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

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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.


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Mattias Gerdt, Music For IGF Nominee Cobalt: Part 1 [Interview]

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Oxeye Game Studio’s action platformer Cobalt has received honorable mentions in the technical and visual arts categories for the 2011 Independent Games Festival. It is also a finalist for excellence in sound design. IGF’s judges had this to say about Cobalt:

“The soundscape in Oxeye’s Cobalt was also praised for “giving it the amount of life it has”, with “immersive sound effect work that absolutely sells the atmosphere,” and a soundtrack that “stays away from melodic motifs to let the overall ambiance take center stage.”

DIYgamer had a chance to speak with Mattias Gerdt of Anosou Music. Some of the highlights of this first part are sound effects, looping music, and an awesome extended cooking metaphor.

DIY: Is it common to have another person work just on sound effects (SFX)?
Mattias: It ultimately depends. In some cases a programmer or graphics guy does SFX too. Many times the musician and sometimes a guy do “just SFX”. The latter is, in my experience, least common.

DIY: That brings up a possibly interesting point. Outside of music games, do you feel SFX “fits the atmosphere” of a game or are they just functional?
Mattias: I dunno.. again this very much depends on the developer, but I think there is some thought behind what’s used.

DIY: Do you ever work on SFX?
Mattias: Pretty much never. I sometimes do more “musical” effects like small jingles when you pick up items and little bleeps that go with the music or just atmospheres that are less musical and more ambience, but hardly ever SFX.

DIY: Do people ever talk about the importance of looping tracks? The first generation of CD based gaming on consoles sometimes didn’t have loops.
Mattias: Looping is pretty much mandatory; it was in the 80s and it is today. Interesting, though, I haven’t thought about that. How horrible to have awkward silence all the time!

DIY:  I like the “club on demand” inside and outside tracks. Was it just a simple filter or effect applied to make the second version?
Mattias: To be quite blunt, yes, yes it was! There was some additional use of EQ to make it just distant enough but nothing more spectacular than that. It’s kind of the throbbing heart of Trunkopolis, the City in the Cobalt IGF demo. You couldn’t actually venture inside the club in the demo, so nobody playing that heard the “inside” version.

DIY: Does the filtering have a specific name?
Mattias: The outside version just has a simple low-pass filter, staple of all synths ever. The track was actually quite different first, this version is based on talking to my fellow Oxeye colleagues. I specifically got some amazing descriptions of what Daniel “thewreck” Brynolf imagined it sounding, and I found some references in Jens “jeb” Bergensten’s musical taste, EBM/synth music. (Jens is one of the developers at Oxeye Games who’s developing Cobalt. Nowadays he’s also an employee at Mojang, makers of Minecraft.)

DIY: Did you intentionally avoid “melodic motifs”?
Mattias: Well, yes and no. I naturally wrote more ambient, mood-building music for Cobalt because I think it really fits the mood. It’s kind of Bladerunner-ish at times. I did write a “main theme” of Cobalt though, a really short little theme. I think it’s not instantly memorable but it gives many tracks a sense of unity because you can spot it appearing everywhere.

DIY: Was the idea or “thesis” behind Cobalt’s main theme yours?
Mattias: There was no real collaboration when it came to the theme itself, though I do tend to show a lot of “work in progress” versions and similar to my colleagues. The actual melody I call the “main theme” just kind of happened when I composed the menu track. Then, I grew so fond of it. I re-visited a few tracks that I considered finished and added this little melody. Later, I also based the elevator music around the theme, which was the last track I did for the demo before IGF.

DIY: Can you walk me through your creation of the theme?
Mattias: Well, it’s hard for me to elaborate how the actual theme came to be.. especially since it’s in different settings each time it appears.

For the creative process in Cobalt, we have a private IRC channel and a dropbox which are my main channels of communication with Oxeye. I personally really like hearing what the developers are expecting and thinking about the music, so we had a lot of long talks about that. I got pretty much free hands though, even though they had personal preferences that I could either adopt or ignore.

For a level track, I basically start by pinpointing its function in the game, the back story. Simple things like “jungle or city?” and when in the game it appears. Then if there is concept art, I usually have that as my desktop background for inspiration while working on the track. I love having a reference picture around like that. I even set up a big whiteboard behind my desk for that specific purpose!

When the background is relatively clear to me (including things about the game like speed and genre etc.) I just sit down by the computer, find a sound I want as a starting point and start improvising on my MIDI keyboard.

DIY: Sounds mythical!
Mattias: From here, it’s pretty much like cooking. Once you’ve decided the main ingredient, you can try with different complementary ingredients until it’s just about right. But in the case of music, you can actually remove ingredients that don’t fit.

I tend to really focus more on finding a good sound than writing a kick-ass riff though, especially in the case of Cobalt.While game music has a history of being very melodic and catchy I’m not sure that’s always the best approach, it really depends on the game. In any case though, when we have these amazing tools and crystal clear audio, why not spend the extra time to work on the soundscape?

DIY: When you say complementary ingredients, that to me almost seems prescriptive. How do you innovate?

