Horizon Zero Dawn co-composer and long-time Guerrilla collaborator Joris de Man talks Atari music trackers, getting intimate with Aloy’s theme and how to score music in a pseudo-interactive way for the win.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
2017 has been a year bursting with blockbusters, even prior to the October deluge. It is also the year that Guerrilla Games, best known (and somewhat pigeon-holed) for the PlayStation shooter series Killzone, launched its biggest game yet: Horizon Zero Dawn. Six years in the making, the gigantic open world game and PlayStation 4 marquee title scored big with reviewers; it also held its own when compared to arguably the greatest Legend of Zelda game ever made, Breath of the Wild, the two games having launched just three days apart.
A vital part of the team that helped bring Horizon’s world and characters to life was composer Joris de Man. Growing up in a professionally musical household, the classically trained Dutchman nonetheless took to music technology, gravitating towards game audio in the early 1990’s. As a composer and musician he has veered all across the genre map, from industrial electronica to symphonic orchestral, and enjoyed stints working with The Bitmap Brothers and as Musical Director for Guerrilla Games. In 2010, he won an IVOR Novello Award — the UK’s most prestigious awards for songwriting and composition — for his Killzone 2 score, making him one of only a handful of game composers to have gained broader music industry recognition.
We chatted with de Man about his early days in the Atari demo scene, how he slotted into the team making Horizon and the tricks he learned about fudging interactivity in game soundtracks.
All mod cons
Distracting him from vigorously pursuing the violin, during de Man’s teen years he began fiddling with Atari computers to the extent that he was drawn into the ‘demo scene’ of the late 80’s/early 90’s; he later joined the Atari demo group Synergy under his alias, Scavenger. Using music tracker software, which initially used module files (hence the subculture’s musical moniker: the ‘MOD scene’), de Man and his peers composed chip music through careful sequencing of notes.
Wicked Polygons by Joris de Man, AKA Synergy:
de Man has come to realise that this musical origins story — early experimentation at the crossroads between music and technology — has benefited his more traditional composition work later in life.
He explains: “The limitations of the Atari [and its built-in YM2149 sound chip] — three channels of square waves, AM modulation, a noise generator and a timer — meant that it became all about melody, and filling any gaps you had in your track with bits and bobs to make it sound as full and saturated as possible. If one channel was playing a melody, and the other channel some arpeggios, you might fill any remaining gaps with a delayed version of the melody or copies of the arpeggios (to suggest a delay effect).
“But melody was always paramount — and so it has remained throughout my career. If you have a compelling melody it will usually work out, and my early Atari years really trained me well for that.”
From beginner to achieving balance
“When I later worked at The Bitmap Brothers [in London in the late 90’s], I was desperate to prove myself so I spent a lot of time honing my craft and learning everything I could about the emerging Digital Audio Workstations [Pro Tools, Logic etc.], MIDI, audio editing and so on. I must admit that I wasn’t the most sociable person at the time, but I learned a lot.
“Nowadays, I think it’s mostly about balance: try and do a good job without killing yourself, and still maintain some semblance of a family life. ‘Work smarter, not harder’ as they say!”
de Man is a grateful soul: “The biggest perk of being a professional game composer is the chance to compose and produce music for a living. It’s fair to say that I really enjoy my job (most of the time!) and the variety of projects means it never gets too ‘same-y’. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I’m working to realise someone is actually paying me to do this!”
Being part of a Guerrilla army
A striking thing about de Man’s relationship with Dutch developer Guerrilla Games is its longevity. Having been working in and around the company from its inception in 2000, initially as in-house musical director and then working on subsequent projects as a freelance composer, he has come to know, and gel creatively with, the team at Guerrilla especially well. “This means that we’ve moved past that barrier of politeness and awkwardness that you often have with new clients, where you’re still figuring each other out — we can just get down to the nitty gritty!
It also helped immensely that Lucas va Tol, Senior Sound Designer at Guerrilla, took on the role of music supervisor, “because as a freelancer it’s hard to be as immersed in the game as people from the development team are. He’s been an excellent barometer in terms of determining if my pieces of music fit into a big game like Horizon Zero Dawn and adhere to the style of the game.
“He’s been instrumental as my guide through the world of Horizon Zero Dawn — as well as helping to guide [Horizon co-composing team] The Flight — keeping us all on track artistically.”
