The Intergalactic Music of Pixel Privateers
I’ve had the great pleasure of working alongside some extremely talented developers over the years and I’ve not only built some solid business relationships, but great friendships as well. However, I can sincerely say that the relationship I have with Quadro Delta and specifically its producer, Alex Poysky, is one of the most unique. We share a mutual admiration of each other’s work that has led to an unmatched amount of respect and trust. He has such confidence not only in my abilities and musical instincts, but the quality of the game he’s producing, that I can freely explore all of my creative whims. This mutual respect has led to some of the most personally satisfying work I’ve ever created and I think the game has directly benefited from this.
In this article I’ll discuss how I conceptualized the score, designed the interactive system, and composed the music of Pixel Privateers. Rather than breaking it into those three distinct sections, I will instead opt to let the information flow a bit more organically as I discuss the primary music groupings: Exploration/Menu music, Combat cues, and Cantina tunes.
To start it all off, I believe it’s important to discuss the process at the forefront of any project I work on with Quadro Delta. In the initial discussion of the game I’m given some basic direction, an outline of what could potentially work, and then either concept art, screenshots, or a playable build. Then, the rest of the details are mostly left up to me and I’m able to discuss them further (especially the technical aspects) with the game’s director, in this case it was Jaakko Westerholm. For Pixel Privateers we knew the following things:
- The music should be fun, but feel adventurous and “ooze” sci-fi. Alex suggested from the very beginning that we feature cello in the score.
- The music should change intensity and perhaps style (a bit) depending on the game state.
- Just like with Pixel Piracy we’ll have a tavern of some sort that the player can visit. That means we need a cantina band and music for them to perform.
There are so many different directions to explore when working on something in the sci-fi genre. Do you go a bit more modern and heavily rely on synths? Perhaps more rusty and retro? Do we play to the pixilated graphics? Or maybe we should summon the spirit of Bear McCreary and hit the heck out of some drums BSG style?
Exploration & Menu Music
The exploration and menu music of Pixel Privateers was heavily influenced by the classic sci-fi scores of the past. I felt the fun spirit of adventure, exploration, and inherent charm of the art style, were best captured with vivid orchestral colors. The soaring melodies and lush harmonies of scores from maestros like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams formed the backbone of my musical intent. However, I also realize it’s 2016 and felt that it was necessary to introduce some modern elements into the score. So throughout all of the music I interweaved a variety of unique synth and electronic elements. Pads from Omnisphere and even some custom created sounds found their way into the exploration and menu music of the game.
With my desire to create beautiful orchestral tracks, I knew it was essential to bring in as many living, breathing musicians as possible. This specific group of musical tracks greatly benefited from emotional performances by some of the best musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of working alongside. Jeness on acoustic cello, with her exceptionally expressive interpretation of melody, Wayne Hankin, who has a gift for hearing things I couldn’t have imagined, and some great performances from the Bravo Strings/Brass. Compositionally I focused on creating hummable melodies while flowing dynamics allowed the music to breathe. Featured soloists and individual instrument sections trade motifs frequently to create a kind of dialogue within the music. The primary melody from the Main Title acts as a sort of “glue” that is passed around each piece, subconsciously binding them together to form a cohesive whole.
**Side Note: Les Brockmann was the Mixing Engineer on the Main Title & did a brilliant job!
However, not all of these exploration/menu tracks sound the same or serve the same purpose. Within FMOD studio I designed a different system for each music grouping and in this case, I broke it down into three sections that would be called upon in specific situations. Most of the time the game would require something relatively neutral (category 1) that feels adventurous, a bit dangerous, but doesn’t try to “sway” the player emotionally. If, however, the player returns back to the ship after a successful mission then they will be rewarded with a more uplifting and positive (category 3) piece of music. On the other hand, if they unfortunately lose a crew member or two then they will be met with a soft and solemn cue (category 2).
Speaking of losing crew members, when it comes to the combat music of Pixel Privateers, I like to think of it as a highly amped up version of the Exploration/Menu music. I drew inspiration from electronic and hybrid scores, like those in the Mass Effect series, and felt it was necessary to introduce a variety of percussion that, up until that point, had not been heard in the score. An electronic drum kit more akin to EDM and even some ethnic percussion found their way into these tracks in an effort to make them feel more alien. Perhaps the most important element though, is the vivacious e-cello performances from Tina Guo that serve to not only intensify each piece, but connect them to one another.
