Blockbuster video game Horizon Zero Dawn took six years to make, and required its three composers to invent an entirely new sound world.
“Guerrilla felt that this was a special project, something different,” explains Music Supervisor Lucas Van Tol, reflecting on how Horizon Zero Dawn differed from Guerrilla Games’ highly successful Killzone series of futuristic combat games for the Sony PlayStation. “After working on a couple of first-person shooters, you know what to expect,” he continues, “but with Horizon everything was unknown. It was exciting and scary, and more involved and creative than the previous titles.”
For the game, Dutch developers Guerrilla envisioned an immersive world set in an ambiguous era some time after an apocalyptic event, where players would be able to roam freely and explore the environment in the role of a character called Aloy — who, in contrast to the first-person style of the Killzone series, is viewed from a third-person perspective. To ensure that the world would be totally convincing to exploring players, Sony-owned Guerrilla carefully worked out every detail of the landscape, and created descriptions of all the civilisations that inhabited it. Naturally, the score had to support the story, so a great deal of thought was given to what kind of music might exist in such a place and time. Game Director Mathijs de Jonge expressed his musical vision to Lucas in the form of a short list of desiderata, which Lucas developed into a brief for the composers.
“The main pillars in our game are machines, tribes and beautiful nature,” explains Lucas. “So we made sure we had composers that were good at tribal, electronic and organic music. We wanted to use as many real instruments as possible and stay away from the heavily compressed, overly wet ‘epic’ sound that you often hear.
“We also wanted music that would leave room for the sound design to take the foreground, because both are important. I spent a lot of time researching birds, for example, and made a huge Excel sheet with information about what regions and habitats they live in, what time of day they sing and chirp... that sort of thing. I used that research to make the birds react in a natural way.
“I also worked on the sound for the user interface, of wind and rain, Aloy’s main costume, objects that you can pick up from the ground, like potions, plants and stones, and the background murmur during a quest. And the sound of baby Aloy in the cinematic intro is my daughter Laura, who I recorded when she was six months old.”
It was clear to Lucas and his team that the huge project would require several composers, and it seemed appropriate to look for people with varying specialisms to tackle the different aspects of the game. First on board was the classically trained Dutch percussionist Niels Van De Leest, who was asked to work on some percussion, hunting and diegetic music. He was soon joined by Brighton-based Joris de Man, who had previously worked on the Killzone series, first as in-house musical director and sound designer, and later as a freelance composer. Initially Guerrilla were unsure whether Joris’s style would fit, given that the Killzone scores had featured very large orchestral recordings made at Abbey Road, so they asked him to produce some demos.
“The Killzone soundtrack was full-on sci-fi with very dramatic music,” explains Joris, “and this game required a completely different approach. So Lucas gave me a brief to demo a machine fight and an exploration track. The idea was to keep it small, like an anti-blockbuster score; so instead of a big orchestra with lots of reverb, it was a bunch of string players, a soloist, some percussion and some synths. The brief did say that it could go a bit more epic in places, but it still had to sound real and quite organic.”
Last to join was production partnership The Flight, comprising bassist and composer Joe Henson and engineer, producer and composer Alexis Smith. The London-based duo had previously worked on Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Alien: Isolation, and were sought out for their expertise in creating non-organic sounds.
“The game took six years to make in total and we did about two years on it, so we came in late on,” says Joe. “They wanted composers who would fit with Joris’s sound, but also offer something different. They came to us for the technological and robotic stuff, but that evolved slightly. When we started, they showed us a video of Aloy walking through the countryside, and another of her walking at night and we did music for each of those. Then we did a test for a machine fight.”
Coordinating the project proved to be a complex job. Each contributor was working separately in their own studio, so Lucas and his team, from their base at Guerrilla headquarters in Amsterdam, regularly distributed to the composers the latest information about the game’s progress, along with detailed instruction on what to do at each stage.
“I helped establish the musical pieces we needed, their approximate lengths and for which situations,” says Lucas. “It was also my job to know when a piece was ready to play to the directors and when to ask for a revision because it wasn’t what they were expecting. For most pieces there was one feedback session over Skype. I tried avoiding commenting on the actual music, but we talked about the story, mood, and what function the music should have. They’d usually nail it in the second version.”
