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Mattias Gerdt, Music For IGF Nominee Cobalt: Part 2 [Interview]

anosou title

DIY featured the first part of our interview with Anosou’s musical genius Mattias Gerdt here. This week, IGF will reveal if Cobalt wins the award for excellence in audio design. Award or not, Mattias is definitely building up a winning collection of tracks for Cobalt. And by winning, I mean the gamers win. And that’s really all that matters, right?

The conclusion features discussions about legal issues of using music, what makes a game’s sound IGF worthy, chiptunes, inspirations, and how everyone can do more to get gaming music more recognition.

DIY:  From a a legal standpoint, when is a sound yours? When are you allowed to borrow sounds?
Mattias: I personally have bought quite a few sample libraries, i.e. collections of musical data that can be “played” as instruments. I particularly love the stuff from BitWord and LapJockey, both focusing on more synthetic sounds.

In all these cases you can use them commercially as soon as you buy them because you gain a “license” to use the sounds. But in the case of synthesizers, you build them from the ground up.

I think most composers have a ridiculous collection of samples and synths really: free or bought.

DIY: It’s neat you use visualizations to imagine and create a song. Do you start to imagine how that place “sounds” or how the game BGM should sound?
Mattias: I think I’m a bit too jaded. I primarily start thinking about how that place would sound if it was a video game and what it’s role would be. I think a lot in terms of it being actually a game to begin with.

I listen to tons of game music myself. Then after that I start thinking about it as an environment that’s just that, an environment, but that’s more to get an extra dimension. In a lot of scenarios it makes no sense thinking of how a place “sounds”. For example, if it’s an abstract environment with geometric shapes.

I’m quite the game music fan (I have a collection of 270+ game music CDs for example) and I’ve studied how game music has been used before in both old and modern games. It’s perhaps particularly good when you want to avoid repeating what’s been done. If you know everything that’s been done, it’s easier to stay away from it if the situation calls for that.

DIY: Tell me more about the Radio Chip track.

Mattias: There’s a funny story about that track. It was made for Cobalt’s in-game “radio system”. We have these little radios sprinkled around the world and the player can change the channel and listen to some music that would definitely not fit as background music.

The chip track started out as a joke because at the time I were seeing all these indie games with chiptune soundtracks. It was kind of a “look, I can do it too!” thing. Then it evolved into something that doesn’t really share the “chiptune aesthetic” if there is such a thing. It’s not super melodic, and I mix in non-chip sounds, a TR-909 drum machine.

DIY: What does it mean to strictly adhere to creating chiptune or any other similar “concept”?

Mattias: Well there’s a whole world of that. I even wrote my bachelor’s thesis in musicology on Game Boy music and realized both how different yet strict it were.

It kind of varies, though. American chiptune tends to mix in more “non-chip” sounds in my experience, while the Swedish music for example, especially Game Boy-based, are almost only Game Boy and nothing else.

I used a Game Boy (DMG-01) and LittleSoundDJ primarily for the Radio Chip track but processed it externally in Propellerhead Record and added the drums just to make it a bit beefier really. While I do admire people who strictly follow the limitations of the original hardware, it’s not something I think is better or worse really.

DIY: Outside of the Bladerunner reference, do you have any influences or inspirations that led to any of cobalt’s soundtrack?
Mattias: Influences always fluctuate; sometimes I’m really into this one band but the other day I’m completely obsessed with an old soundtrack.

For Cobalt, I think Steve Reich and Kimitaka Matsumae were important. While I got inspired by Reich, I can’t say I’m writing in any similar style like he is, but I love the thought of minimalism in general. I think it was there in the back of my head.

Regarding Kimitaka Matsumae, I had been listening a lot to his soundtrack for KILEAK, THE BLOOD. He personally sent me the soundtrack release, a re-recorded version, and it’s utter genius. It has this dark atmosphere with pulsating sounds, lush pads and repeating patterns that create an amazing mood. I can listen to that CD for hours!

Otherwise I get influenced by everything I see/read/hear/talk about in one way or the other. It’s hard to pinpoint something. Most of all I got inspired by the Oxeye theme and their game.

DIY: What about the team inspired you?
Mattias: Well, the three guys that are Oxeye are utterly amazing people. I was quite humbled by how nice and intelligent they were when I first joined their IRC channel to talk before I got the gig.

It’s a delightful mix of deep philosophical thought and a bunch of guys drinking beer and cracking jokes. They’re all really good at what they do too.

DIY: Have you listened to the other IGF audio finalists? What do you think earns a finalist nomination for IGF?
Mattias: That’s a really tricky question. I don’t think it’s innovation. Retro City Rampage is straight up NES, for example. Interactivity is perhaps a key point but then again RCR is a black sheep and Cobalt isn’t impressively interactive. It can’t just be music because Amnesia is a lot about SFX.

I think the key is how well the audio works with the game. If that’s interactive music like in Bit.Trip Beat or an innovative narrator like in Bastion, that’s up to the judges.

I think Cobalt was nominated because everything really worked together. The atmosphere is incredibly dense for a 2D platform/shooter/adventure. It’s innovative in that manner but I don’t know if that’s what people mean with “innovation”.

DIY: Are there more good games than there are good game soundtracks?
Mattias: That’s a filthy lie! Start with these. There are plenty of really bad games with great soundtracks, just look at Cheetahmen II!

I guess there might be some truth in your statement though but then again “good” is so personal, what’s a good game and what’s good music? Something I love as a game you might hate and vice versa.

DIY: Then let’s call it “critically acclaimed”.
Mattias: That’s just because critics don’t care about the music.

DIY: Good games seem to make more news headlines than good game music, sadly.
Mattias: It’s hardly ever mentioned in reviews, like ever.

DIY: So, how do we get OSTs to headline more articles?
Mattias: Good question, no easy answer either. I’m not sure you can force that because game music is made to enhance the game after all. Do SFX or controls get headlines? Art books?

I think it’s up to the gamers. If they do like the music and want to hear more about game music-related news and such, they need to make their voices heard. Sites like OCR really help promote and raise awareness of game music through arrangements. That’s very easy to write about for journalists. Making notes about soundtrack releases is probably news worthy, but that’s such a specialized interest.

I think the key is to get reviewers and media in general to just mention the music in games, how well it works etc. The more attention music gets as an integral part, the more people will realize that it IS an integral part. To be completely honest though, people are free to play games without music. I sure as hell listen to game music without having played the games.

It’s like movies. The best scores just complements the movie in some way (gives it more depth, enhances feelings, and mood). If they take too much attention, the viewer loses focus on the movie. That’s dangerous. The same goes for games many times, even though my opinion might be controversial.


  • TheUltiMatt

    This has been a really great read. This second part has really reminded me of why I love Tower of Heaven so much. As a game, it’s pretty good. Short, fun, and definitely challenging. But flashygoodness’s soundtrack pushed it over the edge for me to the point where I feel it’s a perfect game.
    The way the motif is carried on throughout the soundtrack and varied on is a great way to go about it, and it sounds like Gerdt is doing something along those lines too. Good luck in the IGFs, and can’t wait for the game!