What It's Like Making Music For No Man's Sky

65daysofstatic are an experimental instrumental band from Sheffield, England. Think early Mogwai, think Explosions in the Sky.

They're making the soundtrack for No Man's Sky.

Remember that awesome music playing in the very first trailer? That was 65daysofstatic. They are responsible for all the music in No Man's Sky and that's quite the burden/challenge/task.

How does one make music for a game like No Man's Sky? We asked band member Paul Wolinski.


How were 65 Days approached about No Man's Sky? We were on tour in the States. An email came through to us from Hello Games asking if they could use our song 'Debutante' for the launch trailer of this game they were making. After a few emails back and forth, it was immediately clear from the screenshots and their enthusiasm that this was going to be a significantly exciting project and that we wanted to be involved in it. So we asked if they had anybody on board to do the soundtrack yet. They said no. We had been hoping to get involved in a soundtrack project for a while, and couldn't quite believe something so perfectly-suited to what we do had just become a possibility.


So what the hell is going on in No Man's Sky! How was it explained to you in the beginning? When they first pitched it to us, it was described as a very personal, visceral idea. The vast scale of the game was a symptom of the experience they were trying to create, rather than the other way round. It didn't feel like their overall idea was 'We've figured out the maths to make an infinite universe, how do we make a game out of it!?' It was more like, 'We want to make a game that allows the player to feel the sublime sense of fear and wonder at being all alone in a universe that's more or less always trying to kill them, with the freedom to explore and create their own stories. What do we need to build in order to do that!?'

This was great because it chimed with how we tend to approach writing songs and playing live shows as a band. We start with the experience we want to impress on people, and then work backwards from that. Nobody needs to know about the way we build a 65days live show or how a song might sound to us on stage. What's most important to us is that to somebody in the audience it's like getting hit in the face by an aeroplane made of noise. Similarly, it felt like Hello Games were saying to us, on one level, ‘it doesn't matter that there's 18 kajillion stars in this thing we've built, what really matters is the experience of the player within it’.


Your music was used in the very first trailer for the game. What was it like being part of that unveiling? It was blindingly obvious to us that the reaction to the trailer would be favourable, it was still a thrill to see how immediate and huge the support for this game was.

Having spent a decade in the music industry, which is falling apart, it is really encouraging to see how enthusiastic and supportive the gaming community is towards projects that are daring to be different and are striving to push this burgeoning art form forward.


Making music for a game like No Man's Sky seems terrifying. How did you approach it in the beginning? What sort of direction were you given? More exciting than terrifying. By the time we released Wild Light in 2013, it was our sixth record, and we'd been dealing with this nagging feeling that the existing forms that bands generally exist in were limiting in ways we were just starting to figure out. Not that albums and live shows are irrelevant - they're both still really effective forms to present music in, but during Wild Light we'd been working on a sound installation and a 3D remix engine that had helped us consider what it might be like writing music to exist 'in space' rather than 'through time'. So when No Man's Sky appeared, it was the perfect project to explore this properly.

More importantly, the direction from Hello Games was simply 'write a 65daysofstatic record'. Which was incredibly flattering, and incredibly trusting of them. So that's what we started doing.


Did the process evolve over time? It did. As far as I understand it music is generally one of the last things to get put into a game. So it already felt significant that they brought us onboard so quickly. At the same time though, because of the nature of the game, there wasn't really anything tangible to soundtrack. So to begin with we were trying to soundtrack fairly abstract concepts, rather than actual moments from No Man's Sky. This was okay, because that's not so different to how we would write music anyway. It just involved a certain amount of double think, because we needed to write songs that would work in their own right as standalone pieces of music, as tracks on an album which needed to work as a standalone record, but also as libraries of sounds and melodies that could be pulled apart again when the time was right, so we could feed them into the generative music system that would be running within the game.

So, the first wave was old fashioned song-writing, combined with cataloguing each song's sounds, melodies, variations, along with any elements that perhaps didn't fit the final 'linear' version of the song for the record, but might still work within a more dynamic audio environment.

As it became clearer to us how the in-game musical logic would be working, the process evolved into a second wave of work. We created material that was less structured (the 'soundscapes' on our record are made up of these elements); basically bigs slabs of noise and texture, all within the same kind of style as the 'main' songs, but designed to be more open-ended. 'Ambient' is a word I'm reluctant to use, because the majority of these things are not particularly relaxing. But it might give you an idea of what we were doing.

More recently, we have been working very closely with Paul Weir, the audio director, who is the benevolent overlord of the various music algorithms that are juggling the sounds we have fed them. We can see how the music reacts to the player's actions, and then tweak phrases, sounds and mixes accordingly.

Because of the nature of the game, we could literally keep working on this forever. But this would drive us insane.


What's it been like watching the game change over time?

Mostly we've been in kind of a bubble up in the north of England, which tends to be the way we like it. We saw a few iterations of the game over time, and since it wasn't in our faces day after day, looking at the latest build with all the new things that had been added or upgraded, was always fascinating.

As for the music, we are big fans of smashing up music, both other people's and our own. One of the things we've found really useful being the kind of band we are is coming to terms with the idea that there is no need to create a 'definitive' version of a song any more. It's more about making a version that best fits the form you're going to put it in. So Supermoon on the record has a nice, tight arrangement with a good dynamic range. When we play it live, we'll probably keep the same arrangement, but it'll probably be a bit rougher round the edges and louder. Because that's what works best in that context. And in the game, Supermoon has no arrangement at all - its been pulled apart into individual elements and spread across numerous soundscapes along with all the other songs, textures and noise we made, because that is the way it will work best in this form.

It's all pretty confusing, existentially speaking. And to think some people still see computer games as a childish waste of time...


What sort of techniques have you been doing to create the music? Anything weird?

Some techniques used in writing No Man's Sky include, but are definitely not limited to:

Hacking electric magnets with MIDI and making them vibrate guitar strings really quickly.

Learning how to live-code (using some open source software called TidalCycles) so we could get algorithms to write beats for us that we might not have written ourselves. Building procedural phrase generators in Unity to get an idea of how dumbly/cleverly you can make code deal with pools of dramatic piano notes.

Putting every guitar and synth we own through every possible combination of guitar pedals and amplifiers and recording all of it.

A lot of wine.

Recording a drum kit, playing it back through all our amplifiers in a chapel, recording that, then play-ing that back through all our amplifiers again and recording that. Then throwing it away because it was not good.

Building home-made modular synth units because this is cheaper and noisier than buying them.

Using a cello bow on every conceivable piece of musical equipment we own

Borrowing every conceivable piece of musical equipment all of our friends own.

Slowly losing our minds trying to think of new ways to record cool-sounding drones in E Minor to add to the black hole that is the 65daysofstatic No Man's Sky Audio Archive, which the game will pull from to create its soundscapes.


No Man's Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe is set for release on June 17, a few days before the release of the game itself.

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


Comments

    Every time I see the title image I have to remind myself that it's No Many's Sky and not Homeworld.

    I'm guessing as of this article they're going to see a bump in Debutante activity on Spotify. I wondered what that song was!

    Some awesome music :) Love the ambient rock/post rock stuff. Also excited to play this game, hope it's amazing. It's ambitious!

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