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.

In Depth: Hyper Light Drifter

Thematic Development

It became harder to make progress late in the development, so I amassed about 100 piano ideas that I felt could fit in the game. Alex, the creative director, and I went through all of them and made notes about where we thought certain pieces might work. That helped to figure out what kind of music we need and where, and in coming up with themes. I wrote a title piece early on, and it was nice but didn't turn out to be the right fit for the game. Then Alex heard a short sequence of chords in one of the other piano sketches, and it immediately clicked with him that he had found the theme, and I agreed. I was originally thinking of using it for a deep, cavernous level, but it captures the dark, haunted, adventurous quality of the game very well. Part of what happens when I try to write themes, especially on the piano, is I tend to write these through-composed pieces with lots of sections. Then, when I try to bring it into a synth environment, it tends to sound overwrought, too complicated with too many parts. So, we went from a theme that was sixteen bars long to a theme that is three chords.

Track Descriptions

Vignette: Panacea.

For a long time, this was just one of many piano sketches I was considering using in the game. Alex Preston (creative director of Hyper Light Drifter) was very much involved in my process, and he helped keep me on track, especially towards the end of development when the project started to become more emotionally challenging for me. I think I had been using this piano sketch in the credits, and he suggested we use it in a trailer. Using music that seems unfitting has worked quite well in past game trailers, and lately, it has become quite trendy to use pop music in game trailers to tie the emotions of a fantastic world to reality. I think this approach generally seems to work, and we felt like this was accomplishing some of the same things.

Vignette: Visions.

After going through numerous attempts at writing theme music for the game, Alex once again steered me in the right direction, honing in on just three chords from one of my piano sketches that he thought could be the game's theme. We ran with the idea, and it became a crucial element of the score which we used in one of the trailers, the final boss fight, and this piece which is the game's intro.

Titan.

This is one of the first pieces I wrote for Hyper Light Drifter. Alex took the game to Minecon, the Minecraft Convention.

Wisdom's Tragedy.

Originally I had intended to create four variations on this theme (the tower theme), one for each of the four cardinal directions, but it turned out this version worked fairly well no matter where you placed it, so I never elaborated on it. It does show up in the final area of the game too though (The Abyss), to try and consolidate everything together.

Seeds of the Crown.

This track was based on a piano sketch, and a bit more lively and energetic at first. I originally had a more ambient version for interiors (i.e.,. the Drifter's bedroom), but Alex felt like the more ambient style worked better, and so we agreed to move in that direction. The darker portion of this track is the variation I wrote for the 'Dregs,' the levels that connect the Central town to the 4 cardinal regions. We developed tech to have elements of the music exist at points in space, but we never really used it. The one place we did was in Central. A little guitar player fashioned with the Disasterpeace skull for a head does a little improvisation along with the underscore.

Vignette: Corruption.

This was the first time I think we were really able to create a piece that fully captured the essence of the game. This was written as an escalating, melodramatic piece with a thematic send-off, for the 2nd trailer.

The Midnight Wood.

This started as a series of variations on a piano idea that involved overlapping hand patterns and an interesting harmonic progression. I wrote more variations of this piece than any other in the game (except the Gauntlet), and I think this improves its listenability as you are wandering through the opening section of the West.

Gaol in the Deep.

This chord progression started as the 'underground' part of a larger piano sketch that was meant to represent the West in its entirety. I ended up not using the whole idea because it had too many changes. I kept this section because I thought it captured the vibe of a deep place that I wanted. This area of the game is a prison (as you might have guessed). As the second variation begins and adds percussion, the intent is to create a sense of confrontation. This reaches climax towards the end, to match the intensity of the final battle.

The Resonant Canyon.

This is one of the only tracks on the soundtrack with an acoustic source (a piano). It's also one of the most improvised. I laid down a basic groove and tonality and had fun putting different sounds over the top of it.

Stasis Awakening.

This piece starts with the Jackal's recurring motif, just as it does in the game. This area of the West is heavily patrolled and felt to me like a base of some kind, so I wanted to create a piece that was heavy on percussion and had a bit of a militaristic vibe. I actually ended up repurposing a sketch for an earlier section of the West as I thought it worked better hear. The piece ends in an ethereal, atmospheric way to set up an eerily quiet traversal from the base to the final battle in the West.

The Last General.

I originally wrote something else for this boss fight, but it wasn't working. Alex guided me a bit with this, showing me a boss fight from Dark Souls with a giant wolf that had a melancholy quality to it. I used that as inspiration to write something that had a bit of a 'fallen hero' quality to it.

The Winding Ridge.

