Shortly after PlayStation 5’s launch, we had the amazing opportunity to talk with Kenny Young, composer on the absolutely brilliant Astro’s Playroom (as well as Astro’s previous adventure, Astro Bot Rescue Mission). Join us as we talk about navigating the legacy of PlayStation and its music, the design process behind the catchiest song of 2020, and how the soundtrack ended up being heavily influenced by... Second World War military technology?
Push Square: How fun was it being able to mess around with so much PlayStation history in place? How did it impact the score you made for the game? A lot of iconic sounds, such as the PS1 boot music, pop up in the experience. How was working both around and with that?
Kenny Young: Being asked to create the music experience for a game which is going to be pre-installed on every PS5 for the lifetime of the console was an incredible opportunity. That’s a lot of eyeballs and ears to be engaging with! There was certainly a bit of pressure that came with that, and the inclusion of so much PlayStation history and nostalgia didn’t necessarily lighten the load there.
But my general approach remained the same, which is to take the lead from the game that the team are striving to make. For Astro’s Playroom, that meant showing respect where necessary but it was just as important not to lose sight of the fact that the experience was, first and foremost, intended to be a novel and fun introduction to the DualSense controller.
When it comes to showing respect, I take heart from the fact that nobody has pointed out the PS1, PS2, and PS3 boot sounds [used in the game] are not the unadulterated originals! This was required partly because the boot sounds needed to work alongside the contemporary audio presentation and content — Nicolas Doucet's astute direction was that they should be "how we remember them" rather than how they actually are. So, I up-mixed them into surround sound and added tasteful supporting elements where required. For example, there’s a cheeky little bass drop added to the PS2 boot sound just to give it a little bit more power and depth so that it matches players' expectations.
The other consideration is that these sounds are actually pretty short, and there were no menu background ambiences on the original PlayStation, PS2, or PS3, which created the challenge of what to do in-between the boot sounds playing and the console artifacts being revealed at the very end of the levels. My solution was to essentially create those background ambiences from scratch, which required a mixture of creative sound design techniques that used the boot sounds and their constituent parts as source material, as well as creating new material that felt fitting, which in some cases meant going back to synthesisers contemporary with the boot sounds. These moments were unified by having the muffled sound of the end-of-level goal music playing on top of the background ambiences, the idea being that the buried console artifacts are emitting this music, teasing and encouraging the player to uncover them like some kind of digital archaeologist. This "mashup" approach was also necessary to add a bit more energy and tension to these scenes without resorting to simply "adding beats" to the console sounds, which would have felt awkward and out of character.
It was an honour to be trusted with handling such revered and iconic source material, but the sympathetic treatment and respect wasn’t exclusively reserved just for PlayStation itself, it very much extended towards fans’ memories and feelings and I hope we did those justice.
Obviously, each land in the game represents a different PlayStation generation, all of which represent insane leaps and bounds ahead of the other, and with different identities. How did you reconcile those generational leaps musically?
There are certainly quite a few layers to the onion in Astro’s Playroom, and it wasn’t possible for the music to score all of them at the same time. So, the focus and guiding force was the sense of place and identity of each area as a different component inside the PS5. The retro aesthetics I employed throughout the score intentionally imbue the game with a sense of nostalgia, but any perceived parallels with particular console generations are mostly down to serendipity rather than any genius design on my part! The only clear exception is the final boss fight — I won’t mention the context to avoid spoiling it for folks who haven’t played it yet, but I enjoyed going down a bit of a rabbit hole attempting to recreate the sound of the original PS-era music.
When people think about music on the original PS they often recall Red Book CD audio — those old enough will remember being able to put certain games’ CDs into your compact disc player, turning down the volume and skipping the data on track 1 (to avoid blowing your speakers!), and then just listening to the music as you would with a normal music CD. WipEout is a nice example of this kind of music implementation. But many original PS games actually relied upon the real-time triggering of memory-resident instrument samples — Final Fantasy VII is a classic example of this. I tried to recreate both approaches as authentically as I could for this part of the game, which included such fine nerdery as creating my own samples from vintage synths, converting them to the original PS’s proprietary VAG file format, and creating custom impulse responses of the original PS’s reverb in an attempt to get a little bit closer to "that sound"!
The music and just about every possible facet of Astro’s Playroom has this baseline unbridled joy to it. How did you both tap into that energy when crafting the score, and find the energy to give the score the bounce it needed in the first place?
