Game composer Amos Roddy, AKA ToyTree, chatted to us about synthwave, his favourite scores and his love of "magical" vinyl
By Thomas QuillfeldtPicture this: it’s 1996, you’ve just finished setting up your Windows 95 PC which is rocking an Intel 200 MHz P6 processor with 16mb of RAM, CD-Rom and 3.5-inch floppy disk drives—and you’re already bored of Encarta 96’s Mindmaze. The Manic Street Preachers’ A Design For Life is playing on the radio. Then you boot up STRAFE and your head literally* explodes… (*figuratively)
Such is the power of the fastest, bloodiest, deadliest, most adjective-abusing, action-packed first-person shooter of 1996**, developed by Pixel Titans and published by Devolver Digital on Steam (PC/Mac) and PS4 (**actually 2017).
An important part of STRAFE’s impact is thanks to a furious, pumping score (Spotify, BandCamp) by Amos Roddy, AKA ToyTree. Based in Portland, Oregon, he’s a relative newcomer to video game music composition with a handful of notable indie projects under his belt.
Here’s our chat about his influences, STRAFE, the vinyl revival and where he’d like to see game music going in the future.
The genesis of a game music philosophy
Young Amos was a “Sega Genesis kid” before becoming a “PlayStation kid”, enjoying gameplay and soundtrack classics Streets of Rage 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Final Fantasy VII, among others.
Ultimately, he was most interested in the artistic cohesion of a game, rather than specifically the music. Roddy most fondly remembers a title that fired his creative imagination: 1996’s claymation point-and-click adventure, The Neverhood, one of those games that still stands out for its aesthetic and production values having been born when the creator of Earthworm Jim, Doug TenNapel, pitched Steven Spielberg.
“That came out when I was very young but it caught my creative imagination: over the course of several years I drew pictures of the world of The Neverhood and wrote little fan novels—though I claimed they were actually set in their own world! And the music was utterly, wonderfully bizarre.”
“As a teenager, I got sucked into the depression of adolescence and fell into massively multiplayer online games which I don’t think are particular great fuel for the artistic imagination. But as an adult, with so many cool indie games to choose from, it’s really easy to find inspiration. At the moment, the games I find most compelling are those that build a world for you to live in.”
According to Roddy, no one is nailing it as much as Tomáš Dvořák, AKA Floex, the composer behind the celebrated soundtrack to Amanita Design’s Machinarium (Discogs; Spotify)—Roddy’s all-time favourite score—and the more recent Samorost 3 (Discogs; Spotify).
He is also full of praise for Playdead’s Inside, in particular Martin Stig Andersen’s oh-so-subtle and immersive sound design and music.
But Roddy is keen to stress that he’s not overly fond of value judgements about music and games, preferring to talk about things in relation to one another in terms of “fields of colour—this composer’s doing this, that composer’s doing that. I don’t like ‘the 10 best X’ or ‘the best fighting games ranked #1 to #10’. Steal from the works that you can learn from but the rest of it—don’t poo-poo it, don’t rate it.”
Reinvention reaps rewards
Prior to becoming a game composer, Roddy suffered some measure of frustration in trying to get his “personal music”—various songs he’d been slaving over—out from the privacy of his bedroom and present them to the public. Despite being a lover of analogue recording equipment, real instruments and a more delicate sound, he chose to drastically change direction and invented an electronica-based alter-ego, ToyTree, that would give him the pseudonymic freedom to be much less precious about his artistic output; an approach that would lead to him to early success as a video game composer.
“I’d historically been way too shy with my music. Do that for long enough and you set a precedent and get stuck in a self-defeating loop. So I threw up my hands and said ‘fuck it’, and set about doing something more light-hearted and playful rather than heavy and lyrical.”
ToyTree’s first EP, Pigeon (Bandcamp), became his calling card to the indie games industry: “The more I worked on it, the more I wondered whether I might pitch this to games developers. I’d always been an avid gamer—why the hell not?” The fact that his electronica output was under an artist monicker made it feel less personal, helping him pluck up the courage to pitch his music.
