Transistor has only been out for a day, and the creativity it’s shooting through the gaming industry is already making it one of the best games of 2014. California-based studio Supergiant Games may not be the most well known of developers, but their work has already made a profound mark to gamers everywhere. With the multiple award-winning Bastion under their belt, Supergiant games is looking to repeat the successful process with Transistor. The game itself is pretty spiffy, but there is one thing that stands out, regardless of whether or not you’ve played the game: the soundtrack.
I took some time to catch up with the game’s composer Darren Korb to get an in-depth idea of his creative process in his first post-release interview.
Almost everyone I’ve spoken with about Transistor has started off by spewing admiration for the soundtrack. Did you ever imagine that it was going to be something this special?
DK: You know, it’s really hard to ever have any idea about whether or not anyone else is going to like something you’re working on. The early reactions to the music in the trailer released last year were overwhelmingly positive. The folks who played the game at PAX responded really well, so I was hopeful that people would like it. It seems so far that people really dig it, and it’s so great to hear that people are enjoying it and seem to be genuinely interested in it. That’s all you could ever ask for, really.
In a lot of ways, Transistor’s soundtrack follows the same unique pace as Bastion’s. You’ve said that you’re style could be defined as acoustic frontier trip-hop. How exactly did you come to conceptualize this style?
DK: I developed that style to really give cohesion to the Bastion soundtrack and try to define a genre for that game. I tried to do something different this time around, while at the same time retaining some of the eclecticness that Bastion provided. This time around I tried to include some more electronic elements, some more old-world european instruments, and a little note of post rock. I tried to use all those elements as my center for Transistor.
When creating scores for games, I can imagine it’s a lot different than average composing. Do you find it’s harder to reach for inspiration when having to set the pace for an established entity?
DK: You know, it’s interesting. The way I work with Supergiant Games is that I’m a part of the development process, so I’m sort of always working in tandem with the rest of the team from the beginning. But it changes throughout the course of the project, you know? There’s a portion of the project at the beginning where basically nothing else exists, so I’m creating from nothing at all, and we all just have idea about where exactly we’re going to take it; I have to be able to express these ideas and create a tone that we want to try and shoot for.
As the project goes on, art happens, gameplay happens, and I’m always influenced by that stuff. It’s really sort of a cyclical process, everyone being influenced by each other to some degree throughout the process. So while it’s not necessarily all set when I compose for Supergiant — which are actually the only two games I’ve done — the constraint that comes with composing a game is actually really helpful. I find it sometimes daunting to write into a void, you know? Having direction is nice. Trying to write a sonnet is easier for me than trying to write poem with structure; it’s the same idea. The structure of it having a purpose and having to tell part of the story or create a certain tone is really helpful. It’s all about having a goal that drives the composition process.
Where exactly did your inspiration come from when creating Transistor’s soundtrack?
DK: Oh wow, a bunch of places! I wanted this soundtrack to be a little more dark to match the tone of the game. It’s a little bit colder than Bastion for sure, so I looked at a lot of different stuff. influences range anywhere from Radiohead to Imogen Heap, to Grandaddy and a bunch of stuff in between. Even My Morning Jacket and a bunch of other artists were kept in my mind while I was writing. In terms of the tone that I was trying to express, everyone on the team has taken various influence from science fiction things like Blade Runner and Brazil, so we harnessed that in terms of the feel you get from watching them or just the unique tone that emanates from them.
The game has a pretty innovative take on the score in-game, having three different listening modes on the in-game menu – including a hum button! Was that an idea that you played around with for a while?
DK: Oh yeah, it definitely was. Fairly early on, we developed a thing where when you go into Turn Mode, the music is kind of muffled and you hear this humming that you can only find in that mode. We though that it would really help put the player inside Red’s head a little. It helps everything get into a kind of zen-like state, so we really liked that. We implemented that just before PAX East last year, but the humming button idea didn’t happen until several months later, and I retroactively went back and implemented the pieces a little differently. It was a lot of fun to do that for each piece, actually. It gives each piece more legs in terms of how much you can hear them and not feel like they’re being repeated.
We also implemented the pieces in a way—which may not be super noticeable—that each piece is implemented with multiple stems that are playing together at the same time, and we gave the level designers the ability to turn off and on tracks at will. So outside of combat, the drum track usually doesn’t even play. Then when you get into combat, it starts in a way that’s natural. It helps the game feel a little bit more scored.
Many of the songs have a lot of heavy electronic elements, but ‘Gold Leaf’ stands out for its more jazz-centric feel, with the heavy, smooth bass and low-key guitar. Was it fun for you to explore so many different genres in one soundtrack?
