Laced With Wax caught up with the Danish composer and game audio specialist who played a large part in creating some of the moodiest games scores and soundscapes, including LIMBO, INSIDE and Control.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
We all know the AAA video game industry has a chronic problem with franchise naming, getting all in a tangle with subtitles, colons, and quirky variations of ‘Edition’. On the indie side of things, there’s been a long-running counter-trend towards mononyms, including a resurgence around the time of the post-2008 indie game explosion (Braid, FEZ, etc.) which wasn't new, of course (Myst, Elite.)
It is among the moodier mononymic indie games of the 2010s that a Danish dark wizard of sound emerged, collaborating with developers that prized atmosphere above all else. In particular, Playdead (LIMBO, INSIDE) and Remedy (Control) enlisted the sonic skills of Martin Stig Andersen, as well as MachineGames with its rebooted Wolfenstein series. And, in somewhat of a betrayal of the purity of the mononym, he is also working on audio and music for the upcoming Braid, Anniversary Edition.
We like to think of Andersen as being as much of an audio consultant — and a spooky noise scientist! — as a composer, such is the depth of his knowledge about sound beyond traditional music. We chatted to him about that marriage of audio and music, his allegiance to the dark side, and how in-game architecture affects his work.
A repress of the Control double LP is, at the time of writing, available to pre-order at www.lacedrecords.com (and may also be available through some third-party retailers.)
Fans of his work may be surprised to learn that Andersen studied traditional ensemble/orchestral composition at a conservatory before taking a left turn into the study of making music from everyday sounds, known as 'electroacoustic composition. He explains: “I have always been interested in musical properties beyond melody and harmony, beyond the time and pitch grid of the score. Working with scores, I was inspired by spectral composers such as Tristan Murail and the idea of translating recorded sound into musical performances."
“Initially, I created simple sound collages that would serve as the source for orchestral transcriptions, but at some point I started to work more creatively with the sound collages themselves, processing and sculpting the sound sources, etc. Eventually the sound collages became more interesting than the transcriptions and I had to question the purpose of involving the orchestra.
“Getting acquainted with the electroacoustic music and writings of Denis Smalley and Trevor Wishart was a huge revelation to me, and pivotal to the switch. Imagine you’ve had a vague idea of a different kind of music, and suddenly you discover that people have been doing this for decades! So after my third year of study at The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, I went to study electroacoustic composition with Denis Smalley at City University in London.”
Andersen continues: “Leaving the orchestra behind wasn’t an active decision, it just happened. I sometimes wonder how what I’ve learned during the past two decades could be utilised to achieve something new with it.
“Recently I’ve been experimenting with something called ‘computer-aided orchestration’ where the computer assists you in orchestrating a sound or soundscape using spectral analysis and matching. I’m always interested in exploring the buffer zone between music and sound design, and I believe the orchestra could have a role to play in this context. The spectral makeup of the orchestra still serves as a frame of reference when I compose electroacoustic music, and I sometimes apply spectral blueprints from traditional instruments to non-instrumental sounds via convolution, match-EQ and things like that.”
The big, the small, and the creepy
Andersen’s credits do not veer towards the colourful and joyful. He made his name as a game composer on Playdead’s LIMBO; a nightmarish, monochromatic puzzle-platformer that benefited from being part of the Xbox Live Arcade-driven indie game boom circa 2010. The studio’s follow-up came in the shape of 2016’s sci-fi horror masterpiece INSIDE, heralded as one of the great works of aesthetic design and especially audio, which was handled by Andersen and a small audio team comprising SØS Gunver Ryberg, Andreas Frostholm Røeboe and Jakob Schmid.
Significantly bigger budget projects came in the form of MachineGames’ ultra-violent sequel Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and, most recently, Remedy Entertainment’s Control, where he shared composer duties with Petri Alanko (whom Laced With Wax interviewed in 2019.)
Unsurprisingly, for Andersen, the process for soundtracking a smaller title was very different to a collaborative, large-scale project like Control. He remarks: “Being a hands-on person, I enjoy working on smaller projects like LIMBO where I can work on all aspects of the audio, as well as larger projects like Control where I can focus on a single component. It’s inspiring being part of larger teams and experiencing how differently game audio is approached, and, equally importantly, it gives me the opportunity to inspire.
“Smaller projects often allow for having more of the game tech — such as the game engine — available externally, which is great for prototyping and instantly hearing your work in context. This can be more tricky on larger projects due to security precautions, but it’s slowly getting better. The current situation — where developers suddenly had to make it possible for their in-house staff to be working from home — seems to have a positive side-effect for external [developers.]”
Where’s your head at?
