The Dark Void Score

DARK VOID, the first video game I’ve ever scored, is released today for X-Box, PS3 and PC!

MODERATE GAME PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD: When I was a kid, I was enthralled with Capcom’s Mega Man II. I battled mechanized evil robots and saved the day as the curiously bombastic 8-bit music seeped into my imagination. Those catchy melodies and bold arrangements, realized in glorious sine wave synthesis, were among my first musical influences. I dreamt of one day creating my own video game score, one that could grow past the limitations of 8-bit hardware and match the scope and breadth of the orchestral film scores I also adored. Exactly twenty years later, Capcom would give me that chance, offering me the score to Dark Void.

Having spent the first several years of my musical career scoring television and films, I approached writing for an interactive medium with no previous models in mind. And I sought none. As an avid life-long gamer, I knew what I wanted to hear: a swashbuckling orchestral score in keeping with the grand story. I wanted the music to constantly adapt, as if it were being written specifically for the gamer, with virtually no repetition whatsoever. I sat down with the development team at Airtight Games and described to them my musical aspirations. They said this was impossible, and thus, I knew we were on the right track.

We put our heads together and figured out how it could be done. I was very fortunate to work with so many talented artists and producers, who would indulge me in creating a score ten times more complex than the one they had asked for.

(Click image above for full-res panoramic.  All session photography by Andrew Craig.)

The differences between scoring film / TV and video games became glaringly obvious in my first few days of writing Dark Void, back in the Fall of 2008. When I watch a rough cut of a film or TV episode that I’m about to score, I can imagine what the final product will look and sound like. I visualize the finished effects, refined edits and completed sound design and compose music that will fill all the empty gaps and hit all the right emotional beats.

I realized quickly that scoring games is a different experience. I had no completed levels to play, or even remotely finished cinematics to watch. All I had to inspire me were several hundred production sketches that depicted the characters, environments, weapons and technology of the world, and a detailed script. I decided to stop worrying about hitting specific moments or moods and set out to simply write music to rival the grandeur and mystery of those images.

(Conducting strings while watching stills from the game.)

This was the inspirational breakthrough I needed. Themes and instrumental colors flooded my imagination and I wrote the entire 100-minute score to Dark Void in about 3 weeks.

(Click image above for full-res panoramic.)

As I composed, I focused on the story and the characters, the reasons I was first drawn to Dark Void. Unlike most games, these characters are rich, deep, with personal arcs that evolve over the game. I felt that the music, too, should adapt with them, so I wrote a thematic score that develops the melodies as the player progresses, introducing the kind of melodic development common for film and TV scores, but rarely (if ever) found in video games.

Compared to a film or TV show, a video game audience has a better chance of internalizing the score. Gamers soak in a score for hours on end. They don’t just hear a cue once, but multiple times, creating the ideal environment for threading musical arcs across the story. In fact, I believe thematic scoring in video games has the potential to be even more effective than in film. This philosophy was on the back of my mind as I wrote, and you guys will have to let me know if it works as well as I hope it does. I pitched the idea of thematic development to Capcom and Airtight in our earliest meetings, and everyone was excited about crafting a more sophisticated game score.

The most important developmental theme in Dark Void is the Main Theme, or Will’s Theme. This theme’s signature harmonic progression involves a major chord opening up to an augmented triad, frequently in Eb or B major:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Main Theme Ostinato]

The melody of Will’s Theme is probably the most uniquely gorgeous tune I’ve ever written. If I never write another piece of music again, I could be perfectly happy having accomplished only this:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Main Theme A]

A secondary theme, (B Section) was composed as well, although it is heard less often:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Main Theme B]

Will’s Theme ties the entire game score together. It is present in nearly every cue, but its function changes dramatically over the course of the game. Will’s Theme is first heard as a bittersweet love theme for Will and Ava, introduced in the game’s opening cinematic. It weaves through early combat cues as a suspenseful motif, and emerges as a heroic fanfare for Will when he finally dons the rocket pack. The theme goes through one final and powerful transition at the climax of the game, which I will not spoil for you here. But, rest assured, its worth beating the game just to see the knock-out finale and hear the sweepingly tragic last statement of Will’s Theme.