“There’s this feeling in the indie game space that sound designers and composers are the door-to-door salesmen of the industry—that they’re everywhere because it’s perceived as a quick way into the business. And that’s how I got going. I finished the EP and approached everyone and every project I could find that I thought was cool and asked if they needed sound.”
STRAFE was Roddy’s first project but the development ran so long—three years—that he was able to sign on to, and complete, several other soundtracks in the interim, including a mysterious “kingdom-building simulation” developed by Thomas van den Berg (AKA Noio) and Marco Bancale (AKA Licorice) and published by Raw Fury, simply called Kingdom. Roddy also contributed additional music for the expansion, New Lands.
He’s humble enough to acknowledge his good fortune in teaming up with talented developers: “Even if I had created my own luck, Kingdom did very well and that wasn’t my doing; and STRAFE has generated a whole lot of hype that also wasn’t my doing.”
The relationship between Roddy and STRAFE’s development team, Pixel Titans, was established after he contacted them through the indie games-focused website, TIGForums. “There’s a nice community there. People are always helping each other out. It seems like a good place to go if you’re starting out.”
Work on STRAFE continued as a back-and-forth over email. “I worked pretty autonomously. Pixel Titans would give me descriptions of what they wanted, for instance ‘we need a song that’s like a creepy version of this or that’. For the second world of the game, the Black Canyon, they wanted something stormy, dark, evil and threatening.” Roddy’s musical response to this became the track Baptism:
“For the most part it was iterative, I would have that initial inspiration, then I would iterate and try to polish at least part of a song—maybe a minute—before sending it over. The creative director of the game, Thom Glunt, has pretty strong opinions so he would know straight away whether he liked something or not. Working with them, first impressions were really important. There’s a decent amount that ended up on the cutting room floor.”
Cooking up hot STRAFE-wave jams
Of his overall approach to STRAFE, Roddy admits: “I totally winged it! I’d never heard of synthwave before interacting with Pixel Titans. For reference, they sent me Roller Mobster by Carpenter Brut:
“I agreed to come up with something in that style as a trial track.” The sonic interview was a success, with the resulting track, Doomed, enjoying a place on the final soundtrack:
“I tried to figure out how people were writing synthwave—what is the first ingredient? I quickly realised that if I tried too hard to emulate that sound, it would simply end up as a worse version of what those artists do.” Since Carpenter Brut and similar electronica musicians tend to wear their retro influences proudly on their sleeve, it made sense for Roddy also to pivot towards the game music that had caught his ear in the early 90’s—the music of Sega Genesis games, in particular Yuzo Koshiro’s techno grooves for Streets of Rage 2:
“I tried to think of STRAFE as a racing game, as the initial pitch—which of course changed over the course of development—was that you only spend four minutes in a level: either you die or you finish it. That felt like a racing game or something like Sonic the Hedgehog where you just don’t stand still. It’s about speed and the sound reflects that. In Streets of Rage, the game pulls you forward—you’re always doing something.
“The cheap trick that I learned that is all over STRAFE is doing big fills at the end of eight bar sections. This happens a lot in the soundtrack but I left it in because it felt more ‘Sega Genesis’. There are almost always fills, ascending arpeggios or lead hooks that rise before dipping down right at the end. Like one of those GIFs that loops infinitely.”
He affectionately points to the first song in the game, Paint It Red, as an egregious example of this earworm approach:
The road to Ruined
A personal favourite track of Roddy’s is the last he wrote for the project—Ruined:
“I was finally starting to get my chops down in my little version of that genre. Most of it came together in an afternoon over the course of maybe three to four hours. My process of composing for STRAFE involved sitting sitting at the computer and messing around with sounds. It could be a kick drum, a lead, an arpeggio... and I would keep going until I found something that inspired me and build from there.
“[That process] feels like walking into a room with no lights on and trying to feel your way. At first it’s ‘where am I?’ and then eventually things start to become illuminated.”