Mattias: A certain instrument or synth sound might give just as much to the game’s mood as to a melody. In keeping with the cooking analogy: if you go ALL over the world, how many dishes with chicken are there? I would bet there are quite a few. And perhaps more interesting there are chicken nuggets and “chicken” dishes that hardly have any chicken, just synthetic flavors. Even if you approach it from a “recipe” stand-point, you can endlessly vary it because the ingredients available in modern music production are so many it’s nearly impossible to understand.

Innovation is a word that’s often very positively looked at; everything needs to innovate. Then look at the chiptune renaissance. That’s basically innovating backwards, still chiptune soundtracks are extremely popular.

DIY: With all these ingredients, are people making any new sounds or just borrowing from the cupboard?
Mattias: Well, that’s the fun part. It’s a combination of the two! You can grow your own mutated vegetables or buy a plastic-wrapped head of lettuce.

I tend to search through a lot of pre-made sounds but then alter them to really make them fit what I’m going for. Then I might also use some sounds I’ve made myself using, for example, the Thor synthesizer in Reason.

But again, the desire for innovation might be overstated. Compare it to the orchestra, which has retained a similar shape for ages and the previously mentioned chiptunes. Just using a not-well-known sample library will give you a pallet of sounds nobody has ever heard. But even if they had, I don’t think it would matter that much if it worked great in context of the game.

DIY: Do you ever have game development ideas for Cobalt or any other games you’ve worked on?
Mattias: I’ve played quite a few games, and I like thinking about how they’re built. I pretty much always have opinions and thoughts about game design, level design, systems, and story, if developers want to hear me out. I’ve even mocked up a few design documents myself but I’m not confident enough to contact a programmer about anything.

[Check back tomorrow to see the conclusion of our interview with Anosou Music's Mattias Gerdt.]


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What’s “Cross-Bitting?” HyperDuck Interview on Sound Tips for Indie Devs, Dust: An Elysian Tail OST Preview Included

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HyperDuck SoundWorks’ Chris Geehan and I had more a conversation than an interview. Being both Irishmen, we met at a “virtual” bar (details) and discussed things over several rounds of Guinness. In order to enjoy and recreate the surrounding ambience, Chris has provided a HyperDuck jukebox. Yes, the bar only played HyperDuck music. But your ears will agree; these maestros are more like melodious mallards than mere ducks. Start the virtual jukebox below:

Dan Byrne-McCullough is Chris’s partner in crime. They have contributed some prolific tunes to XNA Dream.Build.Play  2009 grand prize winner Dust: An Elysian Tail and 2010 first prize winner A.R.E.S. Their awesome tracks are also heard on the trailers for Secret Base’s Bitejacker, starring 2011 IGF host Anthony Carboni.

With that being just part of HyperDuck’s hyper resume, it may have seemed unnecessary, but I began our conversation by raising my pint for the team’s recent submission to the Behemoth for BattleBlock Theatre and by toasting Dan, who regrettably couldn’t find the bar. May XBLA gamers be so lucky to hear HyperDuck on their home consoles!

So, are you working on Dust and some other projects?

(Chris of) HyperDuck:  We’ve pretty much finished every single other project deadline now. Up until Dust‘s deadline, we’re 100% Dust.

Any Dust details?

HyperDuck:  We’re rearranging all the older music we did in the new style, along with the entire reworking of the Dust audio engine, designing the sound effects and creating the foley for Dust and the creatures. The old style had a heavy YsIII / YsIV influence. The newer style is a lot more “real” sounding  in terms of instrumentation and has a cinematic quality throughout it. I think when the music comes out, we will release the old and new versions of the songs so that people can hear the transformation that occurred.

Was Iji your humble beginning?

HyperDuck:  Pretty much. Dan Remar and I were both massive fans of Machinae Supremacy, who are a band who mixed SID Chip sounds with their rock/metal music. From that forum we became friends, and he said he was making a game at some point and asked me if I could do the music. Later I got the call, realised I needed to begin working, grabbed my partner Dan and said, “Let’s make some music.” We pretty much learned how to record stuff by doing Iji, which is pretty apparent in the quality of the sound in the soundtrack.

Not at all, but  it sounds like you wanted and got help along the way. Indie devs do the same thing. What resources are there to help music devs?

HyperDuck: Good question. There’s plenty of stuff and good communities that I have been and continue to be a part of, some quite small ones. There is an IRC channel where myself, Anosou (Cobalt), DannyB (Super Meat Boy), Josh Whelchel (The Spirit Engine 2), c418 (Daniel Rosenfeld of Minecraft) & disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland of Rescue: The Beagles) meet and share tips, feedback, and generally support each other.

There is OverClocked Remix, a fine place for people wanting to learn about remixing, interpreting music, and knowing good places to buy music equipment. There is Audio G.A.N.G., which has a subscription of £30 a year, but it’s really worth the money. The people there got my business head screwed on tight. They gave a lot of tips and tutorials that can help any aspiring musician looking to do sound design or music composition in media.