Dark Void allowed me to explore the musical history of the two cultures at war in the story: the Watchers and the Survivors. The developers had written more back story than could possibly fit into the game, so the producers asked me to write music which suggested that these two societies spanned back for generations, each with their own traditions.

(With DV executive producer Morgan Gray at the WB Eastwood Scoring Stage.)

When Will arrives in the Void, he is taken in by the Survivors. This allowed me to create music for this band of humans surviving off whatever they can scrape together. The music of the Survivors, like their tech, is cobbled together from found objects. Survivors’ music often features electric violin, various South American woodwinds and pan pipes, Chinese erhu and tribal percussion. The harmonic language of the Survivors feels warm and familiar, with catchy melodies evocative of folk songs.

The Survivors are signified by a pair of themes. The first is an energetic 12/8 dance-like melody:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Survivors – 1]

The second is inspired by South American folk music, and is played frequently by Chris Bleth on a quena, a South American flute:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Survivors – 2]

The Survivors are threatened by The Watchers, an evil alien race that is struggling to escape the Void and take over Earth. The instrumentation of the Watchers, like their tech, is glossy, mechanical and menacing, signified by metallic thrashing heartbeats and digitally altered instruments. Their melodies are angular and dissonant, often re-harmonized against clashing chords, resulting in music that sounds foreign and less accessible.

Like the Survivors, the Watchers have two primary themes. The first, and primary Watcher Theme, is a slippery tune that rests somewhere between Fm and Cm, depending on how it’s harmonized:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Watchers – 1]

In addition to signifying the threat of Watchers, this theme also represents the prophecies of the mysterious “adepts,” and plays under several key cinematics.

I originally wrote a theme for the derelict ghost ship that Will was to encounter in the Void. However, the entire level was dropped from the game, so now it functions as a second Watcher Theme:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Watchers – 2]

The theme is deceptively simple, appearing as if it would play in C major or E minor. However, the harmonic foundation is always dissonant and interesting, often centering around a clashing Eb minor. This spooky theme, voiced in conflicting string harmonies, gives these combat cues a calm, dream-like suspense that plays against the expectation of an aerial combat game.

In addition to the main theme and the music for the Watchers and the Survivors, I wrote a theme for Nikolai Tesla, who plays a prominent role in the story. In real-life, Tesla actually disappeared for a few days before he was found dead. So, Dark Void supposes that he was actually sucked into a parallel dimension and lived there for years, leading a human revolution against an evil alien race. Works for me!

As the designer of the rocket pack and the spaceship “ark” intended to rescue the Survivors from the Void, Tesla’s character is extremely important, and clearly needed his own theme. I wanted his melody to feel reminiscent of a traditional Russian folk song, but with more unusual harmonies. So, I wrote a simple waltz, set against an odd progression of G7 and Db7:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Tesla]

To further connect the theme to Russian music, I wrote it almost exclusively for Steve Bartek to play on the balalaika, a traditional Russian stringed instrument. While this theme only shows up in a handful of cinematics, it nonetheless has a memorable impact on the score, and goes through some exciting shifts over the course of Tesla’s character arc.

(Steve Bartek plays the Tesla Theme on balalaika.)

The Dark Void score features three other prominent musical themes, one for each of the three major bosses Will encounters in the game.

First, you battle the massive scorpion-like Archon, represented by one of the most massive percussion riffs I’ve ever composed. The Archon Theme, played first on ethnic soloists, and then in the orchestral brass and woodwinds, evokes a military march:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Archon]

The initial Archon you encounter is a boss, but they actually become regular enemies for the rest of the game as the bosses take on a much larger scale. Next, you face The Collector, a massive beast, with vicious tentacles that threatens to devour your entire ship, represented by The Collector Theme:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Collector]

Like The Archon Theme, The Collector Theme is also martial, but has an even heavier bass and string line. The melody is nearly chromatic, and thus hard to peg down to a certain key. This gives it a menacing, slippery quality.

Another boss, The Dweller, has a simpler theme, almost a fanfare:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Dweller]

This theme is developed extensively in the final battle cue, which is probably the most kick ass orchestral battle cue I’ve ever written (BSG4’s Assault on the Colony is my only other cue that comes close, in my opinion). I was having so much fun with The Dweller theme that I wrote way more than I was supposed to. The battle cue is so long I suspect it might even be possible to defeat the boss before hearing the entire cue once!

