Hades 1.0 + Thoughts on Art & Personal Growth

(character art by Jen Zee, background art by Joanne Tran, animation and logo by myself)

So Hades is finished, after three years in development and two in Early Access. The response so far has been very positive and it’s been humbling and rewarding to read so many glowing comments about our work. I’ve never felt more appreciative to have had the opportunity to work with such a passionate, skilled team, and to have contributed my small part to its success.

On a personal level, working on Hades has been something of a transformative experience for me as an artist. As we came closer to the 1.0 launch I found myself looking retrospectively at my career, and moreover my experience working with Supergiant for past seven years (and man those years have gone by fast!)

When I joined in 2013, mid-production of Transistor, I found it fairly easy to hit the ground running, at least from a stylistic standpoint, as I was well familiar with the general style and execution of sci-fi/cyberpunk aesthetics. I remember feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance at the idea of working Art Nouveau elements into my very mainstream idea of what a sci-fi UI should look like, but with enough guidance from our visionary and inimitable art director Jen Zee, we found a way to make it work. But I remember it being one of my first professional experiences in a long time that required me to break the molds I’d been so comfortable and falsely confident in for years.

On Pyre, there were definitely moments where I felt out of my element, maybe even a bit of imposter syndrome. I could no longer rely on my old comfy tool-based tricks of pixel-perfect vectors, glows, Layer FX and photographic textures to produce all of my assets – it all really needed a more organic, worn, hand-drawn touch and the workflows I’d become so comfortable with were no longer quite so directly applicable. But necessity is a powerful motivator and at some point I reluctantly picked up the old Wacom pen and attempted to mimic some of Jen’s impeccable line work in a way that hopefully wouldn’t stick out like an awkward sore thumb.

While I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, leaning too heavily on tools also presented a difficult mental barrier to overcome. Even in the weeks that we spent freely experimenting during Pyre’s pre-production, I found it hard to try to simply do something new with what I had at my disposal. The limitations of the tools I had spent so much time learning and staking my livelihood on had ironically become something of a creative block.

Of course we got the game done, and the art was well-received, but I think a subconscious part of me was left with a nagging feeling that I’d done my work despite my failings and weaknesses, rather than having overcome them.

So at the start of production on Hades I felt like I wanted to break free from that – to execute work that was immediate and impactful, visceral and satisfying, and to do so with boldness and confidence without endlessly noodling away, mentally hand-wringing over unnoticeable details. While it didn’t happen overnight, I think the subconscious idea of that motivation helped guide my work, especially as necessitated by the pace of our Early Access releases. There was no time to second guess myself, much less time to noodle and lose the forest for the trees.

Thankfully to that end I was also aided by Jen’s endless encouragement and, on the VFX side, some inspiring and badass concepts by my old friend Andre Mina. Not to mention the awesome work done by the rest of the art team, all of whom are inspiring in their passion, skill, creativity, and dedication to their craft: Joanne‘s beautiful environment art, Paige‘s meticulously detailed and faithful 3D models, and Thinh‘s stylish character animation, breathing life into the models in a way that makes each feel unique. It’s been a pleasure working and growing with this team and I hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

To paraphrase the wise words of Napoleon Dynamite, “It’s pretty much the best drawing I’ve ever made.”

Check out Hades on Steam, Nintendo Switch, or Epic Games Store.

Metamorph – Blocks

Metamorph Blocks


As I was gathering the “Metamorph” source files for backup, I started listening to some of the half finished, in-progress ideas I had rendered out for consideration, as well as a few that were completely finished but didn’t make the cut. After hearing them with fresh ears I found it a little easier to discern the elements that I’d originally been developing in them before over-listening to the point of boredom (this kills the spark of inspiration.)

I ended up re-listening a few times and, feeling fairly certain that I wouldn’t revisit them in the future, decided to upload and share some of them instead of letting them rot hidden in the cloud for eternity. And maybe share some thoughts about them and where they fit in the path to the album. I’m going to sort these more or less chronologically.


