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INTERVIEW with Composer Robyn Miller on the Obduction Soundtrack

INTERVIEW with Composer Robyn Miller on the Obduction Soundtrack

August 29, 2016 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook INTERVIEW with Composer Robyn Miller on the Obduction Soundtrackon Twitter

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Last week we reported on the release of the soundtrack to Obduction a new game from Cyan Worlds, the creators of the original classic games Myst and Riven. Robyn Miller composed the music for Obduction and he graciously took the time to talk to Original Sound Version about composing the score.

In our interview Robyn Miller provides insight on how he became a part of the project, his approach to scoring the game, and his favorite tracks on the album. He also answers a question I’ve had for years about the Cyan introduction music. Read on for our extensive interview and listen to tracks from the score that formed part of our discussion.

Obduction marks your return to composing music at Cyan Worlds after an absence since scoring both Myst and Riven. This was touched on briefly in Rolling Stone Magazine but can you tell us a about how you ended up coming back to Cyan Worlds to score Obduction?

I came on for this project because I was excited about it and thought it would be a lot of fun. My first involvement came when my brother Rand Miller did all the initial work to get the Kickstarter Campaign up and running. I kicked in a little bit for that campaign and said that I would play the lead role in the game, and at that time we weren’t talking about music at all. At some point in those early discussions, Rand asked: “What do you think about doing the music for the game?” Which I knew was much more of a commitment than playing the lead role, and I outright told him: “No.” At that time I didn’t know the full details of the project beyond what Kickstarter backers knew from the campaign. Over time Rand continued to push for me to do the music and he can be a little persuasive. I took a look at some of the things they were doing, and listened to some of Rand’s ideas about the project. That’s when I became more excited about his vision for Obduction, the idea of being involved and what the game could potentially become. It has been a really fun ride and nice to be able to just focus on composing, not like during the making of the first two Myst games where I had a lot of responsibilities besides music. With Obduction, I could wholly focus on the music.

One of the pieces I have been writing for Original Sound Version is called Game Soundtracks For Your Soul, where I look back at some of my favorite moments in video game music. In one article I wrote about the Cyan/Cyan Worlds introduction music that played when you first started Myst. Did you compose that short piece of music?

I wrote that original piece for Myst and it has morphed over the years. The original piece was so Lo-Fi, that I wrote a new version for Riven that was higher fidelity. The idea with the very first version was that you were seeing through a small portal and the world looked very Lo-Fi, and what you were hearing was something similar to a music box with cheap bells with not much resonance to them. It visually, the world reveals itself – it expands – and musically, the sound expands into something larger. Over the years this tiny intro piece has been rewritten and rearranged. In fact, I wrote it again for Obduction. I wanted to bring the “Cyan” logo piece back to something closer to the original sensibility of the very first piece, but the powers that be at Cyan decided not to go with it, I think because they didn’t like my adjustments to the chord progression. Which is ironic, because I wrote that chord progression. I’ve got to put my newest version of the piece on my SoundCloud site!

That’d be great and I would love to see the original versions from Myst and Riven released as well, possibly in a Cyan Worlds EP?

I think that would be a lot of fun if that was done and you could hear all the versions of Cyan Worlds and the changes through the years. I really liked the Riven version.

The Cyan Introduction for Riven is excellent. To be honest the Myst and Riven soundtracks I owned on CD and I still hold them in a high regard for their wonderful ambient and electronic sound. Can you tell us about coming back to video game scoring and getting back into scoring music for Obduction?

It wasn’t much of a big step to get back into game music. I had recently composed music for a film I directed and wrote called The Immortal Augustus Gladstone. Writing music for film is a different process because it the music takes on a more linear quality: it overtly tells a story. In my process for this game I had to step away from that linear quality and create music that is relating to the experience of the player and augmenting the experience of the player. The job of a film composer is very clear: augment the narrative of the film. Film has a linear and dramatic quality – you’re trying to build on that quality – the directive is clear. In games, things aren’t so clear. You don’t know what the player is going to do next. This is their story. This is their adventure. You’re writing the soundtrack to their virtual life. So you, as the composer, are creating mood and ambience, but you’re usually not dictating direct narrative because there isn’t one.

For example, if your music inserts big drama where it doesn’t belong, then you, as the composer, can very easily drown out the narrative that the player is creating. And that kind of over-blown music can destroy the believability of a game – the work of dozens, or hundreds, of people. The music isn’t a simple expression of some visuals in the game. I can become our visceral connection to our experiences in the world. It reaches out to us on some other level.

When you begin to compose music do you have a starting point? Were you playing through the game, or was Rand providing you with images from the game?

