An infinite galaxy to explore, with over 18 quintillion planets teeming with unique lifeforms to meet and extraordinary landscapes to land your spacecraft on, No Man’s Sky is certainly the most ambitious game of the year.
Created by the tiny Guildford Studio Hello Games with Paul Weir as the game’s Audio Director and resident sonic guru, the designers saw kindred spirits of innovation in Sheffield instrumental four-piece 65daysofstatic.
In fact, Hello Games managing director Sean Murray was already a fan of the band. They were asked to collaborate with Paul on the soundtrack, and an intense two-year project has now born a standalone album, extra soundscapes disc, as well as extensive additional contributions to the game’s other sounds.
The game’s gargantuan scale and unpredictable experience for each player is procedurally generated, automatically creating content in the far reaches of space they travel through. Its generative music will be experienced in an equally different way by each gamer on their journey through the No Man’s Sky’s abyss, too, reacting to their actions.
For this, 65daysofstatic would need to contribute sounds to Paul Weir’s huge pool of audio in addition to their highly impressive soundtrack, No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe.
So, how did a band go about taking on such a titanic mission? We met Paul Wolinski and Joe Shrewsbury for an in-depth interview, to find just how far down the wormhole they’ve been for the last two years and why their roles as guitar players are only a small part of being in such an ambitious, forward-facing band.
Before you started working on this project, you’d already been thinking about soundtrack work, but were you thinking more about a film score?
Joe: “I suppose a film score would seem to be the more obvious thing to aim for, although I wouldn’t feel like that anymore, having spent a couple of years now working in the games industry.
“There’s a lot of opportunities coming from that industry for musicians. We were interested in scoring a film, and still are. But I think games are starting to produce opportunities, No Man’s Sky being a case in point, really.
“That was a great opportunity in creative music making, and the scope of what you’re being asked to soundtrack is huge and exciting, and cinematic in its own right. I don’t think all games projects are like that. We’ve been very lucky to be given this one.”
Hello Games originally approached you to use one of your songs for the game’s original launch trailer - is that correct?
Paul: “It was a song called Debutante from [2010 album] We Were Exploding Anyway. They emailed us and there was a little bit of back and forth - we asked them what the project was about and check it was something interesting and not terrible.
“We were kind of sold straight away when we started communicating with them and seeing some of the screenshots and concept art they’d been working on. In that early back and forth we asked if they had anyone on board to do the soundtrack yet, because we’d been looking for a soundtrack for a while and in our heads that was going to be some kind of film score. But it hadn’t occurred to us that a computer game might be an interesting way to take our music. In hindsight, it couldn’t be more perfect for us.”
Joining the world
What inspired you about No Man’s Sky in the very beginning?
Joe: “I think the way it was pitched was really interesting, because they were clearly people who had a huge idea but hadn’t yet found a way to realise it. So they sent us this email that was almost like a director without any funding who was trying to pitch his film to a film company, and it was this quite expressive email about how the player would move through this landscape.
“And what was really interesting from that early point was that even though the game was procedural and was going to be procedural and that was part of the unique selling point of the game, that wasn’t really what they were talking about.”
Paul: “One of the very early emails that they sent to us when they pitched that game to us, they wrote out a little narrative that was basically them describing the launch trailer. ‘Imagine that you open your eyes and you’re in a cave on a planet, and you come out of the cave and there’s two suns on the horizon and your spaceship’s broken.’ It was a very immersive, visceral, personal experience, and that’s how they described the game.”
So what were the first steps with the project?
Paul: “When we first started talking to Paul and Sean from Hello Games, they said, ‘We want you to write a 65daysofstatic album, and this will be the soundtrack to the game. We’re going to make it this infinite soundtrack that responds to the player, but you guys don’t need to worry about any of that. You can write songs in your usual way and we’ll take care of the rest.’
“Which was great, but obviously being the kind of band we are, we said, ‘No way, this sounds brilliant. Tell us more about this process and we’ll make sure we do everything we can to write music that fits best into what you’re trying to do with it, as well as being songs and an album in its own right.’”
