Interview - HyperDuck Soundworks
HyperDuck SoundWorks is a team from Belfast, Northern Ireland who are passionate about music creation for media and games in particular. Joining together as friends many years ago, Chris and Dan began their music making journey when they joined forces with Dan Remar to make the Iji OST. After this they have been the lead audio designers behind Katakijin, Zero Gear, A.R.E.S: Extinction Agenda, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Break Limit, Mama & Son: Clean House, Space Junk, and many more.
Hi lads, how are you?
Chris: Not bad! Just finished putting the Precipice of Darkness Episode 4 OST together for public release! Kingdom Rush II coming shortly, and other super secret thingies I will never tell you even if tortured.
So, origin story; how did you guys come together and get started writing music for games?
Chris: We have been mates since we were both about fifteen or sixteen, and both got into playing live music a lot. Badly, I might add, probably worse on my part though. Eventually after a few twists and turns, we ended up studying music together, in Belfast. This led to a Bachelors Honours degree in England studying Jazz, Popular & Contemporary Music. In the first year of that, I had a friend, Dan Remar, who was making a game called Iji. He called in a favour I had offered, not thinking twice about it, and it threw me and Dan into the mix of things, music-wise. We were writing in Cubase SX and had no idea what we were doing, really. However it got a great amount of praise, so we thought that was pretty awesome, and it was at that point we thought we should maybe keep this going and see where we end up. Still writing and sound designing to this day, as you can probably tell.
You’re currently working on sound design for Mojang’s new game Scrolls; how does that kind of work compare with actual composing? Do you have a preference?
Dan: When we first started doing sound effects, it was more of a last minute sort of thing where we jumped in and said we could do a few sounds. Luckily the first game was somewhat synthetic and electronic sounding (A.R.E.S), but we quickly got into recording our own sounds, manipulating them and other sounds from libraries. I generally favour composing music more than sound as it was the first thing I got into, but it depends on the workflow for me. I love sound design when I can get stuck into a project and get into a particular sound 'zone' for it. It is a very different area, but the composition of sounds and layering can be a lot of fun. It is satisfying to capture our own sounds, and get outside for some foley work as it makes a nice change. We usually blend a lot of our own stuff with edited sounds from various libraries etc, so that the sounds are completely unique. The sounds in Scrolls have a nice tactile feel, the sounds and textures are satisfying to me, which goes along with the art style and (hopefully!) fits in with the music and art.
What’s your setup? Do you have any favourite gear or software?
Chris: I'm on a Intel i5 3.40 Ghz Turbo Boost, with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, on Windows 7 Professional. I've got a Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP sound card, and a bunch of keyboards around me that do all wacky things. My favourite gear would probably just be my Yamaha CP33. Great weighted piano, and I've had many great times in the past years playing it. Great feel, and helps with the writing a lot. Hard to really get that same feeling on a semi-weight. For me it's like, why bother? I will use it if I have to, but I generally will always go weighted. I work (as does Dan) in Cubase. Version 6.5 for me and 7 for him.
You were recently at GDC, how did that go?
Dan: This was our second time attending GDC. It's always such a great experience to be immersed in the industry like that. The first year we met up with a few fellow composers that we only knew over the internet, and it was nice to meet so many people involved in game music and indie games. They were all so nice and supportive, we just used our first year as a chance to meet as many people as possible during the day, then informally meet at the various gigs and events in the evenings. It might seem quite relaxed that way but we found that we developed a lot of good relationships the first year and many have turned into solid working relationships that have continued since. This year had a few highlights, as we were nominated for a Game Developers Choice Award under the Best Debut category for Dust: An Elysian Tail. The awards show was good fun, and we finally got to meet some of the guys involved in making the game, face to face! We also got a day visit to Lucasarts, which had the ten year old me going crazy, and the twenty-six year old going equally crazy. I can highly recommend GDC for anyone involved in making games, even in the indie space there is usually a good crowd of developers around. Do some planning and try to meet up with as many people as possible.
Your latest soundtrack out is Penny Arcade's Rain Slick 4, a retro JRPG-styled game filled with bombastic battle themes. Were those fun to come up with, and are you a fan of those types of games e.g. the Final Fantasy series?
Dan: Since we both are that age where we remember the 8 and 16 bit era so well, it was great to be able to go back and access all those memories of the games and tunes that we loved. We were both big into video games, I loved RPGs like the Legend of Zelda series, Mystic Quest, and the later ones like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII of course. It was loads of fun to create music which was a blend of the old sound, and our own sound, with a real "in your face" attitude.
Chris: Something pretty cool occurred to me back when we were finishing up the writing for the OST. There was something that I realised, that Dan had said ages ago: "I'd love to write for an RPG type game, like Final Fantasy", and then I realised we were in a way, doing that. Only it was so much better than we could have imagined. The story to Episode 3 and 4 blow my mind, those guys are awesome.
Dust has arguably been your biggest game to date and has just been released on Steam, tell us about your work on it.
Chris: It was a long job. Nearly four years for us, and I am really happy we did it, I don't think we'd be where we are now if Dean hadn't have let us on the project and let us do the amount we did for Dust. The sound designing helped me really improve my understanding of sound design, the music helped us understand orchestration more and more, all through trial and error. And the voice acting production sent Dan to another level, I thought. He did all the editing for the voices while I did the majority of the sound design, since they were both mammoth jobs by the end of Dust. Plus we got to be a part of this massive story, and outside of the game, the massive success story. Watching Dean coming up over the years with new ideas, hitting highs and hitting lows, it felt very much like a happy ending, even more so now that it hit Steam and was so well received.
How does work on a project normally progress? Do you guys work together in person or pass ideas back and forth?
Dan: Luckily we both live really close to each other, so we have our own home studio setup, but regularly we'll get together for a coffee in the morning and look at what we've got to do, then divide it up. We're always in touch on Skype and keeping each other up to date on progress. It is a challenge to make sure we're making the most of our time individually, as well as together, but it is great to be able to bounce ideas back and forth, particularly when one of us is stuck on something, the other can usually hear it with a fresh ear and add something good to it. We also stay regularly in contact with the developers too, depending on how much involvement they would like in the music. Sometimes they are happy to let us do our thing, and other times it can be more of an iterative approach.
You pride yourselves on being very adaptable and have written in all kinds of styles, from the hard rock of ARES to the irreverent jazz organ of Snaaaaake! Do you have a preferred genre to work in?
Chris: Not really, getting into new genres is a lot of fun, perfecting previous ones we have done is far more challenging, I like a balance of both. It'd be easier to say what I don't like writing for. Happy hardcore. There. Though to be honest I'd probably still be up for writing a happy hardcore soundtrack if the chance came up.
Do you have any favourite soundtracks by other composers?
Dan: The first ones that would come to mind are simply the ones which I've developed an emotional attachment to, so the Final Fantasy series, Zelda series, Super Mario series are all up there. I don't spend a lot of time particularly listening to videogame soundtracks or film soundtracks, but I do keep an eye on what people like Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Horner and all the other big guys are doing. I like everything I've heard Gustavo Santaolalla do so far.
Chris: Gone Baby Gone by Harry-Gregson Williams is an amazing soundtrack, also the original music (that should have been longer on the release) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion is beautifully done. And anything in the Bourne Trilogy by John Powell makes me happy inside.
Is there a dream project you’d love to land?
Chris: I think we've ticked a lot of boxes in terms of dream projects, I think we'd like just more time on a smaller amount projects throughout the year, so we can really open up our writing over a longer period of time. The dream would to be getting bigger budgets to expand the sound for particular things. I'd love to have a chance to write and have an orchestra play our work at some stage. That'll happen, whether it's on a budget or out of our own pockets, but not yet.
Dan: I'd love to have the time and budget to write something with lots of live musicians and acoustic instruments. Or even a more electric thing, but in a band setting, where we can feed off each other and have more room for improvisation and experimentation.
Any tips for aspiring composers?
Chris: Don't be worried if you're not sure what you're writing is gonna come out how you imagined it. A lot of the time we're not entirely sure what is going to happen when we begin writing, and it doesn't ever come out how we thought it would. That's always going to happen. The breakdown in communication between our heads and our ears (I mean ours, not yours) means that we will always get happy accidents and little surprises when writing. It just makes the whole process a little more exciting!
You have occasionally done remixes/covers of classic games like Zelda and Duke Nukem; what’s your favourite classic/retro game?
Dan: It's so hard to chose one. Zelda: Ocarina of Time was pretty amazing, it doesn't even feel classic or retro to me yet, but that was fifteen years ago, so I guess it could be!
What’s next for Team HyperDuck?
Chris: Star Wars.
Dan: Star Wars... Please.
So endeth the interview! Thanks to Chris and Dan for answering our probing questions!