Feature Q&A: Darren Korb on layered audio for Transistor

Eric on 2014-09-08
We had the chance to hear from Transistor composer Darren Korb on the formation of his Manhattan-based band Control Group and his implementation of the dynamic audio design of Transistor.

Previously at PAX you performed music from Transistor on stage. This must be a unique opportunity to combine your backgrounds as a composer and performer.

Darren Korb: We got to play the Paramount Theatre at PAX Prime last year. That was pretty insane, being in the dressing room where Pearl Jam hangs out. I’ve never played in any kind of venue like that.

Even though it was just a 10-minute acoustic thing, it was still pretty awesome for me and [vocalist] Ashley [Barrett]. We both had fun with that.

You've mentioned experimenting with recording techniques in your home studio. That's something I'm reminded of in the look of your band Control Group--a vibe of controlled experiments taking place in a laboratory setting.

Definitely. It’s meant to be kind of a NASA scientist look, but like a rock n’ roll version of that. It was a similar kind of thing a few years back when I entered a Rock Band competition.

I remember you took first prize?

Yes, my band won. There, all you had in terms of your creative input was the performance, costume, choreography and the image. But that was a lot of fun. We wanted the audience to have as much fun as we were having.

When you mention the importance of a memorable image for a band, that must be especially demanding in a setting like Manhattan, where there are so many venues within walking distance of one another.

New York is a really rough place to have a band. Everything from the logistics of practicing is tough, when you can’t just go to somebody’s garage and play. On top of that, there’s just so much to do here. You’re competing for everybody’s attention in a place where you could do anything you want at any time, all the time.

So to try to get somebody to like, "Hey, come into the city and see this band that you don’t care about yet," it's really challenging.

We're living in an unprecedented time, when musicians, even those working in a highly collaborative field like game development, can work from home. Does this present certain difficulties, to have your personal space and work space in such close proximity to one another?

I’ve always enjoyed working from home. I mean, I learned to record in my room while messing around with my computer, and I’ve also interned at recording studios.

One thing about working from home is that there’s no time pressure. You’re not on the clock and can go at your own pace. There’s no need to crank it all out at once. You can work for 15 minutes, take a break, and go back when you’re feeling inspired.

Being a songwriter and a game composer were, up until around the release of Bastion, only conceivable as separate callings. Listening to the breadth of vocal tracks on the extended Transistor soundtrack that's been uploaded to YouTube, you get the sense that there are now opportunities to knit together these two forms of musicianship.

I was definitely inspired by games like Portal when I was asked to do the music for Bastion. Things like Laura [Shigihara]'s ending theme to Plants vs Zombies made me interested in having a song in the game. I thought, "I can write songs. That’s something I do." And I thought we could try to incorporate it not only into the credits but into the game, as well.

In Transistor vocal tracks are not restricted to cutscenes. They appear in situations where the audio must respond to the player's decisions. That must require some experimentation to get right during the development process?

There was the "In Circles" song that's triggered during the first boss fight, with Sybil. I knew the setup, having been given the backstory for the character, and wrote the lyrics with that in mind. I had this thought of doing some state-based effects, so that as the fight progresses, the music gets more and more messed up.

Was this technique of integrating a piece of music together with the script of the game something that you were looking to do across the board on Transistor?

Aside from "We All Become," which I wrote specifically for the trailer, every piece was written for a moment in the game. For most scenes there were three stems present, allowing us to have different intensity levels, helping everything feel more scored.

One thing we were allowed to do was to have [creative director] Greg [Kasavin] turn on and off the drum track at times. Two tracks and a silent vocal are running the whole time, and that vocal track turns on whenever you enter 'Turn Mode.'

Once we'd first implemented the 'Turn Mode' feature, it was really fun for me to just kind of play with it and see what it did to the music. It gives new life to all the pieces and changes the way that you hear them in the game quite a bit.

Are these examples of experimentation with audio something that was only made possible through upgraded hardware specs?

If we had to, we could do it another way so that it would fit on Bastion consoles. But we certainly used the headroom that we had on Transistor to maximize the visual effects, lighting and music implementation, manipulating things by freezing time. We’re using FMOD Studio this time, which is really a hugely powerful tool, and the way that we ended up implementing the middleware was processor memory intensive.

Following the success of Bastion, it must have been difficult to decide what to do next?

We wanted to do something different, but not too different. We are sort of constrained by our means. For instance, we had to figure out a way to have our characters speaking that doesn’t involve someone on the team having as their full-time job animating a bunch of crazy mouth animations.

We do have access to a great actor, Logan [Cunningham], and we want to use him if we can. We thought, "Let’s do a cyberpunk thing." We really liked that idea. Then we went on to reject most of the tropes of cyberpunk. Like, “Let’s do cyberpunk... but not black trench coats and revolvers. That’s not us.” So it ended up being something different.

Hear the music of Control Group on Bandcamp. The soundtracks to Bastion and Transistor are available through Bandcamp.