Joe: One element of it is that was a very clever instruction came from Paul and Hello Games: ‘Don’t write a soundtrack, just write a 65 record.’
“But I think that the other side of that was, looking back, we were uniquely placed as a band. Both Si and Paul are writing and using software. Paul’s doing live coding, Si’s [Simon Wright] building modular synths. We were able to just harness readily available software to mock up what No Man’s Sky was going to do without actually having access to the software Paul Weir was building.
“I’m not sure how many bands would have been able to do that. That’s not some sort of boast, but there was that element in the band - and it didn’t come from me because I’m just a guitar player, really - where people are using software at quite a high level.
So you actually designed software to make the studio processes easier?
Paul: “In this instance, yes. We sort of had a revelation during this process, which was as Si crossed a threshold of understanding analogue synthesis: it’s not that old nonsense argument about whether digital is every going to be as good as analogue or tape - it’s not that any more; it’s using each platform for what it can uniquely do.
“So [we weren’t using] software synths if actually what that synth is doing is clean oscillator-based synthesis, because that’s what analogue synths are designed to do, and they probably do it better.
“So that suddenly freed up the digital world where I am, because that makes sense. So it was a question of what digital stuff can do that analogue stuff can’t. And that’s modal synthesis or wave table synthesis of wave table or the softer pad sound synthesis. Also, what software can do that hardware can’t is the logic, the brain and the generative stuff. It’s doing a million calculations a second to generate phrases of melody based on some very simple input parameters that you give it in the first place.
“So that’s where I tried to turn my attentions to a little bit and it certainly came in useful during this project, because we’d have these pools of audio sitting on a hard drive, and although it’s not a complex thing to say we just want these to trigger randomly, conceptually it seems like it should be pretty easy: trigger these randomly to layer up no more than 16 at a time between three and seven seconds or something. But there’s no sampler plugin or synth plugin that’s going to do that for you.
“So it was little bits and pieces like that we would start writing and turn into little pieces of software or instances of audio that we could combine to get a sense of how stuff would be working within the game.”
The project obviously involved making the album with the additional disc of soundscapes, but were you recording sounds to be used in the game’s audio library, too?
Joe: “There is an album that comes with the game. We wrote a couple of hours of music, basically, and then we spent a year tearing that apart and feeding [music] into the game [via] the audio engine in the game that was written by Paul Weir, who is the audio director of No Man’s Sky. He has to take a lot of the credit in how that audio mechanism works.
“We fed that raw audio, and the idea is that as you move through the game, the player is providing the linear narrative of the game, but they can choose any path they want, so the game is responding to them, and likewise, the music is creating iterations of music in that moment.”
There’s often a tendency for generative audio to be quite ambient, sometimes to an almost dull degree, did you and Paul Weir consciously want to avoid that?
Paul: “Yes… basically ambience is a get-out clause, and you can hear it in computer games going back 20 years now. I’ve got vague memories going back 20 years now of playing Amiga games with generative music soundtracks that would be midi-based but very long, dawdling melodies and phrases. This soft, soundscapey thing that you couldn’t really hum and be more of a background presence.
“So that was something we were definitely trying to battle against, and Paul Weir had the same idea from the outset as well. So we were all pushing in that direction. But again, even just a single melodic phrase has to exist through a certain amount of time, even if it’s just a few seconds. You have to figure out fuzzy thresholds to see how far you can push songs into the ambient state of the game.”
How did the process come together step by step?
Paul: “Paul Weir had built this system and we started the way they suggested. We started writing songs because it was a very tight deadline anyway for that initial collection of recordings. While we were writing, we had these future processes in mind, so for every song that we were writing, we’d also be trying to collect the sounds, melodies or textures in an ongoing phrase or sound library.
“The second part was the soundscapes. It’s interesting looking at it now, because the soundscapes on our record are not going to sound exactly like the soundscapes in the game will sound.