Horizon Zero Dawn:
Playing as part of a team
To accommodate the sheer volume of music that would be needed to properly soundtrack an open-world game as gigantic and diverse as Horizon Zero Dawn, developer Guerrilla recruited Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, AKA composition duo The Flight (Alien Isolation, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag), to work alongside de Man. Additionally, Niels van der Leest joined the project with a focus on percussion, whilst Jonathan Williams handled various of the tribal songs in the game.
This necessary collaboration turned out to be a definite help: “Having more composers on the game gives you a different perspective on how the same brief can be approached. Once we got going there was a fair bit of cross-pollination. We also had our different strengths: The Flight were really good at creating these expansive soundscapes with found sounds and unique sonic textures; Niels van der Leest is an expert in percussion; and the group he worked with, Circle Percussion, ended up playing across a variety of tracks by different composers.
“My speciality, as it turns out, was in coming up with memorable themes and leitmotivs that we could reuse throughout the game — especially for the main character, Aloy.”
Aloy’s Theme from Horizon Zero Dawn:
According to de Man, the team spent part of the first month of the project creating and sharing playlists and ideas — including particular music artists, instrumental textures and videos of performers. “It’s an interesting process, as the way I tend to listen to things and be inspired by them can be quite subliminal. It’s not like explicit ‘temp tracking’ [using a specific reference track as a stand-in to soundtrack a given scene], where the track has a distinct sound or melody that you’re trying to approximate; it’s more about listening out for a sound, a texture, or even just a vibe.”
For de Man, working on Horizon Zero Dawn was very much a different kettle of fish to his work on the Killzone titles, “where everything is ‘to the max’ and has to sound as massive and epic as possible, with a large symphony orchestra.”
An example of de Man’s work on Killzone 2:
“The score for Horizon Zero Dawn was, in a way, a sort of antithesis to that. Guerrilla wanted a smaller, more intimate sound, with sparse instrumentation and a more minimalistic approach; [the music] had to almost sound as if it could’ve come from the game world itself. It also had to hint at some level of ethnicity without ever veering too much towards one particular culture.
“Horizon’s music also had to work in a different way to Killzone’s — much more in the background and a lot more emotive. The challenge therefore was in making the characters, story and beautiful graphics come to life with relatively simple music and themes.”
Horizon Zero Dawn’s protagonist, Aloy:
Part of the problem of huge open world productions — such as Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed — is finding the balance between portentous-sounding (one might say ‘cinematic’) story music (i.e. huge, melodic themes woven into dramatic, motivational pieces) and ‘non-linear’ music that will subtly complement the player’s freedom to do what the heck they like in whatever order they wish.
de Man comments: “Yes, it can be tricky, though Lucas van Tol [overseeing all of Horizon’s music] made the clear distinction that during cutscenes, we could go a lot bigger, whereas with in-game/open world music, we should keep things a bit more subdued.”
Here’s an example of de Man’s work for the open world of Horizon Zero Dawn, On Our Mother's Shoulders (Out Of The Embrace):
“We also ended up doing a lot of ‘stemming’, where we extrapolated out all the various components of our tracks [recording versions of the track featuring only the vocals; or the isolated percussion etc.] This meant that Lucas could essentially remix the track as he needed — that way, he could get a lot more mileage out of our tracks, which was important as the player could be traversing the game world for hours. So the in-game music ended up being a tad less melodic, whereas during cutscenes, I really worked on establishing and re-using themes.”
Horizon Zero Dawn sports a huge open game world:
A tasty sample from the oven
de Man’s favourite ensemble to compose for has shifted since the days of the bold and bombastic Killzone orchestral scores: “It used to be symphony orchestra that I preferred writing for, but nowadays I’d say anything that includes a few live musicians is fun. They can really add a musicality and emotion that is much harder to achieve with synths and samples."
This resonates with what we’ve heard from other composers like PlayStation’s Jim Fowler; that whilst digital instruments help with time and budget constraints, nothing beats the sheer humanity, the musical feel of human players.
de Man qualifies this though: “That having been said, I also really enjoy working with synths and various types of synthesis, or ‘found sounds’ (sampling an odd sound and using it as an instrument). I’m a proper studio nerd and so I especially enjoy tweaking synths or shaping sounds using various EQ’s, compressors and other effects to create something interesting.
“The other day I sampled one of the grille racks in the oven; it had a magnificent resonance and clangy kind of quality that, pitched down, sounded massive!”
