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Crafting the algorithmic soundtrack of 'No Man's Sky'

Engadget Engadget 11/08/2016 Timothy J. Seppala

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While you've no doubt heard of No Man's Sky, the game, chances are you can't say the same of the band that scored its soundtrack. That's fair. UK noise/drone rock group 65Daysofstatic (65DOS) has quietly been releasing records since 2001. Its songs regularly stretch past seven minutes, and if they feature vocals, the singing is buried so deep in the mix that it's almost indistinguishable from the maelstrom surrounding it. All that is to say, the band doesn't write the type of music that gets stuck in your head. Which makes multi-instrumentalist Paul Wolinski's hopes for the score all the more surprising. "We wanted it to be hummable," he told Engadget.

A good video game soundtrack isn't just a handful of licensed songs thrown into a playlist -- it has to ebb and flow with what's happening onscreen. That means a lot of looped phrases and effects for a particular area, which may change at a moment's notice if you jump into your starship and leave a planet.

To accomplish this, the band built its own logic system for the Ableton Live and Max for Live recording software. More than that, 65DOS created custom applications for software development tools like the Unity game engine and FMOD for sound effects. It was all part of an effort to approximate the algorithmsNo Man's Sky uses to assemble not only the environments you'll explore but the music accompanying those as well. Handing songwriting duties over to a piece of software and letting it assemble a soundscape from a bank of audio files is virgin territory for the band and, quite possibly, the industry in general.

No Man's Sky's creative mastermind Sean Murray is intimately familiar with the band's work, which is why he contacted Wolinski and his bandmates in 2013 to license their song "Debutante" for the game's debut trailer. The initial pitch was for 65DOS to make a new album and, from there, the development team would tear the songs down to their base pieces, remixing and rearranging them in-house.

The band wanted to be involved with the deconstruction part of the process too. "I think [Hello Games] kind of underestimated how geeky we are in terms of the computer side of things," Wolinsky said. At its outset, the custom software was more humble than you might think -- especially compared with how the game itself randomly assembles the 18 quintillion planets in its galaxy.

"On one level, it's a glorified random audio file player," Wolinski admitted. "It's just pulling from different things. But we slowly re-created the logic that can make rules, so it would approximate what would, in theory, be happening in the final game."

It was a long process that made songwriting into a sort of assembly line procedure. "We might need to record 50 guitar drones in E minor, but because of the kind of band we are, it wasn't just hitting 'render' 50 times in some software. It was us in a room with lots of mics pointing at amps (below) turned up as loud as they could go, and wearing ear defenders eight hours a day."

That might sound unpleasant, but not for Wolinski. "It was so much fun!" he said.

During previous writing sessions for other records, there were snippets of songs that'd be thrown out because of how a track evolved over time. Those would typically be scrapped -- not because the band didn't like them, but because what might have started as a piano ballad ended up being a "big kind of mess of beats and layers." With the No Man's Sky project, what ended up on the cutting room floor still had a purpose.

"Usually all the stuff that gets left out disappears forever," he noted. Because the band was writing with an eye toward logic-assembled soundscapes, that wasn't the case here: Everything had a use. "That all kind of came from working with [Hello Games audio lead] Paul Weir, and Hello Games being so supportive of us just getting more involved."

The amps used to record all those drones.

The band then sent Weir a bunch of audio files and "reams of text" with notes on how to re-pitch and arrange certain musical phrases. But the ultimate goal for 65DOS was to not overstep their boundaries as musicians; they couldn't tell Weir how to do his job. While the band handled the vast majority of the arrangement and deconstruction, Weir and Hello Games put the finishing touches on everything. Toward the end of the writing process, Weir had "friendly suggestions" for more music, but it was things like additional synthesizer arpeggios for when you're flying around -- not wholesale changes to songs.

No Man's Sky had a profound impact on the band, not just for this album but for its plans to write music going forward. Prior to this, 65DOS created music for a sound installation that had 20 speakers in a room that could each play a specific sound at a given time. "That was really exciting for us, because, as a band, we'd been wanting to push into new forms. Not just albums, not just touring, but different ways of presenting music."

Instead of simply writing another record and then going on the road to promote it, 65DOS was able to do something completely different. "The sound installation was more about writing for a specific place, rather than just chunks of time," Wolinski said.

No Man's Sky was the way to bring those ambitions for presentation and performance under one banner. Combined with the algorithmic approach to song-crafting, the game fundamentally altered how the band thinks about music. "Games are such a ripe vehicle to hang that kind of creativity on, so FMOD and Unity -- us getting to grips with that -- I think is going to be really useful in whatever we do next."

Images: Amplifiers by Joe Balloons; Screenshots courtesy of Hello Games

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