Laced With Wax interviews Alistair Kerley — the UK musician tasked with scoring the follow-up to cyberpunk point’n’click classic Beneath a Steel Sky.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
In the 2020s, audiences have become all too familiar with the broad categories of fictional settings. The major genres include ‘post-apocalyptic’ (with or without zombies); monsters, vampires and werewolves; Tolkein- and Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy; various flavours of science fiction; and, since the late ‘70s, dystopian visions of where our society is headed, known as ‘cyberpunk’.
Absorbing and charming, Revolution Software’s 1994 point’n’click classic Beneath A Steel Sky earned its place in the cyberpunk canon alongside works including the Judge Dredd and Akira comics/manga; novels Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and the latter’s film adaption, Blade Runner); and tabletop games Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. At the time of writing, CD Projekt’s behemoth video game Cyberpunk 2077 is on the very near horizon.
The long awaited sequel Beyond a Steel Sky launched in 2020 on Steam and Apple Arcade with art direction by Dave Gibbons, legendary comic book artist behind Watchmen.
We caught up with the young composer Alistair Kerley, who was responsible for the game’s majestic orchestral soundtrack.
Music has always been part of Kerley’s life: “I can’t remember a time where I didn’t want to be a musician. I began learning the saxophone as soon as my hands were big enough and proceeded on to the piano and music production.
“I distinctly remember neglecting almost all of my school work, choosing instead to spend countless hours fiddling with sample libraries and plugins. I was also trying to get my fingers around the trickiest piano, sax, and synth passages I could find — from both classical music and prog metal!
During university, Kerley realised that composing for media (film, TV, video games, etc.) was the best option, career-wise. By his final year, he found himself working as a score programmer and orchestration assistant on Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, working under legendary orchestrator and conductor Nicholas Dodd (who went on to conduct a large chunk of the Beyond a Steel Sky score.
Thanks to that opportunity, Kerley’s eyes were opened to the speed, workflow and quality that was expected during a big budget movie production. “Sitting in the control room at AIR Studios, London and listening to Nicholas conduct the hundred-strong session orchestra cemented my ambition to write and orchestrate music professionally.”
Concurrently, he was also working at audio services outfit PitStop Productions, cutting his teeth on a range of projects including PSVR game The Persistence. It was through PitStop that the sequel to a certain ‘90s point’n’click title fell into Kerley’s lap.
Whilst video games were part of Kerley’s upbringing, it wasn’t until he played a few MMORPGs (including Guild Wars) that he began to notice the music. “Those scores inevitably leaned towards orchestral palettes, and they also boasted the compositional depth and rigour of the classical and film music I was hearing. The music was being used to such great effect within an interactive environment, and it turned me on to the potential of game music.”
What’s up, punk?
Even with the cyberpunk legacy looming large, Kerley was unflustered. “The descriptors ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘science fiction’ get thrown around a lot. So much so that they don’t hold much musical meaning for me. With the concept behind the Steel Sky games being so original in itself, there wasn’t any pressure for things to sound a certain way stylistically, which is liberating for a composer.
“While many who played the original game back in the ‘90s might consider it as the very definition of cyberpunk, the backdrop to Beyond a Steel Sky is essentially ‘post-cyberpunk.’ I was able to focus on capturing the tone of each location, conversation, cinematic, etc.; and, ultimately, to enhance the story without that burden of genre expectation.”
It’s especially fun for a sci-fi movie fan to pick out some of the influences on Kerley’s score. A dash of the Star Trek film soundtracks here (especially those by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner); a splash of John Williams’ Star Wars there. And there’s even a pinch of Goldsmith’s Alien and Horner’s Aliens thrown in for good measure.
Kerley admits: “You’ve really hit the nail on the head with those classic titles! I’ve always loved the combination of orchestral music and science fiction. It’s a time-tested marriage that pushes both elements to their zenith. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate... anything with ‘star’ in the title really. The extraordinary breadth of tone in those scores convinced me that the symphony orchestra would be a great fit for this game.”
The project also benefited from conductor Nicholas Dodd’s experiences having orchestrated and conducted the scores for sci-fi movies including Stargate, Independence Day, and the more recent space thriller Life. Kerley says: “Nicholas’s insights about my orchestration made a huge difference, and his work was also a point of inspiration for me.”
“That said, there is a fair amount of electronic music throughout the game, predominantly inspired by Hans Zimmer and his score for 2015’s Chappie.” Given Kerley’s classical background, it’s no surprise that he also cites a few of the 19th and 20th Century greats, including Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravel, and Richard Strauss.
As I live and breathe
Media composers have a million instrument and performance options in creating soundtracks: soloists, ensembles, sample-based digital instruments, software and analogue synthesisers, and so on. What options are actually available to them on a given project depends on their own inclinations and abilities, time left to write and record, and that old chestnut, budget.
For Beyond A Steel Sky, Kerley convinced the developers to go for the deluxe option: an orchestral score (for the most part) with majestic live playing by the Budapest Art Orchestra and the Up North Session Orchestra. A total of 150 minutes of music were recorded over the course of 50 hours of sessions.
