By Thomas Quillfeldt
At EGX 2016’s Developer Sessions, Sheffield band 65daysofstatic—the audio architects of No Man’s Sky’s sonic universe—gave a talk about how to create an infinite, ever-changing soundtrack.
The band’s frontmen, Joe Shrewsbury and Paul Wolinski, spoke openly about their involvement with Hello Games, the technical challenges they faced and why their naivety as a “weird instrumental band” was a benefit to the project.
The band was approached by Guildford studio Hello Games, initially just to license a track for No Man’s Sky’s 2013 VGX Awards reveal trailer. One thing led to another, says Shrewsbury: “That one email developed into us signing on to write the whole soundtrack.”
As with any game of ambitious scope, the composers are just a small part of a bigger machine, he points out. The band worked closely, albeit remotely from Sheffield, with Hello Games’ audio director Paul Weir who was responsible for incorporating their music into the overall sound design.
Finite album vs infinite universe
65daysofstatic might be new to video games but No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe is their seventh studio album. According to Shrewsbury, for the band, there was a productive tension at the heart of the project: “Because No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated and really really big, we needed the music we composed to live up to that scale. But we also wanted what we were writing to be released as our next record—that was a given from the start. That tension helped us focus.”
Wolinski expands on the challenges they faces delivering both projects: “The in-game soundtrack needed to go on forever, but the record didn’t—we usually aim for 65daysofstatic records to be around 45 minutes long.”
The points of tension between recording an album and a game soundtrack
Long-player vs game players
Wolinski adds: “An album can be designed with the fair expectation that people will listen from start to finish. In the game, the music has to be ready to change at any moment. No piece or section of music can rely on the context or its place amongst other pieces of music for it to work. It has to stand up in its own right.”
In terms of whether the music is focused or responsive, there is a “difference between telling a story and creating an environment in which stories can be imagined. Being a band making a record, we’re always going to opt for the former, even if we’re making 20-minute pieces of drone music. The song has to have a purpose, it has to know its purpose.”
It was critical that the album was an accomplished standalone work: “When you buy a traditional soundtrack record, it doesn’t always flow like a normal record and can be a bit of a lazy cash-in that’ll have weird short tracks or variations on the same theme over and over again. It doesn’t necessarily work as a listening experience without being attached to the specific piece of action that it’s soundtracking. We wanted this album to work completely separate to the game.”
Mixing it up
65daysofstatic simply didn’t let the requirements of mixing in-game music—ultimately the responsibility of audio director Paul Weir—compromise the mixes of the song on the album. By way of example, Wolinski highlights: “There’s a bunch of synth sounds that you can hear on the track Supermoon from the record that couldn’t be used in the game because they sounded too much like spaceships taking off.
“Above all, the thing that we agreed on with Paul and Sean Murray at Hello Games was that the real challenge we wanted to overcome was to make the in-game soundtrack transcend the usual limitations of generative music. We wanted the game to have all of the qualities we try and include in our records: big soaring melodies, strong sci-fi hooks, sadness, controlled noise. All the reasons that we tend to make music in the first place; not just the range of responsive Eno-esque, granular, ambient environments that fit more easily into the requirements of responsive, generative soundtracks.”
Shrewsbury adds: “We figured out that in order to capture some of that intensity for the in-game audio, we needed to write an actual record first. Making generative music that works technically is relatively easy, but to make music with the personality of scores like Blade Runner or Star Wars—something that you recognise that has that emotional resonance—we needed to write focused compositions and tear them up afterwards.”
He asserts that the band would be proud of the record even if No Man’s Sky didn’t exist. “All the in-game music stems from this record or is based on compositions from this record.”
The tracklist might have ended up a lot geekier than it did: “A lot of the tracks we wrote had working titles from sci-fi which we renamed later when we released the record—not all of them though, because having a track on your record called Asimov is really cool... but having a track called Fox Mulder isn’t.”
Levels of interest
Weir introduced the band to the concept of different ‘interest levels’ within the game (e.g. from nothing happening to a pitched battle and all the stages in between). Wolinski: “He suggested that we think about the music in this way because we were producing the audio separately from the game’s development. We were up in Sheffield by ourselves, they were down in Guildford. So we had no way of knowing exactly how they would use the music and what kind of behaviours they might end up tying the interactivity of the music to.”
The band worked to create multiple batches—or ‘soundscapes’—of short music snippets that fit into three ‘sound environments’: ‘wanted’, ‘space’ and ‘planet’.
Wolinski: “We made lots of soundscapes [and] by providing that volume of material, the game begins to produce the illusion of an endless soundtrack.”
As the game’s audio engine was still being built until late in development, the band had to work with their own generative audio software (FMOD) as a way of putting their compositions in a rough context. He adds: “What’s really going on is a highly orchestrated kind of randomisation but with lots of rules and logic. Audio that’s rhythmically or tonally unrelated or out of sync is just not going to collide.”
The benefits of being outsiders
Shrewsbury points out that, if one were feeling cynical, the band aren’t really doing anything new in creating generative music. “Even 25 years ago, games like Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge had basic generative music, in that case a system called iMUSE, which allowed the music to respond in basic ways to where the player went.
“But there is something new going on which is that we’re not people who make computer games. We’re not people who make computer game music. We’re a weird instrumental band who make music for entirely different reasons. We’re interested in technology to make that music but we’re not approaching composition from a programming or practical perspective.
"We’re naïve in a useful way. I’m just a guitar player interested in making lots of noise, who happens to have ended up in a situation where I’m making music for a game. As other musicians like us start to get involved in game music, it’s hard to deny that gaming is providing a spectrum of creativity comparable to any other art form you care to mention.
“We’re not here because of our expertise in programming. We’re here because we’re experts at being 65daysofstatic and making something messy and compelling. We put the emotional element of the music over the practicalities of making it happen. We don’t care what’s not possible.” Check out the full session video here:
No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe by 65daysofstatic is available now in two-disc or four-disc vinyl editions, as well as double CD and digital formats.
We headed up to Sheffield to film this very special live video of 65daysofstatic performing three tracks from the No Man's Sky soundtrack: