Skill Build: How to become a game composer

We talk to Supergiant's resident rocker, Bastion and Transistor composer Darren Korb, to find out how to make music for video games.

Never underestimate how much work a good soundtrack does to elevate a game from great to all-timer. Some of the clearest examples of how music can set the tone of a story are held in the work of Supergiant Games' indie hits, including Bastion and Transistor. Both exceptionally emotional experiences on a fraction of the budget of the nearest Naughty Dog cinematic masterpiece.

While many musicians may see their main goal in life as reaching the main stage at their favorite festival, or appearing in the credits of the next Christopher Nolan or Edgar Wright film, there are some who find a middle path for their ambitions. And games, as we find out, offer many of those same experiences.

In our Skill Build series we talk to the people who have already found their way into the industry about how they started making games. Previously we've found out how game designers, game artists, writers and the all-important producers are made, but this week is the turn of the composer and musician.

Darren Korb is best known for his soundtracks for Supergiant's entire library of games, starting with 2011's Bastion all the way through to their recent early access hit Hades. Before that he was making a name for himself on the music scene by winning Rock Band competitions, trying everything he can to keep making music and making a living. Darren's story of finding a way to do what he loves will resonate with any struggling artist, and if you're considering what you might need to do to make music for games professionally, he has some tips to get you going in the right direction. So, how do you become a game composer? Take it away, Darren.

What sort of early schooling and education did you have for music?

As a kid I took a little bit of piano, wasn’t really into it, and then when I was 11 or so I started playing guitar and really got more deeply involved with music. I did musical theater as a child so I guess there’s that; I was singing since I was a little kid. And then when I was about 11 I started writing songs, getting into bands. When I was in middle school I was playing Rock Band and stuff like that. All the way up through college was doing that stuff, and got more into song writing.

At some point in high school I got really invested in music production and recording, and that became super compelling to me. All of the creative possibilities that gives you. And in college I did an individualized major programme where I did a little bit of production, a little bit of music business, a little bit of composition, I took a semester of piano, a little bit of whatever. There was some humanities, a bit of poetry, whatever. So it was sorta like a little bit of everything, which I think suits me well. I’m more of a guy who’s more interested in doing a lot of stuff than being a virtuoso at one particular thing.

I interned in a recording studio for a couple of years. Just making coffee and taking out the trash. Occasionally setting up a microphone or two and getting a crumb of wisdom from an engineer. I did my time in the studio, and one of the most valuable things I learned – not to diminish the value of a recording studio – but one of the most important things I learned is that I would occasionally get an hour or two to sneak in to the studio and record some stuff, and I would do projects at home, and what I noticed was that the projects I would do at home would sound better. And the reason they would sound better in my opinion was because I could just fiddle with them in software until they sounded great.

You can theoretically do that in a studio but you can’t just do infinite takes until it’s perfect in a studio. You have a time and you have a clock. If I could have either fine home equipment and infinite time or great studio equipment and like an hour, I’d take the first one. That’s what I concluded. The software at this point is pretty crazy, and really competitive with what you have in a recording studio. That gave me confidence to produce music on my own and go for it.

How did you first realize music would be a viable career option for you?

I was trying to make money in music any way I could. I was taking hired gun gigs as a guitar player, I was trying to play in bands, and I was producing a little bit. Occasionally someone would pay me a little bit to produce a thing for them and that felt cool. I had no authority but I could do it, so that was great. I was trying to write songs and my brother is an editor for TV so he passed me a couple of music spots for things he was editing. Just little rock, one minute spots for an infomercial or similar.

So I had a very small amount of composing experience and I was practicing home music production for a long time, y’know since high school. I was trying to get better at it. Logic 8 is the software that really changed the scope of my home recording abilities. It really opened up a whole can of worms. The leap it allowed was pretty intense. It just has so many incredible presets and came with so much useful stuff. That’s what I made Bastion with.