“To me, there is no comparison between a live orchestra and a virtual mock-up,” explains Kerley. “If possible, I’ll always replace ‘fake’ instrumentation with the real thing, or get as close as possible within budget. Hiring an orchestra started off as a bit of a wish list item, but we got a bit of luck with the timing. We had a session booked in Hungary for another project around the time we were finishing up the first few demos for Beyond A Steel Sky. It was a no-brainer for me to add an extra hour to the session and create an orchestration from the demos.
“I intended it to be a demonstration of how compelling a real orchestra is compared to samples. I put together a video with some of the game footage and video of the recording sessions, and showed it to Revolution CEO Charles Cecil and producer Tobias Fossheim. To my delight, they agreed to provide the budget for a full orchestral soundtrack.”
Actually piecing together recording sessions was a globe-trotting affair involving several orchestras recording across 10 months. “The whole process is far more enjoyable and gratifying than the sample-based alternative — albeit considerably more stress-inducing! It allows me to compose and orchestrate things that only real musicians with real instruments can play, and explore textures that just aren’t possible with samples.”
Dave Cummins’ music for Beneath A Steel Sky is ostensibly ‘orchestral’ at various points, albeit rendered by PC and Amiga sound chips. Kerley did play the forerunner title and listen back to its soundtrack. “There were a few themes that I chose to revive, for example, Joey’s theme was derived from the "Scrap Processing Factory" loop.”
That loop starts from 1:56 in the video below.
Kerley has woven some of the melody into the Beyond A Steel Sky track “Cleaning Up” around 00:34:
“Obviously, music technology has come quite a way in the last 30 years, so the way music was used in Beneath A Steel Sky isn’t especially relevant for a game made now. The middleware we used to implement the score allowed us to go to town in terms of the interactive nature of the music.”
The emotional tone of Beyond A Steel Sky is unusually varied. As with Hollywood cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the score cycles through mysteriousness, sorrow, pensivity, wacky humour, heroism, and anxiety. It doesn’t particularly sound like other modern point’n’click adventure games, nor is it typical of contemporary cyberpunk media (e.g. big synth pads, bass pulses, and arpeggiators.)
Kerley explains: “It was essential that the instrumentation and textural palette, in combination with the music system, provided enough flexibility to seamlessly navigate the ever-shifting tone of the game.
“One moment [protagonist] Foster might be reflecting on the traumatic events of the opening scenes, and the next he might be luring parrots with a mouldy sausage. That only made sense if the score could dynamically support all of these scenarios on a case-by-case basis, without jarring transitions or generic and repetitive loops. It was a deliberate decision to structure the music in a way that it pays close attention to the narrative, and feels natural in any given sequence.”
The Steel Sky series certainly has a sense of humour. At a glance, someone might see a passing resemblance between Beyond… and the overtly silly Tales From the Borderlands. Laced With Wax recently spoke to former Borderlands series music director Raison Varner about how, for that series’ main titles, the music tended to be fairly po-faced while the gags came through the dialogue.
Kerley responds: “In most cases I would agree with the approach of letting the dialogue carry the humour, while the music maintains the overarching tone of the adventure. This didn’t seem to be enough for Beyond a Steel Sky, though. The ludicrous situations only improved with the addition of fitting music.
“Finding the right tone was really about balancing those funny situations and dialogue with the more serious themes present in the story. It took every ounce of my harmonic vocabulary to marry the two in a way that seemed to fit the feel of the game. Having a wealth of character themes really helped with this — I put a lot of energy into making sure each character’s theme complemented their personality traits and could be augmented as necessary. Then it was just a case of arranging them in such a way that it sounded like cohesive music.”
Beyond a Steel Sky was an opportunity for Kerley to explore in-game music interactivity, for example: “Finding ways of moving through different key centres, yet always landing where the next cue needs to start; using real-time game parameters to adjust elements within the music itself; writing cellular ideas that could be dynamically re-arranged in real-time to fit with an in-game event.
“Making the music work well in these ways was definitely the most creatively challenging aspect of the project. There were also all the usual challenges that come with composing, orchestrating, recording and mixing a score of this scale on my own — but that’s just the job!”
This interview took place in the shadow of new console launches coming up, namely the ‘next gen’ Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. The console makers have explicitly stated that they want to give audio and music teams more power and tools this time round, including promises of ‘audio ray-tracing’ and 3D audio.
Kerley certainly sees reason for cheer: “There are definitely exciting things happening in the world of video game composition. I’ve had the opportunity to explore [adaptive audio software] Elias, which I think is a powerful interactive music tool. We already split the recording of live elements into instrument groups, and also record the score in as small chunks as possible to allow us implementation flexibility further down the line. I don’t see a lot of things changing there with the next generation of consoles.
“I hope developers continue to see the value of the orchestra and live musicianship in game scores, and that the industry can further expand in this direction. That said, the job is to write great music that’s right for the project.”
He had fun piecing together the different chunks of score into a pleasurable album listen: “It was a very satisfying process to collate the music, which, until this point, could only be experienced in-game. We were able to put it all together in a way that represents the player’s progression through the game’s story.”
Alistair Kerley is a composer and orchestrator at Pitstop Productions – www.pitstopproductions.co.uk
You can stream and buy the soundtrack to Beyond a Steel Sky on major digital music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and more: https://smarturl.it/BeyondaSteel
Check out this video to see Alistair and the various orchestras at work recording the score: