We recently spoke to award-winning composer Darren Korb as part of our Quick Beats series, where he kindly answered ten quickfire questions about his musical tastes. However, that small snippet was just part of a much larger conversation we were lucky enough to have with Supergiant Games' in-house composer and audio designer a little while ago.
The studio's first game, Bastion, first released on Xbox 360 in July 2011 and would eventually come to other platforms, including Switch in 2018. After falling in love with it nearly a decade ago (played on an iPad, of all places), we couldn't resist double dipping on Switch and the game's incredible atmosphere held up very well years later, and its rich soundscape and smart audio design is key — not to mention the unforgettable tones of Logan Cunningham as the narrator.
Over the last decade Supergiant has released another three titles with music and audio from Korb, the sublime smash hit Hades being the most recent. We caught up with him via Zoom for a good old chinwag about his career, his influences, and more...
Please be aware that a few spoilers for Hades are discussed below.
Nintendo Life: First off, let’s go back to the beginning. Do you remember when you first thought, “yep, okay, composing music is for me!"?
Darren Korb: I knew that I wanted to do something in music probably sometime in high school. Before that, I was really into filmmaking and acting and stuff like that, and I was playing instruments and playing in bands since I was maybe in middle school, and I discovered recording — multi-track recording. As soon as I discovered that I became pretty obsessed with it, and I thought “okay, this is as much fun as anything I’ve ever done and I want to do this as much as possible”.
I was just trying to kind of find any way to do music professionally... taking gigs as a musician, playing around the city in New York... doing gigs here and there as a producer... interning in a recording studio for a few years... joining any band that would have me for experience.
I think it was at that point that I knew I wanted to do something in music, I didn’t know what it was going to be yet, so I pursued that. I kept writing songs and playing in bands and recording music and I went to school at NYU and I studied a little bit of music business, music production, kind of an individualised major there.
I was just trying to kind of find any way to do music professionally. I was taking gigs as a musician, playing around the city in New York. I was doing gigs here and there as a producer, I was interning in a recording studio for a few years, I was joining any band that would have me for experience. I did a couple of little composing gigs for commercial spots, infomercial spots that I was able to snag. My brother is an editor, so he was like “you can submit some stuff and maybe we’ll use it for this”. And so I was able to kind of dip my toe into composing that way.
The oopportunity to compose for games presented itself by my buddy Amir [Rao], who co-founded Supergiant, when he asked me “hey, I think you might be able to do this — would you like to do all the audio for this game I’m working on?” and I [said] “yeah, totally, that makes perfect sense. I had no idea that it was a job that I could do, but now that you say it out loud, yes, I want to do this.”
Back in your teenage years, what were you listening to? Was there a particular band you were obsessed with?
Maybe the first two Weezer albums. I was obsessed with those for quite a while and really internalised those. I loved OK Computer by Radiohead a lot. They Might Be Giants is a big part of... throughout my whole life I’ve been listening to them, I really love them. Jeff Buckley, I discovered in high school and really got into him and in particular his one official album Grace is just incredible.
I was listening to Bjork, and this band called Osma, a Southern California band that never made it super big, but they opened for Weezer and that’s how I discovered them actually. I saw them open for Weezer and I thought “wow, this band is awesome” — like Weezer, but with more interesting stuff going on. They were fantastic.
And this other band called Spiralling, really cool. They opened for They Might Be Giants when I saw them, and I discovered them that way. They’ve sort of disbanded, but now the vocalist from that band is the keyboard player in Kansas now.
So I would say those. Led Zeppelin also, lot of Zeppelin. Definitely a lot of Zeppelin. I’d say those are some of the highlights. Maybe Ben Harper I listened to a pretty decent amount at that time too. A little Dave Matthews Band, because that was the time for it.
Yeah, that era.
Little bit of Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Yeah, I listened to that Californication record, when it came out I was listening to that a bit, I was in high school at the time... Blood Sugar Sex Magic I was into, as much as a 12-year-old can be into that record!
I’d say that’s probably a decent overview. I’m sure I’m leaving some stuff out. Oh, Pixies, can’t forget Pixies.
When you started [at Supergiant] were you very much 'The Composer'? Because you expanded into all parts of audio design.
I was tasked with being responsible for all of the audio right away. The thing I had the most experience with was the music part of it, but I definitely was in charge of recording all the voiceover and making the sound effects and everything right away.
Your production experience there came into play?
Yeah, for sure, and I had done acting in the past and so I had some experience working with actors and stuff, so that wasn’t as foreign to me as it might have been otherwise. Logan and I went to high school together — Logan Cunningham, who’s worked on all the [Supergiant] games — and we were roommates at the time I started working on Bastion, so we had a rapport, we were able to work together, we’d been in improv comedy together and stuff in high school. That’s why I was comfortable working with him.
You had a connection there immediately in the studio.
Exactly, yeah. The sound design stuff, that was the thing I had the least experience with, so I definitely learned on the job through that. It was a ton of fun and it’s a way that I enjoy learning — a sink or swim, trial by fire thing; I tend to learn the best or the most quickly when the stakes are high. And they felt high to me.
It was a lot of trial and error and just understanding how sounds get into a game. I had no idea how any of that worked and the very patient engineers had to teach me. I had to learn how to use middleware and all that stuff. There was definitely a learning curve, and it’s a journey I’m still on, mastering all that stuff.
When you started out on Bastion, did you have a clear idea of that kind of earthy tone? I mean it’s fantastic, the Bastion soundtrack — did that [sound] come fully formed or was it an evolution?
I did a little bit of experimentation at the beginning of [Bastion]. I had a few kind of constraints, both technically and creatively... It was a matter of what can I execute alone in my bedroom in my apartment, essentially.
I did a little bit of experimentation at the beginning of the project. I had a few kind of constraints, both technically and creatively that I either had to or wanted to abide by. I didn’t have the budget or really the expertise to bring in other musicians and record them. It was a matter of what can I execute alone in my bedroom in my apartment, essentially. What are the things I’m capable of executing — the technical limitations — and then creatively I want to do something that I don’t feel like I’ve heard in the context of a game before. I want to combine a few different things to create something that feels new, because of the combination, because of the way these elements come together. I’d heard a lot of electronic stuff that was purely electronic, I’d heard hard rock stuff in games, I’d heard orchestral, cinematic stuff in games, I’d heard combinations of those three things, but I felt like I hadn’t really heard anything else at that time.
We had these high level ideas about the game, we knew it was going to be a frontier-sy fantasy thing, like what if Cormac McCarthy made a fantasy video game? That [was] the high level tone idea. So I had that to go on, and I though the sort of down-tuned open guitar — a bluesy guitar thing — would probably work well. I was able to record an acoustic guitar in my apartment, so that was one component, and then I had access to a lot of cool sample beats, trip hoppy, new beats. I was using Logic Pro and it comes with a ton of awesome samples of that nature, so that was one of the components. And then I had access to a bunch of really cool world instrument samples, and by combining those three different components I felt I could make a thing that felt unique to this place and felt like the place we were trying to convey.
So everything was recorded in your apartment?
That’s impressive, it sounds… I mean, when was Bastion, 2011?
It came out in 2011, we started working on it in 2009.
One of the things with Bastion — well, all the [Supergiant] games, really — there’s this kind of lyrical quality even to the instrumentals. Does your process change particularly when you’re thinking “okay, this is an instrumental” or “this is going to have some voice work or lyrics on it”?
Definitely. I feel like whenever you have a vocal with lyrics, it demands a certain amount of attention from the player, so we’re conscious of when we have those moments in games because we don’t really want to have a lot of other talking that occurs over it. Usually. We have some exceptions, like the narrator says a few things on the level where you discover Zia in Bastion where she’s singing, but he doesn’t talk quite as much there as he does normally, and also you’re kind of making your way through Ethereal and you can’t make out all the lyrics necessarily right at the beginning when he’s talking — the closer you get, the clearer the lyrics become — and so we tried to not have too much talking that’s fighting for your brain’s attention.
