In Depth: Hyper Light Drifter

Emotional Impact

Hyper Light Drifter was a very emotional project to work on, and I think part of that was because of the creative approach I took with the music. I ended up trying many things that didn’t work, and so I often had to start over in the middle of an idea. The game kept shifting over my three years of involvement, and I didn’t feel like I had a grasp of the game until the very end. It's odd - the very first thing I wrote for the project ended up being a seminal representation of the spirit of the score, and yet the general experience of writing the music proved to be quite a struggle.

Being on the same project for three years is difficult for someone like me, where I feel like my taste and my interests are always changing. The level of trial and error in finding the right sounds for this game was quite high, and required a lot of energy of me to stay engaged and working at my highest potential. I often felt like I was using my emotions to figure out what was working and what wasn’t, and that ended up being taxing over time. By the end, I was reaching back into the past to try and channel how I used to feel, because I think I’d already kind of moved on from it. But I couldn’t quit. I had to finish it.

Process

There was definitely some cross-pollenation when it came to influence. We landed pieces like 'Titan' and 'The Abyss' pretty early in development, which I think helped the team's creative process. I was absolutely inspired by the visuals, as that was the first thing I saw and reacted to in writing some of the earliest pieces. I also got really into Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga during development. That definitely helped me down the stretch.

I stumbled into an impressionistic way of approaching the music for Hyper Light Drifter. I improvised at the piano often as I was trying to hone in on some very subtle feelings and vibes for different areas of the game. There was a lot of trial and error, naturally.

In the eastern water region, the music is placid and serene, but with a tense edge that comes through at different points. I had some semi-intuitive notions of how that type of region was supposed to sound, and I tried to lock into that. I used that process with every region of the game, more or less. I had to figure out the sound of a post-apocalyptic desert where it’s raining all the time. What does that sound like? What’s the sound of a crystal forest, or the sound of ascending a mountain?

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. This piece has a fun rhythmic technique towards the end, which involves shifting the ostinati's strongest accent back one note each time through the cycle.

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.

Always Have a Contract

I once hired someone I knew for a long time to collaborate with me on some music for a project that was a work for hire. In my haste and naïvety we never put together a subcontractor's agreement for rights assignment, and later on they decided in bad faith that they wanted to challenge the right of the client to use the music. The client, out of fear of breaching their own contracts with other parties, put all their indemnity on me. We ultimately had to replace the music we wrote, which I also had to pay for. As you can imagine, this ended up costing me quite a lot of money. I never thought something like that could happen, but Murphy's law reared its ugly head. From them on, I've always made sure to have a contract. Let this be a lesson to you!

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.

In Depth: It Follows

Involvement

David loved the music I made for FEZ and reached out to me via e-mail. Our initial discussions were straight-forward. We talked logistics and expressed our interest in working together. David touched base right before he started filming and then we fell out of touch for a year. When he came back to me, prepared to start scoring, I had a lot of work underway and did not have much time. I turned him down at first, but he could tell that I wanted to work on the film. After much discussion, I gave in to his persistence. I’m glad I did! We at first talked about exploring an aesthetic with guitars and other acoustic instruments. Over time, we realized that synths had the versatility we needed.

I think David was looking for a sound that had an emotional range suitable for the film. The music in FEZ is intimate at times, but can also be very aggressive and menacing. I think having a breadth like that worked well for It Follows. In that way there is a fundamental similarity between the two scores, but many distinctive differences as well. I think I was lucky to connect with a film director who is an avid player of videogames.

Early Process / Skepticism

I read a script early on and was on the fence at first. There is not much direction to a script. The acting, timing and cinematography all have to manifest in your brain. It can feel a bit flat. I was skeptical of my judgment too because I had not seen a screenplay come to life before. I wanted to dive in with David after I saw his last film, “The Myth of the American Sleepover”. I knew he was masterful at bringing out a sense of humanity in his characters. The first cut I saw was silent, but even so I knew right away that this was going to be something great. I found David’s deliberate style opened up a lot of space to explore as a composer. He later presented me with a version that featured a temp score. This tool gave me help with direction and compensated for a short turnaround schedule. The film got into the Cannes Film Festival, and we had weeks instead of months to finish.

