Video game music composed on a banjo: The man behind FTL’s soundtrack
FTL: Faster Than Light has enjoyed critical success after release, and the team’s over-achieving Kickstarter campaign proved there was a market for a space Roguelike. The Kickstarter funding allowed Subset Games to increase the game’s production values, and you can hear where the money went in the game’s soundtrack. The music helps to create a sense of place, and the soundtrack’s composer, Ben Prunty, recently tweeted that the soundtrack has also found commercial success. I decided to catch up with the overnight success to talk about where the music came from, how he composes, and why it’s important that everyone you know is aware that you create music.
If you’ve ever wanted to create music for video games, Prunty has some tips for that as well.
Spreading the word
The best way to get work as a musician? Spread the word. “One of the most important things a creative type, like a composer or artist, can do for their career is to tell everyone what they do. My good friend Anton Mikhailov (also in game development) knew I was a musician looking for game projects, and introduced me to his old college friend Matt Davis, the programmer for FTL,” Prunty told the Penny Arcade Report. “Anton and I worked at Google together back in 2005, fixing server hardware. You never know who’s going to know game developers, so that’s why it’s important to tell everyone.”
Back when the game was just a small project the team had asked for a few songs, and offered a “token” amount of money in return. Prunty had always thought the game looked great, and was enthusiastic about the project. That early dedication paid off. “When the Kickstarter exploded, Justin and Matt said to me, ‘We want to order more music and pay you closer to what you’re worth.’ I told them the ideal amount that I’d like to be paid, thinking we would then negotiate down from there. However, after a bit of discussion they agreed to the exact amount I mentioned! Justin and Matt are great guys,” Prunty said.
The economics of composing for independent games is fascinating. Prunty always wanted to keep the rights to his work, and he’s found most developers are fine with that arrangement. He made a flat fee from the game, and is able to sell the soundtrack online himself. The soundtrack is even offered next to the game on its Steam listing. “[The soundtrack] sells decently on Bandcamp too, but it is a tiny fraction of what I get from Steam,” Prunty said. “Seriously, it’s ridiculous; I made what, to me, is a year’s worth of income in the first weekend of sales. And it’s still selling strongly.”
Making the music interactive
Prunty began, struggled with, and threw away a good amount of music in the early stages of the project, and he wasn’t sure how to write interactive music. His solution to that problem was both clever and effective: He wrote two versions of each song, and the game would be able to move back and forth between them depending on the action in the game.
“In general, I wrote the Explore version of each track first, trying to keep it fairly relaxed or atmospheric,” Prunty said. “The trick is that I have to make sure it still has a strong (if unheard) rhythm, so that when I start working on the more exciting, rhythm-heavy battle version, they’ll both fit nicely together. The dynamic music is really just two different versions of one song playing simultaneously, and the game just crossfades between them depending on the situation.”
The trick was to write two distinct, but linked, pieces of music. “The Battle versions of some tracks, like ‘Colonial’ and ‘Zoltan’, are little more than percussion layered on top of the Explore tracks. Others, like ‘Civil’, ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Debris’, change significantly between versions. ‘Void’ and ‘Deepspace’ are something else entirely. I experimented with different techniques for pretty much every track.”
That experimentation led to some interesting outcomes. “Zoltan” was composed in his head, including chords and structure, before he sat down in the studio. That actually proved challenging. “I don’t know if that was the problem or if it was because it’s in 5/4 time or what, but every moment of producing it was excruciating. In contrast, the exact opposite of ‘Zoltan’ (in terms of technique) was ‘Wasteland.’ ‘Wasteland’ was almost entirely improvised, with each part recorded in one take. I started only with an idea of what the mood would be like. That one flowed nicely and and was great fun to work on.”
Ben Prunty was willing to walk us through his home studio, pictured at the top of this article. “I use a Macbook Pro with Cubase installed. In the pictures you can see that the laptop is off in the corner and just outputs to a big monitor on the desk. I use Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 6 sound card and those big speakers are Behringer Truth 2031a’s,” Prunty said.
“Most of the sounds come from Native Instruments’ products, especially the synthesizers in Reaktor for the chiptune-esque stuff. Plogue’s Chipsounds also helped with the chip stuff a bit. Most of the more subtle textures came from several different Kore sound libraries, though unfortunately they’ve all been discontinued. Many of the industrial sounds came from Kore and Heavyocity’s Evolve library. I often compose on the digital piano in my living room, but lately for Gravity Ghost I’ve been composing a lot on my banjo. Different instruments will yield completely different results.”
“If you feel you’re serious about getting into electronic music production, but don’t know where to start, I would say get a relatively beefy computer, a DAW (like Cubase or Reason), Native Instruments’ Komplete 8 bundle, a decent pair of headphones and a USB musical keyboard. This would put you in a great position to make professional-sounding stuff, and you can easily expand it later. Also, you don’t have to go to school to become a musician, but you do have to learn music theory, somehow. Far from stifling your creativity, understanding the underlying rules of music will set your music free.”
The soundtrack is a hit, and Prunty said that it’s still hard to get used to wake up and reading fan mail. “I’ve even had some people show me music they made that was inspired by my music, or tell me that FTL‘s soundtrack has inspired them to start making music themselves. It’s all very surreal, but I’ve never felt happier. I love that I’ve made something that has value to other people.”
Prunty is working on sound effects for Chris Pavia’s Dungeon Hearts, and music for Erin Robinson’s Gravity Ghost and Steve Swink’s Scale. The trick is to keep working to stay relevant. “I already have a bit of a reputation as a guy who appeared out of nowhere and is suddenly doing music for a lot of indie games,” Prunty said. “There is a saying that says it takes ten years to become an overnight success, and that is absolutely true. I’m almost entirely self-taught, and I spent many years making music for projects that were either just small hobbyist things or games that died before completion.”
Ben Prunty can begin to enjoy a few trappings of success now that he has a successful soundtrack under his belt and more work coming in, but the real reward is the ability to do what he loves full time. “It’s a little scary for me now that I’ve decided to devote myself 100% to this career, but I’m fairly confident I can find more work,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. We don’t think that’s going to be a problem.