For me, I really want to give [a song with vocals] a context in the game. I feel like without a context it doesn’t necessarily have the impact that it could, so we always try to make room when we are going to implement something with vocals in a game, we always try to give it space and give it a reason to exist in the context of the game. Instrumental music doesn’t have to be quite as diegetic seeming, you know?... It’s expected, and you want it and it’s there to enhance the feeling and to help immerse the player, but it doesn’t have as many requirements for existing as a piece with lyrics.
I can see behind you you’ve got your studio, your instruments. What was the first instrument you started playing?
Guitar was the one I first seriously started playing. As a little kid I took a few keyboard lessons and didn’t really get into it, I was probably five and I was just “this is boring, I don’t want to play jingle bells!”. And so I just kind of bounced off of that, but then when I was 10 or 11 I picked up the guitar and started really getting into that and writing songs as soon as I could after that — as soon as I could put three chords together.
So yeah, guitar was my first instrument, followed by bass and then drums.
And are there any particularly strange or unusual instruments that you’ve used?
I’ll have to Google a few of those!
Three of those are Mediterranean ones that I acquired specifically for Hades, the baglama, the bouzouki and the lavta. Two of those are Turkish and one is Greek. The autoharp was a ton of fun, I used that on Pyre. I’ve used weird circuit bent synthesisers, little toy synthesisers from the '80s that have been modified, and there’s a little theremin on the little Casio SA2, and stuff like that. I used a Casio SK1 a lot, which is this little toy keyboard from the '80s, which I love. I used it all throughout Hades, for the sound of the theremin-type thing that you hear.
With the different styles of Supergiant’s games, [you have] a lot of opportunity to try those different things — different instruments, different genres.
Absolutely. And one of the things I like to do at the beginning of a project is acquire some things for new textures that I think might work based on the concept for the setting and what we’re trying to achieve. I like to pick up a handful of instruments or new toys that I can experiment with for the project.
How involved are you in the ideas and pitching phase before [a direction is chosen]?
I think in general these days that stuff is driven mostly by Greg Kasavin [Supergiant writer and designer]. He’ll come up with a lot of pitches and then we all kind of evaluate them. Anybody who has one can contribute, but I think in general, we’ve discovered over time… We used to have a more democratic process about it, but it would just take forever and was hard, I just feel like it works out a lot better when Greg kind of generates that stuff and we all gauge how we feel about…
We used to have a more democratic process about [coming up with game pitches and ideas], but it would just take forever and was hard...
Rather than you demanding “okay, I need to use a big brass section in the next thing, whatever it is!”...
Yeah, and musically I can bring whatever feels appropriate to the table and I think everybody would probably be “yeah, go nuts”. [That's] the response I’d expect at this point.
When you’re composing, how do you get in the mood? Do you have a set process or some kind of ritual to get ‘in the zone’?
It’s interesting. It depends on what I’m working on and where I’m working. I did the first two games from my apartment in New York, Bastion and Transistor, and I was remote — the team was based in San Francisco. When I working from home, before I’d ever worked in an office, I would just kind of work for a little bit and if I got stuck at all I’d take a break and I’d come back. I just had 'a path of least resistance' [approach], a 'working a little bit all the time' way of working.
Then once I started working at the office when I moved to the area, I had to learn how to work during work hours. And then I had a kid, too, so I had to learn to stop working when I got home, so I could spend time with my family. I think that was really good for my process, actually, because it really made me have to [say] "okay, it’s work time, I’m going to work" instead of waiting for the muse to strike. I was able to get in the zone on purpose.
The thing I discovered over time was when you sit down to work and you start working, inspiration strikes more frequently when you push through the hard stuff and just keep going. I’d say the ritual is you say “okay, I want to accomplish this much today” and you sit down, and you see what comes out and you can evaluate it afterwards. I think that’s the best policy — instead of self-editing before you do anything, try and make something and then you can think about it once you can hear it back and see if you like it.
You were friends pre-Supergiant with Ashley Barrett and obviously you’ve been working together for years at this point. What’s it like to work with someone that closely over a long period of time?
It’s great! We've developed a good creative shorthand, I think. The relationship I have with Ashley and with Logan and my co-workers and Amir and everybody I’ve been working with since Bastion — I think it all really helps and you develop a lot of trust and a clear sense of everybody’s strengths. It’s really good to be able to just know 'okay, this person is going to be able to execute this, great'. I don’t have to worry about it at all, I can just present it to Ashley [and] I know she’ll kill it and I don’t have to worry about that.