(As we moved onto another round of Guinness, I became more astute, noticing a new logo for HyperDuck.)

So, what’s up with the name change?

HyperDuck:  We kept getting a lot of people assuming that we only do music, which is what we founded the idea to team up on, back before we came up with HyperDuck “Music Studios.” But we do a lot of sound design work these days, too. We’re pretty dedicated to both, so I think “SoundWorks” is a good umbrella term to cover all aspects of the audio work we do. We won’t be changing again.

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Let’s role play (kinky). I am an indie developer; how would I find you if I didn’t know you existed? What sources are out there to easily connect indie devs with sound devs?

HyperDuck:  I’d probably find you. Most of the developers after Iji/Katakijin we sourced out ourselves, though most of it was from TIGsource or at least Zero Gear was. I think pushing yourself out there as much as possible without becoming obnoxious is important to get ahead, but I found something very special at TIGsource and the Audio G.A.N.G.:  a community is very important and should not be disrespected as such. I joined TIGsource because I saw like-minded folk there who shared the same passion for games, and I wanted to help combine what I was good (well crap at that stage) at with what they were good at and make some awesome experiences in video games.

Mod DB and Indie DB also have great resources for indie developers, as well. I think making contact with a developer and showing the best aspects of yourself is mega important. For every single person we have worked with, I still chat with, and I’ve never had a bad moment in any project we’ve done. They’re all so nice.

Any other tips for game devs?

HyperDuck: One tip is to always make sure the people you are working with have a demo reel or some example of their music in any form. I know if I were a game dev, I wouldn’t take on people if I’d never heard their work before, even if they have been in a game. But to be honest, you will always find somebody who is looking to fill their portfolio up who has either done very little work in games, or has none and is looking to freshly start.

(Being the rude socialite that most people are at bars, I checked my Twitter account. People were all achirp about the heinousness of muting the audio while gaming. Chris quacked back.)

HyperDuck:  I think that music can be muted in games, but you’re missing out on a deliberate part of the experience that game has to offer. As for music not being essential, well that’s a matter of opinion. And quite simply, my own opinion disagrees with it. I am happy to continue my life and career adoring video game music, as many of us are and will do, so it doesn’t bother me.

When do you become involved with the overall game process? I imagine great sounds are never an afterthought.

HyperDuck: I’d say there are more projects where we walk in early on in the development, and through talking with the developers, seeing screens, and  playing demos, we begin to craft what we think is in their head for the game. So by pulling together drafts, we get feedback from the developers saying that they are finding designing certain parts of the game much easier since they have the music for it. That’s about as close as we get to the development process of the game. Aside from doing sound design, we’re mostly in the cogs.

The music isn’t an afterthought. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that in any project we’ve worked on. It can be, and it’s noticeable when the game and sounds do not gel.

So, what makes a game “easier” to write music for?

HyperDuck: “Clear vision” is the key phrase. In this line of work, you quickly learn that it’s ok for the game developers to not 100% know what they want for the game, and if they do have an idea, it’s not always easy to project it across. We’re not all musically mouthed, so that can be a hell of a challenge. But a clear vision can be attained between the developer and us if they can show us what influences them. Most of the time, unless they say “go for it; I trust you guys,” they show us what makes them, and usually their game, tick.

Tick how?

HyperDuck:  Seeing visuals, videos, music and sound design from other games and media– it all helps a lot in making something that the developer will eventually love, and something that feels right within the game. They will sometimes link to other game soundtracks, and suggest games to try out for the sound design techniques used. That’s really useful and actually is like a new lesson to be learned each time we do it.

For example, if a guy gives us a shout and wants a soundtrack with the style of Battletoads, we’ll go back and look at the game, then he’ll say, “Oh, but I want it with reggae style instrumentation, and a hint of rock too,” getting the sound for that will become a lesson, a test of our musicianship essentially. By the end of it, we’ve learned how to do something fresh. It’s also really rewarding and refreshing. I like being kept my toes like that.

Do you find it weird that no one has done any “cross-bitting,” a phrase I think I just coined for having an 8-bit game design with 16-bit sound or something like that?

HyperDuck:  I’ve done some personal experiments with 8-bit and 16-bit stuff, and tried mixing elements of it together, but I see no reason not to merge the elements from both together, so many other hybrid sounds have came together from doing so with genres, why not this too!

To your knowledge, have games done this?

HyperDuck:  Not to my knowledge, but I wouldn’t say I have searched hard enough to find it.

So, what haven’t you been asked before that you think you should be asked?

HyperDuck:  Hmm, Nobody ever questions if we’re actually ducks or not.

Why would anyone? Sitting across from me was obviously something of avian origin. As we parted ways, I divulged details about my Irish ancestry, that my mother’s maiden name was Duffy.

HyperDuck: A good strong Irish surname, lovely! I’m not sure if you know, but Duffy means “Descendant of the Dark One.”

That explained so much about my childhood.

Thanks for the enlightening discussion, HyperDuck. Sample more of Dan’s and Chris’s audio euphoria here.