interview

65daysofstatic On Creating No Man's Sky's Generative Soundtrack

by Kyle Hilliard on May 30, 2016 at 11:12 AM

No Man's Sky saw a delay recently pushing the game back from its original June 21 release date to August 9. It's fitting then that its soundtrack has also been shifted to coincide with the game's new date. The game's music is being created by band 65daysofstatic, who we spoke to when No Man's Sky was on our cover back in December of 2014. Ahead of the release of the game's soundtrack, which you can get here, we spoke with 65daysofstatic's Paul Wolinski, who plays piano, guitar, and also programs for the band about what has changed since last time we spoke, and what it's like to create music for one of the most anticipated games of the last few years.

Game Informer: What was the biggest unexpected challenge that you encountered since we last spoke in December 2014?
Paul Wolinski: Time? 65’s perception of time is a bit fuzzy at the best of times, but it feels like we entered some kind of alternate temporality that speeds up and slows down with very little warning. I imagine it like with the Hello Games studio as the epicentre of an earthquake. And from time to time they go into ‘crunch mode’ or ‘insanity mode’ or whatever they call it. And we are somewhere out at the edges, so when the tremors hit us they are a lot less powerful, but still pretty crazy, and suddenly it feels like there is more to do than is possible in the time you have to do it. But if that was hard work and high pressure for us, then I can’t even begin to imagine how Hello Games have been pulling it off. But they appear to be.

There have been many other challenges too, but I don’t think they were particularly unexpected.

How has this project changed the popularity of the band?
Don’t know yet. I suppose we will see when we start touring. Apart from going out to play live shows, everything about being in a band is always pretty nebulous. It’s mostly just the four of us in a room by ourselves, hitting various instruments, hoping to make something that will be somehow useful to people other than just us. Eventually, we put out a record, then go on tour to find out if it worked.

This project differs in a lot of ways to a usual 65 record, and of course our big hope is that a lot more people hear and enjoy our music because of No Man’s Sky. But right now, as I type, it feels like all of this remains to be seen. Although Supermoon has had a fantastic reception, which is great. All I know for sure is that we are happy with the record we have made, and can’t wait to get back on the road to start playing it to as many people as possible.

Is Sean Murray really that humble? Or is he a closet egomaniac?
We have several theories about this:

  • We live in a simulated universe that has gone off the rails. Sean is an avatar who has been injected into society by the univerrse admin to pull us back from the brink.
  • Sean does not exist. He is Half Life 3 become sentient.
  • Sean and the whole No Man’s Sky project is just viral marketing for an as-yet unannounced new JJ Abrams movie.
  • Sean is a great guy who has been working really hard for several years on a project really close to his heart, who has been elevated to a weird level of celebrity because of the nature of his chosen medium and the associated hype and most likely he really just wants to be left alone to make sure he maintains creative control over his vision.

I’m leaning to the simulated universe one, personally.

Have you had a chance to play the game?
Not really. We played for a few minutes recently to hear how some of our music was responding to the environment. We couldn’t mine enough resources to fix our ship before we got killed by some kind of space dinosaur, so we didn’t actually manage to leave the planet we started on.

Were you surprised by the scope of the game?
Well, we know what the scope of the game was going in, so to say it was a surprise wouldn’t really be accurate. It’s still amazing to us that they’ve pulled it off though.

And although the process has taken longer than we expected, this too wasn’t entirely unanticipated. The confusion for us has really just been that we are usually in control of our own timeline, because normally our albums are standalone pieces of work. Being a subset of the No Man’s Sky project means that we need to work to their schedule, and that’s not a problem.

That being said, we are very much looking forward to being able to release all this music and get back out on the road to support it.

For more from Paul Wolinski on creating No Man's Sky music, including some of his favorite game soundtracks, head to page two. For all our features from when No Man's Sky appeared on our cover, click the banner below.

What is a procedurally-generated soundscape?
I want to be careful here because, as far as I understand it, there’s a difference between procedural audio and generative music. Elsewhere, the audio director for No Man’s Sky has talked about the creature sounds he has designed for the game, which are procedurally generated. This essentially means that there is digital audio synthesis running inside the game, dynamically creating those sounds every time a creature makes a noise. This means every sound can be unique, every time.