You don’t have to factor that into your composing, “hmm, will the person we get be able to [do this]”…
Yeah, and I have a good sense of what Ashley’s strengths are and I can write to those to the best of my ability.
I’ve been reading some genre descriptions that you’ve used to describe the previous games, like Bastion: 'acoustic frontier trip hop'. And I was watching a BAFTA video where you called Hades music 'Mediterranean prog rock Halloween'. Can you tell me a little bit about how you arrive at those very specific 'genres'?
I think originally I came up with that for Bastion as a practical solution to the question of how can I unify the music of this soundtrack while making it have variety and feel different, each track feel different and specific. And since I didn’t really feel that I had the tools of a traditional composer to do that, I didn’t really know how to approach that.
So I decided if I just make a genre for myself and then make essentially an album in that genre, it will help constrain me in a way that will be good for directing my creative efforts and making sure everything’s unified to some degree. It sticks a pin in the map and everything can sort of be in the circle around that area; there can be variety, but it will be tethered to something. That was the idea behind it originally. I try to look at different aspects of what we’re trying to accomplish tonally, and with the setting, and usually the first part of that comes from specifically the vibe of the place.
the prog rock, hard rock, metal component, was 'well you’re in Hell, so you’ve got to have that!'. Metal comes from Hell, everyone knows this
For Hades, I wanted [the Mediterranean music] to place you there, place you in ancient Greece somehow, to imply that. The prog rock, hard rock, metal component, was 'well you’re in Hell, so you’ve got to have that!'. Metal comes from Hell, everyone knows this. The final component was the quirk and lightness of the game’s tone, in spite of the grim setting, the game is actually pretty light-hearted, and I feel like the theremin Halloween music sound expresses that aspect of it.
There's a lot of comedy to it, to the repetition of it, the loop. Hadestown, the musical, must have come out while you were working on the game, in 2016. Did that have any kind of influence on your approach or your understanding of the story?
Not really. I didn’t even really hear about it until maybe we’d entered Early Access, I hadn’t known about it early on I don’t think. I took a look at it, I kind of skimmed through the soundtrack and I was like “yeah, seems cool”. I haven’t seen the play, but I hear it’s cool. I know people dig it, but I’m not actually super familiar with it, and there’s a lot of material about sort of the Orpheus myth, so…
There’s no shortage!
Yeah, there’s no shortage, and I feel like it’s kind of contributing to that, but I mostly pulled from other sources when I was looking at that stuff.
There are references and thematic tie ins to the main theme of the game, In the Blood, all through the soundtrack, so I’m wondering when you’re writing, do you think “right, I did the main theme, now I’m going to sprinkle that into everything”?
When I was working on the main theme early on in the project I thought 'well I really want a musical signature, I want something that can represent Hades and I want some aspect of this to represent Zagreus' and so I felt like the “duh-duh-duh-duh”, those four notes were the "Hades theme" and done with the Mediterranean instruments in particular, the acoustic instruments, that was representing Hades. When it’s done with the electric guitar, it represents Zagreus. It’s the same signature for both of them in a lot of ways.
The familial relation is echoed.
Yeah. He’s the rebellious rock and roll kid and Hades is the stodgy old school one, and then I saw opportunities to bring that back for the boss fight music for God of the Dead. I thought 'okay, well it’s got to be a harder version of the main theme that goes more places and it’s got to be based on that'.
When I saw an opportunity to do the thing where you’re trying to reunite the family, and I saw an opportunity to have a theme for particular characters that you want to reunite the family with — spoilers! I don’t want to... — that character’s theme then combining with the Hades theme is sort of what In the Blood is, On the Coast and the main theme of the game. I saw an opportunity there and felt like it would probably help give that piece a little bit more emotional impact when you hear it.
When you’re working on Eurydice’s lyrics, how closely did you consult with Greg, who was presumably writing her as well?
