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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Interview With Darren Korb: Audio Director for Bastion

Author's note: So, today's article is a little different. Below is a transcription of an interview I had with the audio director of Bastion, Darren Korb. Bastion was the first commercial release by Supergiant Games and has been both critically acclaimed and more recently award winning. Darren Korb has been involved with several rock bands, wrote a musical with his brother, and worked with the Marketplace for Rockband where artists can put up their songs for sale to be used in game. Though primarily about the game's score an the process of scoring games in general, he does also talk about Bastion as a whole and the influences that went into it.

Justin: Today I'm here with Darren Korb, audio director for the game Bastion. I wanna say first off, thanks. I finally got the soundtrack and have been listening to it the last couple of days.

Darren: Excellent.

Justin: One of the things I was most interested in is, it looks like you do a lot of stuff. You're in three bands I think I says on your info page, and you also did a musical along with having worked on video game music for Rockband and Bastion. I guess my first question is how exactly does that transition work for you, having gone from doing more traditional stuff in a band, to a musical, to working on a game soundtrack?

Darren: I mean, it's all related for sure. So, originally when I was a little kid, the way I got into music was my doing musicals and stuff and I performed in a bunch of them all through high school growing up. And so that's definitely apart of my background. And rock music, you know I didn't really develop a taste for it until I was probably like eleven or twelve or something, and I got a guitar and started playing it and writing songs and stuff. So, that stuff is all ... I could understand both of those things from an early age. And also, video games I've been playing since I was a little kid too and always really enjoyed the music a lot. For games like Marble Madness and Bionic Commando back in the day on Nintendo, I would totally dig the music. So, yeah ... all three of those things are all kinda part of my background. But, yeah, this is the first game I've done music for, or that I've worked on at all. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The transition as ... in between there I did a little bit of composing for some TV, like small TV projects, film projects and things like that. So I had a little bit of experience doing something kind of like, that as sort of in between all those thing I think a little bit. I man, it's very different. TV is actually ... the stuff I did for TV was actually more different than the stuff from being in a band and writing for a musical. And the game stuff was ... at least the way I approached, the way we ... let me know if I'm getting too tangential here.

Justin: Oh no, no. Go ahead.

Darren: The way we integrated everything into the game was that I just made pieces, like two to four minute pieces that had a certain tone or evoked a certain mood that we'd want to have at certain point in the game. But I didn't score to something, which is something I had to do. Like I had to score a picture sometimes for TV stuff, which is actually way way more different from writing a song. So, you know, my song writing background helped smooth the transition to game music for me.

Justin: Okay, gotcha. I know you mentioned you like a lot of old school games like Marble Madness and Bionic Commando. One thing that I think a lot of people, especially now since game scores are a lot more grand and usually a lot longer, don't necessarily appreciate as much is that game music needs to loop, but it needs to not be obvious about it. The scores for Bastion are between two and four minutes. When it came to having to work within the constraints of a song that was going to have to loop at some point and make that transition smooth, was that something that as a little more difficult to work with or did that come pretty easy as well?

Darren: Yeah, I mean, that was something that I was always aware of when I was composing for this. It was like, you know, there were a few approaches. You could try and make it loop seamlessly, or you could try and do kind of a buildup and come down so that you wouldn't really notice if it comes down and goes away and comes back in. So, there were a few tricks I tried to use, but all in all that wasn't super hard actually. Also, our levels are fairly short, so if a piece does loop, you only hear it one and a half times, or two times. It's not like you'll hear it a bunch of times in a row. And the game probably takes, you know, seven hours for an average player to beat it the fist time. Something like that. And here's an hour of music basically in the game, and it's not wall to wall. So, we actually don't repeat stuff that much. In different spots in the game, maybe a couple times here and there, but a couple pieces only appear once.

Justin: You mentioned that you were doing pieces with a certain kind of mood, but unlike TV weren't composing necessarily to a picture. Did you ever have any sort of concept art that they would give you and say “This is going to belike...” I actually really liked the one out in the Wilds. It was Spike in a Rail. Did you get any sort of concept art for that, or did they tell you they wanted kind like a western frontier style? What kind of input did you have about the pieces?