When I first started they didn’t really have much there to show me. What they would send me was long video pieces of someone playing through the game. I had also visited the Cyan offices and sat and watched pieces of the game. I used these video pieces a reference. I’d put on a video of someone wandering around Hunrath, for instance – I’d loop it on my iPad and start playing on my piano and just plunk away at the keys until something stuck, until I started to find themes, or tones, or something that began to feel what I was seeing on screen. It might even be something very rough like a bass line. With the visual cue on screen. I could create an audio sketch on my piano and start to build around it with other instruments.

Can you tell us about the tools or instruments that you used to compose the score?

I used Logic Pro as my work station. For most of my instruments I use a lot of Native Instruments software synthesizers. Usually, their synths are the first sounds I go to. I also use a mix of sample stuff and pure electronic instruments and I really enjoy that blend of things. I hope that people can hear that in the songs. It’s strange, because in my last couple of albums I went to much more of an effort to record real audio instruments. I found myself in a very electronic space on this soundtrack, similar to the Myst and Riven soundtracks.

I’d love to talk about some specific songs but before that I just wanted to talk a little bit more about your process. I follow a lot of other composers on twitter and one thing I saw a composer talk about recently was needed to take a break to recharge in-between a long scoring session. Their method was taking a nice nature walk, I just wanted to know if you had any moments like that working on this score or had a method to keep you going like lots of coffee?

[Laughter] Yes, I definitely drink an unhealthy amount of coffee, and continually use it to recharge throughout the day. But I am one of those weird kinds of people who obsessively loves to digs into a creative project from dawn until dusk. This is usually true for me with music, or game design or art, or most creative stuff I’ve done. That ability to keep at something and not stop is probably my one great strength. I’ve never been a genius. Myst is not a product created by geniuses. But we had tenacity, foresight and we knew what we wanted. Oh… and a small budget.

Now to talk a bit about some of the tracks from Obduction. The opening track “Not Worth the Wistful Sentimentality of this Moment” Some of the things I noticed listening to the track is that it has almost a crystalline sound, and sounds that reminded me of transmissions?

Those sounds like an electrostatic storm, weird sounds, and alien sounds all seemed to work with the scene as the music plays and seemed to infer things that I felt were alien and foreign.

There’s a track titled “Caroline Farley” which is a really pretty piano melody, that has some cello elements and plucking harp an feels a little bit sad or sombre. I also noticed that it’s a melody that you reprise later in the soundtrack. Can you tell me about that track and was it one that you started with piano and started to build around?

I placed a looping video of Farley’s house in front of me and improvised that piece on the piano. Later, I went back and made some modifications to what started out as a simple etude. It’s not very complex, and there’s not a lot going on there. But I added a few more instruments – bass, vibes and strings – to push things in a slightly different direction.

Another track I really liked is titled “Machine Step” and I thought it was really cool because when it first begins it sounds like a big machine is starting up or initializing, and throughout the track there’s a lot of mechanical sounds and ticking clocks.

Yes, you can hear in the piece, I hope, that I was attempting to write something that would evoke the machinery of the location. I thought of the repeating bass as this churning sort of gear.

Originally the track had more complexity. The back end of the piece had some instrumentation that I really loved – we ended up taking out because it didn’t fit within the context of the world or the game. Rand said to me something like “this doesn’t work,” and I was in love with that part of the music. [Laughs]. But it’s a great example where the composer sometimes can’t see the larger picture because the composer isn’t in the thick of it. Rand, the director, has his pulse directly on that larger picture and he was able to see, or feel, that it was potentially clashing with the player’s experience in that place..

I find that very interesting because I had recently tweeted asking a question about whether there has ever been a rejected video game score, like in the film industry. This obviously was only a portion of one track that required some adjustment.

If a director has never rejected a piece of music written for a game, he’s either working with the perfect composer (and there is no one like this), or the director is ignorant about the power of music to disrupt the experience of the player. I wrote many iterations of pieces for Obduction. Most I never played for Rand. Some of them I did. Sometimes you get it on the first take. Sometimes it takes awhile longer.

Another song that stuck out to me on the album was “History Lesson” because as I listened it reminded me almost of a theme song as the elements worked together. It also sounded familiar; can you remind me if it was used in a trailer for the game or if it was released early?

It was released early on my SoundCloud page. There’s an interesting story behind that song. Rand had asked me to write something ambient in that location in the game. I went against his will [Laughs] and I thought I would take a chance and write something that instead was one of the most overtly dramatic pieces that I wrote for Obduction. I felt like the piece needed to almost overtly say something – that the player needed to arrive there and understand what had happened in that location. Visuals alone weren’t telling that story. I wrote the music and ran it past him. Very happily, he and everyone on the team felt it hit the nail. It’s one of those cases of working together, trying to achieve something as a team and realizing the end result is much more than just the sum of all these individual parts.