Was Bastion the first big project for you, or were there other things you worked on beforehand?

I would say yeah. Certainly in terms of anything that made any impact on my career or the rest of the world. I wrote that musical with my brother and recorded it but it didn’t have a big impact. I produced an album with a band I was in, large scale projects but nothing that made a splash.

As an old friend of Amir Rao’s (founder of Supergiant), could you tell us a bit about how you ended up working together? Did you need to audition or compete against any other composers before Bastion?

I had a pretty unique entrance into what I do, just because my buddy Amir was working at EA LA on Command & Conquer. I was really excited for him, super stoked. I was really impressed that he was making video games that we grew up playing. We grew up playing D&D together and he was the drummer in my band for a long time. We’d worked together creatively. So when he got into games I was amazed. I went to LA and did a little tour of the studio and was like “wow, video games!” But I never had an ambition to work in video games necessarily because I just didn’t know that was a career path for me. I didn’t know that was a thing that people could do for their jobs. I’m still not quite sure how it happens.

When he was co-founding supergiant he said hey I’m leaving EA and starting this company and I wanted to know if you would be interested in doing all of the audio, just because he thought I could do it. Other than that, I had no qualifications that would have made someone ask me to do it, but he had a lot of faith in me. So I jumped in and started learning the ropes as quickly as a could, learning how to do sound design and compose for games. I didn’t start from zero because I’ve grown up playing games in a dedicated way for my whole life. So I’ve thought a lot about games and music in games, so it was in my brain. I had a lot of ideas about it as it turned out. I had a lot of notions about how I wanted to approach it based on my background playing games and writing music. But I had never thought to marry the two things before that moment.

What sort of equipment do you need to get started and make a quality soundtrack?

I think it really depends on what your personal specialty is. For me, my main instrument is guitar and bass by extension, and I play drums as well, but those are a lot more difficult to pull off in a high-fidelity way. Starting out, I would say, some DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that you are comfortable with. I use Logic, some people use Pro Tools. A lot of the youngsters these days like Reaper because it’s really customizable and free or cheap. You can do a lot of stuff with it, but it’s out-of-the-box, it’s not going to hold your hand at all, so that can be a little intimidating as your first DAW. Stuff like Nuendo and I know people like Ableton Live. Just any software that is going to help you express yourself in the most efficient way possible is a really valuable thing.

For me, one thing that’s so great that I like about Logic in particular is just the thoroughness and ease of how all the presets are set up. They have incredible presets for just about anything you want. You want a guitar sound? You type that in, there’s a menu and all these categories of guitar sounds. They’re gonna have a full effects chain with a fake amp and whatever to get it set up to sound really close to the thing you’re typing in and have in mind. Instead of starting from scratch and dialling up a guitar sound like you would in a studio – choosing the amp, plugging in the amp. You fiddle with the knobs and put pedals in the chain, that stuff takes hours. The fact that I was able to get a very similar quality and result in seconds was crazy. That changed the way I was able to work. I used a lot of loops and software synths – it just comes with tons of stuff.

So whatever piece of software is going to really help you – and if your style of music-making is trying to say, write for an orchestra and emulate that, that’s a whole different ball game and not what I do. It requires a whole different set of skills.

Something that’s really important no matter what you imagine your end product is going to be, whether you’re performing it entirely by yourself or writing it for other musicians to perform, is that the thing that you produce should sound as good as possible. Your demo or your finished piece should sound like a fully produced, ready to go piece of music. And that’s a big part of how I approach everything from a production standpoint. When I’m done with it, it should sound totally done. If I can’t think of any other way to improve it, that is the point at which I deliver it.

So that would be my advice for people getting started. Whatever is your instrument, whatever is your method, find the software that is going to enhance that the best. Do a lot of research and figure out what platform is best for you and going to highlight your strengths best.

Who did you turn to for help when you were starting out?

