An interview with Mike Morasky

One of the best-selling video game of 2011, Portal 2 by Valve Software is one year old today. Praised by the critics, it received load of awards. In the music department it won the “2012 Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition” by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and “Best Game Music of 2011” by Kotaku.

A unique characteristic of Portal 2′s soundtrack, apart from its sonic grandness, is that it’s generated in real time by an adaptive music system that react to the player’s actions. This dynamic music was also designed as a reward for successfully completing puzzles inside the game.

So who’s behind the music of Portal 2? An insanely talented guy who alsocomposed music for Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead 1 & 2 and of course Portal 1 & 2. If you think that’s impressive, you should know that he can also blow some minds as the Visual Effects Director for the Lord of the Rings and The Matrix Trilogies! You can imagine he’s a very busy guy! However, he kindly took the time to answer a few of our questions regarding the role that chipsounds played in Portal 2.

Here's a short interview with none other than Mike Morasky

Your resume is impressive to say the least, having worked on special effects in movies, to video game soundtracks and audio/dsp programming as well, what is it about game soundtracks that brings you back to your first love?

I am and have been a home recording enthusiast for a long time and have always been writing and recording music regardless of what I’m working on publically. I’ve got boxes of cassettes and hard drives full of studies and experiments that stretch all the way back to when I was a young teen. I often wonder however, why it took me so long to focus on game audio. I’ve been a gamer since Pong and have had various opportunities to explore this space but somehow the stars never seemed to align. The real shift I guess was finding myself at Valve. Working with broad-minded people exploring combinations of various disciplines really helped me to connect many of my disparate dots into a whole. Suddenly the idea of creating audio/musical experiences for and in the context of our games made a great deal of sense.

"Plogue chipsounds is used throughout Portal 2 and the game wouldn’t have sounded the same without it. I am a big fan."

Care to tell me about the audio hardware programmer part of your resume? Drivers, firmware? Asks the audio software programmer.

I was the first embedded systems programmer to sign on at Euphonix working on the CS-1, CS-2 and CS-2000 series of studio consoles. It was an amazing experience in an ”I triple E” sort of way. Around that same time I also helped develop some controller hardware/firmware for my friend Matt Heckert, the amazing robotics composer.

I had a permanent smile on my face listening through the entire soundtrack of Portal 2, which I of course loved. Recognized familiar sounds from chipsounds and even abusive settings of the included ‘verb, which was cool in a metallic/industrial kind of way.

Plogue chipsounds is used throughout Portal 2 and the game wouldn’t have sounded the same without it. I am a big fan.

How did chipsounds appear in your setup? Was it specifically discovered when doing sonic research for Portal 2?

Yes. We had decided we wanted to make a musical departure from the first Portal but there were some conceptual elements that we wanted to retain. One of these was the glitchie, behind the scenes feel from the first one and the idea of the music sort of representing corrupted or aged devices. We also wanted it to sound as if much of it could have been generated by the devices themselves. I spent some time looking into “circuit bending” as well as the “8 bit underground”. I had begrudgingly resolved myself to doing the necessary hardware hacking to get some of those great console chip sounds when I came across the Plogue chipsounds plug-in. I was psyched when I discovered that I could play with _all_ of the classic chips in the relative safety of my DAW and without adding yet more wires and mess to my studio. I’m such a fan of those simple synthesizers and the very distinctive sounds they have. I used them throughout Portal 2, sometimes letting a single simple voice stand alone.

I love the mix between soft ‘soothing’ tones and waveforms, harps, flutes, bare sines, and the harsher sync leads (Ed: Mike confirmed these were made with NI’s Pro-53), bit reduced samples and chipsounds waveforms. You seem to achieve somewhat of a perfect balance there, care to disclose a few of your tricks?

Interestingly that was one of biggest challenges. The difficulty presented by the sheer strength of those simple, synthetic instruments was one of the contributing factors to making the entire score, including the “orchestral” sections, synthetic sounding and somewhat “machine like”. Working very closely with the entire team, not just audio, also really helped as it felt like we all sort of converged on a somewhat uniform style of artificiality that was still emotionally expressive. Ultimately I guess it’s not too unlike any other type of orchestration, everything still needs it’s place and the harsher more synthetic sounding instruments, when in juxtaposition, tend to need more space than their smoother more “analog” sounding counterparts.

Any favorite sounds or presets in chipsounds and why?

Anything that had a pure and simple sound I tended to use a lot, like the square waves on the TIA and the Triangle on the RP2A0X were definitely the gotos for the stronger, distinctive types of sounds. A few of the “instruments” on the VL-1 saw a lot of use, especially with a slow or sweeping LFO pushing the pitch in and out of tune. I also love the low-mids on the AY-3-8910. Honestly, I probably used every chip available in chipsounds at one point or another. The only thing I purposefully avoided (after testing of course) was anything that actually sounded clearly like 8bit game sounds or game music. I was looking at those patches as if Aperture had actually sourced all these cheap chips as the voice boxes for the puzzle mechanisms in the test chambers. Although I tried writing some game style chiptunes, it really broke the immersive nature of the game and I ended up avoiding it.

Some Wendy Carlos inspiration in Machiavellian Bach/Cara Mia Addio was nice, she is a huge inspiration for us all, that’s not a question.

I worked with the writers a lot and when they came to me with the “oh no, he’s listening to classical music” gag, I immediately knew that I could make a big nod to Wendy there. She’s such an influential figure in both film _and_ electronic music. Also, the transition from nature/analog to artificial/synthetic is a theme throughout the music in Portal 2 and doing an interactive “switched on” experience made a ton of sense, especially in the context of Wheatley Labs.

Robots FTW: Wow

So often electronic music can be a big exercise in exploration (see next question). “Robots FTW” however, was largely a very organized, construction / deconstruction study, which consisted of making some more traditional 8bit sounding tunes with chipsounds and then methodically deconstructing them in Reaktor and then reassembling them with the goal of achieving the “singing robots” effect but also maintaining a semblance of the original tunes. Pretty labor intensive but a fun process nonetheless.

Friendly Faith Plate: sounds like lots of processed stuff overlapped, anything you want to disclose?

That was loads procedural mangling studies triggered by human input (me), mined for the best pieces which were then assembled and layered into a whole. Again, chipsounds based compositions, deconstructed through Reaktor, played a significant role.

Any comment about our products, suggestions, things you would love to see in the future?

I very much appreciate the openness of the chipsounds plug-in and the attention paid to the authentic “chiplike” features without letting that authenticity get in the way of practical production concerns. I’m definitely a Plogue fan, thanks for the awesome instruments!

Thank you so much!

We would like to thank Mike again for his precious time, and we can’t wait to see what he and his team are up to next!
You can freely download the ENTIRE Soundtrack on the official Portal 2 website here. (… makes the perfect ‘Songs to code to’).

For more information on Mike’s Portal 2 soundtrack you can also consult these other interviews.
Podcast 17 (chipsounds mentionned at 01:32:38)