Scoring Synapses: An interview with Paul Taylor

by Indiana… on Monday, 16 May 2011

Paul Taylor (aka nervous_testpilot/_ensnare_)
Today we were graced with a meaty interview with the man behind the sound of everyone's favourite turn-based tactical brain candy,  Frozen Synapse, in which we discussed sound at Mode 7, his own career, the state of—and future—of sound in games and much more.

 Well let's begin at the start Paul, most of our audience will know you from your work with Mode 7—on the Determinance and Frozen Synapse soundtrack, how did you get mixed up with these nice fellows ?

Ian Hardingham, our lead designer and coder, started Mode 7 while I was at university and originally asked me to do the soundtrack for Determinance.  During that process, I ended up becoming a co-owner of the company and handling most of the business side of what we do!

So, audio led me into game development, really. 

The word that comes to mind to describe your recent work on the Frozen Synapse soundtrack is 'glossy', was this a conscious decision to avoid the lo-fi musical trend in indie game development? Indeed you started off in this area and your recent _ensnare_ persona is a return to this.

I guess it was a conscious decision - I found myself being frustrated with a lot of game music.  It's either very standard orchestral/soundtrack stuff; or avant-garde orchestral stuff; or super lo-fi blippy stuff.  That's all fine, but I really wanted to show you could do other things.

If I'm not doing something like
_ensnare_ that's consciously lo-fi, I want it to sound as good as humanly possible.  I do some dance stuff and that's a world where production quality is actually more important than the content of your record, sadly, so I'm used to trying to compete at that level.  I think the engineering and production quality of some soundtrack work is a bit weak, so this was really an attempt to do absolutely the best work I possibly could with my resources.
How different has it been composing specifically for a game? Similarly how did you go about composing it?

I started out doing a couple of concept tracks when we were in pre-production.  Those are actually what turned into "Nightpath" and "A Functioning God" on the soundtrack.

Once I had that basic sound down I wanted to just try exploring things a bit more, so as development went on I was snatching bits of time to work on music.  I originally intended the soundtrack to be dynamic, composed of ambient and action cues, and we even got the system working for that. 

When it came down to it though, I just didn't like way that would deform the music—I still have this big problem with dynamic music.  If there's a build and the theme comes in, it's just terrible to have it drop away after eight bars because the character took damage or something like that.  I think there's still a long way to go with that technology and I didn't have time to solve all those problems!  That made me go back to a linear soundtrack.

Thematically, I wanted to have this blend of moody tension stuff with much more upbeat thematic content—Frozen Synapse can be a really triumphant game, as well as a really stealthy/tense one.  I tried to make sure each track had quite a range of emotions as well as a strong melodic lead.  I basically can't write music without some kind of chorus or lead section.

As I said earlier the soundtrack is a very slick production and thus it must be hard to choose favourites, but at a push what would you say is your favourite track?

I actually really like "Concentrate".

If you've heard the early
nervous_testpilot stuff, this track is probably closest to that.  It has that nice melancholic-but-melodic quality I like.  There's also some silly little things that make me smile on it, like this sound I use occasionally on the snare which is a sample of my keys jangling—I wanted a sort of crusty Boards of Canada-type sound there.

If I had time to make an artist album right now it would probably sound like this track mostly! 

Though gamers seem to increasingly understand some of the back end coding of games they remain quite ignorant of the work that goes into audio in general. Could you outline, for instance, how you created that eternally satisfying harbinger of death—and occasionally glory—the shotgun sound?

I feel a cliche coming on: sound design is like cooking; it's all about the ingredients; the shotgun sound is actually just a sample I purchased and then processed!  It's a really nice game-y shotgun sample - very over-the-top.

Basically, if I get a sample like that I tend to just compress and EQ it - I don't want to do too much layering and so on.  For a lot of the sounds in FS, I beefed them up with some other layers - like the bullet impact sounds have an extra bass punch to them - but if you strike gold like that, you don't want to mess with it!
With the prevalence of digital distribution, and a few other factors, indie game development has really taken off. What has this meant for musicians like yourself?

It's huge - it means I can do something really ambitious like this Frozen Synapse project and then connect directly to the people who like the music. 

I decided not to go into music production on its own as I wanted the freedom to do exactly the music I wanted, independent of commercial constraints—I basically didn't want it to be my job.  With indie development becoming viable commercially, I can do what I want to do artistically and contribute something really unusual to my day job—it's really the best of both worlds for me.

Most indies collaborate with musicians outside; it's unusual for us that I own the company and write the music; but I think that just lets me get more involved with what's happening.  In a game where the aesthetic, the story and the music are all designed by or funneled through one person, you get a different kind of creative authorship than in bigger game projects—you're basically going to end up with something more idiosyncratic than you would with a bigger game project.

In the mainstream of game development we have seen a big push recently in the field of audio, with recent Battlefield titles priding themselves as much on their audio as their visuals. What do you think the future holds for sound in games?

I absolutely love seeing what goes on with sound design in AAA games—every year I go to the audio track at Develop and hear these insane things.  I saw this presentation by Sony where they were talking about the fact that there's something like a thousand individual raindrop samples in Killzone—that stuff is just mind-boggling to me.

It's interesting with sound in games because we're already at this point where there aren't really any limitations—you have all the storage space for samples; you have really powerful scripting that allows you to deploy those samples in any way you like. 

One area that people have suggested might come to the fore a bit more is internal synthesis—actually being able to *synthesize* a gun sound and manipulate its parameters in real time.  Personally, I think there's quite a lot of redundancy involved with that approach and that samples are a more elegant way of handling things.

Stylistically, I think we're going to see the influence of film sound design a lot more—game audio designers are really at the top of their field so there is no reason why game sound won't get bigger and bigger budgets and come more into line with Hollywood.

What artists and soundtracks interest and influence you?

This is probably going to be a long answer!

I think probably the most influential period in my life musically in a practical sense was 90's dance and electronica.  You've got big artists like The Prodigy, more underground artists like Plaid and Boards of Canada and then great swathes of these sort-of minor one-hit-wonder electronica acts like Wauvenfold…my friend Oli used to make CD's for me with loads of random tracks on them and that probably shaped my taste quite a lot!

Also, I got very heavily into dance music around that time, so trance artists like Ferry Corsten and the whole explosion of drum n bass during that period were a big part of my listening.

When I was at university, I saw a Venetian Snares gig - that just showed me how you can turn music into a kind of unstoppable weapon: I don't think I've recovered from that experience yet!

In terms of attitude and song writing, I'd have to say that artists like BB King just show how you can take this really raw form and then polish it up with insane technique and professionalism to create something amazing.  I'll never be able to match the dedication of someone like that but I do find him a massively inspiring artist.

In games, Jesper Kyd is probably the most exciting composer out there at the moment—amazing arrangements and detail in his work.

Other stuff: The Smiths and Radiohead are probably two of my favourite bands - can't get enough depressing lyrics paired with over-the-top vocal stylings!
You've worked in just about every field a musician can: supporting rock bands, rappers, performance poets alongside releasing a prodigious back catalogue; where can we expect to see—and hear—nervous_testpilot/_ensnare_ next?

I want to do another
_ensnare_ album this year and I have some material done for that already.  I'd really like to take _ensnare_ into the fakebit / chiptune Premier League!

I'm seriously overdue for another
nervous_testpilot trance record, so expect at least one of those this year.

Finally, the soundtrack for our next title will probably be a little more dancey as look out for that one!

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