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Creating the disturbing soundscapes of Hyper Light Drifter

In addition to its challenging gameplay and vibrant visuals, Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is also notable for its unsettling, discordant audio design.

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Hyper Light Drifter - GDC

In addition to its challenging gameplay and vibrant visuals, Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is also notable for its unsettling, discordant audio design.

The game’s soundscape – comprised of music by composer Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace) and audio effects by Heart Machine’s sound designer, Akash Thakkar – is fundamental to the Hyper Light Drifter’s success. In their GDC talk this week, Thakkar and Vreeland spoke about the methods they used to create the game’s memorable audio textures.

Vreeland’s process began by composing ‘piano sketches’ inspired by game concepts from Hyper Light Drifter’s creative director, Alex Preston.

“Something I like to do is sit at the piano, come up with lots of ideas, and let the project inspire me,” says Vreeland. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that music I’m gonna write will be music that we use, but it’s a good place to start.”

Although one version of these early sketches did end up in the game, others, although useful in determining the soundtrack’s tone, fell by the way side. Vreeland attempted various experiments to give the score a distinct sound. One involved running the soundtrack through a cassette deck to give it an analog sound, although, unfortunately, the results didn’t work as hoped.

“Doing that makes the speed of the recording fluctuate. If you’re trying to do dynamic music in a game where you have multiple layers of music that are moving through different scenarios, and that are meant to stay in sync with each other, you’ll lose the synchronisation of the layers. So I had to scratch that.”

Hyper Light Drifter concept art

For Hyper Light Drifter’s arena mode Vreeland also experimented by laying out flashcards on a table that contained musical notes and drew paths between them to generate variations in tonality. One result of this endeavour was a driving, pulse-like composition that was used in early demos of the game.

“It was a piece we didn’t end up using but it helped solidify the idea of having up-tempo music in the battle sequences,” recalls Vreeland.

“It was also during convention season where they were taking the game around to different events. Alex, the creative director, would be on the floor talking to people, showing the game, and this music would be running in the background. It was 50 second loop and so he would be hearing this music 6000 times. He hated it by the end.”

Thakkar’s approach to creating Hyper Light Drifter‘s sound design was to generate nightmarish effects from scratch, without relying on existing sound libraries. Like Vreeland, Thakkar looked to the past and used a 1950’s wire recorder. In addition he also used a stethoscope connected to a microphone and a garden hose spigot to record low noises, such as a the thrum of a refrigerator, and even the sound of Thakkar’s own blood. The resulting, deep rumble used to underscore the game’s last boss battle.

Thakkar largely stuck to using these self-made samples, instead of synths, to create the game’s range of audio textures.

“The reason I decided to sample and record stuff with the wire recorder, or stethoscope microphone, or whatever mics I had handy, was because it allowed me to have the sounds grounded a little bit in reality and then stylised out from there.”

Hyper Light Drifter stethoscope recorder

This meant that although the sound effects had style, a shotgun would still sound like a shotgun, albeit an otherworldly one.

Hyper Light Drifter’s music and sound effects were not created in isolation and Vreeland and Thakkar often had to ‘cross the streams’ to create the end product.

“There are some musical sound design elements, and some sound design-y musical elements,” says Vreeland. “They just popped up naturally.”

One example is the item fanfare which combines both contributors’ work to create a noise that is a dark twist on the traditional Zelda-like chest jingle. Another is the disturbing sound of the birds found in the game’s northern region.

“I wanted to to create this menacing sound of of bird swarming and use that as a texture in the music,” says Vreeland.

Despite the musique concrete approach found throughout Hyper Light Drifter the game also contains a few ‘iconic’ sounds and melodies.

The stinger – first heard on the title card of the game’s second trailer – came out of a collaborative process with Alex Preston. Vreeland saved hundreds of piano sketches to a drop box from which Preston identified a three chord piece he wanted to use as the theme.

“We felt that it was very evocative in a very short amount of time. It was something you could latch on to,” Vreeland says.

Thakkar explained that he spent most of his time working on making weapon sounds, and making them as cool as possible.

“To do that I use a technique called layering,” he explains. “Every single sound is made of multiple things playing at the same time.”

Up to 20 different sounds – many created using the wire recorder – would be layered to create distinctive weapon effects, such as the diamond shotgun. To create some of the game’s blood-curdling monster effects, Thakkar resorted to squealing like a pig into a microphone and then processing the recording.

“What I did is record directly into my wire recorder then put it back into Logic Pro,”says Thakkar. “And then I took that sound, time-stretched it, added reverb, and bit-crushed the hell out of it.”

The final effect is truly chilling, reminiscent of the noise made by an Aztec Death Whistle.

Although the creative process was largely smooth there were differences of opinion on the style of music in the game between Preston, who wanted haunting epic melodies, and Vreeland, who believed a more understated approach would be appropriate.

“We often found the right solutions to things by having these really long conversations, and talking it out, and finding a common ground,” says Vreeland. “For bosses and vistas we’d have the music sweep up, get kind of cinematic and have some kind of melody, and everything else is more subtle. It helps to build a contrast and dynamism in the music.”


Check out more details on the Hyper Light Drifter dev blog.

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Fire Emblem Three Houses, Skyrim (still), and Grid.