What is the sound of Death Stranding? According to Joel Corelitz, it’s vertigo—the sense, he says, that you “don’t know which way is up or out.”
As the musical sound designer on Hideo Kojima’s upcoming action game, Corelitz would know. He’s spent the past several months working on Death Stranding, designing the synthesizer sounds that help shape the game’s soundtrack. Along with Ludvig Forssell, lead composer of Death Stranding and audio director at Kojima Productions, he has not only helped define what the game will sound like, he’s also taken an inspiring amount of initiative to make it unique. Few audio designers, I imagine, make a trip to Home Depot a part of their creative process. To develop the audio library that would serve as the basis for the game’s score, he and Forsell used an array of “found items,” leading sampling sessions where they recorded themselves “making every sound possible with two cartfuls worth of hardware from Home Depot” and “playing an extensively modified piano with sledgehammers, mallets and even a rake”. It’s a story that inspires a secondhand sense of guilt in any musician, but with a twinge of fascination: what did they do to that poor piano? And how was it used to achieve their intended effect?
Speaking with Corelitz by email, I got an informative look at the logistics of digital composing and the unconventional lengths a composer will go to in order to get just the right sound.
Paste: So tell me about this piano you and Ludvig Forsell used for the audio design for Death Stranding. I’m curious about how it was modified and to what purpose.
Joel Corelitz: I’ve always wanted to do a prepared piano. I love that with some modifications or some creatively “incorrect” playing, a familiar instrument can turn into something so alien and there’s something so horrific and exciting about that to me. We did a lot with the piano; we stuck screws, playing cards in the strings and bolts on the ends of the screws so they’d vibrate. [Forsell and I] put duct tape over the dampers so the piano sounded like this warped dulcimer. We laid it on its back and struck the strings in the belly of the piano with every object we could find. Essentially, we turned the piano into a kind of percussion instrument, and it was maybe the most interesting and versatile one I’ve ever played. With a traditional drum, the resonation you get after impact is limited to maybe a fundamental and a few harmonics. With the piano, every hit was this deliciously dissonant cacophony.
Paste: When you say you hit the piano with a sledgehammer and mallets, what was that like exactly, did you strike the strings or the keys?
Corelitz: We tried everywhere, except the keys I think, though we did play the piano. But I think our best results were striking what we called the “belly”—the part of an upright under the keyboard by where the player’s knees would be. If you open it up you can see all the strings there. We used mallets and beaters directly on the strings.
The screws went in between strings and so did the cards. I kind of wove them in and out across several strings. The screws were used to affect the sound; by sort of stopping the strings, they created interesting harmonics—dual tones and bell-like sounds. The cards did the same thing but in a much sloppier way with a lot of vibrations. The duct tape prevents the strings from resonating, but we only really did that on the higher strings. It sounds beautiful when played but it also prevented too many higher resonations when we struck the lower strings of the piano.
Paste: What was the selection process like with regards to the piano? Did you go pick up a beat-up old upright or did you pick up something specific based its tonal qualities?
Corelitz: My request list at Sony Interactive Entertainment America’s studios was almost like a tour rider. I asked for a piano, a plastic oil drum, a metal oil drum and a bunch of other stuff and when Ludvig and I arrived, it was all there, mic’d up and ready to be thrashed. It was a dream. I have no idea where they found the piano but I’d imagine that it cost more to transport it than to buy it. It was a little beat up but no more than the ones in the practice rooms where I went to school. I definitely wanted an upright—it gave us a lot of control over how to position, maneuver and mic the piano.
Paste: Did you feel any guilt abusing the heck out of the piano? What sort of condition is it in now?
Corelitz: At first, yes. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with things like guitar smashing and destruction of instruments. I think it’s sort of profane to destroy the same instruments that fulfill our creative vision. But this was different. This wasn’t destruction for its own sake, this was a carefully considered sound that we wanted to achieve, and I’d consider any resulting damage a worthy byproduct. But as provocative as a lot of this sounds, the truth is that we didn’t cause that much destruction. Often, the best sounds were achieved with a rubber mallet and softer objects striking the piano in various places, where you could hear the piano’s response to the impact just as much as the impact itself. The piano is still alive and well at Sony’s studios, duct tape, screws and all.
Paste: What kind of hardware did you use from Home Depot? Did Ludvig go with you? I assume that’s where you got the rake.