Darren: It was a combination of things,and kind of varied piece to piece actually. Some of the earlier pieces I wrote, there wasn't really any art or anything in the game at that point, and I was just kind of experimenting along with Gavin and Amir, who were prototyping a game, about musical styles and the tone and everything. So, sometimes it worked like that, and later on in the process I would usually get some art, or there would be a level actually that wold be playable for me to check out with the art. For Spike in a Rail specifically Jen Zee, the artist, would do like a postage stamp for the worlds. So, for world two, that was our world we called The Wilds. That one was the most frontier-sy and the most, you know, filled with wild creatures and stuff like that. So, based on that image, and the tone we were all going for, that's what I had to go on for that piece. And also, another thing is that when we'd approach a new set of pieces for a new world, basically we'd say “Okay, we need three pieces. We need one that's just a normal, represent the world kind of piece, one that's kind of intense, and one that's somber.” Just to represent the different moods, and then you have that bag of tricks to use for that world. So I think Spike in the Rail was the 'represent the world' kinda normal piece for that world.

Justin: When it came to, the break down of different worlds, you mentioned each had a somber piece. For those somber pieces, correct me if I'm wrong, they were used in the flashback sequences or the dream sequences. Is that where those ended up being used?

Darren: Some of them. One or two of them were used there, and then there's another one ... the world two, The Wilds, somber piece was used in I think the level where you get the pistols. I forget what that is. Slinger's Song I think is what it's called. And so each world has it's own kinda quiet piece.

Justin: Yeah, I think I probably heard the Slinger's Song loop a few more times. I had way too much fun with those pistols when I go them.

Darren: Nice.

Justin: As the audio director you didn't just do the score. You also did the sound effects and all that.

Darren: Correct. Yep.

Justin: When you were approaching how to do the sound effects, did you do more Foley stuff here you tried to find props to make the noises, or did you create most of them from scratch through a sound program of something like that?

Darren: Well, it was a combination of those things, and a lot of what I did was I used sound sample libraries. Mostly what I'd do is find a couple samples that were kinda close, and then combine them and put effects on them to make the effects in the game. Only a couple times I started from scratch, and I did a little bit of Foley, but for the most part it was taking sounds. Most of the time it was not just a matter of “We need a sword.” So I'd find the sword sound in the library and use that. Most of the time I'd find something that was close and combine it with a couple other things and make it a little different than just the normal sword sound.

Justin: With the songs that actually have lyrics, there only being two of them used in the game-actually I really enjoyed The Pantheon. I was kinda bummed out when I found out it wasn't in the game.

Darren: Yeah.

Justin: Because they do come up as, you know, motifs throughout the game and throughout some of the other pieces in the score, were those done fairly earlier on or were those done a little bit later in the production?

Darren: Well, The Pantheon was done after the game was already out. I knew I wanted to include something special for the soundtrack, and thought people would get a kick out of having Logan sing something. So I wrote that for him like, right after the game came out. And we recorded it a couple days later, and then we released the soundtrack a couple days later. So, that was right at the end. The other songs were kinda throughout the process actually. Zia's Theme was written pretty early actually, and at that time I knew I kinda wanted to do the thing where I present two themes and then have them come together at the end. So I knew that pretty early, but I didn't actually get around to writing Zulf's theme and then the end theme where they join up until later in the process. In general, we made the game actually in kind of a linear way. So, we actually started at the beginning of the game. Most developers don't really do that, but we started at the beginning of the game and worked our way through in sequence pretty much.

Justin: Actually, with Zia's Theme and Zulf's Theme I thought it was really interesting with Zia's Theme especially because she had never actually been to the Tazal Terminals. But her song definitely has this kind of folk song quality to it. Almost a kind of spiritual, but it's clearly about war coming to Caelondia. Did you know what her character was going to be like as you were doing that song, or did the song end up informing the way her character ended up in the game?

Darren: I knew ... so Greg Kasavin, our Creative Director and Writer for the game, he a wrote a ton of backstory for everybody; for all the characters and for the world and for everything. So I really had a lot to work with. We talked a lot about it before I wrote that. You know, a lot about what we wanted it to be like. I sort of imagined it was maybe something Zia had heard her father singing or something while he was working. 'Cause he had never been there herself and been part of the culture, but had some scraps of it from her family. You know, she's a second generation immigrant. So that was my take on it.

Justin: With Zulf's Theme, as opposed to Zia's Theme where it makes sense that she is trying to hang on to something of her culture, Zulf is singing about coming home; but after coming to Caelondia to spread the word of peace. What was the influence there for that song? Was it mostly him being homesick, or was there something else that wet into that song?

