Composer Tom Salta spoke to Laced With Wax about channeling the style, harmony and instrumentation of the late 1960s for Arkane’s award-winning time loop shooter.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Video games depend on loops: gameplay loops; looping animation; player feedback loops; looping music; the idea of ‘replayability’.
For long-time Arkane fans, Deathloop feels like the developer is trying to address possible barriers to entry with their previous immersive sim masterpieces — for example, the tension between rewarding patient stealth on the one hand, but providing gleefully violent powers and weapons on the other. Deathloop also includes nods to cinema, while pegging plot events, character motivations and gameplay mechanics to a scenario that is uniquely of video games.
The results speak for themselves: nominated in nine categories in The Game Awards 2021, including Best Score and Music (and winning Best Direction and Art Direction); 10/10 scores from IGN and GameSpot; and a warm reception from both Arkane newcomers and firm fans alike.
To deliver the original score, Arkane turned to recording artist and composer for media Tom Salta, who has built up a long video game credits list including forays into the Prince of Persia, Tom Clancy and Halo universes.
We corresponded with Salta about his choice of instrumentation, the spy-tastic musical references for Deathloop, and the importance of reverb.
Separate from Deathloop’s score music, Ross Tregenza handled diegetic music cues, while songwriter Erich Talaba and singer Jeff Cummings provided Frank Spicer’s in-game pop songs. Additionally, music agency Sencit and singer FJØRA performed the Bond-ish trailer and credits ballad “Déjà Vu”.
Check out the Deathloop soundtrack on all major streaming and digital download services: Spotify | Apple Music
Style it out
Arkane Studios is rightly celebrated for its artistic specificity and stylistic daring. The worlds of Dishonored and Prey (2017) are richly refined, and you always feel like Arkane’s finished products closely match the stupendous concept artwork produced by the studio’s own visionaries.
As a creative collaborator, Salta is evidently no slouch in terms of stylistic attention to detail. “Every time I begin working on a new franchise,” he comments, “I dedicate a good amount of time to research. For Deathloop, I spent weeks listening to all sorts of music from the late 1960s and very early ‘70s, fully immersing myself in it.”
One of the many influences on the Deathloop original score was electric guitar and rock pioneer Jimi Hendrix:
“I like to compare it to an actor preparing for a role; often some of the best actors will study for their roles by spending time researching and learning from real people. For me, it’s very much the same with music. I listen to all the nuances of the music I’m studying: the instruments, the performances, the types of chords used, and so on. I will reverse-engineer the music, and then create my own interpretations based on what I need to create for the score.”
“[As for Arkane’s art chops] I absolutely love working with people who pay attention to artistic details. I will always spend a good amount of time putting lots of detail in my music — things most people might not even notice. That might be adding detail in the instrumentation, sounds, hidden melodies, subliminal foreshadowing — you name it! I do what I do because I love getting lost in the music and taking people on the journey as well. So, when I’m working with an audio director who values that attention to detail, it gives me even more motivation and makes my work even more rewarding.”
Steady as she goes
Video game fans may not always appreciate how important the wider team of developers and others can be in fusing the soundtrack to the game experience. From game leads to audio programmers to music editors and mixers, composers are often guided by, or are able to lean on different people to deliver the finished product.
Possibly the most important person for composers to interface with in AAA game development is the audio director — Arkane Lyon’s Michel Trémouiller, in the case of Deathloop.
“The overall vision for the game’s music remained steady from the beginning because Michel is a very experienced audio director and had things well-thought-out,” recalls Salta. “That being said, there was one major musical change towards the beginning of the project, and that was regarding the main theme itself.“The first music I composed for the game was the initial main theme. It matched exactly what Michel had in mind in the brief. I felt it was very cool and mysterious but, after spending a couple of months on the game, I got a better sense of the personality of the project and felt we could come up with something even more appropriate for Deathloop.”
“Without telling Michel, I composed a new main theme and sent it to him with a description of why I felt this could work better as a main theme. He liked it a lot, but was understandably cautious in making any quick decisions. Keep in mind that it’s a major step to potentially replace an entire main theme that was already approved and familiar. We had some conversations and, a few weeks later, Michel made his decision and agreed that this would be a better main theme to use — and that theme became the foundation for much of the entire score. I think that was an amazing move by Michel and I give him tons of credit for that.”
We all know that repetition is an inevitable part of playing video games; and, as we know, repetition is an inevitable part of the gaming experience.
The role of composer is a little bit blessed and a little bit cursed. If a game is compelling and keeps people coming back, players can form positive associations with music cues they hear over and over. On the other hand, any frustration borne of repetition (difficulty spikes leading to retries, backtracking, etc.) can lead to players loathing a particular boss track or ambient music cue in a tedious section of the game.