DontNeed
This was started shortly after finishing “Observer” and feels to me like it would be more at home there than on “Metamorph”. Sort of a Burial x Microfunk vibe. The vocal sample seems like too much of a focal point to me, despite mixing it in at a low level, and it didn’t feel right basing the most interesting part of a track on a stock (or maybe sound pack, I forgot) Maschine sample.

Symbol
Sampled some classical music here in the vein of Susumu Yokota’s lovely “Symbol” album, but ultimately felt like my sample use was a little too straightforward and not particularly creative. The vocal sample did end up granulized in “Voice of the Zodiac” though.

Monark160[Persistence]
Prior to playing Celeste, it had been a long time since I’d stumbled across a game soundtrack that I not only enjoyed but also really connected with. I think Lena Raine‘s phenomenal work ended up inspiring parts of this; I was impressed with her use of the Monologue in the OST it got me inspired to have another go at Monark, which I previously hadn’t really had much luck patching myself. While I enjoyed this result, ultimately I don’t think this track particularly fit the broad picture sound and technique I wanted to pursue.

Monark170[Float]
More “practice” patching and utilizing Monark without it dominating the track. Hot off Observer, sounds like I was still riding Maschine’s Grain Hold effect pretty hard here. Still too same-y.

FormUserAmb
I think I was pursuing two main impulses here: focusing more on negative space and minimal use of notes, and making more use of some of the softsynths I hadn’t used much in production yet. While I had a blast exploring Native Instruments’ Form and made a decent number of my own patches/presets with it, I hadn’t really featured it on a track yet. So here I was trying to build something up using mostly my own sounds.

Blkmir
Still trying to find a voice here, but too close to my old habits again. I worked on this with headphones one night while Marissa was watching Black Mirror S3E4: San Junipero, so it ended up as a weirdly muted background inspiration (or at the very least, a filename.)

Fluttr
I really enjoyed the sparse piano work in the Zelda:Breath of the Wild OST, so I think that inspired me to experiment with some playful, staccato piano here. I was also listening to a lot of Frederic Robinson around this time, so there was some inspiration from his amazing work as well. Unfortunately I don’t think this hit anywhere near the mark of either of those inspirations, so I shelved it.

AndanteSine
Just an experiment in “virtual modular” ambient with generative melodies, plus a couple of chords granulized through Antonio Blanca’s DRON-E. I still kind of like the minimal-ness of it, but didn’t think it was interesting enough to stand on its own.

Kontour+nod-E_Clix
Another attempt at generative melodies (courtesy of NOD-E,) minimalism, and trying to utilize softsynths in my collection that hadn’t seen much use yet. As the title suggests, this was an attempt to make more use of Kontour. Despite being successful at all of these aspects, I don’t think the end result ended up all that interesting.

Dighyp
Mostly an attempt at glitchy ambient IDM in Maschine. I think absent a driving emotion during production, the whole thing ended up just sounding cold and lifeless to me.

Drumsync
This was part of the prototype that led to finishing “Tornadogenesis”. One sunny Saturday morning I just felt like making some crunchy, funky minimal beats. I think I knocked out like 10 or 12 a la carte drum patterns, and eventually added some of these sparse hypercompressed delayed synth lines, but wasn’t totally happy with them and how much they distracted from the drum patterns. Nevertheless I had fun recording this by shifting around the drum and synth patterns and using Maschine’s Perform FX in realtime.

Gamelan
Probably one of the less melodic explorations here, but one of the early sparks of direction for “Metamorph,” utilizing more generated sequences and focusing on modulation. It also felt good to break some molds and do something a little more bold, at least at he beginning. I think the title came from the Newscool preset I started with for the initial sequence.

ToyBoxCombDrum
Here I believe I had gone too far into the “make a whole song with modulation” methodology. Aside from the background ambience, it’s entirely made from my own Reaktor Blocks patches (plus one instance of TRK01 on bass duty trying to keep things orderly.) It ended up being kind of pain to control, and I think it even sounds a little out of control. By the end of it, even my OC’d 8700k was having trouble keeping up with low latency playback.

