutes. Another favorite, Infinite Sketchpad by Tom Lieber, is a drawing tool that has taught me as much as any game ever has, I think, about music and pictures both. I got crazy about it last year. There may be good music coming out of the mainstream game studios – there probably is – but I haven’t been too tuned into that. There’s definitely good ‘non-sonic’ music happening there – the ‘game feel’, it’s called. It’s what gets folks obsessed with the sort of dance of battle in Dark Souls, etc. Someday I might try to get good at one of these fighting games, learn about rhythm from that.

Your Dyad soundtrack was released as a CD on Software. How/when did Dan Lopatin get in touch? Any misgivings about having obviously responsive, “liquid” music presented in this fixed way, removed from the game world? Can these soundtracks work in isolation?

While I was working on Dyad, I heard word that Daniel liked the music in the first trailer, so when the game came out, I sent him a download code. We had some email chats, and were into some similar ideas, and when I was finished cutting the album, he was keen to put it out. Yeah, I had some misgivings about the fixed album format, though I also like that format very much. I sort of got around my own worry about being unfaithful to the spirit of game-form by taking all the game’s raw materials and trying to play a new game with them, in a way. Making a continuous flow of it all, for one, and playing around with lots of transition ‘liquidation’. For me, at least, it felt like a satisfying and not dishonest process. All these ‘transition’ processes are great for structural learning, and I feel a number of the devices explored in there could function strictly in a transitions between sub-spaces in another game someday.


Power Glove

A currently anonymous electronic music duo from Melbourne, Australia, Power Glove have released two EPs to date, and rose to internet fame off the back of their soundtrack to the 2013 standalone expansion to the Far Cry series, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The score was released on double pink vinyl by Invada on Record Store Day 2014, and sold out in less than 24 hours. Due to popular demand, Invada have just released a second pressing.

So can you give a little history: who are you, where are you from, and when did Power Glove begin? You’re brothers, I gather?

Power Glove: We’re brothers. From Melbourne, Australia, grew up here and in parts in Hong Kong. Power Glove begun around five years ago as a side project.

Can you talk a little first about the musical influences behind Power Glove? It seems to be a love letter to a particular era of soundtrack fare: dramatic synthesizer-powered action movies. What was your early exposure to this stuff?

We grew up on VHS tapes and warped old synthesizers. Haven’t really been able to shake it from our system. Our upbringing was fairly musical and we had all sorts of instruments and keyboards laying around. Our first memories of making music was on our dad’s Atari Notator, recording Juno 6 arpeggios

How has the project developed over time? Have you developed the equipment that you use over time?

We’re always digging up our old synths or samples, or watching films, sampling from them, listening for ideas. In that sense not much has changed, though our studio is in chaos, the next step would be setting everything up properly and ready to go.

Looking at your Soundcloud, the response to your work has been pretty enthusiastic. Why has it struck a nerve? Do you exist as a live entity?

It’s been incredible. The fact that people even listen to our music keeps us pushing harder and harder. I guess there’s something there that sparks peoples love of that sound, searching for hidden gems and memories. We scrap ideas if they don’t fit into the world we’re trying to create. We get obsessive with that actually, getting the sound right, creating a world people can dive into. The amount of songs and ideas we give up on is maddening. We do have a gig booked down in Mexico later in the year, so that should kick our asses into gear into playing live more often. Honestly, any spare time we have we just want to be writing music, that’s our main goal right now.

When did Ubisoft get in touch, and what was their proposal?

Dean Evans, the creative director, got in contact with us. We jumped on the phone and he ran us over the idea of Blood Dragon – the cybor  commando, Michael Biehn, lasers, the Cannon films influence – the look of it all. Obviously we were interested. We then sent through a demo of all these random ideas and songs we had that fit well, and from there it was a green light to get started.

Did you work a lot with in-game footage? Is much of what you make reactive to in-game action, or did you more work in the vein of a traditional movie soundtracker?

At first we approached it like a score to a real deal film, writing a suite of themes, say Rex’s theme, the Blood Dragon theme, a love theme, the villain’s theme. We wanted it to play dead serious, not a joke or homage, more as if we were in the studio 20 years ago scoring a B-grade cyberpunk movie. Once the game footage started coming in we had all the groundwork ready to go. From memory the whole soundtrack is built entirely around the Blood Dragon theme and its key – that was the idea.

Obviously there’s a long streak of nostalgia to the music that you make. Do you find ways within that to push things forward?

It’s hard. We’re obsessed with those sounds, though in no way do we want to just rest on that era or repeat ourselves. We like ideas. We like creating worlds. The idea of a song that sounds completely new, though in some way, feels like it belongs on tape or a Steven Segal soundtrack. There’s always a very particular story or feeling we’re trying to create in our music. It’s a weird kind of mash of stuff that makes sense to us and keeps us grounded, especially when we’re off on tangents and aggressively fighting to push forward.

Any more projects on the go? Game soundtracks, or otherwise?

We have a few projects that will see the light this year, notably our long delayed EP2, a handful of collaborations, plus a particular exciting scoring project, which we’re announcing shortly.

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