Bastion’s SuperGiant Composer – Darren Korb
The Bringer of the Beautiful Bravura, Ballads, and Bebop of Bastion
Do you play video games? Did you know someone that plays video games? I’d bet my salary you could hum one or more of the level themes from Super Mario Brothers. But who makes the music of the games we play today? How did they get there? What do they have to do, learn, and know to be a video game composer? That’s what this series is about. To start us off right this first feature is about the greatest soundtrack of 2011.
Bastion, if you don’t know it, might be one of the finest Action-RPGs of our era. This indie-release, from Supergiant Games, basically swept up the gaming community in a frenzy of adulation and praise. It won multiple awards for creativity, its genre, and its music from outlets like IGN, Spike TV, Game Informer, etc.. Basically, Bastion came out and everybody was reminded that a straight forward action game with RPG elements could be good on all sides with nearly no faults to be found. The excellence we’re focusing on today is the music, or more specifically, the man behind the music, Darren Korb.
Darren Korb is the musician, composer, and producer behind the sounds of Bastion. All of the narration, laid down by his friend and roommate Logan Cunningham, was recorded and mixed by Darren. Every song in the soundtrack of the game was composed/written by Darren. What about the live instruments used in those songs? Did he play all of them, you ask? Yes. Darren was a one man musical team of technical and creative ability and drive. He is definitely a large part of Bastion’s success. The sound!
Let’s talk about what is good with this soundtrack. Described by Darren as, “Acoustic Frontier Trip Hop,” it really nails a blend of classic, authentic sounding western music mixed with modern instrumentation in the percussion realm (note: this means drum samples). He built the soundtrack using a combination of guitar (both acustic and electric), bass, synthetic keyboards, and samples. That’s it. With a recording studio of a microphone and a closet Mr. Korb constructed arguably the best game soundtrack of 2011 and possibly the best one of this generation. Meeting both the tone of the game with driving southern jaunts like Spike in a Rail and Slinger’s Song, and the narrative of the game with tracks like Build that Wall and Setting Sail, Coming Home, Darren shows his understanding of melding gameplay, narrative, music, and environment.
But this isn’t just about how good the music is. Articles and reviews a-plenty have been done about Bastion’s music itself. This is about the music man, Darren Korb. With not much more than a Shure KSM32, a copy of Logic, and a closet he put together a great set of songs. How did he get there?
“In general have been real lucky to just meet and know people who give me real opportunities.”
Some of this was luck, but not all of it. Darren went to school for music, getting a degree in production with aspects of business management in the field as well. He mentions his brother having connections in the film industry which got his foot in the door of auditioning for commercials and film, but they were simply opportunities to present his talent. He also interned at a recording studio for two years, which taught him to develop something from idea to finished recording. “It’s really valuable to get from, I have this idea, to, here’s a finished thing.” This all helped prep him for his role in Bastion, but did he have to pound the pavement trying to get into the game industry?
“I’d like to say I struggled, but it was really about knowing the right people and being lucky.”
Darren grew up with Amir Rao playing video games, “I’ve been a gamer all my life. I love games.” Games like Fallout 2, Diablo 2, Dungeon Keeper, and Marble Madness all had influence on his designing the soundtrack for Bastion. Amir had worked at EA for a few years but eventually, like many talented and creative people, broke into his own studio, Supergiant Games. It was then that he asked his long-time friend and now experienced composer/song-writer, Darren, to work on the music for Bastion. “I was super flatter because he obviously had faith in me.”
“I didn’t know there was a space for someone who didn’t know anything about making games.” Never having thought about it, Darren jumped on the chance to work in the gaming industry he grew up loving. He couldn’t provide an orchestral score, but what he could do was focus mostly on what he knew when writing songs. More similar than he had imagined, writing for Bastion wasn’t all that complicated because there was clearly direction, “I like constraints.” One track or another might have to be soulful, but with a bit of byzantine flavor, or something more harsh/industrial, but with an acoustic twang to tie it to the frontier aspect. All of this made writing each song accessible and tractable. A goal in mind and whether or not he could reach that goal kept him moving forward and ultimately made the entire experience much like writing any album. Obviously it was a success.
So now, as a video game composer and full-time employee of Supergiant, he gets to live the studio experience (i.e. conventions). “Going to conventions is both super fun and extremely exhausting. But it’s where you meet the people that are directly responsible for the success of your game and that is important.” Having been to 5 PAX Conventions in total and other things like GDC and E3, Darren is even starting to show up on panels for music composition in games. “Yeah, the panel was me, Anamanaguchi, the guy from N+, it was pretty cool.” Easy to say for Darren sure, but not surprising, as all of these musicians have received critical acclaim.
While Darren can do other projects, as long as it doesn’t impede his work with Supergiant, he has not been offered anything he is passionate about. A couple offers have come in but didn’t give him any spark to work on them. What he IS passionate about is creating music; thusly his new music project Team Yes Please. The band is a group of versatile musicians, including Darren, who trade instruments and roles to craft catchy, classic rock songs that range in influence and variety. “We all switch instruments, and then another guy is responsible for a different part. So, if you’re drumming on one song, somebody else wrote that piece. Same goes for the other instruments.” Definitely worth checking out at their website, TeamYesPlease.com, where you can stream and buy their music and find out what shows they’re playing in.
But back to the video game front. What’s next? Darren couldn’t reveal much regarding the upcoming Supergiant Game’s project. The only thing he could tell me was that he is planning to utilize the same setup he currently has. A microphone, a closet, some equipment, and the ability to lean on his strength of solid track after track to create a full soundtrack. Will it be as good as Bastion? That is quite a tall order but he will put his time in to meet that order.