For the archetypal successful modern composer, look no further than Christopher Larkin. The award-winning South Australian has produced music and designed sound for filmmakers, TV productions, and agencies. And his work for games has made him a darling of the indie gaming scene, garnering yet more accolades.
Larkin’s transcendent score for the twisting labyrinth action of Expand (recently released on the PS4) is a must-hear, as is the moody, evocative score for the Hollow Knight series — the acclaimed Kickstarter-driven side-scrolling action-adventure title.
But with the kind of diversity that modern composition demands, and a constantly busy schedule, how do you keep your work sounding original? And how do youtailor your sounds to the differing needs of clients across various media? Native Instruments spoke to Larkin for some hands-on advice.
You’ve worked with games for a while. Do you have some specific advice you can share on successful game composition and sound design?
This one is a big one, so, to help, I’ve bullet-pointed a few things…
- Simplicity is key
- Setting levels — mixing — music and audio for games is a really involved process, and much slower than film or video
- Making the arrangement or mix of the music interactive or responsive to the players’ input is also really involved but rewarding
- Game development is really hard to plan and schedule for, and constant communication with the rest of the team is key
- If you can think of an idea for an additional sound or music sting, and it won’t take long to make, but will overall make the game more enjoyable, then just do it!
- If you’re working on a boss track, or any involved orchestral piece, sequence and plan out the entire piece in a piano track first
On some projects, such as short animated film ‘Peppercorn Babycorn Unicorn‘, you’re also doing sound design in addition to music. What’s your approach in designing sound for a project?
There are many aspects to the sound for film and video. Non-vocal and non-musical sound is normally broken down into sound design and Foley. For the Foley — that is, the footsteps, object sounds and general movement sounds — I had the pleasure of working with artist Tim Whitt, while I tackled the more magical sound effects and mixed the project.
For me, sound design is about balancing two extremes: the literal/expected, and the fantasy or the unexpected. The first is about making the sound match up to what we expect it to sound like in the real world; the latter is about trying to go way beyond this and provide something we’ve never heard before. Each sound sits somewhere on the spectrum, and to a large extent, injecting a bit of fantasy or hyper-realism into logical, expected sound is what makes for great sonic worlds, both in film and in games.
In terms of the process, I use a mixture of my own recorded sounds and existing libraries such as Sound Ideas and HISSandaROAR. I cut up these sounds and generally apply basic editing techniques (reversal, pitchshift, reverb, EQ, compression, etc.). In some cases, more advanced techniques are used, such as granular synthesis of a sound, or convolution. But in most cases, the process is surprisingly simple.
The key is to keep moving, keep trying things, and try to figure out a fast workflow to allow spontaneous discovery and experimentation.
For scoring projects in particular, there are often tough deadlines. How do you ensure that you hit the ground running when inspiration strikes?
When writing game and film scores, I need to try and realise what I have in my head pretty quickly, before it goes away. For my sound design work, I have my libraries set up with Cubase’s Media Bay, for easy search and drag-and-drop. For music, I use a template of instruments and plug-ins which has the majority of my orchestral libraries, harps, choirs, and pianos all ready to go.
That said, sometimes it is effective to add new instruments or things not in the template so as to stay fresh and inventive, and for this, I’ll often add an empty instance of, say, KONTAKT, and browse through the available libraries. I find the [Library tab] of KONTAKT’s Browser window useful for stumbling on sounds that I otherwise might not find. The Files tab is also important for searching the computer for sounds and patches.
You’ve had your scores recorded with live orchestras, such as the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. But when that’s not possible, how do you approach the virtual equivalent?
Working with a full orchestra is always fantastic, and to achieve the live, human and symphonic sound, always preferable. However, I always strive towards that symphonic and human expressive sound, even with my sampled orchestra. I still sequence the sampled instruments as if they were to be played. If I know a violin can’t do something, I don’t sequence it. It turns out that if one applies this approach, the end result sounds more human and expressive, too.
There are instances, however, when a not-so-symphonic or -human sound is desired. We may want something a bit more produced or “hyper-realistic”, like the sound design approach mentioned before. This might happen when, say, we pitchshift some high instruments down two octaves to achieve a really low but unique sound, for example. Or to add synthesized textures behind string parts.
How do the other KOMPLETE instruments and effects fit into your workflow? How long have you been using them?