When I set out to write the song I chatted with Greg for a bit about what’s this going to be about, what’s her point of view, how does she feel about Orpheus at this point when you discover her singing this song? What’s her attitude towards her situation? Through talking, I thought it would be cool if it were a sort of "I’m over you" song, but when I started getting into it, it can serve a double purpose — "I’m happy with being in the afterlife and I’m also over you, Orpheus". It’s like a Meghan Trainor song, you know what I mean? A goodbye break up song.
Once I had that starting point and came up with the idea of a good riddance thing, I thought 'okay let me go and take a look at this on my own', and I came back to Greg with the finished lyric just to verify and make sure it all added up for her character. When I set out to write lyrics usually I’ll have a meeting with Greg before I start where we can talk about what’s the context of this, what is the high level things we want to accomplish with it, [what] are there character considerations? And then I’ll go nuts.
And how was Orpheus and Eurydice’s musical style influenced by the way they were written? Or did the music come completely first, since they’re musicians?
The characterisation came first before the music, and I wanted the musical style to be reflective of their personalities. I feel like Orpheus has more of a classical implication or more dramatic or operatic or melodramatic style, if you will, and I wanted Eurydice’s to be a more straightforward, simplistic style that was a little bit more accessible maybe or a little bit less flowery. It was just very more emotionally focused. I tried to give them styles that felt like their character’s personalities, and then I did my best to combine those styles and make something that hopefully felt like it could have worked in either of their styles, or had elements of both of their styles for In the Blood when they sing together.
Early Access really benefited Hades, but in terms of composing, how did that affect your pipeline for writing?
It was a really cool experience, composing with the game in Early Access. When the game launched into Early Access I’d say we had 14 tracks, I think, of the eventual 30 or whatever it became, and those we released as singles when the game came out, just because we wanted to have the music available outside of the game right away. If we didn’t do it, somebody else was going to and we thought we’d just do it ourselves. We decided on releasing the singles because you can’t really add to albums, on iTunes and Spotify, you have to make new albums, the way submission works.
You’re into 'Volume 3', 'Volume 7'...
Yeah, I didn’t want to do that because we were going to be releasing the material as we released the game and it wasn’t going to be the first chunk and then the last chunk, it was going to be one piece every update or every other update. So that was part of it.
It was cool to see the response to that initial batch of music be really positive, and it gave me confidence to double down on certain aspects of it and go as hard as I could and lean into that stuff. And it was exciting to work on a thing for the game, finish it, call it 'done', get is mastered, and then it comes out a couple of weeks after that. Throughout the whole project it was really cool to have to call something 'done'. I did not plan to go back and revise things and I didn’t end up doing it, actually. Pretty much everything is as initially released on the actual soundtrack. I had it all mastered again at the end, just to unify it, but…
[with Early Access] it was exciting to work on a thing for the game, finish it, call it 'done', get is mastered, and then it comes out a couple of weeks after that.
That must have taken some willpower not to go "oh, if I just pumped that level up a bit"...
Yeah. But honestly I was pretty satisfied with how that process went, it was a lot of fun to make, to release an album that way, sort of in little pieces. It was a really cool experience, I really enjoyed it and it was really motivating for me, from a writing perspective to be “alright, update’s coming out, two weeks, got to get this done.”
Like you were talking about before: "This is work time".
Yeah, deadlines are really helpful for inspiration. Nothing will get your inspiration going faster than a looming deadline.
And also you voiced Zagreus. What was that like in terms of your workload, composing and doing the voice acting? Is that something you would do again if the opportunity came up?
I had a ton of fun doing Zagreus, and it’s not something that I’d planned for. The way that happened ultimately was we got some auditions for Zag and we weren’t exactly hearing what we had in mind, and so I thought I’d just take a stab to record some stuff for scratch — "here’s an approximation of what I’m thinking it could be like". And the team liked it. We didn’t end up getting any auditions that we felt beat what we had, so "okay, guess I’m doing Zagreus."
In terms of the workload it didn’t actually add any extra work I don’t think, because if I weren’t acting as Zagreus I would have been directing someone else for the same amount of time doing Zagreus.
Did you have someone directing you whilst you were recording?
No, it was just me directing myself usually. Greg was occasionally there, on the headphones, but mostly it was me just alone in a booth for hours. Sometimes I’d give myself direction out loud — "oh, no, it should be more this way", thinking out loud, but for the most part it was just me doing tons of takes by myself.