A sonic secret weapon that Roddy used on Ruined was a software version of Shure’s Level Loc technology (SoundToys’ Devil-Loc): “Musically it can just trash whatever you’re doing if you turn it up all the way. It’s especially cool on drums. I used it way, way too much! And then I would squish the results with invisible side-chain elements.
“It’s my one contribution to synthwave! Even though people were probably already using it…”
Just add mud
An eager audio experimenter, Roddy talks of “smooshing” and “squishing” different sounds to create the desired effect. It took him a while before he found the overall sound of STRAFE: “Once I had written most of the music and was trying to mix it, it became a total mess. I was trying to clean it up to bring it closer to the production of other synthwave tracks, as there are a lot of things they do in terms of transients, sparkly high-frequency stuff and unified basses that make that genre work.
“It just wasn’t happening for me in what I’d composed to that point. When I would try to clean up a track, it would start to sound like a really bad dance track. After a couple of months I said ‘screw it, let’s go in a different direction.’” That ‘different direction’ embraced the muddiness and sludginess of Genesis/Mega Drive games in an effort to make the music stand out. “I decided to make it punchy by making the mid-range frequencies more meaty—rather than chase the crystal clear high frequencies of other synthwave music.”
This thoughtful, tactical approach also extended to the rhythms: “The entire game is basically four-on-the-floor. You might say ‘wow, that’s really boring’ but it ended up being a good challenge: ‘how can I make an hour’s worth of four-on-the-floor music sound interesting?’ The whole soundtrack becomes a formula, trying to keep an infinite ladder of hooks going on so that hook flows into hook and you always feel like you’re ascending.”
A self-confessed hermit, he jokes: “I guess that’s how it happens with energetic dance music in clubs?”
Causing an ear-Quake
“STRAFE is a weird soundtrack because on the one hand, it’s supposed to be taking itself really seriously, but I think of the music as kind of silly. There’s a lot of ‘dick rock’ hooks.”
Roddy is flattered to be told that there are hints of 90’s Nine Inch Nails amidst the synthwave. This is all the more relevant because Nine Inch Nails band leader Trent Reznor created the soundtrack to the 1996 game that has most clearly influenced STRAFE: Quake:
He's is more than happy to have had the opportunity to compose music in this style—call it ‘refracted retro’—where different aesthetic ingredients from the past are explicitly recycled to create something both resonant of the old and very much ‘of the now’. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the track Luftenstein, an homage to id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992), a game often cited (not entirely accurately) as the first first-person shooter.
“People have reacted really well to the soundtrack, but there have been a few complaints that ‘this sounds like the 80’s’ and there was one review mentioning that the music was from the 80’s, not the 90’s. People don’t realise that none of this retro-influenced stuff being created now sounds much like what was going on in either of those decades. It’s a bastardisation of what we remember, a conflation of all of this stuff. I think it’s really neat.”
That said, he’s keen to move on from synthwave with his next project: “For one I’m sick of four-on-the-floor! The entire soundtrack is ‘hit’, ‘hit plus snare’ etc. It got a little stifling in a way. I’m glad people enjoy it and I’m really happy with how it turned out, but I’m not a synthwave musician at heart. My music for Kingdom is a little closer to my natural inclinations.”
“I’m curious to explore this musical space in a more personal way at some point in the future, maybe when I’m not writing explicitly for a game. Everything I produced for STRAFE was digital [i.e. composed solely on a computer] and I have all this analogue equipment. I’d like to stretch my legs in a different direction after this.”
The magical vinyl revival
The refracted retro vibes of STRAFE reach their apotheosis when it comes to the special edition vinyl of Roddy’s soundtrack album, made to look like a 3½-inch floppy disk/diskette, c. 1986:
“I’ve very pleased that vinyl is coming back. 2016 was the first year since the 1980’s that it was a billion dollar industry again. Culturally we’re at this point where people feel that music is something that they’re passively entitled to for free. Vinyl reminds them that a human made this—somebody actually wrote that music. Anything that brings this art form back into the physical realm is going to help out a lot. I know so many successful musicians who make $15,000 a year and they can’t survive on it. That sucks.”