CT_Lite
After spending a good few months with the Analog 4, I felt a little sorry for my dusty old minilogue and decided to use it for the main synth sequences on this one, plus some synthetic drums from the Reaktor Clonetonic ensemble. Sorry minilogue, this one didn’t make the cut (though you did get center stage in “A Growing Uncertainty”.)

MX_Simple[Empath]
After buying and learning Massive X I had an initial slump of disenchantment with it; it seemed like whatever I made with sounded too complicated and demanding, and few of the factory patches were inspiring (though there are some awesome ones in there.) Here I tried to tone things down and make some more simple, useful patches. I actually like how it turned out and think I found a simplicity that worked here, but didn’t feel right selling or including it on the album with the vocal sample (and also feel like the vibe wouldn’t be the same without it).

MX_Stonewheel
Speaking of Massive X, this one’s featuring an awesome Massive X patch that came in with a new set of factory presets. I felt this ended up a little too on the nose and predictable to fit on the album, and wasn’t sure where else to take it after a couple minutes.

RazorMetal
This one I was working on alongside “Abiogenesis” and initially thought I might just release the two together as single. Ultimately this one felt a little too predictable and similar to warrant its own spot on the album though.

SmolReaktor[LMK]
Started as another early experiment with generative melodies, this time using Reaktor’s factory Newscool ensemble (which made it into like half the tracks on the actual album). It turns out, tuning the pitches on the generators at 1px per semitone is a bit of a pain in the ass on a 4k monitor. Anyway, as the track started coming together I was happy to hear a bit of resemblance to one of my enduring favorite 90s drum&bass tracks, Technical Itch – Can’t You See (Dub Mix), and ended up intentionally taking it in that direction. But it wouldn’t be complete without a little vocal sample, would it? This one almost made it, (indeed it is finished) but again, copyright law completely aside, part of me felt wary about prominently using such a well-known vocal sample.

IRCstalker
Making heavy use of the Analog Four & Rytm here, along with an instance of Reaktor Skrewell which until this I had never found a practical use for. Another one that almost made it; it is finished and fits thematically with a few of the other tracks. Ultimately though I think there’s a fine line between minimalism and boredom and this veered further than I would have liked into the latter, overstaying its welcome.

SparkOhm[Retrospective]
Went hard on a couple of impulses here: utilize underused softsynths (Reaktor Spark, in this case) and channel late-90s netlabel IDM. Despite finishing it and initially thinking it had promise, I thought I fell back into too many of my standard habits here.

Metamorph – Out Now

Album Cover
 

“Metamorph” is available now for streaming or purchase via the following outlets:

Firstly, I wanted to express gratitude to my supporters and listeners so far; it’s been motivating, heartwarming and reassuring to read your comments, and I appreciate each one. As I’ve written about previously, the internet has become such a huge place and releasing new work can feel like emptying an eyedropper into an ocean of music. As of this post there are something like 50 million songs on Spotify alone, so having anyone listen and enjoy enough to drop me a note feels truly remarkable.

I wrote a bit about the album in the preview post but figured I’d elaborate further on some of the themes and influences.

As parts of this are somewhat inflammatory, I feel like I should qualify my thoughts by stating that they’re completely subjective and result from my experience largely as an armchair listener, bedroom producer, overall outsider, and certainly not a professional. That said…

I think a major part of my renewed interest in IDM comes from the current state of electronic music in general. An extremely brief history of my interest would start in the early 90s with Rave, Techno and Demoscene music, closely followed by Hardcore Rave evolving to Jungle, early Drum&Bass and Trip Hop, which led me to Atmospheric Jungle/DnB, which branched off into ambient (which of course had been around for decades,) and then by the late 90s, IDM – some of which combined my favorite aspects of all of these genres.

