In early March 2020 at the popular video game exposition, PAX East in Boston, Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett took the stage for an hour-long concert.
Korb is the composer for Supergiant Games, a video game developer based out of San Francisco. Barrett, a professional vocalist, works with Korb on his soundtracks and has appeared multiple times for live performances alongside Korb.
It wasn’t their first time performing at the exposition, either. The previous year, in August, the exposition’s western equivalent in Seattle hosted a concert for the studio’s tenth anniversary.
Given the high-profile nature of this event, one would expect that Korb and Barrett, if not high-profile musicians themselves, were at least established as professionals long before this. You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that.
However, they weren’t established enough to have a professional-quality studio when recording the vocal tracks for Supergiant’s second game, Transistor. Those lyrics were actually recorded in a closet, a story that can’t be separated from Supergiant’s reputation among game musicians.
Korb’s music is a combination of virtual drums and electronic instruments, with acoustic instruments – especially guitars, mandolins, and the like – recorded from Korb’s own playing.
The end result is surprisingly coherent. Though the sound is stitched together from synthesized tracks, samples, instrumental recordings, and vocals, it all fits together. In fact, Korb’s soundtracks are downright show-stealing compared to other aspects of the games they appear in.
That means working closely with Supergiant’s professional voice actor, Logan Cunningham. Cunningham recorded over 3,000 voiced lines – again, in Korb’s closet – for the adaptive narrator of their first game, Bastion.
These lines trigger based on the player’s actions in-game, and contribute significantly to atmosphere and tone.
For example, spend a minute in Bastion just smashing objects, and you’ll hear Cunningham’s dry commentary: “Kid just rages for a while.”
Taking indie to the big stage
Prior to 2019, Korb and Barrett had performed together a few times on stage. But at PAX in 2019, and later in 2020, they turned things up to eleven.
They added an orchestra, making their sound fuller and more like what you hear in Korb’s engineered, layered recordings. Acoustic performances are one thing, but having an orchestra to back them up?
That put them at a level most indie studios (without the resources or backing of a major publisher) can only dream of.
“So I spoke to Austin and he’s like ‘Yeah, man. First of all, I’m in and I’m going to conduct it. Second of all, you can do it and I’ll help you get the guy to do the arrangements.’ He was really instrumental in getting the whole thing to happen.”Darren Korb
The 10th-anniversary concert, Supergiant’s first orchestral show, had more established talent behind it too. Austin Wintory, a friend and colleague of Korb, conducted the concert.
According to Korb, Wintory – the composer for 2012’s Journey – was “really instrumental in getting the whole thing to happen.” Korb may have been used to acoustic shows and DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), but Wintory understood the orchestra.
Control Group and Supergiant
Before composing soundtracks, Darren Korb was part of a band called Control Group, which he still does recordings with from time to time.
They’re based in New York, where Korb lived before moving back to San Francisco (and Supergiant Games) in 2014.
When Korb’s childhood friend Amir Rao – a co-founder of Supergiant Games – asked him if he wanted to be the new studio’s sound designer and musician, he jumped at the opportunity.
The studio formed in 2009, according to their website, and got to developing – and Korb, still working from his apartment in NYC, began composing.
It’s unusual in video game soundtracks for a composer to be brought onto a development team this early. Much of the music from the finished version of the game, and the soundtrack’s album, predates most elements of the game itself.
Korb’s music isn’t just a score – it informs the tone of the game itself, along with Jen Zee’s art direction, part of what makes the studio’s games cohesive wholes. It’s also why the game designers built certain parts of the game neatly around the music.
Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop
Because Darren Korb was not trained as a classical composer, it didn’t make sense for him to use techniques typically associated with film and game scores, like leitmotifs for characters and repeated themes that develop over a work’s runtime.
So I tried to get around that by creating a genre and hoping that all the music would kinda fit there.Darren Korb
For each soundtrack he has composed, instead of trying to fit standard composition practices Korb attempted to create his own genre. He developed short descriptive phrases to inform his compositions.
For the soundtrack to Bastion, that unique style was “Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop.” The melody instrumentation is mainly acoustic, combined with electronic hip-hop beats. An overall twangy sound evokes the “frontier” setting of the game and meshes with the old-time style of the art.
For Transistor, he created “Old World Electronic Post-Rock.” Korb’s second soundtrack is heavy on vocals and includes harps and accordians among its instruments. The guitars are mainly ambient and electric. The entire game’s tone seems to stem from this music, fitting its retro-futuristic setting.
By Supergiant’s third game, Pyre, Korb seems to have found his footing in composition. Yet, he still referred to Pyre’s music in an interview with as “bardic acoustic rock.”
The instrumentation focuses on mandolin and lute, along with Korb’s signature electronic drum beats. It all meshes perfectly with the occult themes of the game and the art style.
Finding a niche
Building from the success of two major orchestral shows, Korb and Barrett are now working on a full orchestral album.
Again with the help of Austin Wintory, they’re seeking to translate their popular performances into a recording. For songs that were composed in a DAW, it’s a brand new format.
But if the success of the PAX East and West concerts are anything to go by, the finished album will be a brand new sound.
In less than a decade, Darren Korb went from never having composed a soundtrack to being one of the most recognizable figures in indie game music.
He shared the names of a few artists he admires in his interview with Hyperxgaming:
“Austin Wintory,” Korb began. “His stuff I really admire and respect. It’s so outside of what I would be able to do. It’s such a different set of skills that he has. I really respect his approach and execution. And Lena Raine’s stuff on Celeste is really impressive to me. I thought that was really rad. Danny Baranowsky, I really like his tunes. He’s got a fun, irreverent vibe to his music that I really appreciate.Darren Korb
Supergiant Games’ latest title, Hades, recently reached its full release and features some of Korb’s best compositions and Barrett’s best vocals. Good Riddance is a standout track, but the entire album is worth listening to, whether you like video games or not. Check it out below:
Oh yeah, and the game’s pretty good too, if you’re into that sort of thing.