“We made them ourselves, and we made them quite linearly in the way they were put together so this was us trying to figure out how the soundscapes might work [in the game] before we had access to the actual in-game audio system that would create them. So it was almost like a thought experiment; it forced us to think of music in this other way, and at the same time create even more sound palettes and textures to figure out what might work.
Joe: “The soundscapes are more minimal, less concerned with arrangement… ambient is the wrong word, because they’re more aggressive than that, but their form is atemporal. They’re more loop-based, they’re more meandering. That’s just given us an in to making that sort of music and it’s going to feed in to whatever we do next.
“I’m so proud of that whole body of work. The soundscape stuff is coming from a much more drone-based loop-based place, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how that feeds into 65 as a live band.”
Paul: “The third part of the process was when Paul Weir was ready with the audio system and he started discussing the logic with us, the way it was going to work. It was really nice, because he took onboard a lot of our suggestions about various pieces of logic that could be added or altered slightly that would fit better with the way we thought about making music work.
“I think there was something in there that points to the most interesting future for music, or at least future for music in video games. Because Paul Weir is a sound designer, he’s a musician as well and a really good one, but his [main] role in this game was a sound designer. And the people building this system for him were programmers.
“Our perspective from it was purely from a composition angle, wanting to make the songs as good as possible. Because we weren’t putting game mechanics above our music. We were pushing for the music, knowing that wasn’t the most important thing but fighting that corner to make it as good as possible.
“And that led to some really exciting collaboration with Paul, to adapt the logic of the system and how it was going to use our music. Then it was a matter of us pulling apart everything that we’d done and reformatting it into a pool of audio that would exist within the game.”
Will the album tracks and soundscapes appear in the game as well as that pool of audio?
Joe: “Everything we’ve written has been fair game. I don’t know how they’ve used actual compositions, or whether there will be instances of ‘Supermoon plays now’, or ‘Monolith plays now’, but the game isn’t really like that. It has very few of those set events. It has a totally different structure. It’s not a set series of events like a film; it’s more upwards-based. All the audio is in the game somewhere, but it doesn’t happen in relation to other instances of audio.”
So it’s a unique experience for each player. That must be amazing prospect for you as a musician, with every listener getting a different take on your music…
Joe: “It’s incredible, and the few times I’ve played the game and had music in there has been really exciting. As a musician, it forces you to give up on being precious about anything you’ve written or any one instance of music. You have to see music as something much more abstract than that. You just have to have less of a handle on it and let it be what it is.
“That’s really useful for people who are looking to push into new forms of writing. As a band, you don’t want to fall into tried-and-tested methods, because you end up with tried-and-tested compositions. So, it’s been really useful in that sense, definitely.”
How does the writing process work in the beginning for the band when it comes to the song side of this - are ideas inspired in the beginning by tones or specific melodic parts?
Joe: “I think it often comes from a hook or a progression, but that can also be a rhythmic hook as well more and more. In the early stages of writing, there will be some sort of conversation musically between programming and drums and very simple progressional melody.
“We tend to M.O. a lot as we go now, so we will be recording and making quite fast decisions about what works from week to week. Traditionally, 65 throws away 90% of what it does after an agreed period. So if we’re not writing a record, we will demo X amount of ideas and then we’ll chuck most of them away.
“There seems to be this point where you have to get a lot of stuff out of your system before you can move on to the next thing that you’re supposed to be doing. I think No Man’s Sky was slightly different from that because there was this huge time pressure.
“But the soundscapes have been so useful in pushing our confidence and pushing us on to something new, because the soundscape stuff was initially stuff we felt were ideas that weren’t full formed enough to be included in this batch of songs that we were pushing forwards into compositions. But because we needed a great deal of stuff; we had to trust in everything we came up with.
“Obviously, we threw a few things away. Being forced to develop those soundscapes into something useful of artistic merit was really cool, because they’re fantastic. I find them really emotive, and they really sound like what 65 sounds like to me. Instead of discarding those ideas that are quite basic, we pushed them and so, No Man’s Sky has been really useful.”