DK: It definitely was. I feel like this time through, I gave myself a little bit more leeway than I did with Bastion. As I was going along trying to create different pieces for the game, it just so happened that there was a wider array of that came out. I’m really pleased with the range of music — I had a lot of fun with that. I feel that in the end, all of the pieces seem fairly related, even those that are the most different. ‘Coasting’, for instance, is really really different from almost all the other pieces, but I still feel it has strong connection with the entire soundtrack. I have a lot of repeated elements that bind the album together, but each piece can stand on its own as something unique.
You’re pretty much a one-man band. What are the perks to having complete creative control?
DK: Well, you certainly don’t have to worry about budget! You just sort of go without ever having to think about “oh, I’ve got to write a piece for an entire orchestra to record.” It’s never an issue! It’s all just “what can I make sound good?” It’s helpful for me because I’m not necessarily classically trained; I don’t really write sheet music. Working with others would definitely require a lot more steps that would just hinder the creative process. It’s nice to just have a thought and run with it, all while having a really quick turn around.
That being said, the vocal work is often chill-inducing, and something you rarely find conceptualized properly on a soundtrack. What was it like working with Ashley Barrett again?
DK: It was great. Ashley and I have been friends for quite some time. We’re actually both from San Jose, but we met in New York through mutual friends. I worked with her on one little project I did before Bastion, and so it seemed like an obvious choice to work with her. After her great performance on Bastion, we had talked about working together again, so I automatically knew I wanted her on Transistor. It was cool for me to gain experience writing for other voices besides my own, so it’s been an incredible amount of fun to collaborate with her once more.
Do you have a favorite piece off the soundtrack?
DK: You know, it may just be because it’s the newest one, but ‘Signals’—the bonus track on the album—is probably one. I really liked how that one turned out, just because it came together so quickly. I didn’t find myself struggling with it at all. One of my other favorites pieces is probably ‘Old Friends’, just because that’s the piece where, when I wrote it, I felt like “okay, I get it now. That’s the tone.” I had written maybe six or seven pieces before that, but it wasn’t until I finished ‘Old Friends’ that I truly got a grasp of the game’s essence.
Is there one song that you did struggle with?
DK: I definitely struggled with ‘Paper Boats’ a little bit. That and ‘In Circles’ both, as far as vocal pieces go, took me quite a while to get working right. I’m so happy with how they turned out, but they definitely threw me for a loop. ‘Apex Beat’ also took me a while for whatever reason.
Of course, I’m sure you’ve been inspired by a countless number of game soundtracks. What are a few that really stand out to you?
DK: My favorite game soundtrack is probably Marble Madness for the NES — it’s old school but awesome. I love the Fallout 1 and 2 soundtracks. Mark Morgan did an absolutely incredible job! There’s just so many, really. Of course, I really loved the Plants vs. Zombies soundtrack, to be honest. There’s not a lot of different pieces on there, but it’s so dynamic. I think it went so well with the game and really helped with why the game is so fun to play. I could go on all day, but those are definitely a few of the notable ones for me.
Outside of the gaming industry, are you pursuing any musical projects?
DK: Yeah! I’ve got a rock band that I play with, we’re called Control Group. We’re coming out with an album pretty soon, I think sometime in the next few months. I’ve been working with those guys for a while now, so it’s pretty exciting. Other than that I’ve been producing occasionally for people and just involving myself with little projects here and there.
You’ve set the bar pretty high with your work on both Bastion and Transistor. Where do you go from here?
DK: Honestly, I have no idea! We’ve been so focused on getting Transistor out the door that we’ve not really allowed ourselves to talk about what comes next. So the short answer? Who knows! I’d honestly haven’t even thought about what I’d like to do next, only because I’ve been so involved as far as Transistor is concerned. Once the dust starts to settle, the game has been out for a little while, and all the support emails are answered, then we can start to talk about the future. Until then, I’d say we still have a lot of work ahead with Transistor, as we plan on bringing it to a few other platforms in the near future.
I guess you could say anything is possible.
DK: Definitely. After Bastion I knew I had a couple of things I wanted to try on my next project, and I feel like I finally got the chance to do that. I wanted more vocal pieces; pieces that were more similar to the rest of the music I’ve created. I also wanted to try multi-channel implementation! It’s finally something I actually got to do on Transistor. So now, I have to sort of sit and think for a while on my goals for whatever we do next. But I’m definitely not ruling anything out.
Be sure to check out Supergiant Games’ Transistor, available for the Playstation 4 and PC; the soundtrack is available for download from their website. Check out the full soundtrack below, or get the song-by-song lowdown on their youtube channel.