Broadly speaking, there were two different contexts for which music was needed: for the non-interactive cinematic segments, sometimes known as ‘cut scenes’ (because they cut away from the action to provide story development), and for the interactive ‘in-game’ sections, in which the player does things like explore the environment and have fights.
“Writing for cut scenes is like writing mini scenes for film,” explains Joe, “and that’s to picture, although sometimes you’re just working to storyboards or rudimentary graphics. For the in-game stuff, you’re writing for mood, emotion and pace, but it’s not based on hard cuts, like film or TV, so it’s more fluid.”
At first, the plan for the in-game music and cut scenes was to have Joris tackle the more organic music and The Flight work on the synth elements. However, it soon became apparent that such stylistic divisions were not necessary, leading Joris and The Flight to begin collaborating on material.
“We’d start something, send it over to Joris and he would finish it off, and vice versa,” recalls Joe. “There were a few times I played bass on his cues and he did top-line stuff for us. Our palettes started crossing over too and we shared sounds. For one track we did together, called ‘Where You Came From’, we did the first half and then it goes into Joris’s part, but there was a shared hard drive for the project, so we used Joris’s melody, time-stretched the vocal he’d recorded and turned it into pads.”
“It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences,” adds Joris, “although we weren’t working in each other’s studios. The Flight are really good at creating intricate textural stuff; my approach is more thematic, but as the project went along I started listening to how they were approaching textures and our styles started intermingling. For example, they were bowing a Gretsch resonator guitar and using hang drum sounds that were very distinctive and organic, and I was trying to get more into that.”
One of the main problems the team faced was simply creating enough in-game music — the average player is expected to take approximately 40 hours to complete the whole game. Between them, the composers were asked to produce about four hours of material, which had to be supplied in such a way that it could be rearranged to make new pieces.
“You don’t want a lot of repetition, but realistically, you can’t write 40 hours of music,” says Joe, “so you have to write music from which the producers can keep using assets and playing them in different ways. Our music was supplied in kit form so Guerrilla could explode it out and use it within the music system. We’d write a listening version and then they’d ask us to expand the bits they liked. Then we saved that as stems which could be used with each other or on their own.
“On this game there’s built-in silence so, for example, you might have a single ’cello playing for a while, then 30 seconds of silence before another stem is triggered. Maybe the ’cello will come back in with chords under it next time, then ebb away into silence again. It’s a really subtle system.”
“Lucas would take just the string section, flute, a pad or some percussion, and use those elements in different areas so that you get a hint of the main theme,” adds Joris. “You’ll get the full theme at some point, but spacing it out that way means that there isn’t much repetition.”
“I found that I could play a few stems and have a great piece of music,” concludes Lucas. “Initially I asked the composers to bounce down variations, but fairly quickly they trusted me to do that bit. This allowed them to focus on writing really lush, full pieces and not worry about it becoming too much.”
“It’s about writing a melody and a countermelody which play together, but if you take one away, you have a different-sounding piece,” explains Joe. “So you can have one stem which has the countermelody with some pads, and another with the original melody and different set of pads, or a slight rhythm. Or you can break it down and give them all the pads or rhythmic stuff together, or split it so there’s the top-end rhythm and low-end rhythm. You can go into a lot of detail. But the stems always loop within their own section and start from bar one. You couldn’t have them moving to different start points.
“On fights you work in a different way, and it’s easier to write. I think of it as either working horizontally or vertically. The vertical one is the stems thing, and if you work horizontally you are working in loops, so each section loops until you trigger the next thing. That works much better for fights, and the loops can be very atonal, rhythmically complicated and jump between tempos and time signatures. If you were doing that with layers it would get complicated, although in some places we were breaking loops down into stems as well, and chopping between stems and full loops.
“The main thing with fights is to keep things evolving every couple of bars. We often talk about serendipity, where the music makes it feel like there’s something changing in the game. We experienced it working on Alien: Isolation, where you are walking around a spaceship a lot. Something might happen in the music just as you’re walking through a door, which makes you feel like something new is coming, but nothing has changed at all! In fights you can make someone feel like they are doing really well just by changing the music, and they’ll change their gameplay to fit!