For any listener used to tones in a more traditional rock context, a lot of the sounds in this project and your work in general can blur the lines between guitar and synth to the degree it’s difficult to be sure whether you’re hearing a guitar at times. Is that intentional?
Paul: “It’s absolutely our intention to blur those lines. Going back to Wild Light, pretty much everything that wasn’t deliberately clean, and that was mostly drum programming, anything else that was synthetic or digital got re-amped and layered up. Guitar pedals like fuzz and distortion were put onto tape and then put back through a PA and recorded. Anything we could to make synths sound like guitars and guitars to sound like synths.
“To do away with a song that felt like a collection of stems and instead felt like a singular thing was definitely a goal and something I think we’ll do more of. As time has gone on in 65, we’ve obviously all got our instruments that we’re better at, but we’ve become a lot more comfortable all being four co-producers, adding whatever is needed to make a song work - not just finding places for the instruments that we can play.
“I love it when Si plays bass guitar, because he’s just brilliant at it but he builds his own modular synthesisers, and when he put this little modular unit that he’s built through a bass fuzz pedal and then through his 8x10, it’s colossal. And it’s not bass guitar, but it’s bassier and thicker than any bass guitar can ever be.”
Were there traditional setups in the studio, with guitars going into pedal chains into amps, or were there some leftfield choices, too?
Paul: “What we did for Wild Light and what we’ve done for No Man’s Sky is tried very very hard to capture at source the sounds that we wanted, so the mixing could really just be about mixing and not making everything sound good. So we kind of build a wall of amps in the live room of the studio that is everything we have, and everything Dave Sanderson who co-produced the record, has. Anything that the studio happened to have lying around, too.
“They’re all mic’d up, and when we record guitars, we do it through whatever amp sounds best at that moment for that particular song, take or part. Then also record the DI cleanly, and if we can’t get the guitar exactly right in terms of the sound quality, as long as we get the take then we just re-amp it through as many combinations of amps with as many different mic placements until we’ve got the sound we want.
“And Joe’s got a couple of amplifiers that are very low wattage, cranked really high and they used to be antique radios with some nice old scratchy valves in that a guy we know has converted. Those have got a really nice, buzzy, waspy quality.”
Joe: “They can be quite scratchy. There’s a few of them knocking around now. They tend to have a single old valve in, and quite often that’s a Russian valve that’s not made any more, so I suppose it’s like a Neil Young approach: you’re really pushing those to become very hot where they’re almost going to break the amp.
“None of these things on their own are groundbreaking; they’re just instances of analogue equipment that sound unique. They also sound unique with other pieces of gear. There’s this real fine line when you’re using equipment that’s vintage in some sense and just sounds like nothing else.
“I’ve got three or four Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man pedals, the old flat ones. You can hear the difference between when they stopped making the old capacitors and when they put the new ones in. I would absolutely maintain that one of those pedals sounds different to the other three and sounds better, and it does things that the other won’t do. But that’s real geek stuff and I think you have to combine that with a healthy attitude of using some cheap new synth and feeding it through.
“I’m not a particular gearhead in that sense - I just think certain pieces of equipment can’t be faked; they are completely unique to that piece of equipment.”
Did you bring a range of amps in from your own collection?
Joe: “I’ve got an old OR-120 that is a ’76 - that’s a great amp; that does everything and it’s more powerful than some PAs I’ve had to play through, to be honest. There’s an old Vox at the studio; my mate Tom had a Marshall combo amp. We just used what was hanging around.
“One of the techniques we used was to send a guitar or synth through five or six amps, and then often going through different iterations of pedals and mic’ing the amps all up separately and then you have a choice of sending two or three of those to post-production.
“That’s a really interesting way of doing things, because it means you don’t have to make those decisions on the shop floor, as it were. You’re sort of putting that off to the mixing stage, and in album terms that’s when you have to make the decision.
Paul: “It’s about having as many options as possible but having a clear idea of the song spectrally when we were recording it… God, that sounds so pretentious! [laughs] But it’s understanding where everything sits in the whole sound.