Andersen has acquired a bit of a name for himself as the game composer that used the resonance of a human skull to re-record parts of the INSIDE soundtrack. That may sound like a sonic stunt, but he talks about it in the same intellectual-yet-earnest way that Mick Gordon describes his Processing Sidechain of DOOM — a way of processing sound for the DOOM (2016) soundtrack that resulted in spectacular and unique textures.
“It’s all about establishing that sound world” explains Andersen. “[Creating] something that will help make the game’s world feel unique and memorable. I often find that when I want to re-experience a game or a movie, it’s not because I want to dive deeper into the plot or story. Rather, I simply want to immerse myself in the world that game or movie creates.
“I remember a LIMBO fan once commented that he would sometimes launch the game only to let the menu screen and music run in the background in his living room. For me, developing that sound signature through experimentation — like Mick Gordon did for DOOM — and steering away from anything generic is crucial. I always start with a clean slate, which is of course very time consuming as I have to record, edit and process a lot of new source material before the actual composition process starts. Ideally, the music I compose for a game should fit only that game. If I have the feeling that it could fit other games, it’s not ideal.”
What we hear in the shadows
As we’ve established, Andersen’s projects aren’t about fluffy bunnies and sunshine. There’s a bit of a stereotype that people in Northern Europe and the Scandinavian peninsula (including Andersen in Denmark, and Remedy Entertainment and Petri Alanko in Finland) revel in darker fiction. This has been fuelled by a wave of ‘Scandi noir’ crime mysteries stuffed with dark discoveries, bittersweet revelations and resolutions, and contortions of time and space.
“I think maybe the darker stuff resonates more with me” admits Andersen, “so for some reason it’s more gratifying to work on. It might be that games and movies that are overly happy feel a bit superficial to me. I often find beauty [and its opposite] in the darkness. It’s like in my own life — rarely does pleasure come without a great deal of pain.”
**MINOR LOCATION SPOILERS FOR INSIDE**
Laced With Wax was lucky to have caught a 2016 conference talk by the composer just ahead of the release of the critically adored INSIDE. There, Andersen talked in detail about how he had designed the audio for an indelible section of the game; a sequence where the protagonist enters an unimaginably vast shockwave test chamber. It is one of the most evocative and atmospheric locations we’ve seen in media.
Andersen recalls: “Following the release of LIMBO, I was involved with the development of INSIDE from the very beginning, and I worked on the early prototyping of the shockwave sequence with Playdead’s ex-lead designer Jeppe Carlsen. He’s incredibly talented and has a great understanding for sound and music as well. Initially, the recurring blasting sound was triggered by the game. We soon discovered that the slightly unstable frame rate had a negative effect on the flow of the music, so we ended up having the music triggering the blast and directing the gameplay, so to speak.”
Labour division at the Federal Bureau of Control
Remedy’s two Dev Diary videos concerning audio and music very much give the impression of it being a team effort between the co-composers (Petri Alanko and Martin Stig Andersen) and Senior Sound Designer Ville Sorsa.
Andersen recalls: “From the outset, the idea was that Petri would take care of all composition for linear sequences such as cutscenes as well as the more thematic music, whereas I would be handling in-game composition. There ended up being some overlap. We shared the same server [to store audio relevant to the game] which allowed us to listen to and use each other's materials. Remedy gave us a lot of freedom as they wanted to achieve something different for this game.”
“On larger projects I’m helping to establish a ‘sound world’ by bouncing around ideas with the audio director or music supervisor. This process usually starts during the game’s production phase [i.e. after pre-production] so the developer already has an idea about what they’re going for, and they’re asking for my help to achieve their vision. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get involved in pre-production as well. Experienced developers know the importance of involving composers early on, as creating a successful interactive score requires quite a bit of development, iteration, coding support, and so on.
“The most exciting part [of composing for Control] was dealing with the Hiss: a supernatural phenomenon having a natural (rather than technological or other human-related) origin. In other words, the Hiss needed a real-world frame of reference while appearing unfamiliar at the same time. So, I went to Paris and recorded a lot of weird, organic textures with Nicolas Becker — stuff like rubbing a friction mallet against the enclosure of an EMT plate reverb. The sounds also had something occult and ritualistic about them, which work pretty well with the game’s world.”
Implementation is composition
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Sometimes the stages of soundtracking a video game happen discreetly and in sequence: from briefing, planning and musical sketching; through to implementing cues (or separated out ‘stems’) in the near-finished game. Often, that last stage is executed by the audio team rather than the composer.
In some cases, a composer hands off finished tracks and more or less washes their hands of a project; in other cases, as with Andersen and INSIDE, they are deeply embedded within the production, trialling music interactivity within early builds of a game. Laced With Wax has talked to multiple composers who’ve worked in different ways: Chris Christodoulou inserted a (totally kicking) prog rock album into Risk of Rain 2; while Gareth Coker was intimately involved with Ori and the Will of the Wisp’s development.