“Every few days we were sent video captures of what was happening on-screen when somebody was playing the game, with instructions to write a specific amount of music. We’d have that running on a loop on a computer next to us so we could see if our music was fitting the mood, or if somebody was walking it would need to match their pace. You can affect the pace a lot, so you don’t want to slow or accelerate things too much.”
In his supervisory role, Lucas gave the composers as much freedom as possible. The Guerrilla team still kept a watch on the schedule and budget, but the composers were allowed to pick their own studios, musicians and engineers, and were usually given an extremely open brief.
“A lot of the briefs were asking us to write something they’d never heard before,” recalls Joe, “which is completely free. Sometimes it was to create something that fitted that part of the world in that period of time, so Alexis and I were asking ourselves, ‘If Aloy or somebody in this era came across a resonator guitar in the ground, how would they play it?’ They might not instantly start plucking it. Similarly, we were thinking about what they would do with a harmonica if you handed one to them.”
“The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humankind has restarted,” continues Joris, “so the idea was to have elements of folksiness or some type of ethnicity but never go in any particular direction, because they didn’t want it to sound like anything existing! Knowing that the game was set in America, we started thinking about doing guitars and harmonica, almost like a country sound. They said they liked elements of country but didn’t want it to sound like country or folk music. They wanted to hint at it as if the music could have been influenced by it. As soon as you start strumming a guitar it pushes it in a very clear direction, so I did some bowed guitar too. Similarly, Lucas went to a studio in The Hague and recorded a low piano string played with a contrabass bow, and that’s the deep, raspy, organic sound that you hear at the beginning of the ‘Aloy’s Theme’.
“There was also the idea to include some synth work but with some organic sounds over the top. I’ve got a Thai bamboo flute and I blew it very softly so that it’s just on the cusp of creating a note, and layered that in Kontakt to create a really wide pad sound that sits in the background. I also put it into Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 where you can granulate the samples to turn them into a pad, and used those as background sounds.”
“A lot of our pads and loops are a Gretsch Honeydipper resonator guitar and banjos played through effects,” adds Joe. “And we did a lot of stuff that sounds like strings but is actually layered harmonicas. We used the Gretsch for muted rhythms and single notes, but it’s never recognisable, because if we played it in a traditional way it would put it in an era that wouldn’t be appropriate. My brother owns Spitfire Audio, and he gave me this EXS Frozen Strings stuff that he’d recorded in Iceland, which we used underneath the bowed Gretsch for depth. It’s quite raspy and naively played.
“We also had a ’cellist called Ren Ford come in to do some top-line stuff. We did a sample day with him, recording lots of different techniques which we put into Logic’s EXS24 sampler. But most of the stuff we played ourselves. We actually bought a ’cello and played it ourselves for some parts, but sometimes Ren would come over and do it properly.
“There are a few places where characters in the game are performing music, and for those Lucas asked us to look at concept art for three musical instruments and to work out how they’d be played and what sound they’d make. We wrote documents on each instrument and recorded a few pieces using existing instruments layered with other elements. Then Guerrilla asked us to make physical mock-ups and send videos of ourselves playing them to show the scale of the instruments and how a character would move while playing them. This was motion-captured, so if you come across a band in the game, that’s me on Kunabass, Alexis on Iron Pendulin and Niels on Braumdrum!”
Following his instructions to avoid the big orchestral ‘Hollywood’ film-score sound, Joris wrote his scores for eight players or fewer, and recorded in either small studios or in his modest home studio. The exception was two half-day sessions in Studio 3 at Angel Studios, Islington, which were used to record the game’s trailer music.
“I recorded the solo ’cello and flutes for the in-game stuff in my studio, one person at a time,” he recalls. “My setup isn’t advanced, but a lot of the stuff I recorded here sound better than what we got in the studio, where there was too much room sound. My studio is a converted loft with a slanted roof, but it works if I put a blanket around the player and one of those SE Electronics Reflexion Filters behind the mic.