“Because what’s the point of recording a gorgeous full-bodied Deftones-style guitar if, actually, you know that the song is already full of these massive synths that are filling it with a load of mids anyway. And that’s the kind of song that you’re going for, so why doesn’t the guitar be this little mosquito, tickling your ear. Those kind of things are what we think about a lot more these days.”
Do you also use plugins for guitar effects as well?
Paul: “Yes, we’re certainly not purists. We’ll use whatever, even if it’s some freebie plugin - if it sounds good, we don’t care.
“Having said that, the studio that we made the record in, and the place it was mixed in as well, had some hardware [by Thermionic Culture] called the Culture Vulture that adds super-crisp distortion to everything. We pretty much put them on everything.
“There’s an absolutely fantastic Convolution reverb plugin in Ableton Live [version 9], which we almost certainly used. But not as a sensible reverb to mix, more as an insane endless space drone-y guitar thing.
“Whilst we’re not in any way purists, it does feel, because of the kind of band we are and kind of pervert noise in all its tones and frequencies, for that kind of bite the hardware stuff tends to win out. If only because of the recording process and the liveness of mic’ing and hiss.
“Plugin distortion might model the distortion perfectly, but it’s not quite the distortion alone that we’re after; it’s the intangible reverb of the room, it’s the hiss of the amp, it’s the combination of everything.”
Are there any particular pedals that you find yourself going back to as workhorses in the signal chains?
Joe: “Most of our last two records have been put through a [Electro-Harmonix] Memory Man in some sense - even if the delay is mixed out, there is something in those capacitors that warms everything up, so we’ll often record drum parts and then put them through the guitar rig, through the Memory Man and re-record them out of the guitar amp.
“We’re doing a lot of stuff like that at the moment, where you can build loops and breaks from the drum kit, and then move that into the electronic side. Then you can play along the drums to the drums, but they have an acoustic feel to them.
“I’ve got an old Big Muff that I found in a puddle in Paris; it was in this flooded venue years ago, and they didn’t want it. So I rehoused that, and I think that’s an old '70s one. Again, that sounds like nothing else, so when put on the spot, I suppose I am a big fan of analogue gear, but it’s not my religion.”
Paul: “In 65, Joe’s had about four billion pedals and I’ve had about three. Recently became four. I’ve got clean and I’ve got distortion, and the distortion is usually amp distortion rather than a pedal. I have an Akai Headrush which I’ve been using for 15 years. It’s the only delay pedal I’ve ever had. It’s a looper, but I use it just for the delay. I’ve been through a few of them, but I’ve stuck with that one.”
Do you share guitars in the studio?
Joe: “We’re not really precious about who is playing what in the studio. We’re more interested in what makes the right noise, so even playing live this autumn, I don’t think we’ve ever decided whose rig will look like what, because we haven’t worked out how to get the sounds. We have a pool of stuff, and we took a bunch of guitars into the studio.
“I tried to have a nice choice of stuff. I use a lot of Fender stuff - a Custom Telecaster and a Jaguar, and a standard Telecaster as well. There’s just a good range of tones between those instruments. I’ve recently bought an old Gibson ES-125 hollowbody with a P-90 in, which is on quite a lot of Wild Light, although it wasn’t mine when I used it then; it is mine now. That’s a great guitar, and I think Paul used that quite a bit as well.
“There’s all sorts lying about. I don’t really have the budget to be a huge gear collector; I’m more interested in keeping 65 on the road most of the time! But when I can, pedals have been a huge part of the conversation for me for the whole of 65’s career, because I’m not particularly good at programming, I’m not particularly great with computers, but pedals are a really interesting interface, I suppose, between effects and the human that the 20th century has created.
“They’re a really interesting thing when you think about it, because they are these little boxes of noise where you have a direct hands-on relationship with the sounds that you’re making, but you don’t really need to know too much about hardware or software to use them; you just plug them together, so they’re a very democratic way of making music. I’m trying to limit how many I take on tour, but something like that Memory Man… we’ve put whole mixes through that Memory Man after the mix. That’s cool if it works, man - you’ve just got to do it.”