And did you have any specific inspiration for the accent? "I want a little bit of Laurence Olivier, I want a little bit of this"?
In terms of vibe I looked at Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as an inspiration. He’s a real good vibe reference for Zag in that he’s mischievous and got a little bit of darkness about him, kind of cocky but you like him still. Asa Butterfield is another actor who I looked at, I really like his stuff and the way he speaks. We weren’t going for a specific regional thing. A broader western fantasy British accent was the idea. We knew that... it had to sound a certain way to our American ears, if that makes sense. So, intentionally there are some words that are not pronounced in the proper British way because of the effects they had on me when I said them out loud that way. I was like "no, I can’t…"
It's more a sort of theatrical, 'Hollywood' [version]...
Exactly, yeah, that was the approach, because the idea of doing the British accents for the God characters and the Olympians and the Greeks was, at least for me, whenever I think about portrayals of the Greek gods in popular media — all sorts of movies — they all have these inexplicable British accents forever. They’re not speaking Greek and they don’t have Greek accents, so it just seemed like we wanted to lean into the expectation as much as possible and make sure that was met so that then we could play with it and subvert it.
You think about the '50s, '60s big budget Hollywood films, [actors] like Peter Ustinov, all exaggerated, 'bigger' British...
You’ve got a group of collaborators you’ve been working with for a long time now, [but] in terms of other composers in the industry, are there people that you would be excited to work with if the opportunity arose?
Yeah, I’ve worked with Austin Wintory a little bit on the Hades soundtrack — he helped me with the orchestral arrangements for On the Coast and In the Blood, and he conducted the chamber orchestra that we recorded at Abbey Road for that, which was incredible, just before lockdown happened.
Just squeezed it in!
Just squeezed it in. It was in January in 2020, so we lucked out there! And also we happened to be there recording Songs of Supergiant Games, the 10 year anniversary orchestral album, so I’d worked with him on that as well. That was a ton of fun because his process is so different from mine. He writes everything for other people to play and he writes it out, and I am the exact opposite, I write nothing out and it’s all about the production and doing that stuff myself. So yeah, it was really fun to work with somebody who’s process is so different, and he’s a fun dude, I really like Austin.
Other people I want to work with... [thinks] I mean I’m really impressed with Lena Raine’s work, I think she’s awesome. We have probably a little bit more in common stylistically than Austin and I do. I heard the music for the trailer for Psychonauts 2 and I was really impressed. At the beginning of it, it seems obvious to me the director [said] "okay, do Danny Elfman — go" and it’s such a great execution of that style. That is very impressive, because it’s not Danny Elfman — it’s clearly not a Danny Elfman score — but it is very much in the style. Super well executed. I’m always impressed by his work, Peter McConnell is awesome.
My last question: Obviously there’s a lot of metal influence in Hades, and Bastion’s got kind of bluegrass and electronica in Transistor. We were talking about the 'genre blend' earlier that you created for each project — is there a particular genre blend that you would like to explore in the future, something that you haven’t done in the past?
I think there are aspects of music that I make just for fun that I haven’t really been able to incorporate into any of the games just yet. I have a band outside of the game stuff that’s a garage rock thing, kind of Pixies-esque, a fun, a little bit more rough-around-the-edges thing that hasn’t felt appropriate in any of the game stuff up till now, so that would be fun some day to maybe incorporate a little bit more, depending on the context — if there was an available context for it.
I think stuff that I’m really obsessed with at this moment in time is this guy Louis Cole or his band, Knower. First of all, this dude is one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard in my life, an incredible keyboard player and producer and really creative songwriter, and a real virtuoso of a lot of things. But I find sometimes with people who are super-duper virtuosos it’s not as 'out there', not as out of the box or creative necessarily This is obviously a generalisation — there are some people who do both very well — but sometimes it’s hard to access because it’s so 'virtuosic' or something. But he threads that needle so well. So anyway, Louis Cole, I’m obsessed with his music, and I aspire to [be] a fraction as interesting as his music.
Many thanks to Darren for taking the time to speak with us. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.