Presentation: The Sound & Music of Hyper Light Drifter

I spoke at GDC 2017 with Sound Designer Akash Thakkar about the creative process of making audio for the game Hyper Light Drifter.

Q&A: Beasts of Balance

Jonathan Brodsky & I answered some questions about our work on the game ‘Beasts of Balance’.

In Depth: Gunhouse

Gunhouse was a very unique and fun project for me. I set out to create a soundtrack primarily using loops. I was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend and colleague James Primate about a talk Darren Korb gave about his work on the game Bastion. That soundtrack contains a lot of premade loops. There is sometimes a stigma associated with using loops ... I think sometimes its use is characterized as a form of laziness, but I thought it would be a really fun and interesting challenge to try to create a bunch of music that was almost entirely based around these sound files. I wanted to see how far I could get using premade assets as a primary source of inspiration. It turns out it's a great way to not only work quickly, but to flex creative muscle and do strange aesthetic things. There are many artists who have discovered the benefits of this way of working. My friend and colleague David Kanaga is working on a game currently that is made up entirely of prefab assets from the Unity store, and it is one of the most bizarre and entertaining games I've ever played.

From Nothing to Something

One of the real boons of this creative process for me was how quickly I could get interesting musical ideas going. I would listen to loop after loop, using the same sort of vetting process I would use to design synths or produce tracks made up of original samples.

Track Descriptions

Gunhouse

This one had sort of a game show meets arcade vibe that seemed to work well as a title screen. Farfisa type organ ended up being one of the sounds I used repeatedly in the soundtrack. That and harmonica.

Children's Sport

This tune has some looping phrases of a Chinese stringed instrument (can't remember which one) that I autotuned to have less note changes. I used these as a framework for a lot of the compositional choices which was quite a fun exercise. I harmonized with the part using pulse waves, and created entirely new melodies using that melody. The three-part organish solo at the end of the loop is also in a way inspired by that original looping phrase.

These Skulls are Really Mad

This is probably my least favorite tune on the soundtrack. It's more of a pensive, puzzley vibe.

General Supplies

This tune was actually a reject submission from the game 'Beatbuddy'. I think I wrote this after coming back from a Disasterpeace tour in Mexico. I met Baiyon there, the electronic artist from Kyoto and I was inspired to try to write something more groove oriented. While it's not particularly loop focused (though there is some stuff from Stylus RMX), the light, funky vibe turned out to be a solid fit for this soundtrack. The bass sound is a NES-style pulse wave and a picked bass in unison.

Today's Commotion

Fun fact, this song has a loop from the Omnisphere library in it that you can also hear in one of the Bit.Trip Runner games ... I noticed it almost immediately when browsing through the library and thought it would be fun to add it anyway and try to make it sound different. This track also features a real fun harmonica solo.

I was inspired by the general vibe of 'Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp', by Peter McConnell, from the Psychonauts Soundtrack.

Took to Misdeeds

This song was originally called 'Wizard's Tower. I wrote it around the same time I wrote the music for 'Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar', but never quite found a home for it. Originally it had more of a prog-rock instrumentation, so I went back and made it a bit more electronic and weird.

Hale and Hearty

This was the first tune I explicitly wrote for Gunhouse. I really wanted to write something groovy and weird that would get you moving. This was before I settled into the more loop oriented approach, and was focusing more on production and vibe. Those elements definitely carried over.

Eat Your Vegetables, Punks!

This one really ventures out into different geographic territory. Cuíca (Brazil), Mbira & Axatse (West Africa), Didgeridoo (Australia), all come together to make a fun feel good jam.

My first exposure to cuíca was on the Paul Simon song 'Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard'.

Decent Spirits

I definitely had dreams of George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' and the 'Sexy Sax Guy' meme from YouTube, where a fella just shows up in random public places, riffing on the melody from aforementioned song. It was fun to experiment with saxophone, since I almost never do. I also experimented a lot with throwing delay effects on the whole track to get some pretty weird pulsing effects. One of the techniques I developed for this soundtrack, was harmonizing and mimicking the looping phrases with 8-bit sounds to flesh them out and give them a bit more of a gamey personality.

The Other Kind of Fork

Brandon, the lead developer for Gunhouse wanted me to make something with gamelan instruments. I happened to have some gamelan loops and the rest is history! I found combining real world instrument sounds from around the world with old electronic sounds created a fun vibe that suited the game well. This tune also has trombone runs, a string section, a crazy pentatonic distorted harmonica solo, speak and spell sounds, and some NES-style pulse waves.