Hello you all!
In this making of -post I’m going to talk a little what went into creating the ambient soundscapes in Legend of Grimrock. To freshen up your memories, here’s the tracks I made for the temple and prison wallsets:
These versions differ a tiny bit from the ones included in the game to make them work a little bit better as “standalone” tracks: the tracks in the game are looping and I also tweaked the mixing of the tracks a little.
Anyways so, now that we have some background music playing for you while you read, let’s start from the beginning. When we begun the Grimrock project we already had one good looping ambient soundscape that we could use that Markus “Captain” Kaarlonen of Poets of the Fall fame had made for one hobby game project that Petri and Olli had been working on some years ago. It was pretty much a perfect match for this game too but the only problem was that we needed more and we were on a tight budget. So that left me as the most practical option for creating the new tracks since I’ve been fiddling with electronic music as a hobby for a while and, with our salaries, I was pretty damn cheap too!
Of course I couldn’t just go ahead and start composing whatever pops in to my mind since there were a few requirements. Most importantly, the ambient music would need to be looped over and over again for hours without getting on the players’ nerves. To ensure this, we decided to avoid making the ambient tracks too musical and instead try and make something that comfortably sits in the space between actual environmental sound effects (tumbling rocks, ancient mechanisms, dripping water etc.) and proper instrumental background music. Basically this meant some ambient hums and drones overlaid with subtle, slowly evolving abstract melodies topped with some eerie sound effects that are blended in to the rest of the ambient track. And for many of these elements, granular synthesis was the perfect tool.
Granular synths are great for taking some recorded source audio, that by itself might sound sort of everyday or even a little boring, and turning it into a slowly evolving abstract and scary soundscape while still retaining some eerie sense of familiarity that comes from using actual sounds as the basis. Granular synthesis is basically a method of sound synthesis where you take a sample and split it down to tiny tiny grains which you loop very rapidly. You can then blend and randomize the selection of the grains or make the sound evolve slowly by, for example, pushing the selection of grains slowly into some direction. Robert Henke explains the process pretty well in this video where he talks about the Granulator which was the same synth as I used with these tracks.
Of course granular synthesis wasn’t the only tool I used to create the soundscapes. I used plenty of samples, many from the same source materials we used for the game’s sound effects but also a few I sampled myself, which were then manipulated by pitching, stretching or other methods. I also used a few sampled brass orchestra and piano sounds that were included with my copy of Ableton Live but I pushed the samples pretty far from their original shape and form and blended them into the background so that they wouldn’t stand out. In the temple soundtrack I did one of my “usual tricks” with a piano sound where I compress the instrument’s sound so heavily that the played notes completely lose their original punchy sound and the tail of the sound is amplified so much that sound of the instrument can be sustained a long time while all the previously inaudible blemishes from either the recording or the instrument itself can be clearly heard. With this you can turn a piano sound into a very strange string ensemble. This works pretty nicely with other acoustic instruments too that have a very percussive sound like guitars, hang drums or dulcimers or whatever. And it’s loads of fun to experiment with it!
Overall I’m pretty happy how the tracks turned out since this was a style of music I haven’t tried to compose before even though I’m a big fan of artists like Biosphere and Field Rotation. I even find myself listening to the Grimrock ambient tracks every once in a while even when not playing the game so I suppose they have grown on me too in some way.