This piece came together in an unusual way - the beginning of this track was actually written afterward as elements to fill in the spaces between the musical elements that happen on the stronger beats. The finale was written for a chaotic battle at the top of the mountain from a very early prototype. This encounter was simplified later on, and for a while, the music was hitting the intensity level desired better than the battle itself. In that way, the music actually inspired the gameplay at the top of the mountain.

Flock.

This piece came together very quickly and leans heavily on the sounds themselves, which often came first. Because this piece is very sound-centric, the resulting music was written specifically for these sounds (instead of vice-versa, which was also an approach I used at times). The 'swarming' sound in this track was designed early on for a battle on top of the Northern mountain that no longer exists. It was meant to reflect the concept of the cult birds, swarming around you. I think this sort of buzzing sound worked well in creating a kind of tense, and yet ambient environment. This track also features a MIDI Script I developed called 'Tremolo-ADSR,' which allows you to replicate crescendo accelerandos like the ones heard in traditional Japanese music. I used this to kind of sell the religious/temple vibe a bit further. That and FM bells!

Cult of the Zealous.

I created two very similar versions of this piece for two areas of the North that were laid out differently. There is a dry, narrow version for a region that is full of narrow brick pathways, and a bigger, wetter version for a library that leads to the final battle in the North. I think I was fortunate in that I was able to write the boss music finale in the exact same structure as the much slower feeling sections leading up to it, by subdividing the tempo. Castlevania was a definite influence in trying to get the right harmonic vibe for a very dark, cultish environment.

Cascades.

In setting out to create a vibe for the East, a pale, watery place of pathways and waterfalls, long drawn out airy notes and bells were the first things that came to mind. Some of the wind instruments also do their best animal imitations, with plenty of portamento and diving pitches not unlike the sound of a mourning dove. There are also some rather large set pieces in this environment, remnants of millennia old Titans, and those were a perfect backdrop for the distorted colors in this piece. Generally, when things get quieter and wetter sonically, we are heading underground. The music is extra wet in the underground sections of the East.

The Refiner's Fire.

I had a lot of fun with the drums on this piece. While still quite ambient, it was a nice reprieve to have a much more percussive piece. I stumbled onto a tom-type sound in Alchemy (soft-synth) and leaned into that patch to make it more closely resemble the drum sound of Danny Carey of the band Tool. I loved this sort of athletic tom-heavy drumming, and this was one of the central inspirations of this track. The main pad riff features a slowly evolving delay unit that pitches the material up continuously to create what end up sounding like peculiar harmonics. I push this as far as I can, especially towards the end of the piece.

Mycelium.

Many of the east pieces started out as placid, Satie-like piano sketches, and I had to go back and try to darken them up to match the difficulty of these levels. Many dynamic layers were added to this piece after the fact to make it more intense.

Acropolis Falls.

I originally wrote this piece for the plaza/town area of the East, but Alex and I were at odds about this piece. It was one of my favorites and one of his least favorites, so I ended up extending out 'Cascades' instead, and using this piece for the Sunken Docks. I think it ended up working well there because it's one of the largest, most open areas in the East if not the whole game, and there are very few enemies, which I think gives the music a lot of room to establish a setting. Part of this scene is a giant titan head floating in the water, which comes up in the middle of this piece. There are crackling noise sounds and deep percussion to try to give weight to the vision of this titan's head, and to imply that it goes way down below into the depths. This is capped off with a late add, a more active, percussive version of this idea to go along with a chaotic battle.

A Chorus of Tongues.

This area starts kinda small with just a few frogs, and so I complemented that feeling with some dueling melodies. As the region opens up and gets deeper, the leads give way to material that is more rhythmic, eventually emerging from the depths into a drier, more intense march type variation as you fight all sorts of enemies. As the clash subsides, the music recedes into wispy pads, representing a memory of what has just transpired.

The Hermit.

This is a piece came out of a series of piano sketches that I stitched together, followed by overdubbing additional ideas on piano. I then spent a long time splitting out the various elements into a full arrangement. I wanted this piece to feel patchworked with lots of different ideas and patterns, hoping to give it a circus quality.

The Water Shelf.

This area of the East feels a bit smaller, and not as decrepit or foreboding, and so this piece I think has a lighter, upbeat quality. The underground battles get rather intense, so I ended up having to revisit that section of the music and add more variations to it.

Petrichor.

Another piano sketch, this one came to me late in the game. The South had an unusual structure to it, and kind of came together from pre-existing material, such as 'The Gauntlet', which was originally written for a 30-minute demo we made for Kickstarter much earlier. Much of the South is constructed from the levels of that demo, and so we did the same thing with the music. 'Petrichor' was a new piece that I added later as the overworld theme. We initially used the tower motif here (Wisdom's Tragedy), but it didn't make sense to have the tower theme playing when the tower only takes up a small part of the overworld. I tried with this piece to create something that had the appropriate amount of desolation to it.

