The WhatsItTech team was fortunate enough to go to PAX East 2018 this year. During our trip, I was able to lock down a few interviews with some brilliant people. One of them was Darren Korb, composer of the Supergiant Games Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. Below you will find the written transcription of our interview.
Prior to working at Supergiant and scoring Bastion, had you ever scored anything.
I hadn’t scored a game before. Amir Rao, a childhood friend of mine, had designed a game during college and I made a track for the game. It was a student project. I’d done a couple of TV spots for my brother, who’s an editor and I wrote a song for an indie movie, but that was it.
So you had been in bands with Amir as well? How’d that relationship carry over? Were you able to bring any of the bandmates into the fold when it came to making music for games?
We used my drummer for a long time. We’d been in bands since middle school through college. We’d collaborated creatively before making games, but not in the same manner. The biggest thing being in bands with Amir did was give him the confidence to put his faith in me to make the music for the games, because I don’t know he would have otherwise.
How is it working with one of your best friends? Was it difficult to navigate the new work relationship as opposed to just being friends?
No, it’s always been a very pleasant experience. It’s been really good.
Listening to the soundtracks, trip hop is a very present influence in your music. Whether it’s subtle in Transistor or the in-your-face approach of Bastion. What kind of trip hop influence did you have and how’d you get into it?
I didn’t really have much. I listened to a bit like DJ Shadow and he steps into that genre a bit. I had some access to some cool trip hop sounds when working on Bastion. Part of the way I approached Bastion was using my limited amount of tools and maximizing that. I hardly use any external plugins outside what Logic provides me.
So Logic is your main DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice? Have you tried dabbling with other DAW’s?
I learned Pro Tools and I’ve touched Reaper and Cubase a little bit. But nothing spoke to me like Logic.
How long did it take for you to feel comfortable with scoring the music? Were you comfortable from the beginning and how your music would fit a scene, or did it take time?
It was always a question for me, but what I was confident in was the tone of the music. My goal for the music was to reinforce the tone of the game and try to convey the tone best I could musically. The tone, setting and characters were all taken into consideration. I understand how the music makes me feel, then I’d hope that same feeling would be conveyed to others. That was my metric when composing. I’d receive feedback from Amir and the team throughout the process.
I noticed on the SuperGiant Bandcamp, the Pyre Sountrack has two other albums, Black Mandolin and White Lute. What prompted Pyre to have so many extra tracks vs the other games?
It’s all about the nature of the game. For Pyre, all the music in the game is implemented in a series of stems. There’s already an acoustic guitar or acoustic track for every song, it’s just somewhere in the mix. All that version really is, aside from a few edits, is just the singular stem. We just had the music already, so we figured why not use it. In Pyre, you have a minstrel, and when you speak to him in the caravan and have him play you a song, he’ll play the acoustic track/stem. For the Black Mandolin, that was really interesting because I wrote alternate versions of “Never To Return”, the themes for each of the Triumvirates in the game. So when we had em’, we decided to release them as an additional soundtrack since it’d be silly to have 8 versions of the same song on the main soundtrack.
So does that mean that Bastion or Transistor may have some B-Sides or secret tracks that we haven’t heard. Any available alternate takes?
We used all the stuff we had on them. No spare tracks to be found.
As a musician, there’s sometimes a moment when you hear a song you composed and you think wow, I made that. Did you ever have that moment in-game? Was there a track, when heard in the context of the game, that just makes you smile? An example being when you hear Red humming for the first time in Transistor.
Wow, that’s tough. It’s really hard to pick. One that makes me smile, partially cause it’s silly, is Thrash Pack. It made me happy to create something out of left field. It’s something that hadn’t been explored in the game’s score nor in most of my solo work.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with Manamie Matsumae. She’s done composition work for Megaman and was also on a few tracks for Shovel Knight. She recently released an album called Three Movements that sort of encompass her work as a composer throughout the years. Have you ever considered something like that?
I haven’t considered it. If I had the time, I’d definitely do it, but with other projects I have such as my rock band, it would fall by the wayside. I also don’t really make the music I make for games outside of that context. The music I make for fun is different then the music I make for games.
So I’ve heard that you’ve put a hold on the rock band stuff for a bit. Word on the street was that you were going to release an album with your band, and you had finished all the drum work, but then moved from NYC to Cali and haven’t really continued from there.
Actually, yes! There is progress on that front. For the band COntrol Group, we did it the album with Steve Albini. We went to his studio in Chicago, slept there and he engineered the album session for 3 days. We brought in 2 finished songs, and wrote 3 more while we were there. It’s gonna be a full album, and it’ll probably be a 10 or 12 inch 45 RPM release. Album should be out this year, and the vinyl probably the year after. That release is also going to be included in the Kickstarter Austin Wintory is doing called A Light In The Void. It’s the $150 tier along with a bunch of other cool composers.
Super cool. Looks like I might have to reconsider that Kickstarter. Have you ever wanted to do collaborations with other composers in the industry?
Totally. Austin actually reached out to me to do a cover of a song for the Tooth and Tail soundtrack, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten in terms of collaborating.
As a musician myself, hearing your music for the first time was inspiring and made me want to compose video game music. What’s your recording process like?
Well, It’s just me. One of my personal constraints is that it’s gotta be something I can execute on my own convincingly. The music is a mix of software instruments, samples and loops, and acoustic instruments. If it’s shaped like a guitar, it’s generally analog and done live. For drums, they’re mostly canned. For Pyre, I recorded snare drums and toms, but that was about it. I have started performing some of the tunes, so it needs to be possible in a live setting.
What are some of your go-to instruments? I’ve seen a green tele in some photos.
I’ve gotta a green Strat. I just got a SG that I’ve been using alot. Something I’ve used a lot on Transistor and on Pyre is this weird semi hollow guitar that I got from Richie’s Guitars in New York. He’s done the guitars for the strokes and his apartment is his shop. He sell these frankenstein guitars and he had this odd Les Paul shop semi hollow guitar that sounded gorgeous with a warm sound.
For Transistor, you had Ashley sing more of the songs. What was it like having her to sing considering the story of Transistor?
It was a lot of fun. Based on the story we were trying to tell, it felt appropriate to have Ashley sing a lot more. In the story, Red is a singer, and although she lost her voice, she still has a body of work in this universe, so we wanted to try and represent a portion of that. For the humming, it’d give you the opportunity to put you in the character’s head.
Now this might be tough, akin to picking your favorite child, but from a game perspective and a music perspective, which game is your favorite?
It’s difficult, there’s amazing aspects for each game. The cheating answer is whatever the most recent project is. I’m impressed by different things for each game. I love the story telling technique of Bastion, the combat depth of Transistor, and Pyre has so much replay value with the multiplayer.
It was an absolute pleasure interviewing Darren and I wanted to thank him along with Supergiant Games for setting up the interview and really making a dream of mine come true.