Borderlands' music director shares secrets from the series OST vault

We picked the brain of Borderlands 3 music director and composer Raison Varner to learn more about the music of the rootin’-tootin’, shootin’ & lootin’ video game series.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

There’s an inherent tension with game soundtrack albums: completionists want everything they can get their hands on, whereas more selective types prefer a curated selection for a better standalone listening experience. Also, some might feel put-off by a massive 50+ tracklist of cues of varying lengths and listenability; while others delight in digging through that much music for gems.

We were extremely proud to work with Gearbox Software on bringing music from the Borderlands series to digital platforms — you can find all the album links near the bottom of the article — but there’s no denying that there’s A LOT of it. Loads. Tons. Oodles. Vast quantities.

There are plenty of Claptastic gems among the 250+ (and counting) Borderlands music tracks now available on Spotify et al. Who better to help guide us through some of those highlights than Gearbox composer and senior sound designer (as well as Borderlands 3’s Music Director) Raison Varner?

You can also buy the Borderlands 3 soundtrack on double vinyl: US store | rest of world store

Varner: Origins

Raison Varner

A quick bit of background on Mr. Varner: for the young video games-loving musician, Nobuo Uematsu’s landmark score for 1994’s Final Fantasy VI was a pivotal moment. “It settled the ‘which is better: films or video games?’ debate I was having with myself, especially when I imported the live orchestra album [Grand Finale.] Another killer orchestral soundtrack from that time is 1993’s Dark Wizard on SEGA CD — one of my favourites to this day.”

In 2008, Varner joined Gearbox part-way through Borderlands development, after stints at Volition and Human Head studios doing both sound design and composition. He has played a fundamental role in the ‘shlooter’ series ever since, becoming audio lead on all of the ‘numbered’ entries. He created the ‘sound’ of the iconic character Claptrap and initially shared dialogue writing duties. He has also composed significant chunks of the series soundtracks.

“I’ve been lucky that, as a franchise, Borderlands is so whacky and the team so open to experimentation that I haven’t had to struggle with boundaries or issues of legacy that you might face working on other series. I’ve always felt it was important to not try to sound like the last game, and our future Borderlands 3 DLCs will stretch that even further.”

If you’ve been listening closely enough, you’ll know that Borderlands soundtracks are stuffed with kick-ass electronic music, alongside other genres. Varner comments: “Electronic music has become a series staple. It was a conscious move to help Borderlands feel like it was on the cutting edge of music evolution, and it complemented our guerrilla mindset [as a team].”

Borderlands is known for having lots of guns and lots of jokes, but the music itself isn’t supposed to be ‘funny’. Varner agrees: “We’ve always emphasised that, while Borderlands is comedic in terms of dialogue, story, characters, and sometimes even locations, the music isn’t. The soundtrack supplies energy, aggression, beauty, and wildness. It’s rarely punctuating a joke.

“If we’re too on-the-nose in terms of jokey tone — 🥁BA-DUM-TISSSHHHH🥁 — much of the magic and edge of Borderlands disappears, and what remains is a monstrosity of tackiness. We’ve often resisted requests to have the music emphasise a punchline. That said, there are moments when doing something funny with the music serves the game well, but these are usually within seasonal DLCs. In Borderlands 2, the player fights a giant snowman… tacky is kind of part of the experience at that point, so we embraced it fully.”

Varner kindly picked out and commented on some of his favourite and/or most significant cues from across the series.


Listen along — Borderlands series OST highlights: Spotify playlist | Apple Music playlist


Borderlands (2009)

Composer team: Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Raison Varner and Tim Larkin

Borderlands

Borderlands offered the least diversity of environments of the games” says Varner. “It was mostly all Badlands, so that had a unifying effect on the different composers. Much of our scoring was environment-driven, so the music naturally became more varied later in the series — for instance Borderlands 2 has lush greenery, cold winter landscapes, and so on. Borderlands 3 doubled down on that with distinct planets, so there was more variety between composers and within each composer’s output [since they took a planet each.]

“In my mind, Borderlands has always been served best by emphasising novelty and variation.”


"Bring Your Guns"

Composer: Jesper Kyd

This pulsating, percussion-led track includes plenty of little vocal touches and ethnic flavours, evoking an action-packed race across the desert.

Varner adds: "This was Jesper Kyd’s original pitch on the Borderlands series, submitted to [then Audio Director] Ed Lima before I joined Gearbox. It established a unique tone and style.” During a recent podcast interview with Music Respawn, Varner commented: “Jesper’s the guy I wouldn’t make a Borderlands without.”


"Welcome to Fyrestone"

Composer: Jesper Kyd

"Welcome to Fyrestone" sets the stage for the world of Borderlands, written to reflect “a lonely, barren, but pretty landscape” according to Varner. Fyrestone itself is the first town players come to in the whole series, located in the Arid Badlands of the planet Pandora.