Darren: I looked at that song sort of like a funeral song, actually. Like something that might be sung at a funeral in this culture. And so, Coming Home, I looked at it as kind of like, you know, the after-life kind of thing, and less literally like the coming home to the Tazal Terminals. But yeah, that’s where I was coming from with that.

Justin: I hadn't thought of that before, but now that you put it like that, it does have that quality to it. One thing I have noticed is in a lot of game compositions, the composers often put some sort of motif that comes up throughout the game. Maybe not every piece, but a number of them. Was there a particular motif you used throughout the score?

Darren: For me, I actually wanted to try and avoid that a little bit, actually intentionally. So what I did is I developed a genre for myself — that I made — I said okay, I’m going to work in this style for this game and no matter what I make it will feel connected like the songs on an album. So I decided to make it all somewhere in the neighborhood of something I called “Acoustic Frontier Trip Hop.” So I figured if I did that, then it would all be connected enough to give a through line to all of the music without getting repetitive — and we do repeat some pieces here and there just to give you another hint of like a theme. I had a weird guitar tuning thing that I used — most songs are also in the same key actually — so I also wanted them to have other ways of connecting to each other besides just melodically.

Justin: Speaking of connection between the songs, a few times it sounded not like instruments were necessarily reused, but I noticed some of the percussion sounds like similar instruments were used. What kind of instruments were used in composing the soundtrack?

Darren: A lot of different stuff, actually. There's probably equal parts samples, midi, and live instruments. Probably about a third each, I would say over all. All percussion is either loops or midi — I didn’t actually record any of the percussion. But, yeah, a lot of it I wanted it to — the percussion is where I wanted to give it that trip hop element, mostly. I use a lot of samples and try to make them kind of low-fi on purpose and sound more like samples. Also, I wanted also occasionally to have the percussion provide a little bit of the exotic elements. So sometimes I have like hand percussion and all sorts of weird, exotic instruments in the percussion as well, in addition to that trip-hop kind of stuff.

Justin: Correct me if I'm wrong, trip hop does have kind of this lo-fi quality to some of the stuff that gets done.

Darren: Just because when you use samples, samples have a certain kind of quality to them. They sound like they are from an old record or they sound like they are from — you know. So I wanted to evoke — to instead of trying to hide from the fact that I was using samples and try to do what trip-hop kind of does in my opinion and call attention to it a little bit and make it part of the vibe.

Justin: You mentioned some of the percussion samples you used were canned drums. Somewhere in there heard conga if I'm not mistaken. You said you did some of that to add kind of an exotic sound. Even though each of the levels was different, it still takes place on this one whole continent. Was there some specific, I don't want to say exotic music style, some specific cultural music style you were looking to try and recreate here? Or were you just trying to infuse a few different instrument styles?

Justin: I was just wondering now that you've done your first game score, is that something you are hoping to continue now, or is that something you are looking to put a little more time into? Move more that way, or are you gonna try and still maintain all he different things you got going on? It looks like you have a pretty full plate.

Darren: Lately I haven't been playing with that many projects. I haven't been playing with Audio Fiction lately, and my own project Frilly is kinda on the back burner. I do have a new band I'm working on with some friends. We're hoping to start playing out next year, at the beginning of the year probably sometime. But we've been writing a bunch of songs and that's been a lot of fun. But other than those things, I'm mostly doing the game stuff these days. Occasionally I produce stuff. I have a couple of clients I still produce for a little bit. But, yeah, mostly just the game stuff.

Justin: Since this I something that will be coming in the future, I don't wanna try and spoil it for myself too much, but for future Supergiant projects, are you gonna be trying to do an original style for those in the way you did acoustic frontier trip hop for Bastion?

Darren: Yeah, I definitely don't want to repeat myself. Part of what motivated me to do the music for Bastion the way I did is I wanted to do something that I didn't feel like I'd heard before. That's still true, I'd still like to do something I haven't really heard before. So, depending on what the project is, that's gonna manifest itself differently.

Justin: But currently there's not any particular style you are looking towards?

Darren: Nothing that I can discuss at the moment.

Justin: Okay. Like I said, don't wanna ruin anything for myself. I always like to have a sneak peek of things when I can.

Darren: Yep, yep.

Justin: Well, I just want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me.

Darren: Sure. No Problem.

Justin: I'm looking forward to Supergiant's next game, and I'm sure I'll be picking up the soundtrack to that game as well.

Darren: Awesome.

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