That’s great to hear, thank you! As I touched on earlier, fun is one of the pillars of Astro’s Playroom and something that Team ASOBI is really focused on. So, even when working on early versions of the game, I found it relatively easy to be inspired and want to bring that energy to the music experience. I think that’s reflected in a few key elements. A big one is naivety — platforming is one of the oldest gaming genres, and so there’s a definite attempt to harken back to [video game music] of yore through the soundtrack’s use of strong, catchy melodies, bold chord progressions, simplistic musical forms, and repetition. Many of the hallmarks of pop music, really.
Another one is playfulness, be that the writing or behaviour of parts and the way they interact with each other, or the instrumentation choices I’ve made — I think that’s probably reflected in hundreds of tiny details, but the retro elements and use of synthetic voice throughout the score are obvious examples. There's a fine line between playful and silly, cute and saccharine, or emotionally powerful and utter schmaltz, but treading that tightrope and finding ways of making unlikely ideas gel and click is something I enjoy, and I think that’s fairly evident in this game's score.
Getting the energy and intensity right is down to a mixture of being relatively experienced in crafting music for platforming games, being focused on serving the player experience, and getting good feedback from the team. It also helped that I had a PS5 dev kit for this project, so I was able to experience the music in-context whilst we were making the game, which is kinda unusual; composers at times are abstracted from the development process.
So, the GPU Jungle track. Let’s talk about that song because it’s incredible. What was the process for that area? Even amid the great soundtrack you made, this one stands out. That delightful disco string melody, the vocoder, it’s all perfect. And there was a really great easter egg in that portion of the game directly tied to the song, did you have any involvement with that, or was it put in there and you only found out in the finished product?
Again, thank you! Funnily enough, the GPU Jungle area was actually the first thing that I tackled when I started on the project. The gameplay, level design, and art were the furthest along at that point, so it felt the most sure-footed place to begin. But it proved to be a lot harder than I’d expected; I tried a bunch of different things which didn't quite work out. The first track I wrote was a bit "kiddie", and the next version went a bit too far the other way and was too serious in tone. Which were useful discoveries in that they helped to consolidate our thoughts on who the game was for — newsflash, we were overthinking it and just needed to concentrate on making it fun.
[Nicolas] and I had spoken about how the use of voice in the music for Astro Bot Rescue Mission added a human touch to the experience that it really benefitted from, and so I was thinking about ways of bringing some of that to Astro's Playroom. It struck me that personifying the PS5 by giving it a voice was a nice way of bringing a plastic box stuffed full of silicon to life. But I was saving that idea for the CPU Plaza area because that felt like the most appropriate place for it. So, it was only out of pure desperation that I was forced to steal that idea and apply it to the GPU!
I spent a couple of days working on the basic form of the track, wrote the lyrics in an afternoon and sent a demo, with my own voice rather than with the vocoder, over to [Nicolas]. Even though it was a bit rough and ready, it felt like we were on to something — the way that the lyrics work on multiple levels is what stops it from being a cringe-worthy shopping list of graphics rendering terminology, but it also allows it to be both light-hearted and more serious all at the same time. Which is an interesting space to occupy and helped address the problems I'd run into with my earlier attempts.
The team already had a plan to add the GPU mountain to the vista, so I don’t think it was too much of a leap to sell them on the idea of turning it into a singing character — like, they got it. Getting the lip synch feature in there took a bit of collaboration between departments, but I did my bit by manually adding hundreds of phoneme markers to the audio, because I knew that inflicting that chore on someone else probably wouldn’t have been appreciated! I’m not sure whose idea it was to add the [redacted] easter eggs, but I think they're a really nice example of the level of thought, care, and craft that everyone on the ASOBI team brought to the game.
Getting the track to work alongside the gameplay was challenging, and it went through a bunch more iterations. It may still be flawed in some respects, but I’m glad we took the risk of putting a song in the game and that many players have responded so warmly to it.
Did you have any ideas that were either too heavily referential to wind up fitting in the game, or the opposite — anything that was so far out there that you ended up scrapping it?
I did come back to the idea of having the PS5 sing to the player in CPU Plaza, and I was totally in love with the concept, but the ethereal female vocal part I'd written really, really didn't fit with the cute CPU character once that went in there. I tried to save it by making it more nerdy and robotic sounding, but it just didn’t work. So, we had to lay that one to rest! You can’t win them all.
What influences outside the sphere of PlayStation would you say you had regarding Astro's Playroom? Something that isn’t quite as obvious from looking at the game.
