The Sound of Supergiant Games: An Interview with Darren Korb

Following Transistor’s new build at PAX Prime, Katy Goodman and Robyn Miller talk with audio director Darren Korb about music in games, inspiration, and are even joined by a special guest.

At PAX Prime I had the pleasure of getting some hands-on time with the new build of Transistor, Supergiant Games’ spiritual successor to their title Bastion. Though little changed in terms of the actual level within the demo, it was an entirely different beast in terms of how it came together as an overall experience. I’m always amazed to see how small subtleties can completely change the way in which we view games—this is something that we witness even in “next-gen” graphics, which use the smallest of environmental aesthetics, such as shadows and lighting, to create titles that brush the rim of reality. But, in the context of the current Transistor build, what truly caught me off-guard was the difference the soundtrack made in the overall emotional appeal of the title. With music,Transistor went from feeling like a game in development to a completed entity that had a voice of its own (despite its protagonist’s lack of one).

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Intrigued by the overall sound design of Transistor, Robyn and I decided to catch up with Supergiant’s sound designer, Darren Korb, over Skype.

Katy: So to start with a bit of an ice breaker, what are your five favorite videogame soundtracks?

Darren: Oh man, that’s hard. I’ll start with Marble Madness for Nintendo, the NES. I loved that game. That was one of the first games when I was a kid where I just thought, ‘Wow this crazy, I’ve never heard stuff like this.’ So that was really cool. I like that one a lot. I really like Fall Out 2 in particular. I played that game a ton and I think the soundtrack has a great vibe; it reuses some of the tracks from Fallout 1. I really like Diablo II; it was really sparse and there wasn’t a ton of music, but it really did a great job setting the tone and putting you in the place. I actually like the Plant vs. Zombies music, the first one. Again, it was a thing where it’s only a few pieces and it was very simple, but in the way it was implemented it matched the game well and had an excellent vibe. So I really liked that. I thought the soundtrack for Sword and Sorcery was really cool—super atmospheric and you know, very interesting in a way that not a lot of soundtracks are.

Katy: It’s funny that you mention Diablo, because a lot of the music in that, especially the music when you’re in Tristram, reminds me of the Bastion soundtrack.

Darren: Yeah absolutely. That was something that was definitely an influence, especially when we were makingBastion. You know, when you make an action RPG you have to look at Diablo because that’s like, the one. That was definitely on our mind to some degree, so it was a bit of homage to some extent.

Katy: Awesome, so what exactly got you started with Supergiant?

Darren: Well, I guess it all started when I was eight years old. Amir and I became good friends when were little kids—and we grew up together and played in bands together. When we co-founded Supergiant he asked me to do all of the audio and I said yes, and that’s it. Unfortunately it’s not very complicated.

Katy: That’s actually a pretty good thing. *laughs*

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Robyn: In the past you’ve described Bastion’s music as acoustic frontier trip-hop, and you’ve also said the genre is very connected to the feel of Bastion itself. I was curious if you’re transitioning into a different genre with Transistorand if so, how would you describe it?

Darren: Yeah, the Transistor soundtrack definitely feels pretty different. I wanted to do some of the similar synthesis of different styles that I did in Bastion to some degree, but it’s a different set of stuff this time around. This game, you know, feels a lot darker. The story is more of a personal story, whereas the story in Bastion was more pastoral. It was less personal. So this time we are trying to do some more specific stuff story wise. And so, I mean, the music this time around has a lot more electronic elements. It feels quite a bit darker. There is a lot of percussion and stuff, but it has a less of a trip-hop vibe. I’m taking influences from everything like Imogen Heap, Björk, and Radio Head, to post-rock and electronic. So it’s going to feel pretty different, I suspect.

Robyn: If you had to give the genre for Transistor’s music a name, what would you call it?

Darren: Umm… I guess I would call it like… electronic post-rock, but then there was one other word that I would apply to it that I can’t think of. Old world, that’s what it is! Electronic post-rock old world.

Robyn: I like it. Another question along similar lines: in the Bastion soundtrack, the character themes, particularly Zia and Zulf’s, enrich the understanding of the characters and their behavior in the game itself. Can you give us an idea to what role the music will play in Transistor in the development of Red’s character…. or other characters?

Darren: Sure, yeah… a little bit. You know Transistor is a game where you play someone who was a singer. It’s definitely an important part of her character, so the use of vocals in this game has increased. I’m definitely hoping that will contribute to the understanding of her character.

Katy: What were some of the challenges of making music for a silent protagonist whose silence is something less genre-based and more based in plot-development?

Darren: Well, I mean Bastion had a silent protagonist, but that kid never sang anything. This time, it’s interesting. It took me a while to find the voice of the character; we spent a ton of time in pre-production fiddling around with ideas in January of 2012, or maybe even before that, right after Bastion in 2011. We’ve been doing a lot of experimentation—all the different disciplines, music, art—we spent a lot of time trying to find a center for what we wanted to do creatively. This time Red is a character who is a popular music artist in the world of this game, so I’m sort of tasked in a lot of stuff, defining a bunch of things of like, ‘What is the music that people in this world like?’ ‘What is interesting about this music for this culture we’re creating?’ So there are definitely a lot of responsibilities placed on the music and the songs this time around.

Katy: That’s one thing I really noticed with the new build you guys had at PAX Prime. It felt like everything came together so well, the new music really helped everything culminate into more of an experience. That was really awesome.

Robyn: Overall, how would you say that process for making the music of Transistor has been different than Bastion?

Darren: I would say for Bastion, what we did as a whole was see where everyone could best contribute to the game in our ability to execute tasks without help. It’s something we can all could do without using resources that we didn’t have. So, I think Bastion’s creative process was less targeted, in some ways. We just didn’t have a lot of time or scope to prototype different things within the game. We just sort of went with what we liked it and it worked out. WithTransistor it was more targeted and had more specific creative goals in mind so that makes it more of a challenge. It’s not necessarily right in my comfort zone, or for everyone I think. It’s us trying to push ourselves outside of what we would necessarily normally do. It’s been challenging. And in another sense it’s our second project and you know, you have your whole life to think about your first thing, and with the second you only have so much time. And it’s in relation to another game we made to some degree, so that’s been challenging mentally. We want to make it have its own unique voice. We want to make sure it’s a new experience for people, you know, but we also want it to feel like we made this game. So how do you keep the identity of the people that made the game while also changing the identity of the game? That’s been the challenge this time around.

Katy: So the music of Transistor seems to act as, in some ways, a catalyst for the experience of the game. When did the process of the music production come into play? Did it act as inspiration for the art or did the art and story boarding act as inspiration for the music?

Darren: We were all prototyping everything very early on, so this is the first game we were able to start with a full team. We added a couple artists along the way, but we started with the full. Jen was prototyping art, Greg was coming up with story ideas, and I was prototyping music all at the same time. So we spent a long time trying to figure out the sound, look, and what we wanted the game to be a about. We also spent time trying to figure out what we wanted Logan’s role to be in terms of what the character was going to sound like and how he was going to speak to you. It’s interesting because when you look at the game you have this character who talks to you the whole time, sort of like a narrator, but the way we arrived at that is because we feel like it’s different from a storytelling perspective—having this omniscient narrator. We tried so many things to get at this to feel different, and we’re really proud of that. A lot of things like that, in terms of working with the title, have been really interesting in this process.

Robyn: Where would you say your music style comes from? Do you have any creative influences?

Darren: Yeah, a ton. Generally on my musical style or specifically on Transistor?

Robyn: A bit of both? *laughs*

Darren: I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff—everything from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to show tunes. I listen to all kinds of stuff—the Pixies and things like that, so I have a wide array of musical influences. I think whatever you listen to becomes an influence whether you want it to be or not.

Katy: Definitely.

Darren: As far as Transistor goes I am looking at some specific stuff. Imogen Heap has a lot of the tone we’re trying to capture—she’s super awesome. Also people like Björk and Radio Head. I just discovered this band the other day that Greg told me about called Poliça (pronounced Poli-sa) from Minnesota and they are super awesome. They have a vibe that I’m going for with this game, so I don’t know if it’s an influence yet, but it’s cool.

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Katy: You are also part of a band called Control Group, correct?

Darren: Yes!

Katy: Can you tell us a bit about it?

Darren: Yeah sure! It’s a three-piece, with this guy name Jeremy Parker from Haramonix. I met him through doingRock Band related stuff. A friend that he went to college with, Evan Reynolds, all of us have been in a bunch of bands before. Oh, hang-on, my dog is going insane right now. He’s rolling over and going crazy.

Katy: He knows you’re being interviewed. Opportune moment. *laughs*

Darren: Where were we? Control Group! We’ve been playing a bunch of shows—we’ve been going up to Boston a lot for the Boston festival for indie games. It was awesome. The VGO (Video Game Orchestra) came in and I got to play a couple songs from Bastion with them, which was really fun. We’re still playing and have an EP coming out soon and a vinyl single.

Robyn: Nice!

Katy: That’s awesome! Congrats!

Darren: Thanks, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Oh wait! He is here! *refers to dog, who he brings in front of the camera*.

This is Higgins.

HIGGINS

Robyn: Awwwww.

Katy: Ah, he is so cute! Hi Higgins! He’s like ‘What is going on. Pet me now.’  So you’re the inspiration behind all the music, Higgins!

Robyn: He is the muse.

*Darren puts Higgins back down*

Katy: Higgins, I’m so excited that we got to meet you. Maybe next time we should interview him.

So what kind of music does Control Group normally play?

Darren: It is rock music that is reminiscent of 90’s garage rock.

Katy: And the EP is coming out in a couple months?

Darren: Yeah we have a little EP we’re going to release soon, and we have a vinyl single that we have in our band camp right now.

Katy: Cool. Do you guys have a website?

Darren: Yeah, controlgroupmusic.com and then we have a bandcamp with all of our stuff on there.

Katy: So do you take anything from Control Group and put it into the music for the games that you make?

Darren: I haven’t yet. We started playing after Bastion had come out, or around that time. So we’ve been jamming ever since. We really just started performing this year. But yeah there hasn’t been a ton of crossover. It’s sort of a different outlet for me.

Katy: Which do you think is more challenging, creating music in a band or creating music for a game? Or are they simply just different?

Darren: They’re just pretty different animals. It’s like a whole other thing. Making music for a game… I mean at least in the way I have done it, it’s very free to some degree. There is a lot that it needs to accomplish, so in some regards there are a lot of constraints. But in terms of what I want the music to sound like, it’s pretty free. I really enjoy that because I get to do whatever it is my whim tells me to do. In that way, it’s sort of like playing in a band. Especially with this band, we do whatever feels good and write together and quickly, so it just works and it’s pretty free. There are obviously different constraints there, being a three-piece band, we’re limited to those three instruments and that’s it, whereas in the studio you can do whatever you want and have any instrument available to you all playing together at the same time.

Katy: And you did the sound effects for Bastion and Transistor as well, right? I’m always fascinated by how sound effects are made—what are some of the coolest effects  you’ve created so far and what did you use to create them?

Darren: For Bastion I was thrown right into the deep end, because I had never done sound effects before. So I did it however I could; I used sample library sounds and combined them with other sounds. Sometimes I would just record mouth noises into a microphone and process them. One of my favorite ones is the Rattletail, from Bastion. All of his sounds I did with my mouth, just creating random monster sounds. Also in Bastion, if I needed to improve a sound I would just mix in catapults with it and it would instantly become more awesome. I think with Transistor, wind chimes will become the new catapults.

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Katy: That’s all I’m going to hear now. Wind chimes.

Robyn: Or catapults. If you could compose music for any video game series, which would it be?

Darren: Does Rockband count?

Katy: Yes! Control Group! *laughs*

Robyn: I would hate to play you at Rockband. I imagine you’re a beast at it.

Darren: I did win the 2010 national Rockband championship.

Katy: I mean, not to brag or anything. *laughs* It’s funny because games like that normally don’t transfer over in terms of skill. I played soccer through college but when it comes to Fifa I pretty much fail at life.

Darren: Yeah sure, there isn’t any correlation there at all. But Rockband.

Katy: This is a bit more of a broad question, but what do you think music can bring to games, especially coming into next gen? We’ve a huge increase in the popularity of game music, from the growth of performances from Video Games Live, the Zelda Symphony, things like that. They’re becoming almost like movie soundtracks.

Darren: I think music helps define the tone of a game. It allows the player to feel a particular emotion. And then that’s my approach to it as well—I try to reinforce the tone as much as possible to enhance and help the storytelling and elevate the emotional assets as much as possible.

Katy: It’s an emotional catalyst. It’s amazing, because when you look back at the nostalgia of older games from our generation, so much of it is recalled through the sounds of them.

Robyn: So what sort of music do you normally listen to when you’re not making your own?

Darren: Well right now, that band I mentioned earlier, Polica, they are really cool. I really like the The Belle Brigade, I’m actually seeing them live soon. Phoenix is great, and that new Paramore record just came out. I just found this new record of just the vocals from the Beatles at Abbey Road, and it’s mind-blowing. Because these guys are so good, it’s crazy.

Robyn: What’s your next professional or personal project?

Darren: Really right now just working on Transistor and Control Group. I’m expecting a baby in February, so that’s pretty big.

Katy: Ahhh, congratulations! That’s so exciting!

Robyn: Congratulations!

Katy: That’s a big project in itself.

Darren: Yeah, that’s my next personal project. It’s going to be a long running project of mine. And we’re expecting to be finalizing Transistor right around the same time.

Katy: Perfect timing! Going from no sleep, to no sleep. At least you’ll be used to not sleeping.

Darren: Yeah, this is totally normal. I got this. Whatever.

Katy: And when is the estimated release for Transistor?

Darren: Sometime early next year, I think. The first part of next year, depending on how you define part.

Katy: And will the soundtrack be released around the same time?

Darren: Yeah, that’s the idea. Sometime around the release, either at the same time or a little bit after.

Robyn: Will you be planning to bundle it with the music sheets like you did with Bastion?

Darren: Probably, though that will most likely come a little later. There is a lot more actual played content here and less looping of music, so if people are interested I’ll try to do it again.

Robyn: That little snippet of “We All Become” is amazing. I’ve been listening to it since March.

Katy: The hotel room at E3! She introduced it to me and we just listened to it on loop.

As we wrapped up our interview, the lovely Higgins graced us with his presence once more, staring with the utmost of elegance, an endorsement of his wrinkled French Bulldog face. He should be the cover art forTransistor’s soundtrack.

Supergiant Game’s Transistor (and its accompanying soundtrack) will be available in early 2014. Until then, you can go check out what Darren is up to with his band, Control Group.

(Article published on SaveGame.)

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