You’ve experimented with manipulating EBows on this record in a really interesting way; can you tell us some more about that?
Paul: “That came off the back of a sound installation we did in Sheffield. Basically, it’s a little Arduino black box that we designed together - Si did the hard part of writing the code and soldering it all together.
“An Arduino is a tiny little circuit board that’s all open source hardware, and you can use some software on your computer to plug it into USB and flash some instructions to a little chip on the Arduino, and it can do any number of things.
“We built this little box that will convert MIDI instructions to electrical impulses, and then we bought a bunch of EBows and we hacked them to work with electricity from the Arduino rather than batteries, and so the MIDI would control this box, which in turn would switch the EBows on and off at an incredibly fast rate. We had six of them when we did this installation, and we had three guitars all on pedestals, and it played a song.
“For No Man’s Sky, we used it for the song Red Parallax - the lead guitar part on there, I think it was me that played it originally, and I think it was just on the wrong side of cheesy for us. It was a strong melody but… it was the melody it needed to be but didn’t sound quite right. And it didn’t work on synth, and Joe playing it didn’t work.
“Then we remembered that we had this thing and we’d used it in soundscapes as well, but that was its moment on the album. It’s MIDI sending on and off signals to the Ebow, which is resting on a guitar. When we recorded it, Joe is fingering the frets along with the song, but instead of it being strum-picked, it’s the EBow that’s running in sync with the Pro Tools session of the recording studio.
“There’s definitely an interesting future in all of that, and I think it’s only going to get more interesting, because all of this is slowly getting more accessible to people who don’t have to know how to code.”
Do you think the games industry could offer new possibilities for bands? This feels like a landmark collaboration between worlds…
Joe: “Yes, definitely, I do. I’m not clever enough to see what’s coming next. I think we got really lucky with No Man’s Sky, because as well as being a computer game project, it is a unique project in its own right. And I know a few people that have done games stuff, and they didn’t have the same experience we had.
“It was a very creatively free experience. We were given a lot of free reign, and the procedural nature of the audio meant that it in its own right was a project. Whereas a lot of games are going to want soundtrack music, which is the same as writing music for film.
“I think that is definitely something that is opening up, and I think what we’re talking about is not composers writing for games but actual bands. It’s a hard distinction to make, but a band is different from a composer for hire, and I think that’s where things are changing.
“Games companies are hiring bands or artists for music, because of the specific qualities those bands or artists have in their other work. I think that’s very interesting, and I certainly think that’s what [game director] Sean [Murray] was getting at with No Man’s Sky. He wasn’t just looking for any instrumental rock band; he was specifically interested in some quality of our music that moved him in a certain way.”
Paul: “What we now see as the history of computer gaming, and more widely, digital entertainment, this is clearly going to be some kind of landmark game to really take on this ambition. So maybe there will be areas in which it could do better, and certainly even from what we’ve learned about procedural music over the last two years, if we went into another project like this tomorrow, there’s so many things that we would do differently.
“That’s not to say that we’re not happy with what we’ve done; it’s that you can’t know these things until you’ve gone through it. And compared to the music industry, where it feels like everyone is treading water just figuring out how to pay their bills and not get a proper job. 10 years ago, people were talking about the mp3 killing music, and what they should do next. That same old boring conversations keeps on going round and round, and it’s not the most inspiring place to be.
“Whereas seeing the computer game industry, which has its own set of pressures, and it’s got its own version of capitalism bearing down on it in all its money-making glory, but compared to the music industry, the creativity and the feeling of being actually at some sort of forefront of things where there’s genuinely new things happening and space to move into creatively, it’s really exciting.
“And I just hope we get to do it again. In an ideal way, I can see how it wouldn’t be demoted to being soundtrack in a subset to a greater artform, as it’s still integral to it. But having more places to exist could be beneficial to music as a concept.”
No Man's Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe is out now via Laced Records.