“I used an SE Titan mic in figure-of-eight, and my copyist’s Rode NTR ribbon mic in the middle to do Mid-Sides recordings for most of the flutes and ’cellos. The Mid-Sides was for a bit of width, but also so I could collapse it to mono. That went straight into my UA Apollo Quad using the Unison 610B preamp emulation for a bit of drive, with one notch boost on both the lows and the highs.
“I also multitracked a ’cello player soloing on top of in-game pieces for the first big robot fight, so ’cello features quite heavily. For some of the aggressive stuff I layered different playing techniques, so one is plucking with plectrums, another has a really hard staccato, and there’s one where she turned her bow around and hit the strings. There’s another track called ‘Forced Multiplication’ which has ’cellos plus a double bass doing similar bowing but an octave lower, with some distortion on it from SoundToys’ Decapitator. I recorded the double bass and ’cellos for that piece in a studio that’s near me in Ovingdean called Retreat, which has an array of vintage amps and an old Neve TV desk.
“And there was an eight-piece string section which we used mostly on the cut scenes. That was recorded at Kore Studios in London. They had a vintage French ribbon mic that looked like a big black can, but sounded amazing. The engineer put that through a replica Fairchild with practically no compression and we recorded some of the ’cello lines through it as well. That had a really interesting, deep, dirty sound.”
“The eight-piece was four violins, two violas and two ’cellos, and writing for that was a learning process. On a couple of tracks I made the mistake of having two players play the same note, which doesn’t work. If you have more players it’s fine because the inter-tuning and slight pitch wavering creates a pleasing chorus effect, and if you take a wide-spaced chord and divide it up nicely between eight players you get a beautifully rich sound, but a four-note chord played by eight players sounds pretty whack. Thankfully I didn’t do that too often, but I had to decide which session musician was going to play the part, knowing that my decision was going to upset the others. You want to avoid that as much as you can! We also did a bit of string-section multitracking on a few end-of-game tracks where some significant moments happen, like winning the game. I wrote two different parts and layered them on top of one another to get a bit of extra width and size.
“My synths are mainly u-He’s Zebra, Omnisphere, Native’s Massive, Absynth and FM8, a hint of Waldorf Microwave 2 and a bunch of Reaktor Ensembles, including ‘Steampipe’ and ‘Metaphysical Function’, for creating flute-like sounds and soundscapes in the background. And I used Nuendo for all my composing, recording, editing and mixing.”
For Horizon, The Flight did all of their recording, editing, mixing and mastering in their East London studio, occasionally using material from the recordings made by Joris and Niels. “Alexis and I have a Neumann KM184, Shure SM57 and SM58, but the mic of choice is an Audio-Technica AT4033,” says Joe. “We haven’t found a better go-to vocal mic. We use the KM184 if we want something more focused and close. The harmonicas were done through the SM57, as was anything through a guitar amp. We do a lot of re-amping. But everything else is done in mono with the AT4033 in front and a tiny bit of low cut and compression. We feed into a Mindprint DTC a lot. That goes into a UA Apollo Quad and we use Logic on a Mac. We are now on Pro X but it was Logic 9 on the project.
“There are a few go-to plug-ins but we’re not precious, so it’s whatever we’ve got to hand. We like the Waves Renaissance Max compressor and PSP Vintage Warmer, and the UAD plug-ins are amazing.
“Most of the synths were hardware. We used a Roland Juno for pads, along with an Oberheim Matrix 1000. The nasty basses were from a Doepfer Dark Energy, which is a bonkers synth. We also used a Korg MS10 for effects and percussion, usually sent through a Hiwatt tape delay and Knas Ekdahl Moisturizer spring reverb/filter, which has a spring on top that you can scrape. We did that for a lot of the fight music. The other go-to synth was a Korg ARP Odyssey which we picked up specifically for Horizon. We always buy new toys when we start a project. It helps keep us inspired.”
Big drums feature heavily in the work of all three teams of composers. According to Joris and Joe, Niels van der Leest recorded some of the source material with a Japanese taiko drumming group called Circle Percussion, based near Utrecht in Holland. “They record with loads of mics, so for each drum you get about 12 tracks,” says Joris. “The Flight and I had them do single hits and various effects like little d-d-d-dum-dum-dum-dum swells while pressing the skin.”