Developing these themes in this game was a rewarding challenge, because gameplay and cinematics each presented different ways to use thematic material.

The cinematics were essentially like scoring a film, with obvious opportunities for thematic music. When Will first picks up the rocket pack, the score quotes a small but energetic statement of his theme. When Will first walks into Tesla’s lab, we hear Tesla’s theme. When Will and Ava are talking about their former relationship, we hear the love theme version of the main theme.

Thanks to my experience in film and TV, these are the kinds of cues I’m used to writing. But, the gameplay cues allowed me to develop themes in new ways. I used themes within the action cues to subtly remind players of the context of the larger story. In early combat cues, fragments of Will’s theme are stated in dissonant harmonies, reminding the player that Will is anxious to find a way home, interested only in his own survival. Once he finds the rocket pack and begins to become a hero, the thematic statements become more resolved and triumphant.

Ultimately, the function of music in action / shooter games is to provide tension and excitement, which my score does. But, there are musical ideas throughout the gameplay that comment on deeper narrative concepts. My goal was to bombard gamers with sophisticated music while they played, adding more layers to the story, which could be soaked in on a subconscious level.

Thematic writing was not the only joy of scoring Dark Void. I was also able to work with an outstanding group of musicians, most of whom should be familiar to any BSG fans out there.

(Paul Cartwright plays electric fiddle.)

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Electric Violin Aggressive Solo]

(Paul’s pedal board rivals that of most electric guitarists.)

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Electric Violin Ambient Solo]

Paul Cartwright’s electric violin plays a prominent role in the score, creating some of the other-worldy sounds of The Watchers. We didn’t want to simply re-tread the memorable solos he’s played on Battlestar, so he was free to create some of the weirdest and most incredible textures I’ve ever heard from a violin.

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Quena Solo]

Chris Bleth also returned, this time playing South American woodwinds including the panpipes and quena. We generally avoided the Asian instruments he played so frequently on Battlestar, however the occasional bansuri or duduk solo still sneaks into the score here and there, because they can play in so many different keys.

(M.B. Gordy layering nagado daiko parts.)

(Tabla are Indian percussion instruments used to represent the prophecies of the “adepts” in Dark Void.)

All the crazy percussion in the score is provided by MB Gordy. He played tabla, taikos, dumbeks, medicine drums, shakers, chang changs and is featured prominently on a few killer tom solos.

(MB tunes a set of toms.)

(Multiple sets of toms were sampled and layered specifically for Dark Void.)

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Percussion Solo]

(For tom recording, each drum gets it own mic, in addition to 5 microphones out in the room.  The balance between the up-close sound and further room sound could be decided later, in the mix.)

(Although toms were only one of several families of percussion instruments used in the score, an entire day at Capitol Records in Hollywood was spent recording them.)

Some of the weirdest solos that will be hardest to identify are actually bass solos performed by John Avila (formerly of Oingo Boingo).

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Electric Bass Solo]

(John Avila lays down a fretless bass solo.)

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – John Avila is a Bass God]

One solo in particular is the most intense slap-bass solo I’ve ever recorded with John. It sounds like he’s ripping the instrument apart with his bare hands! We recorded all the bass parts in a single ten-hour day that was among the most fun I’ve ever had recording music.

(Bartek, also an alumnus of Oingo Boingo, plays baritone guitar, which is tuned a 5th lower than a regular guitar.)

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Electric Guitar Solo]

All the guitars were performed by Steve Bartek and Ira Ingber. The instruments they played included balalaika, 12-string, nylon string, steel string, quatro, bajo sexto, Portugese guitar, bass mandolin, baritone electric and electric sitar.

(Ira Ingber plays electric.)

The acoustic guitars were reserved for the jangly, home-made sounding Survivors music and the electric guitars were used specifically for weird effects and solos in the Watchers music and boss battles.

(Bartek plays the Survivor Theme on the quatro.)

(Ira plays the Survivor Theme.)

Martin St. Pierre, whose solos were an integral part of BSG, added layers of Yialli Tanbur, underscoring the darkness of the Watchers.  The tanbur is a Turkish instrument that is often played with a plectrum but has a marvelous sound when bowed.


