Feature Article

How Cyberpunk 2077 Found The Sound Of The Future

CD Projekt Red discusses making the music for Cyberpunk 2077, how 2012's Dredd was an influence, and why they avoided synthwave.

The music of CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 helps to set the mood and establish the atmosphere of the setting of Night City. Along with a soundtrack featuring guest artists like Run The Jewels, A$AP Rocky, and Grimes, it also has an original score headed up by Marcin Przybyłowicz, who previously worked on The Witcher III, along with other composers from games and film.

Prior to the recent Night City Wire episode, which announced the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 EP, I had the chance to speak with the music composers P.T. Adamczyk (Gwent, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales) and Paul Leonard-Morgan (Limitless, Dredd, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War III) about crafting the sounds of Night City. Along with breaking down the creative process of making music for the game, they explained what new influences they drew from and what types of music they steered clear from to build the game's unique score. We also had the chance to get another round of hands-on time with the game, so check out our latest impressions from playing 16 hours of the full game.

Editor's Note: This interview was edited for clarity and readability.

So firstly, there's a lot of anticipation with Cyberpunk 2077 ahead of its release. Can you both talk about just your experience working on this game, especially one of this scale?

P.T. Adamczyk: Well, when I started working on the game, which was in 2017, the game was obviously well underway. It didn't have the hype that it has right now because it was all shrouded in mystery. The first trailer went out in 2013, so people have been chatting about this game, figuring out what it could be, but there wasn't a gameplay trailer or any footage. So when I started working on it, it actually felt fairly normal, just like any other game or project. The one thing that was actually different is it's a brand-new IP. No one scored it before. Obviously, there were many cyberpunk-related films or games and stuff like that, but never a game or a movie from our universe. So that was definitely an interesting challenge and a fun challenge, it seemed like.

But then, all hell broke loose after the E3 2018 trailer debuted. That's when it really became like a "Okay, we're actually doing this" moment. We could actually see the reaction to our work, to our music direction, and all that stuff. I think that worked sort of to our advantage. Of course, it was still pretty early, but we just felt like we had a more clear idea of where we wanted to take things. Ever since the 2018 showing, we've been just trying to nail it, basically.

Paul Leonard-Morgan: Yeah, so I came on board with these guys about the start of 2018, that's when we had our first chat about it. Basically, we were at CDPR for six months before that. Of course, the killer thing about games is that you can never actually say that you're working on them until about one day before it's released. So I went to E3 2018 to go and check it out. I had a lanyard, so I have to turn it over so my name's not visible. I actually had to wear a hat and I was ushered into the room so I could see a little trailer. I asked if they could point me in the direction of the Cyberpunk booth, and they're just like, "That'll be the one with the line just going off for a mile before it." But it was really cool seeing that for the first time, because you said, P.T., seeing the sheer scale of it and suddenly realizing how keen people were, the enthusiasm for that was exciting.

So P.T., you actually have quite a history with CD Projekt Red. You previously worked on Gwent and Thronebreaker, but this is obviously the biggest game you've worked on. What was that like being thrust into this?

Adamczyk: Well, I really love that CDPR has those two IPs [The Witcher and Cyberpunk 2077] and you can just basically go from one thing to another. Especially in 2019 when we were really writing a lot of music, implementing a lot of music and we were deep down in the Cyberpunk world. Every two or three months, I had a request from the Gwent team, "Can you do the trailer? Can you make a new track for this expansion?" It was really like a breath of fresh air because you can work so much with the synthesizers and try to be edgy all the time, but then again, you get to break the tune, for example, and do some string arrangements. So that combination works really well. It keeps you sane.

Of course it requires a different approach and different techniques and composer tricks you can use, but I think it will be way more difficult to do two Cyberpunks in a row or two Gwents in a row. Those two games, although they're very different types of fantasy, kind of feed into each other in the most positive way.

For Paul, you actually had some previous experience with cyberpunk-fiction. You actually did the music for Dredd, the 2012 Judge Dredd film. I enjoyed the hell out of that movie, and looking back on it, there are a lot of similarities in terms of aesthetics with that movie and the Cyberpunk 2077 game. Did your work on Dredd actually present itself as an in for working with CD Projekt Red for this game?

Leonard-Morgan: Yeah, I think so. Firstly, at the start of any project, you always try to find who's the right collaborator for it and now it's too late for them to get rid of me [laughs]. But at the start of a project, you kind of think, well, "Who might be right?" So I definitely think that Dredd was a good starting point to have a chat, but that didn't necessarily mean that they just wanted it to sound like Dredd. It just means that you have an ability to reference some things and say, "Well, that kind of synth works." I remember the first chat we had in 2017. It was about two hours long over Skype, and we were just talking about Cyberpunk 2077. So I'd say yeah. Dredd definitely gave me an in, but I don't think that was the be all and end all of it.

I will say that the film had an ethereal quality to it, especially when you worked in the elements of the slow-mo or rather how you stretch out the music. It was a very interesting mix with a very high octane action energy, in the vein of The Raid or Die Hard, but when you work in that very sort of calming in some ways. It was very unlike anything I've heard for an action film and I do see some of that from what I've seen with Cyberpunk 2077, based on early footage from E3 and other previews.

Leonard-Morgan: I love everything that you just said. Not as an ego thing but what you just said, it completely ties into Cyberpunk, genuinely. I'm just not talking about the actual music itself, but the ethos. What you just said, there was lots of energy, but there was also this atmospheric stuff. It's exactly what we got with Cyberpunk 2077, and going back to the slow-mo stuff from Dredd, I'd use this thing called 'Pull Stretch,' which is how I kind of slowed down everything. What we've done is created all these sounds from scratch. We sampled some of them, we played with them, and then expanded them. So in the same way that I did that with 'Pull Stretch,' we've been using this [gestures to his workstation]. So I keep pointing to this, wacky keyboards and stuff.

Just a side-note, we actually talked briefly on Twitter many years ago about the viral song with Justin Bieber's U Smile stretched by 800% having an influence on the Dredd soundtrack.

Leonard-Morgan: Oh God [laughs]. Well, we did actually listen to the stretched out Bieber song while working on that movie. It was actually Alex Garland [writer/producer of Dredd] who said to me, "You should check out the Bieber thing." When he was filming some of the slow-mo stuff, we were chatting away and I was scoring during that time. As a music technique, it's bloody great. But the bizarre thing was, and I'm not just tying it back into Cyberpunk for the sake of it, but I had that same kind of vibe and said, "Well, look. Someone's done that. What the hell's the point?"

Cyberpunk 2077 composers -- P.T. Adamczyk (left), Paul Leonard-Morgan (mid), Marcin Przybyłowicz (right)
Cyberpunk 2077 composers -- P.T. Adamczyk (left), Paul Leonard-Morgan (mid), Marcin Przybyłowicz (right)

So for Dredd, I went and wrote a bunch of tracks to then try out stretching it further. But then, when you actually go and do it, it's bloody hard because it doesn't work with every instrument. 'Pull Stretch' only works alright with a piano, and it would be right-ish with a stringed instrument, but anything which has got a very long--like a guitar, if you hit a note and it rings out, it sounds crap. So I had to write a bunch of tracks to then stretch it out. But if you've got a one-minute track, which you times by a thousand, my math is pretty crap but that's a massive file. So you only then do it with a little bit because obviously your computer's got smoke coming out of it. So making music for Dredd was really an experimental way of doing it. Similarly with Cyberpunk 2077, that was the thing we wanted to do. It was like trying all these different techniques out.

I actually think it often speaks to the style that most cyberpunk fiction, such as Blade Runner, Ghost in a Shell, or Akira goes for. The style and music of those films incorporate a lot of different sounds and a different vibe that you likely wouldn't associate with a science-fiction story. Was there a lot of time spent on trying to narrow down and capture what you felt best represented the game's vision of the future?

Adamczyk: Yeah, there was a lot of time spent just experimenting and figuring stuff out. When you're tasked with scoring a game that is big and with so many layers to it, it wasn't like, "Okay, this is what we're going to do," and then you're off to make the whole score without changes. That's not really how it works, especially when you dare to create something original or unique for that project. So we definitely spent a lot of time figuring out the sound, what it could be, and what instruments would produce that sound.

I spent a ton of time talking with Marcin Przybyłowicz about references, existing music, and actually what you said about Dredd earlier, when I first got to CDPR, I remember Marcin saying that, "You should really check out Dredd." One, because we were going to work with Paul, and secondly, he created an interesting take on the genre. I remember watching the movie, I never before had watched a movie or played a game with this kind of approach to a cyberpunk universe--in terms of style and atmosphere. So we basically wanted to do the same thing with Cyberpunk 2077, have our own take on the genre. So Marcin came up with the idea to take a very '90s approach, to create something of a melting pot. So that was definitely how things worked.

Also, we actually had a lot of time to just figure those sounds out. I'm pretty sure a lot of stuff that Paul does, he does it in like six to eight weeks. We had three years, so we actually could spend this time making those sounds and making a lot of mistakes. For example, a lot of the cues that I wrote didn't make it to the final game. There was something about them that didn't really seem like the right thing. It actually may have sounded okay for the game back in 2017, but now it sounds completely off. So yeah, that was a lot of experimenting, a lot of back and forth.

Leonard-Morgan: What you're saying about that at that stage, P.T., I just want to add that you've got to be able to envisage what the game's going to be like, and three years ago that was bloody hard. So they sent me this lot here [shows off concept art showcasing Night City]; They sent me literally a bible for the game, which was a print out of the entire game. You try and envisage what this world is going to look like, and it's only really kind of the last six months where you suddenly realize, "Oh my god, these graphics are incredible." But before that, you see the scope of it, but you can't quite envisage just how brilliant it is yet. So it's been really exciting the last six months seeing it all really come together. It's really cool.

No Caption Provided

Just curious, a popular trend that's occurred over this last decade in particular is synthwave music. It's often used for games rooted in science-fiction, or games that try to be nostalgic for a particular era, like the '80s. Did that trend have any influence at all with Cyberpunk 2077.

Adamczyk: Yes, it actually gave us a reference of what not to do for Cyberpunk 2077. I remember Marcin saying on the first day, "No synthwave, please." It definitely influenced us in that regard. Probably not in the way most people would think, but it did influence us.

Leonard-Morgan: The thing about synthwave, I find, is that the sounds are just too beautiful. It just often sounds too glossy and shiny. The setting of Cyberpunk 2077 is this dirty place. It's dark as hell, so if you're going to do something with the music, take one of your flipping sounds, send it through 5,000 cables, filter it through other things as well. Marcin actually had this thing where he would send his sounds through 5,000 volts. If you think again of Night City, it's this world [where] everyone doesn't have their beautiful lights and stuff like that. [It] is people trying to get electricity from wherever they can, hacking into power grids and so on. So there's a very complex process going with those characters, and I think that was almost how we felt when we were creating the sounds of the music for the game.

Just another side note, what about vaporwave?

Leonard-Morgan: I'm not aware of vaporwave. What's vaporwave?

Oh, boy. It might be in your wheelhouse actually, because there is a trend to slow down and modify lyrics of classic songs. The most popular one is Macintosh Plus Floral Shoppe, number 2. It's a slowed down version of Diana Ross' "It's Your Move." It's a very trippy song.

Adamczyk [to Paul]: Yeah, it's like a homage to '90s consumer culture, basically. So you get Kmart samples mixed with Diana Ross slowed down.

Leonard-Morgan: They slow it down like with Dredd, like 10%, 20%?

Adamczyk: Yeah, around 20%, yeah. Something like that.

Yeah, they also modify it in a number of ways. It sounds pretty chill but it did lead into a rush of people digging into their vinyl collections to find forgotten songs to remix.

Leonard-Morgan: I will check it out after this call.

Adamczyk: Yeah, we didn't use any vaporwave [laughs]. It sort of ties into what Paul said earlier, in that it doesn't really fit the world. A lot of the time, people on the internet tend to imagine the game as something similar to what they experienced before, but the truth is, they've never experienced a cyberpunk world like Night City ever because they haven't played it and we were scoring a game that didn't exist before. So we basically couldn't just take all the fancy stuff that was popular at the time, take a jackhammer and try to make it work in our game. And also, I think the job of the score is a bit different than just playing a bunch of cool, popular tunes every now and then.

This is a story-driven game, so we basically tried to tell this story and add to it. So yeah, no vaporwave in the game. Although the techniques of vaporwave like slowing stuff down and matching things together, yeah, we did a lot of that, but with our own samples and our own parts.

No Caption Provided

Fair enough. Speaking of the story, what makes cyberpunk fiction so engaging is that--along with showing cool technology--many of the story beats and topics that are extrapolated from situations from our present times. There's a political undercurrent throughout sci-fi, and that's felt in Cyberpunk 2077 as well. It's all there to get players to feel something. As you mentioned, there's an edge and dirtiness to the music, which reflects the grim nature of the world.

Adamczyk: Actually, I think cyberpunk fiction is way more philosophical than political, and I believe our game is also more philosophical than political. I understand your take on it. We basically try to tell the story--you're a cyberpunk. Who are cyberpunks? They're mercenaries. They don't care if they're going to die tomorrow.

So we have the Cyberpunk ethos in mind. All they want is to be remembered for their actions. They want to have a drink named after them in the afterlife, or whatever. So by using dance music, EDMs, we basically try to tell you that of course we're fighting and everything. We're shooting guns. It's a hostile environment but death is not that bad in that world. If you go out in style, it's actually okay in a weird way. That's why the beat and everything sort of ties in with the lore and with Cyberpunk ethos, as I said. So I think that was more of a philosophical decision.

Leonard-Morgan: Going back to when we were writing the music, we wanted to create a sound not that's just unique for the sake of being unique but that really ties into this world. There's moments in the game where you see people in their communities celebrating and enjoying their music. It may be an awful world to live in, but there's also some very cool stuff going on and you're surviving. You're surviving in Night City and it's all about look while you're surviving, all about that attitude.