Corelitz: Oh yeah. We sampled all the hardware and the piano together too. In all the pics from that week we have big grins on our faces. It was so much fun. The collection of stuff we got at Home Depot was the most random basket of shit anyone has probably ever brought to the register. They looked at us like we were insane and bless the woman who helped us check out because I’m pretty sure they had to get a price check on like half of it because who buys one tiny piece of an air vent? We got anything that sounded interesting: air vents to play like drums or things with little pieces of metal to play like a kalimba. I’m not sure what half of it was because who goes shopping at Home Depot with their ears? Well, we did. Metal grates, paint rollers, chains, bags of bolts. It was way better than Guitar Center. Everything we recorded, from my initial explorations with found objects to our sampling sessions with all the stuff from Home Depot, the piano, the oil drums, all of that, the engineers and editors at Sony converted to a really well thought out, dynamic sample library/collection of virtual sample-based instruments that was used for the score. They helped organize everything that came out of that 3-day recording session.
Paste: I know next to nothing about creating synth effects, what can you tell me about that?
Corelitz: This is a big part of why Sony introduced me to Ludvig. They knew how into sound design and sound creation I am from the work we’ve done together on my previous scores—The Unfinished Swan, The Tomorrow Children, Hohokum. I don’t work from a template or use presets or any of that stuff. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that but it just isn’t my process. For me, sound creation and composition are part of the same thing. So all the synth sounds—at least the ones used on my cues—are all created just for those cues. They range from modular synth stuff to analog outboard synths to software instruments. To me, the source doesn’t matter as much as having that characteristic that “felt like Death Stranding.” And to me, that means a sound that feels alive, something that works musically but also with a life of its own—brassy and dissonant with a lot of movement, like tentacles. Some sounds I used felt like they could even be the voice of a whale. That relationship of being reminiscent of something familiar but also totally foreign and artificial makes it seem even more alien to me, like the piano.
Paste: Once your sample library is assembled, how are the tracks edited in software?
Corelitz: It’s all done on a modern DAW [digital audio workstation]. I use Logic Pro, [but I’m] not sure what Ludvig uses. And all the sampled instruments are playable as [sample-based instrument application] Kontakt patches. Doing it that way allows us to take every advantage offered by modern music production—recallable settings and really precise control over the sounds themselves and how they’re treated.
Paste: What was working with Ludvig like? How long was the process?
Corelitz: He had a clear vision for the score and I was glad to help him achieve it. There were times in the process when he said “THAT’S the sound of Death Stranding” and it was clear why.
My contribution was broken up into chunks that were similar to sprints. Initially I created 10 one-minute tracks using all original sounds (both synth patches and sampled material mostly created from found objects) that were edited down into their components and turned into sample libraries. So the tracks themselves weren’t designed to be used or heard as music, just to house the raw materials that Ludvig could then use in his own compositions.
This took maybe three to four months. It went well, particularly the found object samples so we decided to dedicate three days just to sampling, with all of us (including Sony’s audio department) in the same room. That’s when we did the piano. Then, I was asked to create 40 more minutes of additional music to accompany the rest of the score, so I actually got to use the instruments we created on my own cues. That was a huge surprise and a lot of fun. This part took maybe five months total.
Paste: When you sat down to think about what Death Stranding “should” sound like, what sources of inspiration came to mind?
Corelitz: This was mostly Ludvig’s vision and I can only speak to my interpretation of what he said during our initial conversations but he didn’t want any traditional instruments to stick out or have the music be classifiable in any way. To me, it’s sort of genreless because it defies that classification. For my cues, I spent a lot of time thinking about very extreme forms of music, like grindcore, and how they work. It’s a huge challenge to make music that sounds like it’s operating at 100% all the time and some of the action/battle cues called for that.
Paste: Do you ever, like, find yourself hitting an old vacuum tube on a piece of cinderblock or something and think hmm that tube is emitting a perfect B flat? What kind of key considerations did you make, and by that I mean, what key was chosen for the score and why?
Corelitz: I don’t have perfect pitch but I find myself putting my ear up to things all the time. There’s so much musicality behind everyday objects—you have to stop and listen differently or more closely to hear it sometimes. There’s no common key for the score but for my cues, the key for each was often determined by the sample-based instruments. I wanted to keep them in the same pitch that they originally expressed when we sampled them, so I often built the track around them in whatever key felt right.
Paste: Would you ever send a piano rolling down a steep hill into a tree just to hear what it sounds like?
Corelitz: Just to hear what it sounded like? Nah. If it was the specific sound I was looking to use on a project? Absolutely.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.