That’s a great story. Another track I really enjoyed was a track titled “W.M.D” which to me it had some really neat alien like sounds but also reminded me of the Nintendo game Metroid Prime. I’m not sure if you’ve ever played it ?

I’ve never played but I think that’s so cool![Laughs] It’s actually one of my favorite pieces on the soundtrack.

Were there any other tracks on the album that you consider to be your favorite?

Yeah one of my other favorite is right after “W.M.D“ is a piece called “Always Ignore The Damage You’ve Done.” I really like that one. Part of it because of its place in the game. I also [Laughs] really like “You Lost Bitch” and it might be my favorite which unfortunately you’ll only hear if you lose the game.

One of the things that I did recently was have a discussion with some of the staff at Video Game Music Online and future ideas for upcoming Podcasts. One of the ideas I suggested was discussing the music of dying, and game over music in games. This might be a track worth talking about if when end up having that Podcast.

It’s funny you know, if that music was playing if you won the game you’d think that something was not quite right. Its interesting how much discordance is in the music, but I still enjoy it so much. It was much more difficult for me to write the winning piece: I had much more trouble writing Diaspora, the winning piece, which had to stay sonically, in the same place as the rest of the soundtrack. I enjoyed what I ended up with, but this isn’t easy for me.

The other track I also really enjoyed was the closing track “Post Game Tristesse” to me it sounded like a staff or end credits roll. I’m not sure if it plays at the end of the game, but I loved the great percussion, guitar, and some tambourine which got my foot tapping but it felt almost like a light celebration to a party to me.

[Laughs] That’s great. It is a little bit of a party. It is an end credits piece and I don’t think you hear it unless you win the game. You’re right, it is a little bit of a celebration piece but I also wanted to keep it as a slightly melancholy celebration piece because the game is over after all. So it’s like, I’ve won the game, I’m happy but now it’s over… bummer, man. I actually really like this piece. It’s hard to listen to your own music again and again and I don’t’ know how many composers can listen to their music again and again. I can’t. Every once in awhile I’ll hit upon a piece of my own music that I really do enjoy listening to. This is one of them. It makes me feel good.

I saw on Twitter some time ago that you were posting some cover designs in process for the album. The new cover design which is gorgeous, aligned and sharp. Is that an image you created?

Yes it is.

With it being a great album cover, I know it’s still early but do you have any plans for a physical release?

I would love to have a physical release. I’m trying right now to come to arrange an LP and CD release. I would really like to come out with an LP, and since there’s 80 minutes of music it would probably be a double LP. That would be really fun. I would also want it to have some more special elements included with it, maybe a poster, and it may even be a limited edition release.

Awesome. I noticed a while ago that a fan posted an image of a Riven vinyl that someone’s girlfriend had custom made for their birthday. Do you think there will ever be an official LP release for Myst and Riven?

[Laughs] I saw that. It was cool. We would love to do Myst, Riven and Obduction as LP releases. It would be so much fun to do Myst and Riven as LPs and to potential create some new album covers.

Was there any other music that you wrote that hasn’t been included in the Obduction soundtrack release?

Yeah there were. I almost put them on the album. There were two that were nice finished complete pieces that never made it to the game. One was for the introduction when you get to the beginning of the game and you’re in the forest. There was another piece there that was playing and that would have been on the album as a bonus track. I decided that I’m just going to release it on Soundcloud at some point very soon.

And there there’s another piece that was “W.M.D”. I had a completely different piece and it was a variation on another piece in the game, and I didn’t like that it was a variation and felt that it didn’t’ stand out enough. So I rewrote “W.M.D” as it exists on the album. The other version has some unique elements to it and I will also release it on SoundCloud.

I have other pieces as well, like “Machine Step” where I tried something completely different for the second half of it. There were two other versions of “Mutated Clockwork.”

There are no unreleased pieces from Myst or Riven. I got rid of those long ago to make room on my hard drive [Laughs]

I also noticed on tweet you made a while ago that you found something in your music library called Mystike and that you had to find a way to use it in the Obduction soundtrack. Did you end up finding a place for it?

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Oh yeah it’s in there. It was a software synth collection of mechanical sounds: switches and gears. I can’t remember which piece I used it in, but I had to use them. [Laughs]

Original Sound Version would like to thank Robyn Miller for taking time to talk about the Obduction soundtrack. You can listen to and purchase the soundtrack on bandcamp, follow him on Twitter @tinselman, and you can also check out Robyn Miller’s Soundcloud page for more music from Obduction.

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