The Gauntlet.

This music is where I really hit my stride as far as figuring out the structure of the music in the game. We had a short timeline to do a vertical slice of the game for a demo presentation, so I had to get to work without hesitation and build it gradually over time. The variations were heavily influenced by constantly cross-referencing with the labyrinthine map of levels that eventually became the mass of the South. The music branches, introduces new elements, and often removes old ones, in an attempt to stay on top of the feeling of each individual level.

The Sentients.

This is essentially the ending of The Gauntlet, split out into a separate track for listening reasons. The first section of The Sentients is the first boss track I wrote for Hyper Light Drifter and ended up seeing a lot of usages. There are 5 significant battles in the South which feature this music. The post-battle music ended up being an excellent title track, as it has a sort of chill, plodding quality that we found inviting. The final sequence is meant to capture the gravity of a significant encounter with a Titan.

The Abyss.

The root of this track was the very first piece written for the game, and remained largely unchanged in its final version, except mainly for the incorporation of the tower theme. It seemed appropriate to include this motif as it is meant to represent the technology, wisdom, hubris and ultimate downfall of the four civilizations. Chimera evolved fairly naturally out of this piece.

Chimera.

The final boss music came together very late in the project. I didn't know what to write, and in fact felt quite intimidated because I knew it had to be climactic and surpass much of the music I had already written. Knowing this, but also knowing I did not have time to be precious and had to write because our time was almost up, I dove in and wrote very loosely, playing a lot with effects to try to create as gnarly a soundscape as I could muster.

Panacea.

I came up with a sequence of ideas at the piano and recorded them in a somewhat lo-fi manner, with a field recorder. The general structure and ideas were there, but the specifics were always a bit blurry, and that allowed me to tinker with the form and the details of the performance over the course of a 10 - 15-minute jam. Afterward, I edited this down into a more listenable form, a six-minute track.

The Heirloom.

This little ditty was pulled from the intro sequence and seemed like the perfect vignette for the death of the other drifter you encounter throughout the game.

In Depth: Contracts

When trying to negotiate an agreement as an audio contractor, it’s important to know your ideal conditions. Contracts often contain compromises, and so it is important to know where you are flexible. If you can find projects you are passionate about, you may find that contractual deliberations go smoother by default.

The Speculative Wizard

It’s important to gather as much info about a project as possible up front, and then speculate about the outcome of the project before you even lay out contractual terms. How much work do you estimate will be needed? Do you think this project will be financially successful? What will the schedule be like, and how convenient or inconvenient will it be? The answers to these questions can all affect your cost. If you feel the project is destined for greatness, you might consider asking for a revenue share (typically called ’back end’ in the film industry). If you’re less certain, or you need money to live on in the present, it can be better to ask for a higher fee up front. There is no shortage of options and variations when it comes to negotiating a contract.

Self-Worth

One of the many considerations in coming up with an asking price is estimating the value of your work as a part of the greater whole. Music sometimes comes together very quickly, regardless of its quality. The contributions of coworkers may take far longer to execute and be of a different level of importance to the success of the project. There is no cut and dry method in regards to estimating the worth of sound to a project. Either way, this is a complex, subjective issue that deserves careful thought.

What's the Budget?

It’s never a bad idea to ask if there’s a budget. Sometimes, especially when working with larger companies, you may find that their opening offer is already higher than yours.

Gambling With Your Time

You may find a great project to work on that either has no budget or is non-commercial, like a student film for instance. If you have the bandwidth, feel strongly, and think the project could garner lots of attention, a pro-bono project can be a great career move. Sometimes, a commercial project may not have a budget, but there is the possibility of revenue later.

Being a freelancer is all about relationships. Working purely for a revenue share is an act of faith and investment in the success of a project. It may not yield any financial rewards, but your colleagues will appreciate your generosity and belief in them, and it may solidify your relationships with those people. You may find yourself working with them again in the future.

Rights

There are many secondary sources of income that can arise from a work commission. Some of the most common are soundtrack sales, licensing, and royalties from music ownership. I always try to keep the rights to my music, and 100% of the proceeds from soundtrack sales when possible. These can be great ways to pad your income on a project, and also provide you with an additional set of negotiating points when trying to draw up an agreement. On a project with a very small budget, you could ask for full ownership of your music, as something to compensate for a less than desirable flat rate. This would also enable you to generate more income from your music in the future, should others wish to use, stream or perform it.

Crowdfunding

There are times when asking the public to help fund your involvement in a project is a possibility. I have seen successful Kickstarters whose sole purpose was to pay certain team members, such as composers or sound designers. A project you are looking to join may already be running a Kickstarter to raise money for its development. They might consider including the expense of your services as part of their crowdfunding goal.