“People think that a live taiko sounds amazing, but it’s a lot of work to make a recorded one sound as epic as you hear in films,” continues Joris. “I put on the UAD Teletronix LA-2A, and McDSP MC2000 multiband compressor, which really whacks the shit out of percussion. It’s got a Bite control which is like a transient enhancement and that make things snap a bit more and provides overall dynamic control.
“I sometimes found that you can do more with individual hits than a played pattern, so I took individual hits from the big -daiko drum and went to town processing it to get some really deep hits. I’d put the Teletronix on it several times using different attack and release times, and then used a Dbx 120 to boost the bottom end. Then I EQ’ed it with the UAD Neve 88RS and put it underneath the live stuff.”
“On one of our big fights, we’ve got about 36 tracks of drums all going to one bus with a compressor on it,” recalls Joe, “so it’s layers of Circle Percussion and smaller percussion that we did here. There’s a bit of Vintage Warmer on it and Guitar Rig on another bus to give it some distortion.”
Although many instruments were disguised so that they didn’t bring too many distracting associations with them, piano sounds remained recognisable, and were used by both The Flight and Joris.
“We used a Spitfire EXS piano that I sampled with my brother before he launched Spitfire,” says Joe. “It was recorded at AIR Edel with two Schoeps close over the keys and a single Coles behind. It’s one of those pianos with felt dropped down between the hammers and strings for a really soft sound.”
“I used two pianos on top of one another,” recalls Joris. “One is a Native Instruments piano that isn’t fabulous, but the mechanical noises of the piano do sound good, so I layered the noises with Alicia’s Keys piano and filtered it to get a slightly old-sounding piano. It’s on the ‘Epilogue’ piece, but I also used it in-game a few times.”
The Flight’s method of production involved mixing the tracks as they went along, so that what they delivered was the finished product. Joris did the same for his in-game music, but had Richard Aitken (featured back in our May 2006 issue) mix and master the large cut-scene sessions.
“When you are recording live strings you get a whole bunch of mics back and I find mixing it challenging,” admits Joris, “but Richard’s very good at that. He’s also got Bricasti M7 reverbs, a hardware Chandler Curve Bender and a really well-tuned room! At home I get a decent sound, but it helps when someone can pull the live elements together. He did a really good job and mastered most of the soundtrack as well.
“But for the in-game stuff I set up 16 groups as if it were a mixing desk and had the synths and the live instruments through different channels. That went out through a bus with the Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack plug-in using the Slate Console Emulation. I also used the RC-Tube bus on a bunch of channels and added the UAD Neve 88 for a bit of drive.”
The digital release version of the score has a running time of four hours and features 80 tracks, although some material still had to be left out so that it would fit on four CDs if ever released in that format. Understandably, Joris, The Flight and Lucas are all very proud of their achievements, but after so many years immersed in the project, it might just take them a while to move on.
“I cared more about Aloy than the characters in our previous titles,” admits Lucas, “and would sometimes jog around in Horizon, looking at the beautiful lighting, listening to the environments and the music, pretending it was necessary to find bugs, but really just enjoying it!”
“Under big string parts there’s always a synth doing that bottom end,” says Joe Henson, referring to a bass-enhancement trick that both The Flight and Joris de Man used. “We used a filtered sine wave in ES2. It’s got a bit of wobble and we sometimes put it through an amp for distortion. You swell it with the strings, using a touch of the same reverb and delay.”
“It’s quite a well-known trick, but it beefs things up,” adds Joris de Man. “I made a patch in Omnisphere 2 with a filtered saw or square wave, a hint of distortion and a bit of harmonic enhancement, and put that underneath the strings. You don’t quite know where it’s coming from, but it’s giving it a boost. I’ve also found that the Korg MS20 emulation has a beefy bottom end if you overdrive it slightly, so you put it underneath and ride it with the strings’ dynamics.
“On drum hits on a couple of tracks I used a combination of synth drum and real drum. One hit is loud and woody and the other is soft, so I pumped up the soft hit to get the bottom end and mixed it with the snap of the hard hit.
