Darren Korb’s video game soundtracks get a vinyl release in Supergiant box
Darren Korb makes music. He does the soundtracks for some great video games, and now those soundtracks are releasing on vinyl. But you can only buy the records as one gigantic box of records. As a fellow musician, it feels like an odd dream come to life. As a fan of his work, I’m just giddy.
Korb works with a game studio called Supergiant. Their work on titles like Transistor and Bastion has pushed the limits of what indie games can be, and often leans hard into Korb’s work to help set tone, build the world, and pull at your emotions when you aren’t ready for it.
Here’s our interview with him ahead of the release.
So let’s start at the end. What is it like to have a gigantic box that contains your life’s work, and knowing that thousands of people are going to get a box that’s big enough to be a child coffin mailed to them, and that that will contain everything that you have made? Is that a good feeling?
It’s really cool, and something that I never really thought of as a thing that I would have. I remember growing up, I bought a couple of box sets that were really meaningful to me. I bought the Led Zeppelin box set of all their albums, and stuff like that. It was a coveted item. It’s an incredible honor to have something like that made of your music. At the same time, I’m cranking away on new music still, so it’s exciting to be able to put stuff on vinyl that we haven’t before, and the new art is beautiful and I’m really excited to see this item in the flesh myself.
So you haven’t tried to lift the giant box that is the weight of your artistic output yet?
Twelve pieces of vinyl, let’s see… about 150 grams per vinyl, plus the packaging. It’s gonna be like, several pounds.
It’s the sort of thing I imagine delivery men will have a difficult time with and normal people will be like, “Oh, I know already without opening it what this is.”
Yeah, That’s exciting. No, I feel for the delivery people, but it was a big honor to be involved in making this thing.
It’s such an exceptionally well put-together package, it almost feels bad that you’re making new music. I can see when the next comes out, just trying to shove it in the box with the rest just to make it fit.
I have heard that there’s room for another record in there. So when the soundtrack finally comes in there, you’ll be able to slip it in if you want.
I love that so much. When Lizzie sent over the PR for it, I wrote back, “In not-joking anger, do you guys just hate my wallet? What is wrong with you?” I have the other albums already, but this is so good. Can you tell me what the extras are in the album beyond the three main soundtracks?
Yes. So there are five additional discs, I believe, of stuff that hasn’t been released before on vinyl. So you’ve got The Black Mandolin and White Lute from Pyre, and you’ve also got the extended soundtrack from Transistor. For the first time, there’s a Hades seven-inch single as well.
You’re in a very interesting place as a game composer. I don’t see this happen to many others but you’ve basically worked with one studio your entire career. Has that given you pluses and minuses over the long run?
Pluses. I can’t honestly think of any minuses. I’m an employee of Super Giant Games, it’s my full-time job. In addition to making music, I’m the audio director. So I do all the sound design and direct voice-over, and oversee how it’s all implemented into the game. The music is just sort of a portion of my job, but it’s incredible being on the team and really refining my creative process working with these other talented people. It’s such a pleasure to be able to do that. So honestly, no minuses for me. This is awesome.
Since you’ve worked so closely and been such a key figure at the game studio; when you start a new project, what is the process you go through there? How long do you take looking at art styles before sitting down to write out your first note of music?
I’m prototyping really early, on the music side. As soon as we know what the setting is going to be basically, I’m off at that point. Of course if I can see concept art and stuff like that, it helps guide my efforts. As soon as I see that, I’ll try to incorporate it into my work. I start pretty much right away, and the questions that I ask myself at the beginning of a project are: what is this world? What are the instruments that might be in this world, that people might play? What kind of music would the people in this world listen to or make? Those are the questions I’ll ask myself to define what the musical palette might be for the game. That becomes a portion, an ingredient, of the music that I’m making. I do want to bring in other influences to make something that I feel is new or create a genre that defines this game or defines this place to the best of my ability.
Is using that sort of worldbuilding as a starting point the basis of your ability to always be inventing new genres with each soundtrack that you make? Each album you’ve got sounds wildly different from everything else; not a lot of people are doing acoustic frontier trip-hop, and that’s one of the reasons why your work has always stood out in the industry. Is there ever a moment for you where it just really clicks and you’re like, “I now have the forewards and the Mad Libs that I know define this genre of music that I’m going to invent”?
It’s different for every game, and I really struggled on Transistor, in particular, trying to nail down what those words were and trying to re-create the thing I did on Bastion. On other games, I explored a lot more to seek ad figure out what the genre was going to be. But I now have a sense of the things I’m looking at to inform that decision. Really, the goal is to create something that feels– it has a distinctive voice and has a unique setting to the game that helps to immerse the player in the game to the best of my ability. That’s what I’m really trying to solve all the time.
Have you ever gotten into it and realized you’ve gone completely in the wrong direction and had to start again?
