Feature Article

The Music of Transistor: In The Key of Red

Gymnopedie.

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A good composer knows how to meet your musical expectations; a great composer knows how to subvert them.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the greats. His music is known even outside the concertgoing public; there's a good chance, for instance, that you have heard his music written for the ballets The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and his 1812 Overture remains among the most popular works ever composed. My favorite Tchaikovsky work, however, is his sixth symphony, known as the Pathétique, and it was this symphony I thought of when I recently listened to Darren Korb's Transistor soundtrack.

Korb's work and Tchaikovsky's are miles apart in terms of harmonic and melodic content, but they have some commonalities that struck me, and one commonality in particular stood out: the use of 5/4 meter. Tchaikovsky's sixth uses this time signature in its second movement, which sounds like an off-kilter waltz in which the dancers keep forgetting a step. In the Transistor track called "In Circles," Korb also uses the same meter to evoke tension, albeit a different flavor of it. Both works play with your expectations. Most music we listen to is organized into twos, threes, and fours; 5/4 meter has a different kind of lilt, and can be vaguely unsettling to listen to. Korb, however, eases the tension by moving from five beats per measure to three during the track's refrain.

With this track in mind, I got in contact with Korb to probe his musical mind, and asked him about this choice. "I knew I wanted to play with some non-standard time signatures early on," he says. "I thought a hint of 'math' would be in keeping with the computer-ey terminology of the game. It also tends to add extra tension!" That's not Korb's only tool for instilling anxiety, however. "One thing I like to do for building tension is to have rhythmic elements that fight a bit. In 'Gateless,' for example, the piece is in five but the bass line for the B section is in three, so it ends up feeling really tense. I also tend to use a lot of chords with close intervals for tension building as well."

Ah yes--another musical idea I associate with Tchaikovksy. Now I think of the sixth symphony's final movement, which features low cello and contrabass chords. In my early composition classes, I was taught that close chords in those deep ranges sound muddled and should be used with caution. If you own a piano, play a minor triad using extremely low notes; then, do the same in a higher register. The lower rumbling notes, rich as they are in overtones, sound goopy and indistinct, whereas the upper registers ring out more clearly. Used properly, however, close chords like this weigh heavy on the heart, and both composers deftly utilize that musical heft. Korb also uses dissonant chords in the upper range to create unease, such as in the opening of Transistor's first musical track, 'Old Friends.'

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'In Circles' still stands out to me above the other tracks, however, not just for its use of 5/4 meter, but also for its vocals, which are provided by singer Ashley Barrett, so I asked Korb about this collaboration. "After working with Ashley on a couple projects now," he says, "I feel like I've gotten a better sense of how to write for her voice. For me, that's the main consideration that affects my writing process. Our sessions are pretty laid back. If a melody line doesn't feel quite right in her voice we will change it on the fly."

It isn't just Barrett's voice that Korb must be conscious of, however. Compared to most soundtracks, Transistor's musical score doesn't feature a great diversity of instrumentations. Instead, Korb uses a lot of plucked string instruments like guitars, along with accompanying drums and other synthesized instruments. The result is consistent, but also surprisingly varied given the narrow tonal range, thanks to Korb's imaginative melodies and rhythms. "I tried to focus on a handful of instruments to help define the musical palate for Transistor," says Korb. "There is a lot of heavily delayed electric guitar and sampled drums, but I also tried to include a number of 'old-world' instruments: accordion, harp, mandolin, etc. In each piece I tried to include some of these elements to help create some continuity for the score, even though the individual pieces could be quite different from one another."

Regarding Transistor's vocal tracks, Korb adds, "I tried to write all of the vocal pieces from Red's point of view. Greg Kasavin, our creative director, had a massive world document with a lot of backstory for her character, and I tried to use that to guide the writing process." This kind of close partnership isn't standard in the games industry; music is often one of the last things to be added, and is often not a consideration in a game's early planning. Korb composes for Supergiant on a full-time basis, however, and is part of the process from the very beginning. "On Transistor, we spent months prototyping our various disciplines. I ended up writing six or seven pieces before I felt I had gotten the tone right. During prototyping, the team put together a 'tone piece,' which was a video that combined concept art, music, and narration, with the purpose of trying to express the feel of the game. This definitely helped us to align the art, music, and writing."