“Then there’s a patch in u-He Zebra sound library called ‘The Dark Zebra’, by Hanz Zimmer and Howard Scarr. It has all The Dark Knight patches. There’s one which is like an analogue Simmons drum, but much lower. I velocity-tweaked it so that it rolls into the hits, then on the final hit I put the acoustic sample of a concert drum underneath. It’s a quite deep ‘tthhhrudadadum’ sound. It’s on ‘Hologram Myth’, ‘The Bad News’, ‘The Good News’ and on ‘The Cavalry Breaks Through’ too.”
Ivor Novello award-winning Dutch composer Joris de Man moved to the UK to work for Bitmap Brothers at the time they were making games for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga platforms. He landed a job with them by presenting a demo to founder Eric Matthews at the Future Entertainment Show in London. “I ended up working for them for over a year and that was my first step,” recalls Joris. “I then went back to Holland and got involved with Lost Boys Games, which eventually became Guerrilla Games.”
Joe Henson started out in the music business as a touring bass player with a band called the Freestylers. Eventually he found work composing for television documentaries, at which time his writing partner Alexis Smith was venturing into production, having previously worked as a programmer for Marius de Vries. “We met when I was in a band and Alexis helped us produce a record,” explains Joe. “Alexis is into folk and I’m into funk, but our tastes met in hip-hop, and we have a similar production sensibility. We are very into cut-and-paste. We try to play everything ourselves but it doesn’t have to be too polished, as Alexis is an amazing programmer and can fix a lot of stuff by chopping and tightening it up. Alexis is much better at keeping things organised on the computer and great with analogue synths. He also does more of the mixing and manages the sound at the end a bit more, but we share most responsibilities.
“It came up in conversation one day that I’d worked with Rupert Gregson-Williams, who’d done a score for EA Games and he had said that it was really good fun. We thought that it seemed like an interesting world to get into, but it’s quite closed, so it took a while. Eventually somebody introduced me to Lydia Andrew at EA Games, and our first game for her was Zubo on Nintendo DS. They were after something that was interactive but sounded like they’d licensed it. Technologically, what we do hasn’t changed much since then. We are still delivering stems, WAVs and loops.
“After doing a few games for Lydia we worked on Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag multiplayer and Alien: Isolation. They were technically and stylistically very different, so that was an interesting year for us!”
Music supervisor Lucas Van Tol also had a team of people working alongside him, helping make the music and sound effects work within the game. “Bastian Seelbach was our audio lead, and he worked on trailers and cinematics and made sure we made it to the finish line,” says Lucas. “Anton Woldhek is the other senior sound designer. He invented a system that keeps track of everything and makes the world sounds contextually correct wherever you are. Pinar Temiz gave the machines a distinct character and made the sounds reactive, Andreas Varga was our audio programmer and lead coder, and there was a tech team that made tools and extra functionality in our ‘Decima’ engine. Seb Downie and Dave Gomes were our audio producers and Francisco Peters was our main guy in QA. Audio often doesn’t have the highest priority within game development, so it is vital to have someone to notify us of issues. In the last stages of the project, we were also helped by many interns and freelancers working within the building.”
Nearly all the singing in the Horizon Zero Dawn soundtrack was performed by German singer Julie Elven, who effectively provided the musical voice of the lead character Aloy. Joris de Man had been looking for a voice that conveyed the right mix of gentle strength and fragility, and heard of Julie through a friend.
“I’d send her a backing track and use a synth with a sine wave where aftertouch controls vibrato and mod wheel controls amplitude to show her when the vibrato should come in and the dynamics had to do something,” explains Joris. “She records and edits herself so I didn’t have to do too much. I’d usually stick the UAD Neve 88RS on it because it’s got a nice preset for female vocal, and then add a lush reverb! It’s as simple as that. I’m a fan of Lexicon reverbs but their Random Hall is probably the one I use most.
“Pretty much anything vocal is Julie. I had her do three-part harmonies for that more intimate sound, rather than having a massive choir, but Johnny Williams, who I worked with on Killzone, also did a couple of solo choir pieces that you hear as you’re walking around.”