Feature: Joe's Garage on 'Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar'

It's rare that I'd want to share what is essentially a review of my work, but I don't think I've seen one where someone so completely 'got' one of my albums as much as Joe Dorsey gets Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar. There are a lot of insightful connections drawn here that go beyond the album itself, into the origins and influences of classic video game composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo.

Link: Joe's Garage
Originally Posted on August 29th, 2017

Feature: The Midnight Wood

Musician Lauria Intravia hosts a great segment on the OverClocked Podcast called 'Between the Lines'. She did a great analysis of the musical style of Hyper Light Drifter, especially the track 'The Midnight Wood'.

Link: The OverClocked Podcast

In Depth: FEZ

Origin Story

I met game's programmer Renaud Bedard at a concert I performed in Montreal. They were looking for musicians to work on the game, with the intention of treating the soundtrack as a compilation, and he asked me if I was interested in contributing. I thought it would work better to have a single composer, and so I suggested I might write all of the music. I’m guessing this meeting happened with Phil’s blessing. I started working on the soundtrack right away, in the fall of 2010.


It wasn't too difficult. There was also a lot of dialogue between the entire team, more or less everyday, which I think was very beneficial for all of us. I think I was eagerly anticipating Fez before I even joined the team, so that maybe made my job a little easier. Also, working with the Polytron guys has been a breeze, Renaud (the programmer) has had my back all the way, and we were fortunate enough to work with Brandon (sound effects), who helped lend a second set of ears to everything we ended up doing. Phil and I have been on the same musical wavelength since the start. We actually haven’t had to work too close, for the most part. I was given free reign to work on and add music to the game at my own discretion, and there have been very few times over the last year or two that we’ve had to work through musical disagreements. For the most part, we’ve shared a similar musical vision for the game, and that’s really made things work out great, I think.

Failed Ideas

During the idea process we definitely had some more ambitious ideas that turned out not to make much sense. One of the ideas was to have the music change depending on what side of a level you’re facing … of course, the player rotates so frequently, that this ended up not being a very practical thing to do, musically. Though, on second thought, perhaps it could have worked in certain, more jittery places…


Often times I would just get something, anything, into the game, and then play with it in there to get a sense for how the music was feeling. This was a very effective method and has always been my go to way to iterate on music, especially dynamic music.


Most of the music in the game is influenced by the state of the level. For instance, how high you are in the air, or whether it's daytime or nighttime, etc. The only progress-related change I can think of is actually "Reflection", which plays when you first leave your village, but will never play again.


Full Day / Levels

For the Industrial area, I started to think about how long each time of day roughly was in game time, and how large the levels were relative to each other, in hopes it would help me figure out how I wanted to structure the music changes. Also the phrase ‘volume triggered’ here actually refers to altitude. I was probably experimenting with the idea of altitude to trigger different musical layers in these levels.

The note to the far right seems like it was the basis of an idea to create really sparse music for the interiors of the initial village. This idea was likely inspired by the music treatment in Jasper’s Journeys by Lexaloffle, which I found to be very unique in its approach. I either thought better of this idea or forgot about it, because the final version of the interior music is the exterior music with the low pass filter that Renaud implemented for when Gomez is out of view.

Lessons Learned from Retro Game Music

I would say the usage of limited voices.. using voice stealing to come up with clever parts, and an emphasis on using linear passages (arpeggios, ostinatos), to take the place of chords. Those things have had a profound impact on my writing style.

Musical Influences (circa 2012)

Over the last couple of years I’ve really gotten into Debussy, Ravel, and listening to lots of piano. There’s an album called Solo Piano by Gonzales that has been in my regular rotation for some time, and I’ve got some Erroll Garner vinyl records that I love. One of the oddities of writing lots of music is that you can’t listen to other stuff while you’re writing, or at least I can’t. I get less face-time with music than I used to, and it’s a shame. But I do my best to make time for listening. Going further back, bands like Yes and King Crimson, composers like Steve Reich and Stravinsky have always been inspirations to me.

On Capturing the Feeling of Exploration

Writing music in itself is often an exploration, so it’s almost hard not to capture it. I think having strong musical ideas that evolve and go places tends to capture the feeling. Throughout the process I just tried to settle into a particular area of the game that I was writing music for, and sort of feel it out. I’d just think about that particular place, and have that in the back of my head while I wrote. There’s a certain loneliness about the game. I tried to capture a sense of wonder that a character like Gomez might have, given the fact that he was leaving his 2D village for the 3D world for the first time in his life. I think the decision to write a lot of melancholy music came from Gomez' isolation. He is all alone, traveling through a huge abandoned world.