[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Yialli Tanbur Solo]

Electronic sounds for The Watchers were designed and sequenced by Jonathan Snipes, who crafted many of my incredible metallic percussion sounds in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Working almost exclusively with analog synthesizers, Jonathan created a unique set of “alien” percussion and digital high hats. (Jonathan also helped me design the library of 8-bit sounds used to create the Dark Void Zero score.)

Listen in this excerpt to the crazy distorted electronics in the upper frequencies, above the live orchestra and percussion.  At the end of the clip, the distorted electronics are brought to the forefront for a quick, blistering solo.

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Electronics]

(Cynthia Millar plays Ondes Martenot.)

The most exciting and unique instrument in the Dark Void score is one I’d never written for before. The Ondes Martenot is an early electronic instrument with a unique, ethereal vocal quality. I called on renowned Ondes player Cynthia Millar and was fortunate that she changed her busy performance schedule to accommodate recording Dark Void.

(The ribbon and tone controls for the Ondes.)

The Ondes is essentially a sine wave generator with a unique interface. You can play a piano keyboard, or place your finger in a ribbon and slide it across the keys to create perfectly controlled vibrato and glissando effects. Often mistaken for a theremin, the Ondes is actually a much more useful, and musical, instrument.  This clip of the main theme offers the best example of this very expressive instrument:

[audio:|titles=Dark Void – Main Theme A]

(In the studio with Cynthia.)

While the theremin-like quality could be interpreted as an homage to classic 1950’s science fiction films, I actually chose the instrument as a tribute to the great scores of Elmer Bernstein, who used it to incredible effect in “Heavy Metal,” “Ghostbusters” and countless other films. The Ondes is featured prominently playing both Will’s Theme and The Watchers’ Themes, frequently blending into the orchestration behind the exotic instruments. I’ve heard Ondes in film scores before, but I’ve never heard it doubling a duduk, bansuri or electric violin!  Of course, there are also a few key moments when the Ondes is featured clearly as a soloist, most notably the End Credits.

(Conducting the winds and brass session.)

(The orchestral woodwinds section, first row.)

With its sprawling epic story, fantastic setting and deftly drawn character arcs, Dark Void felt like a big movie, and as such, required a sweeping orchestral score. I was adamant that there be no synth orchestra (“fakestra”) in this score. And, dear gamers and soundtrack fans, we should all be grateful that Capcom also shared my desire for the highest possible production values, allowing me to record the complete score with the best musicians in the world at the Warner Bros. Eastwood Scoring Stage. You will not hear a single sampled orchestral instrument or sampled soloist of any kind in this entire game score. It’s all live.

(Trombones and tuba in the center, back row.  French  horns are far left.)

We recorded over the course of a week almost exactly a year ago, in late January 2009. The Dark Void orchestra was twice as big as any orchestra I’d ever had for BSG, and as such the score sounds noteably bigger. And I could tell that the orchestral musicians loved the score because many of them were whistling the Main Theme in the hallways on their breaks.

(The orchestral woodwinds section, second row.)

(Mike Valerio, of the Battlestar Galactica Orchestra, plays double bass in the string section.)

(Score Co-Producer / Recording and Mixing Engineer Steve Kaplan listens to a take.)

(For certain effects, Bartek stuck a toothpick between the strings of his electric!)

(MB plays handmade shakers and caxixi.)

(Three solid days were spent recording the Ondes solos at Henson Studios in Los Angeles.)

The year since the Dark Void sessions has been strange for me because none of you have heard this music yet, but it’s been completely recorded and mixed. After the fast turnaround in TV (where you can hear my score sometimes within days of its completion) the hardest part of scoring a game has been waiting for the game to come out!

At long last, the game is done and now you can all hear the score for yourselves. The most complete way to experience the music is pick up the Dark Void soundtrack album being released by Sumthing Else next month. And of course, also check out Dark Void Zero and its soundtrack as well.

I began work on Dark Void in 2008, but the inspiration began in 1988 while playing Mega Man II. What would I have thought back then if I’d known I’d one day have the opportunity to write a rip-roaring adventure soundtrack to a brand new Capcom game? I can’t imagine, but feel privileged to write music that just may inspire a new generation of gamers, as the classic 8-bit scores inspired me. I smile knowing that, somewhere in the world, a 9-year-old kid is playing Dark Void right now as his or her imagination soars through the clouds.