Award-winning composer Troels Folmann has made a name as a video game composer on the likes of the Tomb Raider series, as well as espousing new ideas about adaptive music for games like his “micro-scoring” methodology. But speaking to a roomful of composers and sound designers at the recent Game Developer Conference, he turned to the topic of reinvention. Even having perfected signature sounds that keep him in demand on jobs like blockbuster feature trailer soundtracks, Troels challenged attendees to get out of their usual habits and comfort zones.
And that means torturing some instruments. No, really torturing them: breaking sticks, destroying drums, warping instruments, and boiling waterphones (putting the whole instrument on a stove).
Human beings, of course, shouldn’t be tortured – to get the best sound of them, you want to get them drunk. (I want the Drunken Eastern European Choir sample library, Troels!)
Speaking excitedly in run-on sentences that clipped one another – a bit like sample in and out points were set wrong – Troels revealed some of his latest sampling explorations and sonic secrets. It was, truly, one of the best talks I saw at GDC – and unquestionably the highest idea and inspiration – to – time ratio, even if you weren’t into sound. Here are some of the gems from that conversation, along with some of the lists of bizarrely-combined sampled instruments in recent compositions.
I was looking over my notes and wondering if I should polish them. But then, I realized that I had transcribed all the things Troels said that interested me. If I put them all in a jar, I could take any one idea out on a day when my musical reserves were dry and be inspired. So I’ll share them with you in exactly that form.
The Right Wrong
Pipe organ, kalimba, baby toys, didgeridoo, conga, claps, IKEA stopwatch, church bell, vocals, ambience
One of the things I’m playing with is trying to do the right thing wrong — I call it the right wrong.
Some of these instruments [I sample] suffered through [the sampling process]. When you sample, you have to take it one step further. When it gets into the computer, it dies a bit. I don’t know what it is, there’s a translation issue. You have to push it further.
Kalimba, hang-drum, IKEA flower vase, Coke Bottle, public domain vocals – girl’s choir
We have certain ways we get stuck as composers — certain harmonic progressions and so forth. What I’m trying to do is more of a naked ear. I disregard any kind of theory. If it sounds right, it is right.
It’s an awesome practice, because it allows you to step out of theory.
This is a $19 kalimba. I don’t buy the most expensive instrument — I get 90% out of this instrument. And I can torture it through sampling. IKEA is the best music store; I don’t know if you know that.
Sometimes we get super caught in [the idea that ] it needs to be pristine, it needs to be high quality — it doesn’t matter. You get it in the mix, you can totally make something wonderful out of it.
I never have anything 24-bit …. It doesn’t really matter.
Propane drum, flower vase, Coke bottle, kalimba, monkey balls, harmonica, vocals
[On eBay], I found this wonderful drum. I have a hang drum, this super-expensive crazy drum. This one was way better, and it’s like $300.
Twist and Tweak
Didgeridoo, soda tabs, water cooler ensemble, hang drum
[On working with a Dr. Pepper soda.] You can … tap it to become percussion, you can also talk into it, sing into it … I multisampled [the taps] into an entire instrument.
It Doesn’t Matter
Things don’t matter so much. I was playing a 7-string guitar, and it wasn’t nasty enough. I took all the strings and drop tuned them to the same note … so it didn’t make a sound any more. I got this nasty sound to it. I’m starting more and more to let go of these conventions …how it should be.
I took a 5 string bass and again I couldn’t get it nasty enough — I’m not a great musician by any means. Put it down on the table, let the surgery begin. I put towels down to mute the sound. I played it with drumsticks, and got this tight sound that I was looking for.
Especially in the low frequencies of instruments, you get these … amazing, fat sounds. There’s so much you can do.
Sampling a Restroom
One of the best songs — I went to a restroom. I always use the handicapped restroom because there’s more space and you can be alone. I hate American restrooms – European restrooms are closed, you can’t see in to see what people are doing.
[On the result -- multi-sampling the metal bar next to the toilet in a handicapped restroom.] You expand your palette when you do that. There are so many sounds out there.
Boiled [and timestretched) Waterphone
There's so much you can do in terms of torture to get more out of it. Of course you can strum it, you can play it sort of percussively. But then you can boil it.
It was totally ruined in the end. But at least someone has boiled a waterphone.
We recorded it at different temperatures. It started spinning, as well, as you got to higher temperatures.
[In a separate experiment, timestretching:] As you know, the waterphone is impossible to control tonally. [I tried] timestretching a single note — [Native Instruments’ sampler] Kontakt has a harmonizer — putting some other notes on top of it to make a more strange, otherworldly sound to it.
Hybrid [Stacked] Orchestras
Unfortunately game composers are asked to do epic scores all the time. The main elements in it — it’s really about stacking. It needs several different libraries; you can’t stack the same library or it starts phasing. I like to stack until it starts phasing. You can also stack until it starts clipping.
There is no less — there’s only more.
I have synths for the bases, I have drones that line underneath the basses. Arpeggiators are almost mandatory for strings, so when you have stacatto notes — which is also stacked, at least two or three libraries — you also have arpeggiators under that.
It’s the art of adding, epic music.
The Future of Music
i think the future of music is partly all of us exploring more textures. We all want to do epic music and trailers …. and everyone is sounding a lot alike now. Especially in games; I never hear things that sound all that unique. We have to find ways to differentiate ourselves.
I’m a super commercial composer … I force myself to step out of that.
There are many many ways that we can stand apart. The best thing ever is the Zoom [H4 portable digital] recorder. I use it for everything, for the handicapped recording. There are sounds all over. You can break the convention, break the theory.
Successfully Sampling Choirs
The sampling is incredibly demoralizing. So you have to actually have them play a melody. If you get a performance that is not emotional, it totally dies.
We got an entire Eastern European orchestra drunk. It was a huge help. …They were half drunk, so they could still play.
Successfully Sampling Drums
Percussion is its own science. It’s important when you do recording sessions to dent the drums. If you don’t dent the drum …it won’t work. A mistake a lot of people make is …they only use one stick. Always use two sticks. The sound may flange .. it doesn’t matter. And those sticks need to break, if you want “triple-X” percussion.
Timefreezer is just incredible — you have to sculpt it in realtime, don’t just make a drone. Put it in multisamplers, map to velocity and really sculpt that tone. Put them in a sampler and assign it to a mod wheel — anything you have to do to get more control.
LA Scoring Strings is coming out — it’s the first library that’s really nailed legato. [with legato for different tempi] …solo instruments, divisi, full section.
The Wizoo W2 reverb plug-in…[now distributed through M-Audio / part of the Advanced Instruments Research group at Digidesign]
1. Watch YouTube
2. Chat and forums
5. Talent = time = fun
I listen more than I compose these days. I listen two or three hours a day consciously. For me the process of listening is as important as composing.
Troels also listed some of his own inspirations, which included YouTube videos seen on this site:
What’s interesting about this is that he took these not simply as worktime distractions but inspiration for his own work – to try to analyze the thought process behind the videos and do something similar in his own work.
Here’s an example of his own: what’s the sound of one hand clapping? Well, here’s one hand clapping, made into an entire composition:
For more on Troels’ own sample house:
And everything on Troels himself:
Previously, right here on CDM:
There’s plenty to process here, so I hope we’ll talk to Troels again soon.