The Songs of Supergiant

The moment I have waited for for almost a full year has finally arrived. My first album as arranger, and what an incredible honor it was. I couldn’t have asked for better collaborators or more perfect, timeless songs. The Bastion medley was particularly dear to me, for reasons I’ll get into later.

This was such a high point of my life that I want to go over my favorite tracks of this album and offer some of the things I learned from these two giants, Austin Wintory and Darren Korb, as well as moments that I dreamt up myself that worked out especially well. I owe everything to these two kind souls and their guidance.

We All Become

This was, in fact, the first one they tasked me with, and it was consequently one of the two that took me the most revisions to get right. It was a way of establishing a template, if you will, going forward. Initially, I relied too heavily on a static ostinato, the bones of which you can still detect in the final track. Austin encouraged me to make it evolve a bit more and do interesting things, which was a mantra I carried with me for the rest of these numbers. I also started with a drum kit and then very quickly both of them told me “no, don’t do that. We want this to be as fully orchestral as possible.” So there was a lot of finding my way on this one, but as soon as they said that, I found it opened up a lot of my own creative juices. My favorite moment in this track, I think, is the absence of accompaniment over the word “silence,” which was my idea pretty early on. 🙂

The Sound of Silence

One other moment that worked out well was the hard left turn at “till you’re numb, oh it’s begun”, that was in the first draft and didn’t change. High strings have a slow harmonic portamento up and the cello a spooky sul pont trem sliding down, complete with a bowed cymbal and capped off with fluttered brass and flute.

Austin also wanted me to follow the contour of the vocal line a bit more during “run!”, another thing that ended up being a useful thing to remember.

In Circles

I had a blast with this one. The sul pont viola line was something I immediately thought of. In this context, by itself, super quiet, and kinda following the harmony but also sliding around everywhere, it sounds less like a spooky FX and more like an actual fly buzzing around. Very, very happy with how that turned out!

Buzz buzz buzz….

Initially, I was emphasizing the 3 pattern during the chorus too much for Darren’s taste, and he was spot on with that. I handled that kinda ham-fistedly in the first draft, by putting both timpani and low strings on a 3 pattern instead of 2. My solution was to only have the Timpani play the 3 pattern, with the bass as it was in the track (initially I thought the 2 feel in the winds was enough but quickly realized I was wrong!). He liked that better, for good reason. 3 against 2 is an awesome little polyrhythm, and he used it brilliantly in this song. We both wanted to make sure that dichotomy came through in a balanced way.

The other part I enjoyed writing and was there in the first draft was the swirling string pattern underneath “circle the drain.” Initially I was concerned some of those choices were too mickey mousey, but they both seemed to like it and now that I’m hearing the final product, I like it too!

Circle that drain!

For the big, epic thrusts with the Anvil, I remember seeing a bunch of surprised reacts during the twitch stream at the first PAX concert which made me LOL gleefully. But that was actually the most obvious choice of the whole thing, because it’s pretty similar to what the initial track does and also translates VERY well to orchestra.

What wasn’t obvious, and where Austin’s expert ear/eye came in, was when he said “I really feel like the waltz pattern should continue in the brass,” whereas my first draft just had them return to boring dotted half notes. Little touches like that happened all over the place, so I am intensely grateful for him taking the time out of his busy schedule to look over my charts and provide insanely valuable feedback.

Finally, as a percussionist, I did something on this track that was probably a little annoying to them: wrote in a single, optional B natural chime at the very end. There aren’t any other chimes anywhere on this album, and chimes are extremely large, bulky and heavy things to lug around just for exactly one note. But the legends at Abbey Road apparently had that covered! 😀

Lament of Orpheus

This is one of my favorite songs Darren has ever created. When I first heard it, my jaw dropped. Not only was his voice in an incredibly impressive falsetto, but it was also just a chilling, hauntingly beautiful song. I wanted to make sure I did this one justice.

One of the things Darren asked me for after I did the first draft was a longer intro. Fortunately, I recalled my Greek Mythology pretty well (and I had not played Hades yet at the time, even though I had bought it in early access), and remembered that Orpheus was in fact a Harpist. And since we had Harp in this wondrous little ensemble, I decided to open this with a Harp Cadenza. Why not? And as you’ll notice if you see footage of any of these concerts/recording sessions, all the Harpists did a phenomenal job with it. It was also recorded without a click, or “free” as they call it, which I was enormously happy to hear as that’s how it was intended.

Play me a sad tune, my dear Orpheus

Initially, I had a lot of crazy ideas for Kristin Naigus’ contributions to the track. For those of you who don’t know, Kristin is the swiss army knife of wind players. She has every instrument imaginable, including things you didn’t even know existed. Primarily an Oboeist, her actual list of instruments she plays is staggering. Here is a list that doesn’t even include all of them!

So, as you can imagine, it was like christmastime for an arranger. I went off on a hair-brained research journey and ended up asking her “hey do you have an Aulos?”

She did not, though amusingly she does now! So then I thought “OK, what sounds like an Aulos but isn’t an Aulos?” Which brought me to the Duduk. It has been used quite prodigiously in media music: Game of Thrones, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Gladiator, etc. etc. It’s all over the place. More importantly though, it sounds similar to an Aulos and is kinda the go-to world instrument, because it also tends to blend well with an ensemble or track.

Duduk! Courtesy of the amazing Kristin Naigus!

Fun fact though: I initially wrote a melody that was quite difficult/impossible to play. You see, I’m used to writing for wind instruments that, while sometimes must be transposed, do at least have the capability of playing all notes in a chromatic scale. The Duduk is a bit different…you have to have a Duduk in the specific key of the piece you are performing. Kristin has an A Duduk and a C Duduk, each of which capable of only playing certain notes. Since it’s impossible to switch instruments mid-phrase, and somewhat difficult to coax notes out of it that it isn’t designed for, I had to re-write her parts. She was very patient with me and was an excellent teacher.

I was exceptionally pleased with how the sul ponticello trem swells sounded in this space, particularly when the trombones back it up later on. It still gives me shivers and is something that translates a bit better recording in a phenomenal studio vs most live stages. No doubt I also have legendary mixer Steve Kempster to thank for how amazing these swells sound in the mix!

Sul Pont Swell

The first “don’t look back” has some fun aleatory, namely the violins have high harmonic glisses ad lib on the E string, giving a creepy crawly feeling of dread in spite of most of the harmonies Darren has remaining intact. The Timpani also has a fun little sliding roll.

High Harmonics Ad Lib

Now, as somewhat unexperienced arrangers are wont to do sometimes, I overwrote the final climax at “drowning.” Austin even warned me, but I decided that you can always take away things on the stage, better to have too much than too little. And so he did, removing the flute line that doubles the clarinet line (which is in the final track) as well as the Duduk stuff I sprinkled over it. It works brilliantly without all that, and I assume was too cluttered on the first take.

Which brings me to my most profound lesson of this whole experience: creating the charts is a smaller part of the final product than it can initially seem. So many decisions happen on the stage that didn’t mean you necessarily screwed up, just that it could be improved even more by making tweaks – removing a thing here, bringing a line out there. Austin even added in a fp here and there. All of these podium decisions elevated the music so immensely that I could scarcely believe it, and it was such a pleasant surprise listening to the final album!

She Shines

This one I enjoyed a great deal, simply because I was able to get different with it – same goes for Vagrant Song. In this particular case, I wanted to play up the noir sort of feeling that Transistor often gave me, but this track in particular. The lyrics are so full of great imagery that I wanted to try and literally describe with orchestration as well.

So, what good noir track would be the same without muted brass and Bass Clarinet? I even got a bit fancy with the rain imagery, favoring pizzicato in the strings, harp glisses and staccato winds.

It’s worth noting that I tended to not write very interesting trombone parts for the most part until Austin stepped in and offered suggestions. However, this, along with Bastion and Vagrant Song, was an exception. He even complimented me on the Hermann-esque sound I had in the middle with the muted T-Bones. Always nice to get a complement from a hero. 🙂

All Noir all the time.

Vagrant Song

This one ended up wildly different from the original. This was mainly because the original track was just Darren with his guitar, pretty standard folk song…there wasn’t much else to go on. So pretty early on I decided that rather than following any contours in the track (which all these others had), I would just go 100% off the lyrics and chord progression. That’s it, I’d just let the lyrics take me where they take me. And then see if they liked it.

Obviously, I really got into it when they start talking about titans dying and ships sinking lol. How could I not? Undulating arpeggios in the strings and winds accompany powerful brass, who don’t come out to play very often like this. Timpani accent the brass patterns, and Darren himself sings more powerfully than I’ve ever heard. Glorious.

That’s right, one bar per page for this part. I’m sure Austin was furious with me 😛
Listen to Darren belt it!!!

They both liked the direction on the first draft, but there were some problems. Initially, the die down from the storm ended too abruptly, letting the air out of the moment unceremoniously. Worse, I wasn’t sure what was bugging me about it. But of course, Austin knew right away and articulated it beautifully. So I extended it a bit, and now it feels more natural. Maybe it’s even still a bit too sudden, but there is at least a smooth line coming down from the climax, even if it is arguably too steep.

One quick note about the Pyre tracks: nine times out of ten you are not hearing a Flute but a Penny Whistle, played once again by Kristin Naigus, she who owns all wind instruments devised by humanity.

Final verse thanks to Howard Shore’s death of Boromir cue. I’m not sorry.

Remember the Bastion

So this one…was very special to me. In another post, I explained that I had initially heard this OST before I ever played the game, and that, when a buddy played it for all of us during a card game, we all stopped playing entirely when we reached the Setting Sail/Coming Home at the end just to listen to that incredible duet.

But I also fell in love with the incidental tracks that day, particularly Terminal March, The Mancer’s Dilemma, Spike in a Rail and Wharf to Wilds. No joke, I even remember thinking to myself as I considered the board state in our little MTG game, “some of these would make awesome chamber ensemble arrangements.” Here I am ten years later!!! 😀

So naturally I said “hey, I know we’re a bit tight on runtime, but can we turn this into a medley and get some of those instrumental tracks in here?” Darren was the first to say sure, so off I went!

My first draft was awful. It really was. I couldn’t figure out a good way to introduce Build that Wall because the original version just had too many grooves in my brain the way it was. The orchestral accompaniment I came up with just felt so, so wrong to all three of us (we ended up mostly just doing the original version because it felt right, with only minor orchestrational additions in the form of out-of-the-way solos). Also, I tried to end it with Wharf to Wilds, which Austin and Darren both thought fell flat. And my transitions were garbage. So I said “yeah this is trash, I’ll do better!” Which they got a kick out of.

The phenomenon, though, of “this has too many grooves in my brain already” was very real when I was working on this, which I think is why so many revisions were needed. Once you’ve gotten used to a song played one way for years, it’s hard to be more creative with it. Thank god I had these two amazing talents to guide me on this one!

Darren suggested that I dump Wilds entirely, which was a great idea. It attracted me because I knew the trombones would love it, but there were better options on this OST and I ended up giving them an even better chart anyway. I ended up with Mancer’s Dilemma and Spike on a Rail as the two big non-vocal tracks, which seemed to work well. However, I had too many repeats that Darren said I should take out, which was also the right call (brevity is the soul of wit, but also medleys). Darren and Austin also had a lot of input in Setting Sail/Coming Home, which was usually in the form of making the build more gradual (i.e. taking stuff out for a couple phrases and laying them back in gradually).

So after just endless revisions, we arrived at the piece before you. But it is my favorite track on the album, not just because it goes so many places or because it took the most effort, but also because Bastion was so near and dear to my heart. My only regret is that I couldn’t figure out a way to include Terminal March, because shit that really slaps.

I think my favorite moment here is Spike on a Rail. It’s so much fun to hear prim and proper, classically trained Abbey Road professionals do Bluegrass and NAIL it! Obviously first violin was legendary, but first trombone was also amazing! I actually wrote out a 4 bar solo completely, which the trombonist on both concerts used, but the guy at Abbey Road, Andy Wood, heeded my “here’s the chord, improvise if you’re feelin’ it!” directive to spectacular results, complete with plunger and flutters! What attitude!

He chose to Improv. 😀
Trombone with Attitude

Fun fact, I wanted to include a Harmonica, but that wasn’t in the cards. So I had Kristen use her Melodica LOL! Does it sound like a harmonica to y’all? Hopefully. Either way, I had fun with it and I’m sure she did, too.

Really though, the part I’m most proud of, which did need to be revised a bit but only because I wasn’t happy with it, was the counterpoint for the intro and outro of Setting Sail/Coming Home. I was not prepared for how glorious it would sound with these incredible players in a proper studio. But I would never take all the credit even for this, because Darren’s harmonic work on these songs is just out of this world. What a legend.

Here’s the session footage of Bastion, complete with a zoom in on the melodica, which is is the best part:

And the entire album with stunning visuals for free on youtube, courtesy of Supergiant Games:

The album is also out in every format imaginable: Bandcamp, Vinyl, etc. I encourage you to pick it up. Thanks largely to these two men, a small group of world-class players, Ashley Barrett, Legendary Mixing Engineer Steve Kempster, booth reader Susie Seiter (who I’m sure caught a couple bone-headed typos for me onstage) and in some small part to me, it turned out brilliantly and is a moment in my life that I may never surpass even if I keep doing this for the next forty or fifty years. I am eternally grateful for all of these people and don’t really feel like I deserved the honor. Uh, but I’ve also been on a high for three or for days now, so…I won’t complain! I didn’t get a chance to work with some of these names, but Austin, Darren and Kristin are all the kindest human beings I’ve ever met. I hope to work with them again someday!

There are some exciting things coming next year, but for now, happy holidays and thank you for taking the time to nerd out with me about something very special!

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