Design Clipboard is a new series of articles I plan to write here on Horizontalpitch. As you can guess from the name, these...
Here comes another chosen wave, but this time we have something unusual: Kentucky Route Zero, a game, an independent one from a small company called Cardboard Computer. There’s certain analogies between indie games and modulars. Both are mostly being made by small companies for a niche audience, so it’s only fitting that the soundtrack to Kentucky Route Zero was partially created using a modular. As a sidenote: the instrument employed is no eurorack, it’s an old EMU system owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, but I think my point is still valid.
The above video shows Cardboard Computer’s Ben Babbitt working on the score for the XANADU sequence in Kentucky Route Zero. As the notes on the youtube video say, the “line-out recording got corrupted, so this is audio from the room”, nonetheless it’s beautiful to see the instrument that produced this wonderfully organic sounds.
For comparison, here’s a video of the XANADU scene in the game (it’s a playthrough video, so it might contain spoilers!).
… and finally, this is the same track from the soundtrack album:
It’s interesting how different the music sounds in the game from what we have heard in the live video at the beginning. We got in touch with Ben Babbitt and asked him how this score was produced and talked a bit about electronic music and modular synths.
Horizontalpitch: Why did you choose to work with a modular, and especially an old one like that EMU system?
Ben Babbitt: Working with a modular synthesizer happened mostly because we were trying to create a sense of time relative to when XANADU was made in the game world. That particular EMU system was built around 1977 for the sound department at the college we all went to. Using that EMU specifically rather than another analog synthesizer was a bit of a coincidence, because I happened to have access to it around the time we were working on that scene.
HP: The EMU system at the university, was right next to what appears to be an old Moog modular, what made you choose the EMU over the Moog?
BB: I chose the EMU rather than the Moog simply because that was what I had experience using. I took a class on the study of analog synthesis that used the EMU to demonstrate the concepts and put into practice what we were learning about. I did have a chance recently to mess around with some of the new Moog reissues of their modular systems from the 70’s and they’re amaaaazing.
HP: What was your process when recording the music for the XANADU scene? Did you record the music in one take or was a lot of editing and production involved?
BB: The process for making the music for XANADU involved recording long instances of improvisation and then going back and constructing compositions in a collage-like way, for the most part. Finding interesting and suggestive moments and then building upon them. Although, some of the pieces were also more immediate than that.
HP: Would you like to work more with that kind of instrument in future soundtracks?
BB: I really enjoy working with that kind of instrument and would love to do more of it, yes.
HP: What were your main sources of inspiration for the KRZ soundtrack and, more specifically, for the XANADU scene?
BB: Hmmm…for XANADU specifically, 60’s/70’s institutional electronic music was a main reference. Composers like Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Karlheinz Stockhausen, etc. The visual and narrative elements of the game are also usually the main instigators of any creative decisions I make. Broader influences on my work are many because of the various instances of music performed by characters in the game.
HP: Do you own a modular system… or are you thinking about getting one?
BB: So this is probably completely sacrilegious to say on a website about modular synthesizers but I’ve been really into this software synth called Bazille that’s designed with a modular interface. I always love it when I can get my hands on a hardware system, but actually Jake Elliott [one of Ben’s associates at Cardboard Computer, more about him at dai5ychain.net Ed.] is much more active in that world and has quite a rig built up that he plays with regularly. He performs every Sunday with it on an internet radio station.
A bit like in Louis and Bebe Barron’s soundtracks, Babbitt’s work on the XANADU scene fuses underscoring, music that happens in the scene and sound effects into one glorious sonic construct! The analogies actually go a bit further than that. For instance, there’s a similar approach to composition, both in Ben Babbitt’s and the Barrons’ music: both worked by recording longer passages with the machine and then assembled them in a sonic collage. Finally, the organic computer XANADU in the game is, in certain regards, similar to the Barron’s “self-destructing machines”, so perhaps this could only lead to a similar approach.
If I got you interested in this game and want to get a copy (it’s really worth it btw!), I suggest you buy it from the Humble Bundle Store, you’ll get it DRM-free and cross platform. Plus, and this might be the most interesting aspect, you’ll get the OST bundled with it as a bonus!
Of course if you only want the soundtrack, it’s available directly from Ben Babbitt here: benbabbitt.bandcamp.com
Thanks to Konstantine for pointing me at this game/soundtrack!
In case you were wondering, Milton Babbitt of Columbia-Princeton fame (who worked as a composer with the RCA Mark II synthesizer in the 1950s) really is Ben’s distant relative.