We Talk Halcyon 6 With Composer Steve London

Recently I spoke with Composer Steve London about his work on the game Halcyon 6 and his career.

  • How does scoring a game compare and differ with that of a movie or television show and which do you prefer?

I enjoy scoring both film and television as well as video games however, the two genres have two different scoring processes. In film and TV, you usually read the script first and until you receive the show, you just work on developing your concept and thematic ideas. When you receive the show, you refine your concept and thematic ideas, spot where the score will be placed in the show and then you start the scoring process, working with the picture. And the process tends to be very back-and-forth with the director and producer as you compose and hone the score to fit the picture.

Now I can’t speak to the larger AAA games because I haven’t scored any of those yet, but for Early Access, “Halcyon 6” was very different from scoring a film. In film and TV, there is a crew that shows up with the camera and lights, the actors come on set and the director shoots the story based on a script that someone has written. In indie video games, someone has to create all the cameras, all the lights, all the actors and all the possible things those elements could do before the script can be shot. The workload and time required for a small team of people to make a game is extraordinary, especially a game with the ambitions of “Halcyon 6″. There’s not a lot of time or resources to deal with the score in an indie game because everyone is so busy actually writing and producing the game. And of course, you’re also not scoring directly to picture either so the composition style as compared to film is different as well. For example, in “Halcyon 6”, I wrote in a more traditional melodic style because there is no spoken dialogue to avoid so you have the sonic space for more traditional melodies.

  • What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring the projects and what have been your greatest triumphs?

The biggest challenge scoring this project was getting the authentic 8-bit and 16-bit sounds and then finding a way to mix that sound appropriately with orchestral samples and modern sounds. Initially, I had planned to use MSSIAH for the Commodore 64. MSSIAH is a great cartridge that turns your Commodore 64 into a playable MIDI synthesizer with a integrated tracker. However, the power supply on my old Commodore 64 had other ideas and it died after a short amount of use. Since time and resources didn’t really allow me the luxury of replacing a Commodore power supply periodically, I decided I’d try and find another solution. That solution was in the form a great piece of software for the iPad called SIDTracker. It software turns your iPad into a tracker and an emulator for a 6581 SID chip. And via StudioMUX software and Audiobus, I can play and record it from my master DAW. The software is really great and sounds just like the original C64 SID chip. I used some other smaller synths like the MeeBlip bass module and some of the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators. Those sounds, mixed in with some electric guitar, orchestral samples and some of my old vintage synths (Yamaha DX7IID, Roland Juno-106, etc.) make up the “old-meets-new” sound of “Halcyon 6”.

I feel that having been able to meld all these disparate sounds together and have players complement the soundtrack is a pretty good accomplishment.

  • How many hours of music did you compose for the game and how much made it into the final build?

The Early Access release of “Halcyon 6” currently has about 40 minutes of music in it. I’m happy to say that so far, all the tracks I’ve written have made it into this first chapter of the game. Obviously, there is a lot more music to come for the final release.

  • When scoring the games, how much lead time did you have and were graphics and animation made available early in the process?

I had a good amount of lead time to come up with a solid musical concept for “Halcyon 6.” I was shown the concept art, some animations and some graphics before the game was even started. Ken Seto, the owner of Massive Damage, Peter McLaren, the producer, and I had many discussions about the retro pixel art looks of “Halycon 6” and how that would relate to the music. We also discussed some broader theme ideas and broader musical concepts and I did some demos for the production team with those concepts in mind. Parts of those demos ended up being incorporated into the current score.

  • As a follow up, how much did the scores change if any as I am guessing the look and feel of the games continued to change and evolve during production.

The score hasn’t changed much during this first chapter of “Halcyon 6″ because the look of the game didn’t really change during production. Ken, Peter and the whole team had a very solid idea of how the game graphics would be and how the game would play before they even started. The team’s solid vision made my task of composing the music much easier.

  • What can you tell us about the games and where you drew your inspirations when scoring the games?

There were many things to draw inspiration from. The idea of the “old-meets-new” sound was my overall governing concept due to the pixel graphic look of “Halcyon 6”. To that point, initially, we had explored the idea of having an Arvo Pärt-esque sounding theme for the starmap, something in the vein of “Tabula Rasa.” However, after some experimenting, that minimal tintinn-ambulistic style was just too static for the game. Instead, I decided to use the tonal mode that Pärt composed “Tabula Rasa” in as a general guide. From there, the framework of the spacey-sounding starmap music came into being. Also, sticking with the idea of Pärt, the starbase and starmap music were written in several modules that are almost completely interchangeable and layer-able so each of those smaller pieces actually are put together in various combinations to make a 25+ minute evolving starmap piece. The layer of the starbase rhythm was built out of a sampled electronic drum kit mixed with some processed live-recorded tool sounds that I did with my father in his basement workshop.

The production team was always a big fan of the music from the game “FTL” so listening to that score gave me a lot of inspiration in creating the 8-bit and 16-bit sounds with SIDTracker and on my various synths. Also, I drew a lot of inspiration from the various Star Trek soundtracks for the more traditional score along with old Commodore 64 game soundtracks like “Archon”, “Archon II: Adept,” “Mule” and “Commando”.

  • How much leeway did you have with the creation of the score or did the games producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?

In creating the musical concept of “Halcyon 6”, it was a definitely a collaboration with the team. But once the production of the game began, I had a reasonable amount of leeway to compose the tracks. For example, I was given the general direction for the Pirate theme that it should be “something low-key and dark. Maybe something percussion/bass heavy?” I was also told that “The pirates are all very moody and probably listen to industrial music.” So from those two ideas, working with in the music concept framework, I created the “Halcyon 6” Pirate theme.

  • What do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?

Well, first up will be more music for the complete release of “Halcyon 6” later this year. There are a few other projects I’m still waiting to hear on but I’m certainly looking forward to completing the score for “Halcyon 6” in the meantime.