Given the artistic cohesion of Supergiant's previous game, Bastion, it's no wonder that Transistor's aesthetic is just as cohesive. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best soundtracks of 2014 thus far, and is likely to remain near the top come year's end. Red is a troubled character in a troubled world, and Darren Korb's musical contributions play a vital role in how Transistor communicates her apprehension.

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Kevin-V

Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.
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Avatar image for wEEman33
wEEman33

GameSpot should keep letting Kevin make more of theses types of articles.


Games music is sorely under-covered by the gaming media.


Many reviews, including ones on this site *cough* Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze *cough*, will go over 1,000 words without even spending a single word talking about a game's music design.


I guess this is what happens when our society has come to view music as little more than an accessory that runs unnoticed in the background instead of an activity that you devote your full attention to.

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Flamewolf75

Very cool article. Darren Korb is an absolute genius.

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ringringabel

great article kevin, as a student currently majoring in game audio, i love these articles as well as seeing people appreciate the amount of work that goes into scoring a game. it's waaaaay harder than scoring for film, but i can't wait to graduate and get into the industry!

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youre_a_sheep

Music surpassed graphics three generations ago and the difference is still staggering. If you can make a sound, it can be perfectly represented in a game. Odds are none of us will live long enough for graphics to reach that point. I greatly appreciate when deep thought and effort go into a sound track, and orchestral music is usually the most powerful.

Avatar image for byzantine_chant
Byzantine_Chant

Great article. It's nice to read about the MUSIC instead of graphics all of the time. :)


I have yet to pick up Transistor (or Bastion) but they look and sound great. It's nice to see the use of 2.5D.

Avatar image for wEEman33
wEEman33

<< LINK REMOVED >> "Great article. It's nice to read about the MUSIC instead of graphics all of the time."


It just has to do with the fact that it's much easier for your average games writer to appreciate and describe graphics than to do the same for music.


Music education is sorely lacking in America, and is being dropped out of many school programs.

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pip3dream

Awesome - I always love your articles about soundtrack work, Kevin. As a musician, I can't not pay attention to a games soundtrack and think about its implications - and your education with music always makes for an enjoyable analysis / read. Thanks mate. :)


These tracks are really great, definitely a rise above the normal video game fare. They feel like they could exist outside the game, and I love that.

Avatar image for fbgbdk4
fbgbdk4

Korb is a very knowledgeable composer, but I don't like this kind of repetitive twist he prefer to give to some pieces.


It gives some kind of pop hook to the pieces, perhaps it is very this that I don't like much.


For me the high point is the melodies he made for the vocals, these are pretty amazing.

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hitomo

cut the pot Ord ... mobile game nusic and tscheikowski ... lol ... I guess the people producing the soundtrack for games these days dont even know how to read musical notes

Avatar image for Kevin-V
Kevin-V

<< LINK REMOVED >>

1 - Transistor is not a mobile game.


2 - Darren Korb is a learned and knowledgeable composer who can read music, as is almost every composer creating soundtracks for well-known games.


3 - I don't smoke pot.


4 - My last name is VanOrd, not Ord.


5 - Working composers typically have a good deal of knowledge about the music that came before. As a music major, I was required to take music history and musicology classes, and we closely studied the musical greats in composition class.


6 - You're being kind of a jerk.

Avatar image for sundfeld
sundfeld

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> Great article Kevin, it's nice to see how people like you with deep knowledge in other areas can makes us see (or listen) things we haven't realized before in the art of games. Keep up the great work and please let us know more about things like this because it enriches the experience of being a part of the gaming world.

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hitomo

@Kevin-V @hitomo yes, because GS deleted my postings ... I am raging atm


regards

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Stardust7

wow .. I dont know the game ,but it's soundtrack is really nice...

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seanwil545

Oh yeah, Transistor gets my early vote for GoTY.

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seanwil545

I really like what Supergiant has done, which helps to set expectations of what they will deliver in the future.

Let's hope Supergiant is never acquired, only to be cannibalized like so many other studios.