From the early 00s to 10s I still mainly followed Drum&Bass, but also branched out into some more mainstream and accessible sounds, lounge and disco house, 2-step/garage, stuff I could listen to in the car without weirding out new friends. At this point I think I fell out of the more niche experimental genres as I had personally associated them with a less mature, more introverted part of myself that I felt I’d grown out of or wanted to leave behind.

So here we are in mid-2020, and I feel like the unfortunate mainstream adoption of electronic music, its commercialization and commodification into predictable, polished, festival-friendly frameworks and the cult of DJ personalities has drained so much of what was interesting about it in the first place. Looking at Drum&Bass in particular, to me its origins and spirit were about forward-thinking and innovation. (As an aside, my impression of most of the “Future ____” genres implying innovation seem the most straightforward and resistant to experimentation, but I digress.) As the structures of its subgenres solidified, they became increasingly predictable and boring. Early Atmospheric/Intelligent Drum&Bass was such a mind-bending fusion of cleverly chopped high energy breaks contrasting with the stillness and beauty of ambient music, but after 20 years of solidifying its framework to the point of paint-by-numbers YouTube tutorials… today the beats just sound so bland and mindless to me, blurring together into a light sludge of hihats, shakers, gutless kicks and mushy snares at the most obvious intervals, lazily repeated ad nauseum for the duration of the track.

So I’ve been asking myself where that leaves me and what that drives me to create, my creative roots having been appropriated by the insatiable machine of capitalism and eroded to banality by an endless stream of producers trying to do the same thing.

I think that’s why I’ve had a renewed interest in IDM these past few years – a genre I ironically steered away from because of its inaccessibility, its esoteric and obtuse qualities. It seems to me these aspects also make it innately immune from being clearly defined and iterated into monotony. While it certainly can have qualities of Jungle, Drum&Bass, Acid, Techno, House, Ambient, Downtempo and of course purely experimental sound, it isn’t any of those things in particular. It’s nebulous and flexible by nature, and that’s what makes it so interesting and full of potential for artistic exploration.

And that’s also why I’ve tried to look back to said roots without creating purely for the sake of nostalgia. While there’s certainly some nostalgia in the form of break selection or patches that harken back to the genre’s progenitors, my goal was to try to extract the essence of what made those things so inspiring at the time, present them in a fresh form, making the most of the contemporary production techniques at my disposal.

I guess one could also say it’s fairly reactionary to all of these things – broadly the state of electronic music and its connection to my own identity, as mentioned, but also the state of the internet and social media: connected to millions of people around the world but more isolated than ever, increasingly fast machines saving time through automation, but still busier and working harder than ever, uncertainty and fear looming as we cope with this pandemic, and the desires that all of those contradictions and issues lead us to reach for.

Well, I’m not sure if I entirely succeeded by any of those accounts, but I certainly tried, and to that extent I’m satisfied with the result.

Metamorph – Full Album Preview

Album Cover

Process

After finishing “Observer,” I found myself in a bit of a creative rut; following my typical process resulted in work that I felt was boring, unsatisfying, and too similar to previous efforts. I think the ease of the creation process, thoroughly lubricated and streamlined by the Maschine/Komplete Kontrol workflow, ended up ironically being a creative hindrance in some respects. By removing friction (and thereby necessary mental energy) from the creative thought process, I ended up falling into a routine, subconsciously utilizing the same techniques and sounds as always. At some point I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere, and dissatisfaction and frustration led me to seek new methods for creative expression.

I finally found inspiration in experimenting with Reaktor: diving into the factory library, utilizing less conventional sequencers like NOD-E and TRK01, as well as creating my own “modular” patches with Blocks, and focusing a lot more on modulation in general. There are some really cool synths and sequencers in there, much of which is reminiscent of the early days of “IDM,” which itself was also a major influence on this album. The K10K-era micro-GUI of many of the ensembles haven’t aged well, but I think the sounds themselves are still quite fresh and would probably be widely regarded if they were hardware.