On Transistor, I spent a really long time prototyping and then at six months, I was making pieces and just searching for the sound of the game. It took me a long time. It’s not that I went down the wrong road necessarily it’s that I hadn’t found the right road yet for a while. Then on Hades, we did a little bit– we originally had some ideas on what the game would focus on, and we had kind of a creative reboot at a certain point. So the music I was pursuing still, I was able to fold back into the direction of the game, but I did change courses along with the aesthetic of the rest of the game. Those are the two times I can think of where i needed to do a creative turn, so to speak.
When you get started, do you have a go-to instrument from where you start with things? Are you a guitar guy or a piano guy, or is it just wherever it leads in a programming sort of way?
Yeah, my main instrument is guitar, so I definitely tend to have guitar be the first place I come from, but it’s not always the first place. It really depends on the game and the sonic pallet for that game. If I’m trying to write– for Hades, for example– guitar is usually not where I start because I’ve got all of these Mediterranean instruments that are important to the palette of the game. I try to write on these instruments that I don’t necessarily know mechanically, but they’re like the guitar so I can play them physically. So I think that helps me ground the music in the palette that I set up, and it helps me use my ears more. I like writing on instruments that I’m not great at because it helps me ignore the sort of muscle memory of chords I like to play. Playing on an instrument with different tuning, those chord shapes I’m used to are not going to sound the same on a different instrument with standard tuning. So it really forces me to use my ears and allow that to guide the process.
Other people would just look at an instrument and say, “I don’t know how to play that,” and you’re excited to be like, “That’ll take me outside my comfort zone!”
I’m not sure that I’m learning how to play them, to be fair. I’m not a virtuoso by any stretch at this point, but I’ve certainly been writing a lot.
Are you worried that people more familiar with those Mediterranean instruments think that this is the recordings of a child?
Not really, just because I’m still using them in a way that I still think sounds cool. Regardless of how I arrived there, I’m happy with the sound of it. I’m not too worried because I’m using the stuff in non-traditional ways, anyway.
Right. So the games that you work on are really a lot of games that the music is a huge part having to tell both the story and develop the characters. What have you learned about using music for narrative purposes over the years?
I think it’s really important to– if you want to have a vocal piece with impact, for example, it’s important to give it space that it needs for the player to experience it and to drive home the themes that the game has been implying all along. So I think that’s something that we thought initially, but we’re able to understand now what that entails a little bit better, which is cool. We learn new information about that on each project that we’ve done. I grew up with musical theater, from when I was five until I finished high school. So I certainly understand; I’ve had a lot of exposure to things where songs move the narrative, it’s a whole medium that does just that. It’s a thing that I care about and I really enjoy doing. I think in a lot of ways you can do that and each product is really different, so it depends on who’s singing the song and what relationship the characters hold to the game. In most cases, the songs have been expressive of things about the world or characters, and helping deepen those particular aspects of the game world. I think Pyre is the only time where there were really songs about exactly what was happening in the game.
How much did the work of Stephen Sondheim influence the creation of Transistor?
You know, I’m familiar with some Sondheim stuff, I’ve seen Sondheim shows growing up, but I don’t know that it was a direct influence on Transistor—
Yeah, I’m more fascinated to hear someone bring the connection between musical theater and video games. I’ve ever heard a composer bring that up before; it’s such an obvious thing, and I don’t know why nobody’s ever talked to me about it.
Yeah, for sure, and it’s interesting doing this performance I just did for the ten year anniversary with a chamber orchestra, which I’ve not at all worked with in my professional career. I’ve only recorded myself.
This was your performance at PAX, right?
This was my performance at PAX, yeah. Doing that, I was trying to practice a bunch with Ashley (Barrett), and I know her through musical theater stuff we had done as kids. It was interesting that the most similar thing to this experience was doing that. When you put all the songs in a row, it’s pretty theatrical, and when you have a pitched orchestra, it’s a lot more like the thing I used to do. I didn’t realize that until we were at the end of rehearsing. It was pretty fun to go back and do a thing I used to do a lot as a kid.
What was it like to have Austin Wintory as a conductor?
Awesome. We had fun working on this project together. We’ve been friends for a bit and we’ve done some small collaborations before, but this was our first opportunity to do something meaty together, and it was a ton of fun. He pulled together all of the resources for this, because he knew how to do it. He had done it before. He helped me organize the whole thing and helped me give notes on the arrangements, and was instrumental to it coming off as well as it did. It was a pleasure.
He was instrumental. Great pun on that one. Finally, do you have any other composers or soundtrack folks that people should be checking out? People that are younger and coming up or people that are friends of yours that you’re influenced by their work?
Sure, yeah. People already know– dude’s on a rocket ship right now, but Will Roget is doing the new Mortal Kombat, he did the new Call Of Duty: WWII, and his score for WWII is like– I’m not a huge FPS guy but I was really impressed by his emotional cinematic score for it.
It’s so good.
It’s so good, right? Isn’t that crazy? So I’m always impressed by what he’s doing. This other dude John Robert Matz is coming up, and he’s been doing some really cool stuff, he’s a nice guy. I’m always impressed by Danny B’s work, it’s always cool. There’s a bunch of people doing a bunch of really cool out of the box stuff these days. I always like seeing what people are doing.