For Andersen, soundtrack implementation and composition are inseparable, as he's "organising thousands of small musical assets in [video game audio engine] Wwise in such a way that the game becomes the composer.
"I believe [19th Century Russian composer] Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov said that orchestration is inseparable from composition [“Orchestration is part of the very soul of the work.”] I feel the same way about implementation in relation to game scoring — I always think about it from the very beginning.
“On projects where most implementation is handled by the developer, as on Control, I’m working closely with them to understand and develop the implementation strategy, and I’m using their Wwise project, or whatever tool the studio is using, for composing and prototyping ideas. On other projects, I’m lucky enough to have both the game engine and implementation tool available in my studio.
“As a game composer, I think it’s important to embrace the nonlinear nature of games. To me, interactive music isn’t linear music being post-edited and squeezed into the nonlinear domain.”
There is a subsection of the gaming audience that is particularly interested in architecture in games (definitely give @ewanwilson4 a follow and check out his piece “The impossible architecture of video games”.) INSIDE and Control are heralded as two of the richest, most beautifully designed games from an architectural standpoint, with MachineGames’ Wolfenstein series also boasting some grand structures.
This aspect certainly hasn’t passed Andersen by: “I’m always playing with spatial associations in my music as a way to complement the visuals. Not so much by means of reverberation but more in terms of apparent source size. For example, when we hear a big, deep sound we naturally assume that its source has a big body. In this way, one sound might seem too big to fit into a small space, while another is seemingly too small to fill a larger space.”
“The ever-changing brutalist architecture in Control was a great source of inspiration, and I sought to create music that seemed to resonate naturally within, sometimes even emanating from the various spaces, hallways, etc. Some of the music contains weird, ominous droning, and when I play the game I sometimes can’t tell the difference between music and ambience.”
The architecture of game spaces throws up practical as well as artistic concerns when it comes to audio. How large is the virtual space? How high are the ceilings (if there even is a ceiling)? How reverberant would a real-world equivalent would be? Andersen recounts: “On INSIDE, we sampled an 80’s flagship hardware reverb (a Roland R-880) and used it as the in-game environmental reverb by means of convolution. It had just the right sound for the game: glossy, yet gritty sounding due to its low resolution. Quite unrealistic by today’s standards. This quality meant we could use it for environments and for music. Accordingly, the reverb of the music changes according to the space you’re in.”
“Because of the nature of the music, I think this approach only helped to articulate the spaces in the game. While we programmed most of the R-880 reverbs ourselves, one of the factory presets had an over the top, larger-than-life kind of reverb. During [INSIDE’s shockwave chamber] sequence, when you solve the rotator puzzle, a more plausible environmental reverb is instantly replaced by this insanely exaggerated reverb helping to make the whole thing more dreamy, and motivate the player to move forward.”
A pet topic of ours when it comes to interviews is the tension between the soundtrack as experienced in the game and the soundtrack album release — two artistically distinct undertakings. In a few instances, Andersen has been name-checked as a creator whose work may or may not carry over to an album release while maintaining the same effectiveness as it does in-game.
Andersen responds: “I always have mixed feelings about soundtrack albums. If you’ve achieved synergy between, say, music and sound design in a game — meaning that the whole is better than the sum of its parts — and then you remove half of it, you’re obviously left with less than half. For example, the thought of people listening to the LIMBO OST without having played the game makes me cringe a little. Yet I’m happy it’s available for fans who have played the game and want to re-enter the game’s world without actually playing the game.
“In Control, the in-game music is stitched together moment by moment using thouthands of tiny assets, so there isn’t much in terms of linear pieces outside the game. Hence, for the soundtrack release I had to compose it after the fact, arranging the sounds in a sequencer. Sometimes I even launched the Control Wwise project and played around with different game parameters such as ‘health’, ‘number of enemies’, etc., generating and affecting the music. I would then capture the result and mix it into my arrangements.
“Although, at the end of the day, I think having game scores available as OST releases is desirable, it’s important for me not to think about it all the while I compose for a game. It’s secondary — a byproduct or rearrangement of the real thing.”
He has been working on updating the sound for Braid, Anniversary Edition. Find out more here.
If you want to read more about how Andersen used a human skull to re-record synths for INSIDE, check out this fascinating Gamasutra article.
Find out more about co-composer Petri Alanko’s experience of working on Control in our interview with him.
A repress of the Control double LP is, at the time of writing, available to pre-order at www.lacedrecords.com (and may be available through some third-party retailers.) Sign up to the Laced Records newsletter (via the home screen) and keep an eye out on our social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) for news about new releases and represses.