In our heads, we totally pictured people going to concerts listening to this music. It doesn't always have to be high, high, high octane. There's always come downs and those kind of dance concerts, whatever. That's obviously pre-COVID, but they want that feeling with us. And again, I just go back to the idea of energy attitude. A lot of it's these really vibrant hard beats coming in, but it leaves you by the end of it. Like, God, the adrenaline is rushing and I think that was what we wanted to get over by the end of this game. Which is the same way that the game itself gives you this adrenaline feel as you're going around Night City and completing missions. I think we wanted to achieve the same with the music that by the end of it you're kind of like, "Wow, that was a rush. That was really cool."

Well, what I'm saying is that it definitely feels like there is an undercurrent to get players to feel something when they're exploring the world. Like there's a tangible element to the game's tone and story. Also, it includes music from a number of disparate artists from different backgrounds, such as Run to the Jewels, Grimes, and others. As far as influences for making sure it's all cohesive, were there any touchstone artists or genres that did offer some influences for you when working on the music for this game?

Adamczyk: Yeah, I'm a big fan of music from the Warp record label, particularly what they did in the '90s and early 2000s. Some of their '90s work is still futuristic for me. I didn't want to just copy what they did, I remember when I saw a demo of what Paul produced, it really reminded me of something very much like a collection of ambient sounds that came together. So I would say that was the influence. I then looked for gear that could make those types of sounds.

Leonard-Morgan: From my point of view, I think it was more a case of just listening to some kind of early '90s tracks. It's going to sound awfully bizarre because Marcin would talk about The Prodigy, whereas I would actually compare The Prodigy to The Beastie Boys a lot of the time, and some of that energy that comes from the drums. As I said, but then it's not like you're trying to recreate that. It's like, "Oh, that's some interesting synth flow." Although the synths sound faked a wee bit sometimes. But then as P.T. says, we kind of got it, but we all use it in completely different ways. I mean it is physically impossible to do anything twice with this because there are so many different bits and cables that come out there from the center that A, you can't remember where you actually put the cables, and B, it just sounds completely different depending on what you're feeding into it.

So it's this really wonderful thing. You put your finger on it and everyone goes, "Oh, it sounds like Blade Runner." But then you take your finger off and put it back on and it's like, "Oh damn, it sounds like Blade Runner on acid." And then by the third time you put your finger on it like, "What the hell is that?" It's completely different the way that we all use it, so it's not a case of specific influences. It's just a case of yeah, I know I keep saying it but it's true, it's the attitude and the vibe and the energy I think of early '90s stuff. That rawness of it. It wasn't perfectly polished music and I think that's what we really liked about it.

No Caption Provided

I'm glad you mentioned early '90s music as well. I got a sense of that, that there's a 'grunge' element to the game, in terms of rawness and energy. It speaks so much to the world as well. So lastly, based on how you both saw this game evolve over the years, what would you say was something you were most proud of when it came to seeing your work come together.

Leonard-Morgan: For me, it was really the three of us as a collaboration--Marcin, P.T., and myself. I've never really collaborated with anyone like this before. Not just because it's about my massive ego, but because in general. I worked last year on a soundtrack with Philip Glass, a classical collaboration on Tales from the Loop, and it was bizarre because that was at the same time as this collaboration was happening and suddenly, two very contrasting styles. I like covering different genres, not for the sake of it, but because creatively it gets me going.

At first for me, it took me a little while to get used to this game, because it was trying to sort of find a sound and thinking, "Would P.T. like this? Would Marcin like it? Well, it doesn't matter, what's your thought of it?" So you're trying to do it in a certain way that then sort of nails it for all three of you. We found that sound, particularly over the last six months looking back at it now, it's like, "Wow, that was actually quite a journey," literally as a creative process because the stuff you do at the end, you're like, "That's actually really good." You always have your doubts about stuff. I think that's the thing about being an artist. You're filled with that self-doubt and it was only at the end, you kind of look back and go, "Yeah, in actual fact, we did good." I think.

Adamczyk: Yeah, I agree with everything Paul said. I would just add to that a ton of technical things that none of us saw coming, basically. How to score a game when you simultaneously have radio playing everywhere and you have to dance around it and make sure that the player only hears the music you want him to hear at that moment. So that was a lot of work. Also, implementing the music that accommodates the branching storylines. That was a challenge.

If you ask Marcin this question, he will probably tell you the story that he felt after The Witcher 3. He knew everything about games and what to bring for Cyberpunk, but it quickly turned out that this project was far more than that. It was just massive.

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