October 19, 2017

Daniel Olsén on writing the DEVICE 6 soundtrack

Source submitted by Brian Cubría on 2014-12-16
DEVICE 6 composer Daniel Olsén was nominated for an Audio Achievement prize during the 2014 British Academy Game Awards and took home the Excellence in Audio Award from the IGF.

In this interview conducted by game composer Brian Cubría, the musician offers insights into the artistic process that led to the creation of his music for Simogo's interactive novel.

Brian Cubría: As a musician, I've often thought of adapting music to a book, to have it played while reading, in order to convey certain emotions to the reader. I think DEVICE 6 is a perfect example of how such an experiment could work, while also adding puzzles and various other elements. What were the issues you had to work with in order for this to work out naturally? What were the goals?

Daniel Olsén: My biggest issue was that DEVICE 6 was so different from other games. That made it really hard for Simogo to describe it in words. Normally I want to see or play the game to figure out what I am doing. But Simogo was still working on the first playable version when I started writing, so that was not an option.

I had some screenshots and short concept movie clips, along with a draft of the script. Those were all helpful, but didn't really show how the game played. Simon Flesser from Simogo told me, “Look at the script. That’s basically the game.” But I didn’t get how literally he meant it until later.

Finding myself in this situation, I decided to imagine writing a soundtrack for a movie instead. That made me really inspired. I knew the scenarios, and that some of the music would be playing through radios in some places, so I began making up my own little movie version of the game. That made it much easier for me to get started.

Of course the audio implementation was essential to make the music blend with the game world. Positional audio and filtering really helped to make a convincing result. Simon also did a tremendous job of picking the right tracks for the right moments.

I had written about twenty tracks before the first chapter was even done. Some tracks were meant for specific scenarios, while others could go more or less anywhere. Because Simogo received music early on, story and scenes could be inspired by the music while they were being made. I think that helped tie together the overall experience.

I can't quite compare DEVICE 6 to anything else without overlooking some of its best qualities, and I find that very interesting. Where did you find the inspiration to write this soundtrack?

Before the project started, writer Jonas Tarestad, Simon and I created a playlist on Spotify. We added all the music we could find that might fit or inspire the music creation. These were mostly '60s spy music tracks, bossa nova, orchestral tracks and early electronic music. The story has a bit of a '60s spy vibe and all of us really love that time period in music. That’s why you can hear a lot of influences from that era.

But I like to take inspiration from everything around me, not just music. Music is all about emotions. A song that doesn't make me feel anything is useless to me, so I try to use any feelings I have about anything at all and let that inspire me. I want the musical world to feel large and endless, not just tuned in to one single thing.

I sense a highly detailed use of the timbres in this album. How important is that to you and what effect would you say it can have upon music?

Personally, I base all my music writing from the inspiration I get from the actual sounds. I think what sounds you choose for your music are essential.

If you compare it to drawing, the music is the outlines and shading while the sounds are the colors. You can use the colors to dramatically change the message and mood in your image. In the same way, I think sounds do that for music.

I find the timbric details even more fascinating in tracks like "Oculus Opium," "Garden Festivities" and "Radio Calculation." What were you aiming for in these tracks?

Generally I try to create a set of base sounds that are in line with what I want to achieve, and then expand on the instrumentation from there. I used '60s inspired instruments and a lot of reverb, delay, distortion and saturation, but for those timbres I used analogue synthesizers.

The first song I wrote, the DEVICE 6 Theme, had the same analogue sounds in the background. I think it was Simon's idea to add some analogue beeps because of how HAT Corp loves their electronics. I really liked that idea, but I didn't want them to come out too plain, so I used a breath controller and mod wheel to affect the filters and values of the analogue sounds. This made them come to life in a very expressive way and feel much more organic. I think they added a lot to the overall feel of the game. You can hear this in almost all the songs. We even used those sounds for some of the transitions in the game.

With "Oculus Opium," the idea was to create a feeling of walking through an opium bar somewhere in the Middle East. The analog sweeps were used as the base, and I added sitars for some contrast. The main theme melody actually plays over the entire track, but very slowly.

"Garden Festivities" was supposed to be more like an incidental cue from a '60s TV show, like The Prisoner. A cue was needed for when Anna reaches the garden, so I tried to create something that felt open, and at the same time ominous. The analogue sounds and the pitch-bending tuba helped with this.

"Radio Calculation" was one of many names I had written down in a document to use as song titles and inspiration. I also had this idea to write a song using only analogue sounds, to make them just as important as the other instruments, not just background noise: Let them get some focus and shine a bit.

The title itself actually inspired me to write that song. It was nothing that was asked for, I just felt like it was something missing, to broaden the musical world within the game. I’m glad they liked it, and I think Simon found the perfect place to use it.

I've read you had only very basic musical schooling. Could you talk about how this has influenced your style of composition?

That’s right. When I was a kid I played the recorder and saxophone for a while. That’s the only schooling I received. At home we had a harmonium and a Yamaha keyboard that I would play all the time. That’s where I composed my first songs. Later on I started writing music with trackers on the Amiga.

I think this had a huge impact on my compositional style. Because of my lack of proper musical schooling, I learned music in large part through experimentation and sound creation. I like to try out new genres or make up my own, and think this is part of my way of learning by execution. I ended up a complete sound nerd who loves to write game music, partly because of the challenge, but also because I really love games.

Maybe it’s because I learned music this way that I always write music based on the sounds. I don’t know how other people do it, but for me this is the basis of my composing. I think that every sound tells a story differently and this is why when I write something, I am heavily influenced by the actual sounds I use at the moment. Each sound has its own tones where it sounds the best or shimmers a bit extra. Sometimes it completely transforms on a particular note or two, so I try to find and use that.

I think you can get such an emotional impact from this, that it is just as important as the performance of the instruments themselves. This may be both the strength and limitation of my composing. I can write pretty strong tracks, but sometimes I feel my lack of schooling makes me work slower or actually stops me from writing what I want. I would like to learn more traditional composing, chord progression and music theory to become better at that too.

The tone of half the DEVICE 6 album is more jazz-oriented and the other half more atmospheric, sometimes blending both very smoothly. Can you tell me a little more about this direction within the soundtrack?

We had an overall direction for the music, but just a direction. I like to try and do my own thing, because that’s what I’m good at. There are clear influences from John Barry, Henry Mancini and other composers in the sounds, styling and instrumentation. But after finding the right instruments, I just write music the way I always do.

The reason we use a large variety of songs is simply because there are a large variety of situations and emotions in the game. I think that is important to pay attention to, as well.

Did it ever happen to you that one of your tracks didn't match the gameplay?

I don’t think I've ever worked on a project where that didn't happen. One of the biggest challenges with game composing is to make music that fits the gameplay. I have seen a lot of examples where the music feels disconnected from the game. Even if the compositions themselves are beautiful, they distract rather than add to the experience.

This usually comes down to pacing. You have to constantly play or look at the sequence you are composing for so you can see how they work together. It can be hard to butcher a song you wrote, but it is a really important lesson to learn not to get too attached to anything. By removing or changing a few things, it might add more to the end result.

For me it is usually a case of changing the tempo, removing rhythms, toning down sounds, and so on. The goal is to enhance what is going on instead of just letting the music do its own thing. In the end I think it's more important that a game soundtrack fit with the game, rather than being a great listening experience outside of the game.

Interview by Brian Cubría. The soundtrack to DEVICE 6 is available to stream in full on Bandcamp.

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