For my first feature, I chose not to write much until I saw the film. The first thing I did was sit at my piano and try to come up with a theme. I wrote a piece I am proud of, but never found a spot for it in the film that made sense.

Collaboration with David

The score was an absolute collaboration. I think David heard something in my approach that he thought could be unique in a horror film. For me, I found his naturalistic style gave me room to play. David’s first impressions were strong and encouraging. He pushed hard to have themes and recurring melodies, and we did a bit of that in spots. I think the temp score and his love for FEZ gave me a well-rounded sense of what he wanted. We had some creative disagreements at times, but that’s a routine part of collaborating. I wanted the sounds to be warmer and rounder in certain spots. He sometimes yearned for brighter, more digital tones. I think we are both quite content with how things turned out, though. David was in the driver’s seat when it came to the musical direction for 'It Follows’. He had a very strong vision for the tone of the music and I was happy to defer to him in certain ways.

Dial it Back

The opening scene of It Follows is the first for which I wrote music. Earlier versions of the track had so much distortion in them that Christian suggested we were going to upset theater owners. I was pushing the clipping effect of tape saturation well past 11, to the point the sound began to deteriorate with a sonic characteristic not unlike that of a speaker slowly blowing up in your face. I distorted the low-end so harshly that he feared we were going to destroy peoples' subwoofers. In the end, we managed to find a comfortable balance that still has quite a lot of distortion, but never to point of complete and utter deterioration.

The Old Maid

There is a scene in It Follows, immediately after 'Hugh', Jay's conniving boyfriend, ties her to a wheelchair to present the unusual STD they share. Before Hugh unceremoniously ditches Jay on the street outside her house, her friends are playing the card game 'Old Maid' on the porch.

When David Robert Mitchell was testing out music cues for the film, he had a little piece of 'Spirit' from the FEZ soundtrack synced over the shot of the playing cards, which I found a bit curious. When I asked him about why he had placed music there, he did not have a particular reason. He placed it on instinct. It seemed to suggest a relationship between the 'Old Maid' and something else in the film. A few scenes later, Jay is at school and has her first encounter with 'It', an elderly woman in a robe, walking slowly but purposefully towards her across the courtyard. I instinctively made a connection between the woman and the card, the card implying a future encounter with the 'Old Maid'. When I told David about this, he laughed because he had never thought of that before, but he liked the subtle suggestion that it was hinting at something, and so we decided to run with it. This is why the music from the school scene is called 'The Old Maid.' I've never had anyone bring up this connection to me before, so I thought it would be interesting to share.

In talking to David, I learned that the game of Old Maid was analogous to the STD. It represents something we all want to pass on to someone else. It represents loneliness.

Alternate Detroit

There is an alternate version of Detroit in the film that is not on the soundtrack. It plays during an establishing shot at night of the kids at home, brushing teeth and clipping nails, waiting for dread to reach their door. Usually, people notice these sorts of details and demand their copy of the evidence, but I have not heard a peep. I think I'm used to video games. They bring out the OCD in people slightly more.

The Pool Fails the AB Test

The music during the big finale at the pool does not pass the AB test in comparison to its soundtrack version. We iterated over the sound for the pivotal scene of the film many times, and, in honor of chlorine-drenched appliances, threw everything AND the kitchen sink into that cue at the very last minute.

My Acting Debut

It was the eleventh hour, and I was at the film mix sessions with David and Christian, our engineer. We were scrambling to put the piece together, and David was especially stressed, trying to close out such a big undertaking. We realized we were missing some dialogue for minor background situations. There's a rotating shot in a school hallway that called for a loudspeaker announcement. While Jay contemplates her situation in the aboveground pool, there's a TV report about a wildfire in the background. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is wing it, and so we recorded these parts ourselves. I starred as 'High School Announcer', and 'News Chopper Reporter.' I also convinced David to be the News Anchor in that fire bit, despite his reservations. We pitchshifted our voices down. IMDB has not officially credited us for our profound contributions, and I know David is relieved about that. In light of official proof, you'll have to take my word for it.

Tight Timeline

In the three weeks I wrote the score, I tried to get up every day and have a somewhat chill morning so I wasn’t too stressed out. Once I got my morning routine out of the way (meditation, exercise, food, some reading), I would dive in to work, usually around noon and work til’ midnight or later. David and I had a lot of back and forth during that time and I think tensions were running a little high because we were up against the clock. It was tough and a little stressful at times but I think it worked out great. Finally getting to hear the film on a soundstage was incredibly satisfying.