Compositionally I still highly prioritized melody and interweaved the Main Title theme throughout these tracks for continuity, however I primarily focused on rhythmic elements for Privateer’s combat music. The tempos are much faster, articulations infinitely more aggressive, and textural subtly was thrown out the window. Time signatures like 11/8 found their way into the combat music as well and I wasn’t shy with challenging both myself (compositionally), and Tina technically (she did wonderful). In a few of the pieces I stole motifs from the Exploration/Menu music and tried putting them in a different time signature, key, and tempo for some interesting results.
With all of that said, the most important thing I actually had to keep in mind while composing the combat music was the system I designed in FMOD. Each full combat track needed to be separated into a number of different stems that would not only blend nicely together, but sound great and serve their purpose when isolated. I started with a basic ambient pad layer that set the mood and hinted at the harmonic changes; interestingly enough rhythm hardly played a role at this point. However, as your mercenaries fight more combatants and progress through various obstacles, the other layers (Orchestral sections, Percussion, etc.) fade in to enhance the action. Then as your enemies parish, the stems fade away without missing a beat; every note, hit, and stab where it’s supposed to be.
What would a Quadro Delta game be without some fun and ludicrous tavern tunes? It’d still be a great game of course, but missing a bit of that over-the-top silliness 😉
For this set of tunes, I started off creating the fictional band first before even thinking about what tunes they might play. A guitar, keys (keytar), bass, trumpet (from John Robert Matz), drums, and the lead singer flying high above them all comprised the cantina crew that could never settle on a single band name. Most of the instruments sound exactly like they naturally “should,” but by adding flange, chorus, distortion, and other “futuristic” FX to each instrument I was able to create some kind of pseudo-sci-fi sound I liked. The biggest change I made was to the vocals, in which I recorded myself singing, used a pitch pedal to move it up an octave (while allowing some of the lower octave to phase in), and then added a bit of chorus and distortion help it sound alien. Stylistically nothing was off the table, this is a band interested in playing whatever they want and willing to combine a variety of influences. Pop, Rock, Blues, Jazz, or possibly a Fusion of them all together.
Up to this point I had used the piano as my primary compositional tool, but I felt that if I was going to be able to write some interesting songs, then I needed to start on the guitar. Beyond it being my first and favored instrument, I’ve found that on the guitar it’s much easier for me to focus on creating catchy vocal hooks, fun changes, and lip curlin’ riffs. Ideas for songs come to me quickly and music soon thereafter, but lyrics are usually something I have to work on after I have a basic melodic and harmonic foundation set; this time was no different. I knew for one of the tunes I wanted to create a kind of improvised alien gibberish language slightly mimicking jazz scat; thus the most jazz-fusion of the tunes I wrote seemed most appropriate for that vocal styling. However, for the other two tunes I wanted to write and sing lyrics in English, so the subject matter for each tune’s lyrical content was important. A blues-rock hybrid felt right for a tune highlighting the career of some famous privateers, while a pop-jazz ballad served as the perfect background for a story about two of the best explorers in the galaxy (Leo and Tristan, who were at that moment my two newly born nephews).
We could have just plopped the tracks in there just as they were and then called it a day. The team could have stopped after they animated a full pixel band to play and lip sync along with each of the songs. But… that’s not nearly as fun as it could be! So we decided to implement a music system that intersperses performances of each tune with chatter from the lead singer. Sometimes he talks about their new band name, other times he vents to let off a bit of steam, but most of the time it’s just a really lame joke that falls flat. So, we completely understand if you want to “permanently silence” one or some of the members of the cantina band. In fact, we expected it and set up a system to react just in case your trigger finger feels a little itchy… 😉
Thank you very much for reading and I hope you found this article helpful. If you’d like to know more about the music of Pixel Privateers, then you can watch a ‘Behind the Music’ video below. If you’d like to listen to more of my work or get in touch to say “Hello!” then please feel free to visit my website at KoleAudioSolutions.com
About The Author
Kole Hicks is an LA based Composer and Sound Designer who’s work can be heard in PC games like Pixel Piracy, Kenshi, & Armored Warfare. Beyond creating audio for games, Kole provides session guitar work, has performed as guitarist for multiple touring bands (Critical Hit & Olivia Somerlyn), and is an accomplished writer of music articles having been nominated for a GANG award in 2012. Furthermore, Kole is an active member & proponent of the Game Audio community with experience speaking at UCLA, The Art Institute, GDC 2015, and Game Sound Con.