Of course, video game music vinyl shares a dual role in 2017: as a physical music format for discerning listeners; and as a physical keepsake for gamers, like a t-shirt or poster, helping them to commemorate a game that they may only own digitally.
The allure of vinyl goes well beyond this for the sparkly-eyed Roddy: “People don’t realise this: records are magic! You have a needle that’s driving through a groove and it’s able to create two different channels of sound that are occurring separately. How is this happening? It’s so cool.”
“You also get these big, beautiful pieces of art. Oftentimes they’re really nicely made, especially right now because vinyl is still a bit boutique, it’s not mainstream [again]. I’m really glad that as a format, vinyl is the one that people are reviving. Cassettes are fine, but it’s still plastic. Records are beautiful, they’re awesome and they sound great.”
Diversification of instrumentation
Approaches to video game music is ever-evolving, and it’s something that Roddy is keenly aware of: “It’s a really odd time with this explosion of indie games, and this applies to music too. Maybe five years ago there weren’t that many titles, but the bar of quality was already really high. You had games like FEZ, Dustforce and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. But they were ‘indie game of the week’, not ‘indie game of the three-minute span’ like today. There’s going to be more and more market saturation on a logistical level, which makes it very difficult to break through and I don’t think it’s going to get easier for us to make this work.
“With that saturation though, there are going to be a lot of great musicians jumping ship from the traditional commercial music industry, which is not doing well.”
For Roddy, an exciting example of this is the fact that A Hawk and a Hacksaw, a duo of musicians associated with the band Beirut, are contributing music to the soundtrack of Forest of Sleep by Twisted Tree (the game ‘label’ which released Ed Key’s Proteus). “That’s pretty weird—how the hell is this amazing Klezmer band [a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe] that does all-live instrumentation writing music in a game space?” Assuming such rich collaborations will occur more frequently, “I think game music is going to get better and better, the bar higher and higher.”
Do as I suggest, not as I do
Roddy adds: “I’d love to see less digital music and more live instrumentation,” fully acknowledging the irony of his statement in relation to his ToyTree output. “A little more experimentation that’s not just about people fishing around software plug-ins. Not that that’s bad—everything I’ve released so far as ToyTree has been digital. But there’s so [many types of music] out there. Things don’t need to sound sparkly, let’s mess it up!
“Even for the digital sounding stuff,” he says, pointing out his Korg MS20 analog synthesiser, “the actual unit sounds really different compared to the software emulation, the plug-in. Gamers haven’t played games against the backdrop of these sounds.”
The obvious reason, he points out, is that creating music with real instruments or analog synthesisers is much more complicated and a slower process overall, “and you really have to know what you’re doing with outboard equipment. That’s why I’ve so far stuck to digital, the turnaround for doing everything inside a computer is so much quicker. ” He appreciates that time and budget constraints put on composers can be constricting and admits that he’s enjoyed some artistic and creative luck in terms of past projects: “With Kingdom, the soundtrack came together very quickly—I was writing a song almost every afternoon. Sometimes you just get lucky and the music emerges, but I wouldn’t have been able to maintain that pace if the music hadn’t all been digitally created within the computer.
“With any game, it’s the composer’s hope to contribute something unique to the game, that describes the game itself and not just ‘a generic medieval town’. It’s more about ‘what does the town in this particular medieval world sound like?’ Instruments, whether digital, analog or acoustic, are all just options.
“That’s the challenge with writing music for media, but there’s so much out there that’s not digital that we can be using. There is so much stuff out there—instruments, sounds, moods—that people could be exploiting to make worlds in games sound believable, unique and fresh. I’m excited by that.”
The STRAFE soundtrack is available to pre-order at LacedRecords.com on 2xLP vinyl, standard edition or strictly limited special edition (only 300 copies!) – both editions include an option to add a Steam code for the game. Mastered by Joe Caithness at Subsequent Mastering.