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DinoBuster

Aesthetically, this game gets top marks from me, especially the soundtrack. And while I found the combat system to be interesting, I found there literally was very little to do with it besides that. As a game product, it's a considerable step backwards from what they managed to accomplish with Bastion in my opinion.

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teske4444

I think half of the time I went to the Sandbox was just to play In Circles.

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HOLYASTAROTH

i finished the game yesterday and i continued directly after to a new game plus, thumbs up supergiant games for this game and its magnificent soundtrack.

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Sun-Tzu-GE

Thanks for this Kevin.As a composer myself,I've found this article very insightful.

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itchyflop

did these guys make el shaddia too?? (ps3)

Avatar image for Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

<< LINK REMOVED >>

El Shaddai's composers are Japanese - specifically Masato Koda and Kento Hasegawa.

By the way, you could just spend one more minute to do a search on Wikipedia or IMDB instead of waiting for someone else to tell you.

Online
Avatar image for itchyflop
itchyflop

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> thanks for the reply, i could spend one more minute looking it up on search engines but then would that promote a surrogate situation? Surely forums like this promote social interaction between gamers of common interest, and i wouldnt have interacted with you today :)

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ExtremePhobia

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> I know I've asked such questions myself =) Usually, I find myself reading up on these things even after the question has been answered anyways. Always so interesting!

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KBABZ

Fun fact: 5/4 meter is also what Howard Shore used for the Isengard theme in The Lord of the Rings.

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soldjango

<< LINK REMOVED >> Considering Greg Kasavin was on stage at Sony's E3 2013 press conference, I'd assume some sort of exclusivity deal.

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seanwil545

<< LINK REMOVED >>

MS Parity clause and small studio size is my take.

<< LINK REMOVED >>

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illmatic87

....HMMMMmmmmmmmmmm! /


HUMMmmmmMMMmmMMmmmMMmmmMMMM HMM MMm mmmmm /


hmmmHMMM HMMMmmmMmmm HMmmMmmMmmm /


HMMmm mmmmm mmm HMMMM MMmm hmmm mmm hmmmmm /


HmMM Hm hm HmmmMMmmmMmmmmmm /


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brain-pudding

My guess is that this is the Sandbox song, right? No?

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nayce54

Would any of this music have been better for the new Mortal Kombat X trailer? Perhaps track # 17, "We All Become?" What do you guys think? Does it fit, or nah?

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Banefire76

I can't stop listening to the soundtrack. I fall asleep to it every night (obsessive yes but i can't help it) I love Ashley's vocals and it is stupidly obvious that Darren tailored his musical score to perfectly compliment her voice, but to compound that impressive feat Darren also managed to marry the sounds perfectly to the storytelling and atmosphere of the game! WOW! They are both such great talents.

I now need to see (hear) more development teams creating music specifically for the game and it's story (not just instrumental which many games do but add vocal tracks as well) instead of just selecting tracks made outside of gaming that happen to fit.

Well done SuperGiant games ;)

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Dsolow5

I liked the sound and the mood of this game, but I didn't like the gameplay.

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khaos107

<< LINK REMOVED >> Could you please explain why. I thought this game had the most original and fun combat system in awhile. I loved experimenting with different power combos and the battles were challenging and strategic. To each his own but I'm just curious what you didn't like about it.

Avatar image for Dsolow5
Dsolow5

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> Some games make me enjoy upgrading and trying out different abilities, but this one made it seem like a chore.

I also didn't like the rhythm of combat. Use time freeze ability, and then run away until it's up again. Repeat. Didn't feel engaging to me.

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khaos107

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> Thank you for an actual articulate response. Not often that happens on GS.

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BrunoBRS

<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> well it does have a huge learning curve. it takes quite a while to get to the point where you're familiar enough with the mechanics to make it fun. and gameplay is more than combat. maybe the fact that the gameplay is so combat centric put him off (i know i wish the game was better paced and had more than essentially walking a straight line to the next encounter)

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BrunoBRS

i really, really wish i had the musical know-how to understand what this article talks about, but sadly, i don't.


however, i do appreciate supergiant's commitment to aligning its soundtrack with the rest of the game, instead of dealing with it later. the result is, as seen, incredible, and the reason i own both their games and their soundtracks.