Since Arkane were once again tackling the ‘recursive’ or ‘time loop’ genre, as they had with Prey: Mooncrash (alongside many notable contemporaries including Hitman, Hades, Returnal and The Forgotten City), this was front of mind for the music team.
“I was certainly mindful of the repeating nature of the game,” says Salta, “but we had a strategy right from the start on how to make it evolve throughout the game. One of the key aspects of Deathloop is that you revisit the same areas at different times of the day. So, musically, each of the four main areas of the island of Blackreef had four different variations depending on what time you’re visiting. This enabled us to keep things sounding fresh and evolving, while still being familiar.”
“‘Repeat-proofing’ is something I’m very accustomed to, having worked in games for so long. At this point, I instinctively know how to keep something from getting repetitive too quickly. For me, it all has to do with having a natural ‘yin and yang’ in the music. For example, if I'm creating a 60-second looping piece, I will maximize those 60 seconds with as much fresh material as possible so, by the time you get to the end, it feels natural to begin that musical cycle again.”
Welcome to the ’60s
Deathloop’s score evokes late 1960s and early ’70s funk, soul, jazz, psychedelia and blues rock — with layers of organs, twanging guitars, and carefully chosen special effects.
Salta admits: “Initially, I was a little concerned [with drawing inspiration from that era] since the music of the ’60s isn’t known to be particularly aggressive or dark. Typically, that era is known to be relatively happy musically-speaking [as we tend to think of] the ‘flower-child’, hippies and ‘Make love not war.’“Listening back to the score, I’m reminded of how I was influenced by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and groups like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Doors; and even the scores of early James Bond films. Nelson Riddle’s music for the 1960s Batman show was also an influence, of course!”
Batman TV Series Music Suite Nelson Riddle
“My top priority for this score was to hone a unique style that would complement all the high intensity action, while still sounding of that era. It also had to have a distinct personality to match this unique game. Eventually I was able to craft a sound for Deathloop that [I feel accomplished that.]”
There are a hundred or more small musical details in the Deathloop score “like a potpourri bowl of all the late ‘60s stuff swimming around in my brain. There’s “Strawberry Fields”-inspired Mellotron; little Pink Floyd-ish phrases; Doors-inspired Farfisa bits; Batman ‘66-esque fight scene chords; and a myriad of other sounds and parts that people might pick up on.”
The exact musical period that audio director Trémouiller, Salta and the team were musing on — from 1968 to the early ’70s — was a wildly experimental time for pop and rock, as electronic instruments started infiltrating pop hits and more ambitious long-playing albums from the likes of The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
Indeed, Floyd’s “On The Run” from Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most widely spun synth-led pieces of the 20th Century, featuring the EMS Synthi AKS. “[Floyd’s “On the Run”] is something I knew I wanted to channel once I heard about the scientific aspect of certain areas and characters,” says Salta.
The clearest reference is in the darkly tense opening of “Ubiquity (Wenjie Evans)”:
Because of this period-appropriateness, Salta’d use of specific organ and synth sounds sits perfectly with the other sonic and visual elements. At the same time, the inclusion of supernatural powers and fantasy technology take the game’s aesthetic into the territory of sci-fi retro-futurism.
“I used authentic late ‘60s-early ’70s instruments like Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3, Vibraphone, Farfisa, Clavinet, Mellotron, Theremin, and more. The point of all this was to immerse the players in this other world — this one-of-a-kind place stuck in a late ’60s time loop. And, because you don’t get to experience this kind of setting very often, it gave me the opportunity to paint a musical canvas that was as unique and colourful as the environment and characters themselves.”
Salta has a long, varied credits list including many militaristic games from series including Call of Duty, Ghost Recon, and Halo. Deathloop certainly isn’t about love and peace, but its tone is markedly different from the typical shooter, giving him the chance to inject some groove into proceedings.
He explains: “The feeling I had making this score reminded me of how it felt when I was scoring Red Steel back in 2006. I remember that score received a lot of positive responses as well, which is great because that’s a huge part of my musical identity.”
“I love making music that deviates from the usual ‘epic’ stuff you hear in games, movies and TV. Anytime I can tap into my roots and create [groovier] music, I feel so free and liberated. It allows me to use more of my life experience and my whole musical identity. I often say that my musical journey reminds me a bit of Forrest Gump — I’ve been a part of so many diverse musical experiences in my life.
“I’ve always felt that video game music teams could benefit from exploring a wider range of genres and instrumental palettes. That said, I understand the difficulty and risks of trying to be unique. It’s way easier to take a formula that works and simply rinse and repeat. But I hope that [Deathloop’s stylishness and success] does encourage more developers to take more artistic risks and be creative.”