Diversity in games
When Laced With Wax interviewed Amos Roddy (AKA ToyTree) about his entirely digital (i.e. composed using computer software) STRAFE score, we were surprised to hear him call for more diversity of instrumentation in game scores. So Roddy says, there is ample room in video games for experimentation with ethnic instruments and more diverse ensembles (for instance the use of Polish folk band Percival in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt); as well as alternative approaches to electronic music such as analogue synthesis (as opposed to relying entirely on ‘in the box’ software synthesis).
de Man himself has explored myriad genres whilst working across everything from the limited palette of chiptune, on one end of the spectrum, to scoring for large traditional orchestras at the other. Arguably, both of these extremes of musical arrangement (the limited voices of chiptune and the 70+ of orchestras) are incredibly familiar to gamers by now — so should game composers be actively trying to mix it up, as the Guerrilla audio team did with Horizon Zero Dawn? de Man agrees completely: “Absolutely. The sky’s the limit, and as long as it serves the project, we can really do anything we want.
“There are quite a few musical styles I haven't heard yet in games, and it would be fascinating to explore those further. We’re now at a level where the medium of consoles or computers isn’t prohibitive in terms of what we can achieve musically, so the real task is in creatively challenging ourselves as composers.”
Crevasse leaping as Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn:
Over the next few years, de Man thinks that interactive music within games will get better, particular when it comes to VR. That said, “it’s hard to know. We can already do so much with current technology — it’s more a case of getting better at using what we already have, rather than inventing new things.”
He’s in two minds when it comes to the value of truly interactive music systems, where each player hears a differently sequenced soundtrack depending on what they’re doing in the game: “I’ve noticed that [a composer and audio team] can hint at a higher degree of interactivity than is actually present by how you write the music.
“For example, in Killzone 2 and 3, we implemented block-based interactivity where we could modify the intensity of the music every 4 bars by switching to a different ‘intensity block’. So I’d compose, say, eight blocks of low-, medium- and high-intensity music and, based on the level of enemy threat to the player, the engine would randomly pick blocks from the corresponding intensity level. Initially, I composed quite rigidly in those three dynamics (low-, medium- and high-intensity), with four bars each. But it became quite predictable so instead I changed dynamics even within the blocks themselves, made some blocks longer or shorter, and chose odd metrics (7/8, 5/4 time).”
Killzone 3 in action:
“What worked was that the odd metrics were harder to follow, and the ever-changing dynamics meant it was much harder to figure out when a block had ended and the other had started. It also meant we had a lot of ‘happy accidents’ where it sounded like the music was reacting to something that happened on-screen — but it actually wasn’t!
So, when it comes to the near future of video game music in terms of innovation, de Man embraces creativity over shiny new toys: “As I mentioned, we already have amazing tech available, and the impression of interactivity is a lot more important than ‘real’ interactivity because the player won’t know whether it’s real or not — it’s the end result, and how it makes them feel, that matters.”
de Man admits that when it comes to the soundtrack albums that result from games, “it’s usually up to the publisher, so [composers] don’t really have much input into it.” That said, he is full of praise for Horizon Zero Dawn’s soundtrack album: “I think Sony and Guerrilla did an excellent job. The tracklist featured a lot of music from the game and I wasn’t expecting it to be as detailed and exhaustive as it was.”
He isn’t surprised that game music — as both a listening genre and a sub-community of the larger gaming world — has flourished: “I love that so many people are interested in it! It’s always flattering when people ask for a soundtrack album to be released, as it means your music is appreciated beyond the medium it was intended for. I love soundtrack listening myself — it’s a great learning tool for me too!”
Vinyl, of course, is a favourite format of the Laced crew, and the ‘vinyl revival’ (including in game soundtracks) finds favour with de Man: “I find vinyl such an interesting choice. People have such positive associations with a format that’s essentially fairly low bandwidth, but very complimentary to the source. I love it! If there’s one thing I miss from the vinyl/CD days is that it's a physical product, which makes it feel more valuable. Also, it forces the listener to really sit down and listen and not just skim through tracks; it really turns it into a listening ‘experience’, so I’m all for it.”
Prior to Horizon’s announcement, The Sound Architect conducted an in-depth interview about de Man’s career to date, his tech set-up and advice for budding composers; Develop and Kotaku AU both have done in-depth features on Horizon Zero Dawn's audio and music.
You can check out the Horizon Zero Dawn soundtrack on Spotify and other major digital music platforms.
All images of Horizon Zero Dawn were captured in-game using the photo mode on a PS4 Pro (and iOS app Prisma for the lead image). Yes, it really is that beautiful. Be sure to check out our fun discussion of photo modes with a professional photographer.