Along that line, I ended up purchasing some Elektron gear as I felt their sequencing paradigm and modulation capabilities were very much in line with what I was trying to accomplish. Many of the tracks here heavily feature the Analog 4 and Analog Rytm.

History, Influences and Quality

Process aside, one of the goals of this album was to look back and incorporate historical influences – 90s Jungle and pre-commercialized Drum & Bass, as well as early IDM and the amalgamation of all of these in the tracking scene. For myself it was a formative era and I wanted to evoke the same spirit but executed with the power and tools of contemporary production.

That said, one of the issues I struggled with (as always) is mixing and mastering. To me it’s boring and tedious and it’s possible that I just don’t quite have the ear (nevermind the six-figure equipment and acoustically treated space) for it, much less the cash or patience to send it off to a studio and have it done professionally. On the other hand, part of me says maybe it doesn’t matter – it never really reduced my enjoyment listening to S3M/XM/IT modules that had absolutely no ability to apply EQ, compression or limiting. To a certain extent mixing in electronic music is an essential part of the production process, but beyond what I can do with a pair of decent headphones I don’t have a particular interest in polishing it to perfection. And maybe in some sense there’s a degree of rawness and authenticity to that. After all, I have the luxury of doing this at my own pace and setting my own goals – it’s a side hobby, not the source of my livelihood, and I’m not trying to sell this to masses or aim for DJ play in festivals or giant venues.

Hades / Life Updates

Speaking of my livelihood; it’s been a couple of years, perhaps I should include some life updates here. Work-wise I’ve been plugging away at Hades since my last update. As per usual the vast majority of my work on the game is in visual effects animation, motion graphics and UI design. These days I find that my professional work utilizes just about all of my visual creative energy; I haven’t really done much in the way of personal digital art since I started working at Supergiant six years ago, but I’m totally okay with that, and I think the reason is that it’s very creatively fulfilling. I’m constantly learning and my work reaches a much larger audience than if I were to just do my thing solo. And it’s not only satisfying to work with a passionate and exceptionally talented team that really cares about the end product, but also to see the reactions of fans and new players alike who appreciate it.

In my late teens, faced with imminent choices about choosing a path toward adulthood, I decided to pursue game development as it was one of the few things that felt real and important to me. I remember the magic of watching Final Fantasy cinematics or using summons for the first time and imagining how awesome it would be to be involved in creating something like that; to touch other players in a way that they can viscerally, even spiritually connect with and be further inspired by. And I often think, reading the reactions and feedback from our players, that we have accomplished just that. And making that connection, knowing that I’ve contributed some small part to their experience, has been profoundly fulfilling to me.

Anyway

Thanks for listening, or even just reading my ramblings.

20+ years ago I put together my first website to showcase my primitive 3D artwork and host my 16-channel mods. At the time it was a source of pride and identity for me. These days it seems pretty dusty around here, as I only update every couple of years. Certainly part of that is due to the explosive expansion of the internet from a niche culture with tightly knit communities into a massively commercialized essential utility with nearly universal participation. But also very much to do with life and work, growing up, having a family of my own and more responsibilities to fulfill than an unemployed community college student.

Nevertheless, I’m going to keep doing my thing here, and I hope you can get some enjoyment out of it.

“Metamorph” releases on Bandcamp 06.23.20, and streaming services shortly thereafter.

Observer [Preview]

Cobbled together a preview of my upcoming album “Observer” and put it on Soundcloud tonight, with a release date of 4/20/18 set.

This album ended up being more influenced by personal life than my previous efforts. Previously I was much more focused on atmosphere and evocation, though I think with “The Dream Edge” there were a few tracks transitioning away from that to more intimate influences. The past couple of years have been good to me, but also introduced new and unexpected challenges that, looking back, profoundly influenced my mood and creative output in both conscious and subconscious ways.