On the Soundtrack Puzzle

The spectrogram puzzle was my idea. The nature of the puzzle however was completely Phil’s work. I have no idea how to solve the spectogram puzzle, and as far as I know noone has solved it. I implemented Phil's images into the music in a way that I thought might be subtle, but in a matter of days people thought to listen to the soundtrack using a spectrogram.

On the Process

Every project has its own unique challenges and requirements. (Puzzle Agent and Drawn to Life are two examples of projects that had a very different process to Fez, because on those games I was asked to write music based on screenshots and cutscene footage.) For Fez, I was totally involved in the process from the start, testing the game on a regular basis, editing level files and placing music and ambiences in the game directly. Also, I think that in a lot of ways, Fez was a dream project for me, because while I tried to create a very specific aesthetic, I was at the same time exploring my own sort of sound. Sometimes you work on games where the guidelines may be more outside of your comfort zone (for instance, writing jazz/noirish music for Puzzle Agent was a new experience and a great challenge for me at the time).

I think for the most part, the freedom I had made this one of the easiest and most fun things I’ve ever gotten to do. I also gave myself free reign to do a lot of improvisation, and I repurposed a lot of older ideas that never got used… They seemed to me that they would fit well in Fez, and that made it somewhat easier to work on. I definitely spent a lot of time tweaking sound design on a couple of tracks though, and I think that’s where I spent the most time. “Beyond” comes to mind, which you’ll be able to check out in the game, or on 4/20 when the album comes out.

Scoring a game like Fez, there's some pressure, but for the most part we were taking our time and giving it the time that it needed, and I had a year to score that game. I felt really comfortable with that amount of time. Everyday I would load up the latest version of the game and play it, and then I could go in myself, because the developer and I designed a tool for me to do all kinds of dynamic music stuff with it. So everyday I would go into the game and I'd say, "I want to do this today, or I want to do that, I want to make music that reacts to thunder in this area where there's thunder, or I want to create some music that's always slightly different — you know, it's made up of forty different little pieces of music that weave in and out of each other randomly — or music that changes based on time of day, or music that changes based on the altitude, or whatever." I could do all of these things on my own once the tool was created. I could just go in and do those things and edit the levels myself, and then the rest of the team would wake up the next day and play the game and suddenly hear the stuff that I did, and say, "Wow this is so cool; I've been in this level like 600 times over the last three years, and this is the first time I've heard music here."

Production Effects

Everything in game is 44.1KHz, 16-bit. All of the lo-fidelity effects were created using bitcrushers and other effects processors, as opposed to actual file limitations. This gave us a whole lot more freedom to capture the exact sound we wanted. I used the Logic Pro bitcrusher almost exclusively … it’s a very powerful plug, and the ability to mix dry/wet signals together makes for lots of combinations. I experimented with bitcrushing just about everything in a track (including reverb), and at varying amounts, to get interesting sounds. I used the built in reverb in Massive quite a lot, especially to create some of the more paddy sounds, as well as Space Designer. We established a sort of cinematic approach to chipmusic, taking those sounds and giving them a more contemporary and comfortable plot, with lots of reverb and attention to space, and also a focus on making it sound deteriorated. I did that using lots and lots of bitcrushing, and tape warping effects.

Using Musical Modes

There is a lot of modal music in the FEZ score. The Puzzle music is deliberately split up into different modes to accentuate the different times of day.


This is probably the single question I’ve been asked more than all the others put together. Here are the synthesizers I used on FEZ, ranked by usage:

Native Instruments Massive.
Massive is littered all across the soundtrack, and appears more than any other synthesizer. During the course of FEZ it became my new go-to synth, and I learned to create new sounds with it relatively quickly. You can hear the sound of Massive on tracks like ‘Beacon’, 'Compass’, and 'Legend’. I also managed to squeeze some pretty cool percussion sounds out of Massive. My favorite example is the big drums on 'Majesty’.

Native Instruments FM8.
One of my favorite synths, an excellent FM Synthesizer which can load up patches from pretty much any hardware FM synth ever made. All of the instruments in 'Nocturne’ were designed using FM8, and the synth also features prominently on 'Nature’.

Native Instruments Absynth.
All of the instruments (save the drums) in 'Adventure’ are patches I made in Absynth. I also reused and modified these instruments for use in some other tracks, like 'Home’.

Sonic Charge Synplant.
This is a pretty unusual synthesizer, not so much sound wise, but its user interface is unlike anything else you’re likely to find. I used Synplant almost exclusively on a couple of the cues in FEZ, namely “Puzzle” and “Knowledge.”. There’s a more traditional set of parameters that can be adjusted under the hood, but the primary interface revolves around experimentation and moving tangentially from one sound to another. You have a seed that can grow in any number of directions, and each direction represents a different sound. You sort of mess with this to come up with new and interesting sounds, and you can theoretically generate a bunch of new patches in a very short time this way.

