Darren Korb Interview: A Pioneer of the Frontier (January 2012)
2011 was the year of Bastion. It was a breath of fresh air for the game industry and showed how a small team of developers can create a game with a distinctive design, interesting gameplay, excellent narration and a spectacular soundtrack. Hand in hand, all of these elements do a tremendous job at immersing the player in the story, setting and characters of Bastion. Today, we speak with Darren Korb, the game's composer and audio director.
Interview Subject: Darren Korb
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: First of all, tell our readers a bit about yourself.
Michael: How and when did you decide to become a musician?
Darren Korb: I became interested in music probably when I was five years old. I started doing some musical theater and singing, and when I was twelve I started playing guitar. Pretty soon after that I started writing songs and learning other instruments. In high school I did my first recordings, and that's when I really knew I wanted to pursue music.
Michael: Your official site says you have a long history of performing in bands, like many other game composers. What bands did you play in? Did this help you to forge and improve your musical sensibilities?
Darren Korb: I've been in bands since I was about twelve years old. Through high school and most of college I had only played with a few different bands, but after college I started playing with more different projects and doing some hired musician gigs. Everything from classic rock type stuff to R&B and hip hop, and a bunch of stuff in between. I think more than helping me figure out my tastes, it helped me develop some musical skills.
Michael: Do you have a musical education?
Darren Korb: I took guitar lessons as a kid and I've had some piano and vocal lessons over the years, but nothing too intense. In college I studied music production and music business, so I learned a lot about production there.
Michael: Right now you have some pretty interesting projects going like Audio Fiction, Furly and Marry Me! Particularly the last one sounds really interesting - it's a rock musical about a guy who marries another guy for financial benefits, right?
Darren Korb: Yeah, so I wrote a musical with my brother that was part of the New York Musical Theater Festival this year. It was a lot of fun! We are hoping to put up a full production of it in the future. Audio Fiction is a band I played bass for and I produced their self-titled album. Furly is my personal project where I sing and play guitar (this is sort of what my old high school band turned into).
Michael: Tell us about your studio. What hard- and software do you use for audio and music production?
Darren Korb: I just work out of my apartment actually without much fancy equipment. I use Logic Pro, Digi002 audio interface, and a Sure KSM-32 mic for most of my recording. That's about it!
Michael: What instruments do you play? Do you have any favourites?
Darren Korb: Guitar, bass, drums, some keys and ukulele and such. My favorite is probably the drums, since it's so much fun!
Michael: Let's talk about Bastion. How did you get into the game industry and land the composing gig on Bastion?
Darren Korb: I sort of lucked into it. My childhood friend, Amir Rao, is one of the co-founders of Supergiant Games. When he started the company, he asked me to do all the audio for him, and I said "yes!"
Michael: Bastion has a distinctive art style and the same goes for the music - it's a very original mix of pop, big beat, western and ethnic guitars and some symphonic elements. Tell us, who was responsible for the game's musical direction?
Darren Korb: I was the Audio Director on Bastion. By talking with creative director Greg Kasavin and Amir about the tone we were trying to achieve, I did some experiments and came up with the style of music I used for Bastion, which I call "acoustic frontier trip-hop".
Michael: Bastion's soundtrack is really pumping, what were your influences and inspirations for the music?
Darren Korb: Everything from Led Zeppelin to old Southern spirituals and a ton of stuff in between! Radiohead and Jeff Buckley were on my mind a bit during the writing process as well.
Michael: You use a huge amounts of intruments on Bastion - some of them sampled and some of them live. Please tell us more about this. Also, could you share with us what software and sample libraries you used for Bastion?
Darren Korb: I used a combo of samples, MIDI, and live instruments on the soundtrack. The guitars, basses and ukuleles are live, pretty much everything else is either a loop or a sample. I actually just used the libraries and soft instruments that come with Logic 8 out of the box.
Michael: Unlike many other soundtracks, the music on Bastion is sometimes heavily distorted. Why did you use this technique? Did you think that the music became too clean and impersonal, and the distortion was used to give the music some personality and warmth?