Another shift in inspiration I took was a more respectful look at the past instead of a relentless focus on the future, innovation and progression. I attempted a balance this time – I don’t care for the idea of executing pure nostalgia, but hinting at it with things like more jungle-influenced breaks, lo-fi bit reductions and fuzz, simple adlib-inspired FM sounds, samples from my favorite ambient albums of the past couple decades. Much of that came from re-listening to old favorite albums as well, from the early 90s’ evolution of techno and breakbeat to jungle and drum & bass, the late 90s and early 00s forays into IDM, even old .mod/.s3m/.xm/.it favorites from my tracking days.

On the other hand, I tried some new things with hardware this time as well – about half of the tracks were done primarily with an Elektron Digitakt and Korg minilogue, in an attempt to better focus my sound in a world of practically unlimited sound sources. A pursuit of simplicity and balance of negative space also played a role in a few tracks here – again, influenced by humble daily life instead of trying to evoke a sense of fantastic empyrean scale and energy.

The resulting whole might seem a little disjointed, but probably no more so than any of my previous albums or EPs. My primary goals in producing music are to maintain integrity of personal expression, channeling my favorite influences and memories into combinations that I enjoy, and in that respect I’m content with the result here, and hope you find some enjoyment in it too.

Distribution

Wow, my last update was almost two years ago.  I’m not actually dead, just busier than usual.  I had another kid so I can finally check off the ✓family complete milestone.

My last update was the Pyre announcement – in case you missed it, the game shipped on PC and Steam and Playstation 4 and was pretty favorably reviewed!

I finally managed to get my more recent music catalog onto the major distribution platforms, so in addition to Bandcamp you can now stream on iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify, and more.

I’m in the process of finishing up a new album, as well as a cheeky synthwave-R&B fusion mix/mashup.  I’m aiming to have the former up within the week and the latter as soon as I can cobble together some appropriate artwork for it.

The Dream Edge

"The Dream Edge" Album Art

Finished a new album! This one is less of a unified concept than my previous LP, in fact it took some consideration (and a little time pressure) just to articulate the loosely unifying threads tying the individual tracks together into a concise title. In a sense it feels more a compilation of things I’ve worked on over the past year and a half or so. With varying levels of focus I’ve been exploring themes of hazy memories, nostalgia, dreams or dreamlike states or the blurry veil between conscious thought and dreaming. I think that ended up being manifested in more than one track by my process of starting with an initial theme or set of sounds and then filtering it halfway through, like looking at reality through the lens of a dream, or comparing the ideal of a concept to its reality.

As usual the energy level fluctuates from soporific ambient to frenetic 170bpm layered breaks. In the process of gathering material for the album I found myself questioning whether or not it’s a good approach to compile such a stylistically wide range of material – not that there isn’t any precedent for it, but generally the artists I listen to and am inspired by seem to release with much more consistency of theme. But ultimately it does feel like the right decision. As music production remains a hobby for me I have the luxury of working on it whenever inspiration strikes, crafting sounds to my own taste without external restrictions; so hopefully the end result has some purity of expression, hindered mostly by my own lack of technical ability to directly translate my ideas. And as a creative professional it’s liberating to have a method of expression that doesn’t need to answer to anyone else’s requirements, so I’m putting it together as I see fit. As such, I hope there is something on it for you to enjoy.

Listen on SoundCloud.

Purchase via BandCamp.

Bleemixes on Mixcloud

I was listening to my first “Bleemix” megamix/mashup today and decided that in the spirit of getting archived material back online and up to current standards I’d upload them to Mixcloud, so the first three are over on my new mixes page now.

Properly tagging the tracklists is rather time consuming, made moreso by the Mixcloud UI which was clearly designed towards mixes with 15-20 tracks as opposed to 110+ overlapping in my Bleemix series.  Also, I somehow lost the continuous mix for Bleemix 3 and had to patch it back together from the individual MP3s.  Fun fact, I tried four different solutions to this, all of which failed to provide a smooth and gapless continuous file, until I remembered Winamp’s “single file” Disk Output mode.  Winamp is still good for something!

Anyway I’ll have to save the final Bleemix 4 for tomorrow.