The Soundtrack of BARK: Personal Stories and Common Threads
Marc Gomez and Michael Herbster grew up in the era of Gradius, Super Metroid and other NES and SNES era shoot ‘em ups and metroidvanias. As a direct result of this, a lot of the development in the music of BARK is meant to elaborate on their personal history with these types of games. And on a similar vein there’s Sci-Fi classics such as Star Wars, and even games that could seem initially unrelated like Final Fantasy 6.
Knowing the reason behind the references, I could honestly say that I felt very proud of having been chosen for a project that was very clearly near and dear to the team’s heart. Because of this, partaking in this soundtrack was not just a job, but something in which I personally wanted to deliver my best and then ten times more. And to do that I had to understand what it was that they wanted out of the musical references. So I listened very, very closely to them.
One of the OSTs that was most emphasized while talking about making the music of BARK was the soundtrack of Super Metroid. On a first listen, the strongest first impression of the sound design in it, is its constant sense of brooding loneliness of course. However, analyzing it further yields further results. And some of them are quite interesting.
A striking thing about Super Metroid’s music is while it is indeed quite contemplative, on the other hand it is surprisingly very fun. What do I mean by fun? Well, rather than being a simple instrumental soundtrack, Super Metroid made ample use of the 16 channels in the SNES. In songs such as the BGM to Norfair, you constantly hear a wide array of little sound effects and textures, scratches, tiny explosions and the like, that add to the instrumentation, making it feel as if something is always happening.
My takeaway from Gradius 3 was in turn quite different. Gradius 3 has what I like to call a traditional 80s video game soundtrack, but what is traditional in 80s video games is not necessarily traditional elsewhere in music. Many melodies from 80s games utilize a technique that could be bizarre elsewhere, but which works rather well in them, and that’s an unorthodox change in the usage and structure of bars that doesn’t necessarily complete the 8 bar structure that is traditionally expected.
Then there was Final Fantasy 6. This was a cool one to analyze to be sure. For starters, it stood out from the rest of the NES/SNES game soundtracks I was given to analyze by trying to make a facsimile of symphonic music. It didn’t necessarily focus on being something that could be played directly by a real life orchestra as later FF games would. However, it did make use of MIDI to simulate instruments such as violins, giving the whole thing a very unique feel compared to the rest of the soundtracks I’ve talked about so far.
My job at this point was to bridge these musical differences and actually find a common ground between the type of music found in FF6 and the type of music found in Sci-Fi titles from that same era. And funnily enough, the more I listened to it, the more I noticed that there were repeated progressions between songs such as the aforementioned opening of Norfair and ones like Phantom Forest from FF6.
That was all cool, but at this point in the musical pre-production so to speak, I was still yet to address the biggest elephant in the room. Out of all the soundtracks I’d been given to analyze, there was one that was completely different from the rest. And that was John Williams’ soundtrack of Star Wars.
Now unlike the rest of the songs I’d been given, this wasn’t either SNES era MIDI, nor a cover of one of said SNES era MIDI songs. Star Wars created this traditional, good vs evil, epic sense via a fully orchestral soundtrack. And unlike the FF6 soundtrack, this was actually meant to be physically played, and as such respected the physical limitations and requirements for music made to be played with live instruments.
As it was so different from everything else, I had to think long and hard about what it could be that we needed to get out of this particular soundtrack to make the music of BARK feel truly complete. I talked it out with the team and analyzed it over and over. At the end of the day, the conclusion was truly the simplest one that we could reach.
The soundtrack to BARK absolutely needed to be a symphonic soundtrack. Not just that, but it had to be one that was actively arranged in a way where it could be played in real life. And it needed to follow many of the conventions present in Hollywood films. A challenge to be sure, but certainly a welcome one.
With that, I’d tied together the puzzle of what the building blocks to BARK’s soundtrack would be. How did I tie them all together though? Well, for that I’ll just say...I’ll talk about that in another article.