I first got KOMPLETE soon after I was getting more serious about virtual instrument composition, around 2009 or so. I’d say it’s been a really useful all-in-one tool for providing a sample patch for almost every instrument under the sun — and of course, there are all the great synths and plugs. If I were starting out again, I’d seriously consider that as a starter package.
Alongside sample libraries offered with KOMPLETE, Native Instruments also have a number of interesting tools that I use a lot. Namely VINTAGE COMPRESSORS (I use the VC 2A a lot), vintage reverbs (RC 24 and 48), synths like ABSYNTH, and occasionally MASSIVE.
When composing, do you first look for a sound to inspire you, or do you start by thinking about the music independently from its instrumentation?
Regardless of the synth, sampler or plug-in, the most essential aspect of music- and sound-making is the idea. I often find myself whistling to myself when I work, and as I’m trying to sequence an idea live or by mouse, I’ll whistle or hum what comes next (you don’t need an app for that!). Either whistling or singing can really help with the compositional process, because as a human race, our most natural interaction with and understanding of music comes from our ability to realise it by singing, and, eventually, whistling.
And no, I can’t sing very well, so don’t expect a ballad album any time soon.
In addition to the music being really gorgeous, Hollow Knight’s sense of space and ambience is highly intimate and personal. Was that deliberately engineered? Is there some personal feeling you wanted to convey to players?
The aim for this score was to create a sound-world that suggested the departure of a once-prosperous kingdom, fallen to ruin. A sense of melancholy and dark elegance was essential in creating this world, and we also needed to give it a sense of intrigue and mystery.
In terms of the personal side of things, everything I write is in some way a reflection of myself. But I’m also very conscious of crafting the emotional experience the player is ultimately going to have. With that in mind, I’m not always feeling what I’m writing, but I always imagine what I want to feel and what I want other players to feel. Remembering back to past experiences in games, film and life reveals these possibilities, and with that we take note of what works, what doesn’t, then craft our own version.
On the production side, there’s what sounds like this beautiful liquid, emotional reverberation surrounding a lot of your work. What’s the secret here?
Pretty straightforward, actually: I just drown everything in reverb! I have a number of plug-ins and sends set up in my template — plenty of great options out there. Then Unity (the engine used to build Hollow Knight) drowns everything in reverb again in-game.
[Hollow Knight] takes place, for the most part, in caves. So it makes sense for each space to have its own acoustic character. William Pellen deserves the praise for setting these reverb zones up, and I remember the first time I sat down and played the game once the first lot of SFX, atmos, and music had been implemented. I was blown away by the art and audio working together to create this lively and spacious underground world — and that was a kick in the pants to say that we were on to something special, and that we should keep working hard on it.
It seems there’s a rich connection between timbre and musical idea, too — you’re using all these rich but sparsely orchestrated pianos, these lush pads/strings. How do you connect sound and musical motive?
There are a lot of thematic ideas throughout Hollow Knight. One in particular is the initial Hollow Knight theme on the piano, which we hear in quite a few places again throughout the game. Other little themes that worked well include the tune attached to the Shade [a key character in the game]. Hearing it from a distance will always tell you the Shade is close. The Shade also has a particular modulation effect attached to its voice and movements, which I also used on the music to help connect them and give the Shade its own sonic character. NI’s ABSYNTH may have been involved.
You’re so prolific across a variety of media. Time management has to be a huge issue – how do you keep on top of it all?
Balancing time over different projects or creative work and admin is always a challenge. I try to block out time on my Google Calendar, and I have various colors that represent different things, including a big thick red to represent deadlines. Seeing the red certainly helps get things done.
Blocking out time in such a way to allow things to go longer [if needed] is also challenging but necessary, as, for example, unexpected technical issues, or perhaps even life issues can often come up.
Using apps like Microsoft To-Do, Wunderlist, or Google Tasks, etc., can help. Seeing your phone pop up with a notification to pay a bill, for instance, is incredibly helpful.
Finally, how do you stay inspired and creative on a day-to-day basis?
The template, as I said, is important. But other things that help with inspiration and sounds:
- A mic always plugged in and ready to record
- Plenty of sleep. Good sleep = better ideas
- Caffeine. Not great for sleep, but also good for ideas
- Balanced life
- Social life (I need to move this one up the list…)
Check out Christopher’s many diverse projects at his site, and get the Hollow Knight and Expand scores on his Bandcamp.
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