Influence

David and his editors created a thorough temp score that became my bible for the film. John Carpenter, Penderecki, and John Cage were all present. Some of my tracks from FEZ were also part of the temp score. For scary scenes, I tried to make the music as dissonant and weird as possible. I pulled out as many stops as I could to one-up the temp cues in every way. For tracks like “Detroit”, I was channeling the ominous arpeggios of bands like Goblin.

I wasn’t thinking about video games when scoring the film. I rarely think about that. Games and their music are just an undeniable influence that I wear on my sleeve. I think that that relationship comes out in a subconscious way. David had a definite affinity for the music from FEZ. We took steps to honor that aesthetic but also bring something new to the film. We ended up using some of the music from that game as a template. David developed a serious case of ‘temp love’ for those pieces. It was difficult to steer him away from what he felt already worked well. At first it was strange to hear those tracks in the film, but I adapted to it. We referenced material from other composers as well, and I feel that I learned a lot. I love to get into the depths of other peoples’ music. Referencing music I wrote many years ago was one of the trickier parts of the project. That said, I am quite pleased with how everything turned out. Working with David was a satisfying experience.

Synth music was all around me growing up in the 80’s. By the time I was working on FEZ, I had a sense of what they could do and what I wanted them to do. I don’t think that came from any particular artist, but more from a high level of exposure. When people told me that FEZ sounded like Vangelis, I was not all too familiar with him. I had seen Blade Runner once and knew he wrote the “Chariots of Fire” theme, but I had to look him up. And yet, his style seems like such a staple now. For me to that he and music of that ilk did not influence me would be dishonest.

I’ve straight up avoided horror films until recently. But their culture is omnipresent. If I said I was not influenced by it I would be lying. I’ve been listening to Goblin for many years but was never big into horror. I think I can count the horror films I’ve seen on one hand!

Inspiration

I never spent much time with horror films, and so I came to the project with very little knowledge of the genre. I knew the ‘Psycho’ theme, had listened a bit to the band Goblin and dug that. I also had a curiosity about the aesthetic and the form.

I tried to take a deliberately ignorant approach to scoring the movie. I would only listen to the temp once or twice before writing something new for the scene. In this way I could hopefully build on a distillation of why the temp works, without mimicking it too closely. I think it’s a good practice to try and not be too on the nose. Some of the temp music references were from 80s films, but most of them weren’t. The anachronistic nature of the film was something that I was always sitting with. And the aesthetic of the score was in part a by product of real world limitations.

Instrumentation

Pretty much everything is custom, except for some of the percussion. I made a lot of synth patches for this film; at least a hundred I would say. Making patches is one of the most effective ways for me to get the sounds I’m looking for.

Intensity Level

The temp score cues were scary and high energy. We talked about making them even more intense, and so we tried to push that level even higher. We hoped that having that attitude right from the first shot set up the film in a certain way. We wanted you as the moviegoer to always wonder when that scary moment is going to come again.

John Carpenter

His music is dark, simple and effective. We used some of his music in the temp score for the film. As a result I used a few of his pieces as direct reference. I am not well versed in the music of Mr. Carpenter, but I appreciate what he has done.

Musical Objectives

We wanted the music to play an active role, as if it was a character. The music serves as a hair-raiser in scarier moments. In calmer scenes, I think it helps engage the moviegoer by adding emotional weight. We often use melodic cues to underline character and plot development, as well as segues between larger sections of the film. We tried to pick our spots. We always took care to give the film and its dialogue the space it needed.

The music tries to build empathy for the characters. They seemed quite real to me already, but I tried to help how I could. In the scarier moments, I was more focused on creating a twisted landscape.I tried to be loud, wild, and unpredictable.

For a lot of the cues, I tried to use my synth chops to make weird, dark, obnoxious pieces of music. I find that thru-composing to picture feels natural. I enjoy the freedom it provides in making subtle, time-sensitive adjustments. The elephant in the room for me was the FEZ soundtrack. That music was a direct influence on many of the melodic pieces. I tried to honor those and make David happy while also doing something fresh. It was tough! I think I managed, for the most part.