It’s cool to be emotional
“Using music to create specific emotions is probably my favorite thing about making music,” says Salta. “I remember being mesmerised as a 10-year-old listening to John Williams scores on vinyl, reliving specific moments and feelings in the movies. I realised back then that it’s the music that does that.
“I like to say that ‘music is what emotion sounds like’. So when it comes to feeling cool, feeling worried, scared, powerful, fragile, vulnerable, in love — I can do that with music. Give me a scene with a white hallway and, with music, I can make you feel happy, uneasy or even terrified.
“There’s a ‘formula’ to a lot of it and it has all been done before, so it can be studied and emulated. To make a player feel ‘cool’ in a ’60s setting using that musical vocabulary means to give them a confident swagger. [This means creating] a regular pattern with some attitude. It could be a steady hi-hat phrase; a short two-note motif on bass or low piano; or a myriad of other things. I would just simply play around like a kid in a sandbox and create the feeling.”
The time it takes to assemble the emotional building blocks of a score can vary, reflects Salta: “Sometimes it just comes to me, and sometimes I have to sit there for a while and stay in that precarious creative zone where I’m actively not trying, but yet I am.
“The times when I’m going for something specific, such as that James Bond sound, I will often study and imitate the music. I’ll play chord sequences from various Bond films and try to make them all part of me so that I’m not thinking about it. Then I can create from an authentic place rather than re-fabricating someone else’s voice.”
Players spend a lot of time sneaking around Blackreef, becoming familiar with Salta’s more ambient passages in the process. Creating these tension-holding chord sequences and lower intensity palettes goes a bit underappreciated when video game music is discussed — and composers aren’t necessarily going to include hours of it on a soundtrack album. Craftsmanship is required to maintain a particular mood, and Deathloop definitely benefits from Salta’s skill in this department.
“Even when creating ‘simple’ mood music like this, I still put a lot of creative energy into making it fresh and immersive. When I create music like this, I always prefer to be looking at something, [e.g.] concept art. I think it helps me turn off the left side of the brain and just ‘feel’ my way through; painting a musical picture that puts me in that very specific place."
“My ‘secret’ — if I have one — to creating fresh-sounding music of any kind (including tense, stealthy, ambient music) is to simply create from an authentic place. I compare it to channeling the five-year-old inside of me. When I’m creating, I have to discipline myself to stop thinking, otherwise I’m doing it wrong — and I’m certainly not thinking about if anyone else has possibly done anything like what I’m creating! That just creates a sense of creative, paranoid paralysis.
“I believe that when any of us tap into our authentic creative spirit, and trust that it’s coming from a sincere place, the originality will take care of itself.”
Possibly the most commonly used production technique in all of recorded music history (not to mention media sound and dialogue mixing in general) is reverb.
Every human instinctively processes reverb information and understands at a primal level the difference between short tail reverb (e.g. when you’re close to a sound and/or in a small space) and long tail reverb (e.g. a huge, echoey hall.) It’s probably something gamers almost never think about unless it feels wrong, for instance if a character’s dialogue line bugs out and sounds like it's coming from 30 yards away even though they’re almost on top of you.
It’s an important but not often discussed mixing consideration in soundtrack music, and there are a galaxy of hardware and software reverb options all across the price range.
“I’m a reverb nut,” Salta confesses. “It’s amazing what a huge difference reverb makes — and the variety of them is almost endless. I always pay a lot of attention in making sure the reverbs I use put the music in the right three-dimensional space to complement the experience of playing the game. This doesn’t mean that you simply try to match what you see on the screen. Music creates a fourth dimension in the game — an ‘emotional dimension’ — and putting the music in the right sonic space to best enhance the experience is key.
“One extreme example is the music of Blade Runner by Vangellis. Most of it was put through a huuuuge reverb, likely a Lexicon 480 I’m guessing. One of the magical things about that music is how they used reverb in general, even on the voices. It added a dreamy quality to the film that makes you want to get lost in it and stay there, even though [1982’s vision of Los Angeles in 2019] was a dismal, dystopian place.”
“In the music of Deathloop, there is a multi-layered aspect to the music. Some of the elements are dry and in-your-face; some are in the distance; and others are right in the middle. This is a production/mixing technique that can be heard in most music. I made these decisions based on how I wanted the music to sit in-game. Some things would be atmospheric way off in the distance and others would be closer to the listener.”
Deathloop was firmly in the mix during the 2021 awards season and Game of the Year discussions. Salta says: “It feels great but I don’t take it for granted, not even for a second. A reception like this can never be planned, and anyone should consider themselves lucky to have something like this happen even once in their career. I never could have imagined the kind of response both the game and music are getting and I’m forever grateful.”
You absolutely must check out his podcast interviews with Kate Remington on Music Respawn and Emily Reece on Level With Emily.