"Trash The Bandits Some More"

Composer: Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco

Composers Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco have shared credits on several games including Mass Effects 2 & 3, and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Here, they mix Hollywood bombast with rock guitars to keep you on your toes.

The track features a Bazantar — a 38-stringed custom acoustic bass designed in the mid-’90s. “Before the Bazantar had been sampled,” explains Varner, “Cris and Sascha made an important contribution to the sound of the original Borderlands score by recording the instrument’s inventor, Mark Deutsch, playing it.”


"Welcome To The Arena Suckers"

Composer: Raison Varner

This pumping, 12/8 (i.e. triplet-based) dance track introduced Moxxi’s theme to the world. Varner admits that it was never intended to make it into a game: “It was originally a track I created on a free day for no real reason other than exploration. We repurposed it for the game and it’s a positive example of how tangential experiments can pay off in surprising ways.”


"Fighting Off the Skags" aka "Skag Gully - The Infamous Moo"

Composer: Raison Varner

This track is a tense, earthy, groovy piece that is reminiscent of some of Jesper Kyd’s work on early Assassin’s Creed games and Darren Korb’s trip-hop-blues for Bastion. Varner laughs: “Ah, the infamous ‘Moo’... This tune led to some friends mooing at me every time I passed their room. Truly the greatest reward.”


Borderlands 2 (2012)

Composer team: Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Raison Varner, Big Giant Circles, and Kevin Riepl

Borderlands 2

Varner recalls: “I was heavily involved with sound design at this point and had very little time to support music for the main game. When the [many] Borderlands 2 DLCs rolled around was when I started writing a lot more music for the series — especially for Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty, How Marcus Saved Mercenary Day, and T.K. Baha's Bloody Harvest.”


"Main Menu" aka the Borderlands 2 theme

Composer: Jesper Kyd

Varner comments: “Menu themes are usually the very last pieces we do for a Borderlands game. On other series I’ve worked on, menu themes often came first. On Borderlands 2, I tasked Jesper with creating a single piece that would communicate the vibe of each of the major hubs he had scored. This piece takes you through all of these different environments in an inviting way.”


"Lynchwood"

Composer: Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco

The guitar twang that kicks off this track is quintessentially Borderlands if you think of the series being a space Western. The listener is lulled into thinking this is an anxious, atmospheric piece, with synths, cymbals scrapes, and palm-muted guitar keeping us in a state of tension. That’s before the deafening drums enter, obliterating the uneasy atmosphere and replacing it with violent ferocity.


"Pandora Park"

Composer: Jesper Kyd

Grimey, groovy, and tense, “Pandora Park” lopes along with a sense of menace. Varner comments: “This track is my personal favourite of Jesper’s from the main game. ‘Pandora Park’ summarised the characteristics of the game. Everything about this piece felt in perfect balance.”


"Crater Lake"

Composer: Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco

More than just a gag-heavy exercise in loot-gathering, Borderlands is also a frenetic, thrilling action game, with the player having to think carefully about how best to survive each combat encounter. The music emphasises this focus on action, and helps boost the adrenaline where necessary. Says Varner: “This is one of my favourites of Cris and Sascha’s work. The vibe and atmosphere that this piece conjures, combined with the guitars, made this level feel amazing.”


"Flamerock Refuge" from the Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep DLC

Composer: Raison Varner

Varner explains: “This track has a special place in Borderlands history. I actually came up as an orchestral composer and had to learn all the electronic music techniques especially for Borderlands. As I constructed this piece I sent my daily progress to the level designer building out this area, and I believe that that back and forth had a lot to do with how well the two merged together.

“When the idea for Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep was initially raised, the idea of doing a fantasy DLC seemed like it might be a step too far. I remember referring to this DLC as our ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment, and that seemed to click with people. I’ve always enjoyed working on our DLCs more than the base game because they operate under short story rules, and we can be far more creative with everything under that framing.”


Apologies to fans of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel — we’re going to jump past the game in this list, as Raison didn’t work directly on it. We will however add a few of our personal favourite tracks on the end of the streaming playlists: Spotify playlist | Apple Music playlist


Borderlands 3 (2019)

Composer team: Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann, Finishing Move Inc., Raison Varner, Julian Peterson, and Mike Jones

Borderlands 3

Of the latest entry in the series, Varner comments: “Borderlands 3 saw us open up our approach to interactive music in the series. We moved beyond just switching between ‘ambient’ and ‘combat’ music towards something more nuanced.

“There was a conceptual 2D ‘space’ or dynamic graph, with one axis being ‘threat’ and the other being ‘interest.’ Within those variables, we added multiple layers of music; and, within each of those layers, we would have several options. We therefore had three different levels of randomisation going, while the mix would also become more dense or sparse depending on how ‘interesting’ the game was at any given moment.”