Native Instruments Kontakt.
Kontakt is king among software samplers, and has an incredibly robust feature set and an amazing community of third-party content creators. On 'Spirit’, I created a peculiar instrument using two SNES soundfonts, and a really neat Kontakt script by SonicCouture called 'Pentagonal Pyramid’, self-styled as a 'Black Key Harmonizer’. I also used Okedo Daiko samples on 'Fear’ to make the big chords more thunderous, and Double Bass and Tom samples on 'Loom’ (Available on FZ: Side Z).

Native Instruments Reaktor.
I used the Reaktor Ensembles SteamPipe and SteamPipe 2 on 'Flow’. These Ensembles are great for flute and other airy sounds.

Lennar Digital Sylenth.
This synth has a cool arpeggiator function. I think I only used it thrice though, in 'Continuum’, 'Love’, and for the creepy arpeggiator sounds at the beginning of 'Fear’.

Native Instruments Battery.
Used pretty much only for the TR-808 style drum sounds in 'Home’ and 'Adventure’.

Propellerheads THOR.
This synth is an old go-to favorite of mine. THOR has fantastic routing capabilities, so I ended up using it to create the arpeggiated 'rain’ in the second half of 'Fear’. This is the only instance on the soundtrack where I used an external application / sound source, rather than working purely within Logic Pro. THOR is a featured synthesizer in Reason.

Track Descriptions

This track is an anomaly; it’s the first track I wrote for the game, and I had experimented early on with running it through tape. I initially wanted to run everything through tape, but this turned out to be too impractical, because of the way we were syncing audio to things in the game (recordings on tape tend to fluctuate in tempo ever so gradually). Within a few days of meeting Renaud (FEZ evil genius programmer) in Montreal, I wrote this track. It represents my first feeling about how I thought the music in the game might sound. this was before any deliberation with Phil about the music direction, and it was inspired by some of the music concepts associated with FEZ pre-2010. Despite the majority of the music in the game being atmospheric, there are still a few spots where you will find some more upbeat, percussive tracks. If you look.

this track evolved out of messing around with a new instrument I picked up at the time, called Synplant by Sonic Charge. It’s got a real unusual but ingenious interface... if you’re into synths I highly recommend checking it out. this song is a mockup of how the music behaves in the game. In game, this song is broken up into 27 individual assets, and plays phrases periodically, and moves through different keys depending on the time of day in FEZ.

I tried with this song to create the notion of a massive pulsating structure that controls and manipulates rather indifferently. Despite that, there is an upswing in the mood, because contextually, Gomez has really happened upon something special. The beginning sound, which is the sound of Gomez entering a special portal for the first time, is an attempt to capture a sound similar to that of the THX logo. That sound always gave me goosebumps. I feel lucky that creating that sort of effect these days does not require thousands of lines of code.

the seed of this song is actually an idea for a piece of music that starts in a center location and expands out into 8 or 9 different directions. Each level would have its own key and as you move around this area the music would move with you. For the soundtrack edit, I tried to convey this same idea, where you’re surrounded by these machines that are in repetitive motion that evolves slowly over time.


I was looking into the usage of one tonality per time of day, per level. Some of this idea came through in the final version, where the music does change tonalities in certain levels. However, changing tonalities for each time of day proved to be too difficult to do effectively, because our tech limited us mostly to crossfades. The system did have a clock in place for triggering stems after x number of bars, but it proved to be a little bit shaky in practice. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear this imperfection on display in the game’s opening village music.

Here you can also see a visual map of the level connections for the industrial area, and some of the internal names for those levels. Also, lots of experimenting with specific chords as the basis for tonality per level, and thinking about time of day by way of little sun/moon icons.

this song started as two chords played while drinking a bit too much while trying to pronounce words in a Cantonese dictionary. there is a second version of this song that only plays at night, and you can only hear it in the game.

I’ve always loved the idea of a track that starts as a single note, builds all the way up, and then crumbles back down to nothing. that was the idea here. I tried to make everything wet and airy to match the context in game. this is one of the few places where I use some more complex instruments, like synthetic flutes and tube percussion.

I wanted to mimic the sound of water dropping from stalactites and other things happening in distant underground places.


This is a fairly close representation of how the structure of the music turned out. Each box is a level, and arrows show the traversal between them. The rows depict the various states of gameplay in those levels, which just happened to be fairly parallel to the height of these obstacles/checkpoints. The little bomb image signifies the section where you must plant a bomb and rotate the world continuously to keep the fuse lit.

this track started as me messing with chords continuously moving up major 3rds, which is a sound I like. I tried to do something almost flute like with the melody. I think I was probably inspired a little by the Shire theme from Lord of the Rings.

there was something about “Distant Worlds” by Sam Hulick (the map music from Mass Effect) that I always liked, and for some reason, I kept envisioning Shepard standing at that map screen in his ship when I was writing this track. It has a stability to it, like “Love on a Real train” by tangerine Dream, that I wanted. I also wanted it to feel really warm and sunny, and somewhat important.

During the game, the music from this track takes on a different form, depending on where you are and what time of day it is. this version is edited down to incorporate portions of each. the “shaky” distortion present here is a result of modulating the amplitude of various parts with a noise signal.

this one sort of just came out randomly. I was working on another track, and one of the ideas that I started vamping on was this riff. I held onto it and came back a year later to make it into a song. towards the end of the song you’ll hear some pulsing parts. I like to label those “Reich” in my song session (for Steve Reich).

this song is made entirely out of elements from other songs in the game. How many can you spot?

this song is actually three separate cues in the game. I wanted to mimic the sound of a bunch of bats, and then I wanted to mimic the sound of rain and thunder. In game, the “thunder” strikes are programmed to trigger at a random time, to keep the player on his or her toes.

this song is composed almost entirely of black keys, which when playing by themselves, created a major pentatonic scale. the entire song is an improvisation, making sure to only play one note at a time. the other notes you hear are also black keys, but were added as a MIDI effect.

this song uses a single instrument. During the day, critters scurry here and there, going about their business. But come nightfall, they come out to dance. the first section is a bunch of overdubbed improvisations, without tempo.

this song is made up of a bunch of short parts in different time signatures. try counting them!

I originally came up with this melody on my Aunt’s upright piano during Christmas. then I recreated it with basic chord accompaniment using the keys on my laptop, while on a bus, headed from Boston to Hartford. I definitely tried to tap into the 80s horror mystique of bands like Goblin with this arrangement.

this track is a foreshadowing, but it also has to do with something that already happened, so I was planning on calling it “Aftshadow”. But that sounds dumb. the game plays these phrases based on a random time scale, to help convey a sense of vague memory... something like saudade.

this is one of the more literal musical treatments. Do you feel hot? Don’t listen to this song if you’re in an oven. Don’t be in an oven.

I’ve been sitting on this nugget for about 6 years. It started as the second half of a piano improv, where the first half sounded a bit too much like Beauty and the Beast. But I finally found a good place for it. the dungeon music from Legend of Zelda was always a favorite of mine as a kid. In an odd way this is sort of a tribute to that.

I wrote this song at a local game jam (tIGJam) for my friend Randy who was making a game about Sarajevo. But secretly I was experimenting with some early sonic ideas for what the game might sound like. I later revisited it, improved the structure a bit and added some lovely bitcrushing effects. It has this slow molasses feel to it, that to me felt like a really old, really abandoned and forgotten place.

the motif this song is based around was something I wrote down in a Reason file 5 years ago. I never expanded on it until I made this song. I really wanted to try to make acoustic sounding taiko-ish percussion using synths, and I think, relatively speaking, it worked out. If you’re wondering what memory “Memory” is about, this here might be it.

Phil had this idea to endf the game with Moonlight Sonata, but I decided to go with my man Chopin instead, and his piece 'Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 in E Minor' because I liked the movement of this song better. I worked from a MIDI file I found somewhere on the internet and spent a lot of time getting the pacing how I wanted. the arrangement does a lot to mimic what’s happening on-screen. A bit of trivia: this piece was played at Chopin's funeral.

this track was heavily inspired by a certain strand of music from the demoscene, and a game called “Jasper’s Journeys”, which both use tracker software. In these instances, each note falls onto its own channel, and you are limited in how many channels are available. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the arpeggio instrument that runs through the entire song, never overlaps itself too much, because it only ever allows 4 notes to play at once. this helps to keep things clear.

I wanted the moments after Gomez leaves his village to be reflective, so I continued with the Home idea, but stretched it out and tried to make it sound more solitary and inward. Ironically, this happens to be one of the longest songs in the game, but it only plays the first time you leave the village, and if you’re not totally horrible at platform- ing, you can get to the next area of the game way before the song is over.

I was messing with a minimoog one day and wrote this randomly. It was probably the most complete piece of music I had ever written entirely to be performed in one go at a piano or keyboard. (Also might be the shortest, haha)

FZ: The Remix Albums

I think someone else had the idea, but I can't remember who. People started approaching me with remixes after some word got out that there was a remix album in the works. I only asked a handful of people, but got some really great remixes from people I didn't ask or know, and they ended up making it into the project because of their quality level. I initially intended to do a single remix album, but due to the number of remixes I split it into two parts, FZ: Side F, and FZ: Side Z. FZ: Side E is also tucked away on the second remix album - it's a mini EP of sorts which contains all the game and promotional music not released on the original soundtrack.