Don’t be afraid to do weird, unorthodox things. Make unpleasant sounds. Timing and dynamics are crucial to the music but also in its correlation to the screen. At some point, the process became more about intuition than anything. I’d watch the same scene over and over and its connotation to me would change. The visceral reaction subsided, and it became more about the intellectual aspect. It becomes a matter of analysis. Why is this scary? What could push that emotion even further?

I really tried to be deconstructive about how we were being nostalgic, and so it was not my desire for the score to come off as overly retro. I’m glad if people were inspired by it but I think the characterization is at odds with what my intentions were. But that’s life!

Preparation/Research

I’ve never been a fan of horror films. So maybe that lends some perspective to how unprepared I was. As a kid, I was a chicken. I wouldn’t even go on the Snow White ride at Disney World because of the witch. But working on It Follows has invigorated my appetite for scarier films.

Production

I designed most of the sounds in the score with Native Instruments Massive. Massive is a versatile synthesizer that I have used a lot over the years. I learned how to build my own synth patches in college and had refined that ability while working on FEZ. Massive was a natural choice for me to create a synth score on a short timeline.

Post-Production

After I completed the score, we spent a week mixing the film. Christian Dwiggins mixed the film at Tunnel Post in Santa Monica. Hearing the score on a surround system for the first time was fantastic. Christian pushed the film’s energy over the top, by suggesting we add more elements. He helped the music jump out of the screen. There are cues in the film that became downright obnoxious in the best way.

Postmortem

Working on such a tight deadline was stressful. Trying to reference my own material became an exercise in ego management. I can be ruthless about not treading old ground. At the end of the day, I had to make a few creative sacrifices. I think if we had more time, I could have written some better cues. I struggled with the similarity of some of the music to that of FEZ. I am a perfectionist though, and these are all minor issues in the grand scheme of things.I am proud of what we have accomplished as a whole. It was an intense period of work, and there was a lot of back and forth. We managed to do something unique and in not much time. I’m hoping to have more time in the future! Three weeks was tough.

The Beach Scene

In that particular scene, we didn’t think it’d be immediately apparent to everyone that the Yara walking up from the grass was not in fact Yara. So we waited an extra shot or two, when it’s quite clear that Yara is in fact in the ocean, before starting to bring in the music.

The Film’s Appeal

I think it approaches the genre in a fresh way. I think we tried to do something new while honoring great horror films of the past. The premise is horrifying without needing lots of gore and jumps. The characters are funny and easy to relate to. They’re young people written in a believable way, and I think that goes a long way.

Does it Scare You?

I feel the music works well, but I have to approach it from an almost academic perspective. I’ve watched the movie so many times at this point and first saw it with no music and no post FX. I saw the potential for it to be quite scary. But I think at this point, I’ve been too involved to experience it that way.

Not jarring per se, but when it was satisfying and gruesome, that’s when I knew it was ready to go. When you work on something like this, there is a tendency to become a bit desensitized to it. Even while mixing the film, we were unsure how people would react. We just had to go with our guts.

Critical Reception

The reception has been overwhelming! It feels great to have so many people say they appreciate my work. I also find the parallels folks are making to be a great education. I am learning a lot about the talented artists who have worked in horror over the years.

Soundtrack Mastering

My experience working with Christian on the film mix was stellar. He masters records too, so it was an easy choice to bring him back on to master the soundtrack. As a rule, I never master my own records. I find putting someone else’s ears on my music helps me to let go and move on.

Pool Setup Music

I think my favorite musical moment is the pool setup scene. That piece started as a pretty close reference to “Formations” from Fez, but I feel like we were able to bring it to a really cool place. I love how that one turned out.

Jay's Theme

Jay’s theme is probably the closest thing to a Fez track on the score, and that was a late edit. I had written a different theme for Jay that was warmer and more melancholy, but David thought we needed something a bit brighter and retro, so we switched it up to make it more like a reference track from Fez. That was a bit tough for me at the time but I had to go with David’s gut and we didn’t really have a whole lot of time to try a bunch of different things.

Title Theme

it's kind of a Morricone-type of thing. That's what I was thinking of when I wrote it. What if Morricone did an evil western or something?