"Sanctuary 3"

Composer: Michael McCann

Deus Ex: Human Revolution composer Michael McCann joined the Borderlands team having not worked on the series prior. Here, he establishes that sense of anxious, uneasy calm found in many video game ‘safe’ zones. Instruments include a heavily processed bass guitar, and McCann adds rich delays and reverb to the many layered instruments and voices in the track. It’s a gorgeous sound that vibes with the future-Western/rustic sci-fi atmosphere. It’s reminiscent of the aforementioned Bastion score by Supergiant’s Darren Korb, and Ben Prunty’s recent work for Into the Breach.

Our good friends at the Music Respawn podcast recently interviewed Raison Varner, where he explained about this particular piece: “[Michael McCann, a newcomer to the series] fell right into it quickly… [This is] the piece he wrote that really highlighted his understanding of Borderlands the most… [It] highlights that there is a Borderlands sound but there’s not a Borderlands formula. You couldn’t say that it sounds like Borderlands 2. Every game is it’s own thing.”


"Main Menu (Day)" aka the Borderlands 3 menu theme

Composer: Jesper Kyd

Kyd delivered another brilliant percussion-driven yet melodious and atmospheric track. The piece may be in a minor key, but the chord progression gives it yearning and hopeful feeling.

As mentioned, “we’ve always saved the writing of the opening theme until last,” says Varner. “Jesper has always composed our main menu themes in a way that brings together everything we discovered, or made decisions on, while working. In that way, I felt this track, like the theme for Borderlands 2, does a great job of capturing a moment players could just vibe to. It made the game feel very welcoming and inviting to me.”


"Digby Vermouth - Supernova Dreamsicle"

Composer: Raison Varner & Julian Peterson

We take yet another left turn, genre-wise: this time into Daft Punk-esque funky house. Gearbox Audio Programmer Julian Peterson was co-composer on the track, and blows the saxophone real good.

Varner recalls: “This track came together fast. I spent about half a day writing the backing track in a rough format, and the next morning Julian wrote and recorded his sax parts. That evening I took the track home to work on and add the finishing touches. After we’d submitted the game for release [so-called ‘going gold’] this track got a day of mixing attention for the soundtrack version. When we started, we really had no expectations this would be such a popular track from the game.”


"Call in the Elite" from the Takedown at the Maliwan Blacksite DLC

Composer: Finishing Move Inc.

“The Maliwan raid doubled down on mechs and sci-fi technology fights,” explains Varner, “so Finishing Move Inc. [duo Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White] were the clear choice. When synthwave became a heavy component of Borderland 3’s sound, we worked some of that into the DLC.”

Here’s a quick video about Finishing Move Inc. work on the game:


"Captain Haunt Phase 02" from the Bloody Harvest event

Composer: Raison Varner

We finish our list with a four-to-the-floor, club-ready track from Varner himself. Composed for a seasonal DLC, it has a sense of joyfulness and jokiness to it, emphasised by the snatches of samples and over-the-top vibe.

Varner confesses: “This is one of those tracks that felt like utter garbage for six hours the first day; and then, during the last two hours of the day, something clicked and it began writing itself. When I tested an earlier version of the track against the boss fight and was having tremendous fun, I knew we had the right sound. I was drawing on an interesting mix of influences, including Pertubator, Wolfgang Gartner, a little Benny Benassi, and lots of SebastiAn.”


Raison Varner is a composer and senior sound designer at Gearbox Software – SoundCloud | Twitter: @raisonvarner | Spotify artist page

Be sure to check out his interview with Kate Remington on the Music Respawn podcast: www.wshu.org/post/raison-varner-borderlands-3-music-deepens-story#stream/0

And here are those playlists again, with some extra tracks that didn’t make the list: Spotify playlist | Apple Music playlist


You can check out all the Borderlands series soundtracks on major digital streaming services and stores:

Borderlands OST

Borderlands — https://smarturl.it/Borderlands-OS

Music by Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Raison Varner and Tim Larkin

Borderlands 2 OST

Borderlands 2: Complete — https://smarturl.it/Borderlands2-OS

Music by Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Raison Varner, Big Giant Circles, and Kevin Riepl

Borderlands The Pre-Sequel OST

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel — https://smarturl.it/ThePre-Sequel

Music by Jesper Kyd

Borderlands Claptastic Voyage OST

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel – Claptastic Voyage — https://smarturl.it/Claptastic-Voyage

Music by Jesper Kyd

Borderlands 3 OST

Borderlands 3 — https://smarturl.it/Borderlands3-OS

Music by Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann, Finishing Move Inc., Raison Varner, Julian Peterson, Mike Jones

Borderlands Takedown at the Maliwan Blacksite OST

Borderlands 3: Takedown at the Maliwan Blacksite — https://smarturl.it/TheMaliwanBlacksite

Music by Finishing Move Inc.

Borderlands 3: Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot

Borderlands 3: Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot — https://smarturl.it/MoxxisHeist

Music by Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann, Leonard Van Voorst and Raison Varner

Borderlands 3: Bloody Harvest OST

Borderlands 3: Bloody Harvest — https://smarturl.it/BloodyHarvest

Music by Raison Varner