The soundtrack is not quite procedural in this way. It would be possible, theoretically, if you had multiple digital synthesisers running in the game, but that takes a lot of resources that the game doesn’t necessarily have to spare just for its soundtrack. Additionally, whilst 65daysofstatic use a lot of electronics in our music, we are very much a real life band, and write loud, noisy music with a lot of guitars and drums. Plus we tend to send most of our electronics through amplifiers and re-record them anyway, to get the kinds of sounds we like to us. You can’t really make these kinds of sounds using only digital synthesis, so they need to be recorded beforehand, not generated within the game.

So this is a generative soundtrack in the sense that there are a lot of pieces of pre-recorded audio that will be sitting inside No Man’s Sky, and then there will be algorithms and logic designed a bit by us (and more by Paul Weir), which will curate this audio to create music that responds to what the player is doing. So it isn’t literally procedurally generating the audio as such, but it is generating new music by pulling different combinations of audio and different times, based on a variety of rules, to generate new music on the fly.

So, the set of rules that generate any given soundscape are procedural, I think, but the sounds themselves are not.

Has the process of creating No Man’s Sky differed dramatically from creating a typical 65daysofstatic album?
Yes. As that previous answer suggests, there was a lot to take into account when we entered the writing process. A previous project we had done, which was a sound installation, was in many ways the experience we drew upon the most, because in that project we were trying to create music that existed in a non-linear, unfixed arrangement. A usual song is designed to exist through time. It’s a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. But a sound installation is supposed to exist in perpetuity. It’s music designed for space, as opposed to time. Or to put it another way, the music was tailor-made for the context that it was going to be presented in.

So embarking on the No Man’s Sky album, we knew that we still wanted songs that would exist in a more traditional way, because we ultimately wanted to make the soundtrack stand up as the next 65days album in its own right. At the same time, we wanted to make sure those songs contained the right ingredients that could then be used in different ways to serve this ‘infinite soundtrack’ idea that No Man’s Sky was looking for.

Did getting hands-on alter your approach to creating the music for No Man’s Sky?
We really didn’t have (and still haven’t) had much of a chance to play the game. This was partly pragmatic – Hello Games are based down in Guildford, near London, whilst 65daysofstatic are up in Sheffield in the north of England – and partly deliberate. Because us soundtracking captured gameplay footage would make no sense. Whatever happens in No Man’s Sky is not going to be scripted. And in that sense, us playing it for a long time would be equally useless in terms of actual soundtrack-writing. Because the decisions we made wouldn’t necessarily be the same decisions anybody else would make.

And so, whilst we have been dying to get stuck into the game as much as everybody else has, approaching it this way, in hindsight, was a great idea. It meant we considered the soundtrack in a more abstract manner. We knew the look of the game, we knew the scale of it, and we knew that we wanted to soundtrack the experience of being alone in a universe that was at best apathetic toward, or more likely openly hostile toward your continuing existence within it. That was all we really needed.

What are some of your favorite game soundtracks?
I have a soft spot for the original Secret of Monkey Island music. And some of the early procedural stuff in those Scumm-based Lucasart point and clicks of the 90s is great, in context at least. I like game soundtracks that take advantage of the form the exist in.

More currently – the soundtrack to Brigador by Makeup & Vanity Set is a treat. His synths somehow sound like ice cream and glass and a future where society hasn’t collapsed (but simultaneously is collapsing), all at once.

Are there any previous game soundtracks you consider as influence on No Man’s Sky’s soundtrack?
I could never really get to grips with the tracking scene back in the 1990s, but it really fascinated me, the way people could make so much music using only a few seconds of low-res samples and some basic coding. During those halcyon days of the Amiga, I was certainly seduced by a lot of great theme songs. Games like Speedball 2, the music on the menu screen of Grand Monster Slam, the Turrican soundtrack, the demo disc of visuals with music from Utah Saints that used to do the rounds with the pirated floppy discs we all used to swap at school... They all left their mark subconsciously, I guess.

I think what we are most excited about as a band is how game soundtracks might work in a few years from now. As forward-thinking as the No Man’s Sky in-game soundtrack system is, there’s clearly a bright future for procedural music going forward. We have a lot of ideas of where this could go next and really hope we can be involved in more projects like this to test them out.

To purchase the game's soundtrack, which release June 17, head here. For all our features from when No Man's Sky was appeared on our cover, click the banner below.