We recently covered Valley, the latest and greatest from Blue Isle, the developers behind Slender: The Arrival. We enjoyed and were especially complimentary of the sound design in general and the fantastic soundtrack in particular. Aakaash Rao, the composer behind the title’s soundtrack reached out and was kind enough to answer some of our questions regarding some of the more technical and behind the scenes aspects of how it all came together.
Paul Policarp: I’d like to kick off this interview by mentioning that I’m musically illiterate and I may misuse or misidentify terms and elements respectively over the course of this interview, so please accept my apologies in advance.
Aakaash Rao: Not at all! I think the ability to communicate in non-technical terms is incredibly important in all creative fields, particularly when working remotely, so I’ll do my best to keep my responses accessible to people without a musical background.
Your portfolio contains several video game soundtracks as either composer or audio lead on such titles as Valley, Planet Explorers or Liege. Do you do work in other segments of media?
I’ve done a bit of work for films and trailers, but my passion has always been writing for video games. I think games offer a lot more creative freedom — I can focus more on the mood I want to convey and the story I want to tell and less on making sure that the music snaps exactly to film.
There’s also more scope for a game composer to influence the experience. I find that subtle changes in the music can radically affect the player’s perception of the scene, whereas writing music for film is more like fitting a piece into a puzzle — you absolutely influence the viewer’s experience, but there’s not quite the same scope for creative liberty. So for these reasons, I tend to lean toward game soundtracks. I should add that there’s nothing quite like the energy and creativity of an indie game studio; it’s truly inspiring to work with such talented people.
How did you wind up working with Blue Isle on the soundtrack of Valley?
Blue Isle reached out to me in late 2013. They’d heard one of my pieces for Liege (A Quiet Farewell) and wanted the Valley soundtrack to convey the same sense of magic and wonder. The game was in quite a rudimentary state at the time, but even then I was absolutely blown away by the experience of running in the L.E.A.F. suit — it was like nothing I’d ever experienced in a game. I knew the moment I played the demo that this would be something special, and I was (and am!) very excited to be a part of it.
Music is a key element in Valley and for the majority of the game the only companion the player has (which is a really clever-sounding phrase I wish I’d thought of when I was reviewing it). The game uses what game designers call “a dynamic soundtrack”, with certain tracks kicking in when triggered by game-play cues. Was your collaboration with Blue Isle done remotely or did you meet with them face to face? What kind of direction were you given to mould the music to fit the environments so well?
The development team and I collaborated entirely remotely; I met them only once during a brief stop in Toronto. The implementation of the music was definitely a major consideration, and I have to give a lot of credit to my director, Brenden Frank, and to my friend and colleague, Selçuk Bor. Both of them worked very closely with me to make sure each piece exactly fit the scene, and they also played a lot of technical tricks to really give the player the sense that the music was reacting to his or her every action.
One of the absolute coolest experiences I’ve ever had in a video game was the “slides” level, during which the player is sprinting at breakneck speed along electrified rails deep underground and jumping across vast chasms. The music and sound design for that level is incredibly complex — the timing needed to be exact, and the music had to gradually build in intensity while still taking into account differences in how players would approach the level — and Selçuk pulled it off brilliantly.
I’d describe the soundtrack of Valley to be eclectic. The outdoor/daytime sequences have what we’ve come to refer to as a “Celtic” feel (I blame Enya and Lord of The Rings), heavy on flutes and bearing a whimsical tone, while more contemplative moments are accompanied by grave classical instruments such as pianos and cellos, even going into ominous industrial-sounding droning sounds during the darker segments of the game. With such a wide array of styles, I’d love to hear you talk about some of your musical influences for a bit.
I’m a pianist, so my music does tend to have deep classical roots — my favorite composers include Debussy, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for Journey was also a major inspiration, as was Danny Elfman’s work on Edward Scissorhands.
I should say, though, that I was most inspired not by other soundtracks but rather by the talents of my collaborators. Valley’s soundtrack features four fantastic musicians — cellist Deryn Cullen, vocalist Zefora Alderman, and multi-ethnic woodwind players Sandro Friedrich and Lucian Nagy — and each of them play a unique role in the soundtrack. As I mentioned, the very experience of running in the L.E.A.F. suit was incredibly inspiring, and I was particularly interested in capturing the unique interplay of ground and sky that the player experiences. In the soundtrack, the flute (Sandro and Lucian) represents air, speed, and movement, while the cello (Deryn) represents solidity and “groundedness”. My favorite tracks from the soundtrack, Life Yet in these Metal Bones and Ascension, weave these two voices together.
Meanwhile, Zefora represents the “voice of the Valley”. As a result, she’s heard at the beginning — when the Valley is lush full of life — and at the very end, when it is restored to this state — but she’s silent as the Valley is dying throughout most of the game.
We were mentioning remote collaborations and various instruments and I saw on your website that you often collaborate with musicians from across the globe for live instruments. Do you find it challenging to work with people so spread out, rather than seeking local talent? What are some of the benefits, in your opinion?
Actually, I’ve always found it quite easy to work with musicians in other countries. All of the musicians with whom I worked have in-house studio setups, so all I have to send them a score and a backing track. It’s true that there’s a bit more back-and-forth since I can’t give them live feedback, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make in order to work with such talented people. I sincerely doubt that I would be able to find local session musicians of their caliber who understand my music and are comfortable taking the kind of creative liberties that really bring the piece to the next level.
I have our cellist, Deryn, to thank for introducing me to the world of remote session musicians — she has really spearheaded the movement to make session musicians available to composers in the UK and beyond, and it was through her efforts that I came to work with the other three musicians featured on Valley.
What would you say is the ratio of virtual to live instruments in your work? Would you like to change anything about it? To my untrained ear it makes no difference, but I’d wager you have a preference. Or is it simply a case-by-case thing?
I almost always prefer working with live instruments. Virtual instrument companies have made amazing progress since the early 2000s, but there’s still nothing quite like the real thing. Unfortunately, hiring an orchestra is an undertaking out of reach of most of the studios I’ve worked with, so I find that working with soloists is the best compromise. Used properly, a single performance can really breathe life into a track that’s otherwise completely composed with virtual instruments. This is especially true of the voice and instruments like flute and cello, performances of which are essentially impossible to reproduce virtually.
Favorite bands? Favorite albums?
To be honest, most of the music I listen to is either classical or from soundtracks. My favorite albums include absolutely all of Yo-Yo Ma’s original work (particularly Obrigado Brazil!); Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack for L’Ennemi Intime; John Williams’ soundtracks for Harry Potter, Seven Years in Tibet, and Memories of a Geisha; and Michelangeli’s performances of Debussy.
What about favorite video games, if any?
Music is such an important part of the experience for me that my list of favorite games is virtually the same as my list of favorite soundtracks. Final Fantasy VI, Oblivion, Icewind Dale, and Journey are definitely all up there.
Do you have any plans for the future? Should we expect more videogame soundtracks from you?
Absolutely! Selçuk and I are just about wrapping up work on Pathea’s Planet Explorers, and Coda Games’ Liege is making great progress as well, so I’m keeping my ear out for interesting projects! I’m particularly hoping to work on a puzzle or fantasy game next — it’s been a while since I had the opportunity to write a more intimate, chamber-based soundtrack.
We thank Aakaash for his time and wish him all our best in his current and future endeavors.