Well I didn’t know anybody else who did music for games at the time so I was just sorta winging it. I had the other people on the team that I could bounce the ideas off of, and as far as implementation goes we didn’t have a lot of options in Bastion because we were using this free-use, limited middleware that didn’t have a lot of capability. It was hard to even loop stuff cleanly with that software. So I would make a piece for a certain section, area or feel of the game, and that would get implemented by the level designers. It would play at a certain point, fade out, then play another track.

But as far as composing the music goes, I had a few ideas about how I wanted to approach it. I knew I wanted to do something that I would be able to execute in my bedroom for no money. That was one of the main factors [laughs]. Another was I wanted to do something I hadn’t really heard in games before. I’d heard orchestral stuff, I’d heard chip stuff, I’d heard rock stuff, and I’d heard a combo of those things. But I hadn’t really heard music produced in a non-traditional way so I set out to do something a little different to things I’d experienced before.

That was another guiding principle for me and because I didn’t have a lot of understanding of how to do traditional composing, I knew I wanted to find a way to tie all of the music together and fit in the same universe or soundtrack. So I tried to define a genre for myself. If I could just make all the music fit within this genre, then it’ll all feel connected somehow and I don’t need to worry about that. So I ended up coming up with acoustic frontier trip-hop. That was the phrase I coined for myself and it really helped sort of focus my efforts on the project and kind of figure out the pin on the map where everything could be in a radius of that.

Do you have any advice you wish you'd received when getting started?

Something that I learned pretty quick, I think, was to try to finish something as much as you can before you submit it for feedback. If you submit a thing with a bunch of caveats and say “here’s what I’m thinking about, it’s gonna have this, this and this that is doesn’t currently have. People are gonna listen to it and all the stuff you said to them won’t mean anything. They’re only gonna hear whats on the track. They’re not gonna hear all the ideas you’ve expressed or want to add to it. So sometimes I’d get feedback that was difficult to parse, because I couldn’t tell if they were responding to the incomplete thing. It was responding to stuff I intended to do already. It made the feedback I would get less valuable.

So I found if I completed something to the best of my ability and I didn’t have any ideas before I submitted it, then the feedback I would get would often be none, or very useful, because any feedback was a response to the actual piece that existed. It was either something I’d not thought of, or something I’d already considered and decided I wanted to go in a different direction. I could parse the feedback instantly. I would say that’s a really valuable thing. Make it as good as you can before you try to get feedback.

Is it advantageous to learn a broad range of instruments when aiming to become a video game musician?

Certainly for me it’s helpful. If you intend to play everything yourself, that is absolutely helpful. If you’re gonna have someone else be responsible for the drum part, you don’t necessarily need to know how to write that. You can say ‘here, play something that’s this kind of groove.’ But yeah, absolutely. Even if you’re not a drummer yourself and are programming drums or finding loops, having a sense of what makes a drum groove sound good or how a drummer might play something is valuable, I would say, if you’re producing the entirety of a piece by yourself. It’s certainly been a benefit to me to dabble in a lot of instruments. And my background is rock instruments. If your background is all the woodwinds or horns, lean into it. Have that be your thing and do something cool with that.

You produce sound effects as well, would you advise would-be composers to diversify their skillset like that?

You know it’s fascinating because I don’t meet a lot of other people who do both things. They are pretty different sets of skills with some overlaps for sure. You’re working with the same software and with plugins and figuring out how it’s going to be implemented, but they serve pretty different purposes and are pretty different skillsets. The main valuable thing about doing both is that you really get into the weeds of implementation with sound effects, which can give you a better understanding of how you might implement music in a way that isn’t just play the track and then fade it out. It opens your mind to more intense or reactive possibilities with how to implement the music.

Additional reporting and interview conducted by Henry Stenhouse.

Editor-in-Chief

Chris is the captain of the good ship AllGamers, which would explain everything you're seeing here. Get in touch to talk about work or the $6 million Echo Slam by emailing chris.higgins@allgamers.com or finding him on Twitter. 

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