Darren Korb: Mostly I used distortion on the soundtrack to reinforce the sampled, trip-hop vibe I was going for. Instead of simply using samples, I always tried to dress them up a bit, and I really like what the distortion added in a lot of cases. I wanted to give a sort of "lo-fi" implication to some of the elements in the mix.
Michael: This takes us to the next question: what do you think of Hollywood soundtracks? It’s a huge industry with its own rules and laws, which to a degree can be described by a pair of phrases at the moment: Hans Zimmer and epic. Do you think you would be able to work on a Hollywood movie with strong music restrictions? (no experimenting, no distortions, no sudden changes in musical style)
Darren Korb: I think there are some really great movie scores being composed these days for sure. It's a little bit outside of my area of expertise, so I'm not sure that it's something I'd want to pursue, simply because I don't think I'd have the same knack for it as for games.
Michael: Some questions about the songs on Bastion's soundtrack: who came up with the idea, who performed the songs, and who was the author of the lyrics?
Darren Korb: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write some songs with vocals for Bastion. My background is as a songwriter and performer, so it just felt like a natural approach. I wrote the lyrics, based on the vast backstory written by Greg Kasavin, and I perform the male vocal parts. Ashley Barrett is a friend of mine who performed the female parts.
Michael: Your soundtrack is leading the Bandcamp sales charts at the moment. What do you think of indie online music stores such as Bandcamp? Predict the future of the good old audio CD format, is it really dead?
Darren Korb: Independent services are great. They allow people to sell music directly to their fans without a lot of overhead. Major record companies recently announced that they are going to stop producing CDs by the end of 2012, so I think that's a pretty clear sign that the industry is moving completely digital.
Michael: On your Bandcamp page for Bastion, you give people the option to purchase a physical opy of the soundtrack via mail. What ratio is there between sales of the digital and the physical version of the album?
Darren Korb: It's actually pretty even. There are slightly more downloads than physical album sales, but they are very close.
Michael: Bastion has a great audio engine which enables the game's narrator to comment upon any of the player’s actions. Just for the record: how many spoken lines of dialogue were recorded?
Darren Korb: We recorded over 3000 lines of narration for Bastion.
Michael: Off to more general questions. Would you call yourself a hardcore gamer? If yes, what are your favorite games and which titles have you played recently?
Darren Korb: I've been playing games since I was a little kid, so probably "yes". I've been playing a ton of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim recently. Before that, I got through Batman: Arkham City. I played a bit of Dark Souls, but it was too stressful for me! I've been fiddling around with Rocksmith, which is pretty fun. And I just recently picked up Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.
Michael: The same for music - who are your favorite artists and groups, and what album has influenced you the most recently?
Darren Korb: Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Ozma, to name a few. The Belle Brigade's self titled debut album has been a recent favorite of mine.
Michael: Also, with which of these people would you like to collaborate?
Darren Korb: I'd be happy to collaborate with any of them!
Michael: Can you talk about some of your hobbies? We are almost 100% sure you don't live in your studio... :)
Darren Korb: I have hobbies, but they mostly either include music or games. I recorded the album in my apartment, so I actually DO live in my studio...
Michael: If it’s not top secret, what are you working on right now?
Darren Korb: Too early to say!
Michael: Please share some thoughts about the future of the music industry, and the relationship between big studios and independent artists.
Darren Korb: It's becoming easier to have some success as an independent artist. I think as there are more advances in digital distribution and rights management, I think it will become even easier to be indie.
Michael: Finally, could you offer some advice to aspiring composers?
Darren Korb: Try to work on as many projects as you can, just for the experience! And if you learn multiple instruments, that can be really helpful in getting a piece from idea to completion all by yourself quickly, which is really valuable.
Michael: Last, but not least: imagine you are standing on the Red Square in Moscow, filled with people. They are looking at you as if you were Yuri Gagarin. They want you to say something positive, good and emotional. Let’s go!
Darren Korb: ROCK!!