Slightly tangential perhaps, but there was a book I read a few years ago called How To Wreck A Nice Beach, which is about the history of the vocoder. It’s not like vocoders were new to me, but I had no idea about their fascinating beginnings at Bell Labs and, subsequently, as allied voice-encryption technology during WWII. The book presents a cool juxtaposition between that story and the story of the vocoder finding its way into popular music. Somewhat dangerously, it highlights a bunch of seminal recordings along the way, and I became totally obsessed with collecting them all on vinyl — I think I’ve only got one or two left to track down now! But I was thinking about it the other day, and I'm sure it must have been an influence on me playing around with vocoders and text-to-speech synths on some of the music I wrote for an iOS game called WonderWorlds by my friends at Glowmade. That soundtrack played its part in helping me to get the gig writing music for Astro Bot Rescue Mission, and represents my first forays into exploring a lot of these ideas that I've since taken further.
How did your experience scoring this newest Astro title differ from the last time when you scored Astro Bot Rescue Mission? Were considerations made for VR last time something you were able to utilise this time, possibly with PS5’s 3D Audio?
Good question! I'd say there were more similarities and parallels than differences. In terms of aesthetics, on Rescue Mission we broke one of the cardinal "rules" about the use of music in VR. There was a lot of talk at the time about music needing to be diegetic (coming from within the world rather than from "the orchestra pit") and that a traditional score doesn't work as well. Which isn't total piffle — there is indeed an increased sensitivity to sound in VR — but it'd be more accurate to say that a traditional approach to music scoring doesn't work as well in certain kinds of VR experiences. The ASOBI team has a relatively bottom-up development process, which is based on building prototypes, trying stuff out, and testing assumptions, and they found that the old-school platforming wallpapered music approach, which is pretty intense and full-on, worked and felt right for its VR game. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, and Astro Bot Rescue Mission is one of the highest-rated PSVR games to date, and went on to win The Game Award for Best VR/AR game in 2018, which is pretty phenomenal.
On the technical side of things, one lesson taken forward from Rescue Mission and VR into Astro's Playroom is that, when experiencing 3D audio over headphones, it often works best if you don't spatialise the music and just leave it as plain stereo — that creates a stronger mix by freeing up the 3D audio field for those positional sound elements that really benefit from having that strong sense of directionality. I worked closely with the team to make sure that the experience people have when listening on TV speakers, or on a surround sound setup or over 3D audio via headphones is always optimised and presented in the best possible format for the given context.
And finally, for all my first-time interviews, I like to close by asking what brought you to gaming? How’d you find yourself scoring experiences like this?
I didn’t have any consoles as a kid, other than a hand-me-down Philips/Magnavox Odyssey 2 with a couple of games! I played games at friends' houses, but I didn't really get into it properly until we got a PC in 1995, and that opened up a whole new world for me, both as a player and as a creator, messing about with mod tools, music sequencers, all that good stuff. Music was my main thing though; the violin was my main instrument, and I studied violin repertoire, played in orchestras, as well as having a solid grounding in traditional Scottish and Appalachian folk music.
But I fell out of love with music when I was a student, and realised I didn't want to be a performer. I guess I had a bit of an existential crisis! So, I cut off that limb and fell into the arms of working creatively with sound. I went all-in on that, did a masters degree in sound design for the moving image, all with the extra-curricular focus of trying to land a job in games. This is 20 years ago, so different days perhaps, but even then the route into the games industry looked so much more appealing than that of film, which I also love as a medium. But, basically, would you like to start off in a meaningful job with all kinds of perks and benefits, or would like to get messed around for several years working on less than minimum wage living in one of the most expensive cities in the world?
I was fortunate enough to land a job working at Sony's London Studio as a junior sound designer in their centralised audio department, and worked on a wide variety of projects, genres, and teams there. I learned a lot about making and shipping games and working with different kinds of people and personalities. That's where I first met Nicolas Doucet, although we never actually worked together, but we kept in touch over the years.
I then left London Studio to join Media Molecule, which was a plucky young start-up with big ambitions, set up its audio department and contributed towards its games for the next eight or so years. It was whilst working at Mm that I started to reconnect with my musical roots. I found myself writing music, which I can't say was particularly intentional or even part of my remit — much of it came out of necessity really, be that creating temporary assets for tradeshow demos that ended up becoming permanent fixtures, or perhaps because I understood the crazy conceptual and aesthetic requirements of its games in a way that made me best placed to tackle some of the work.
When I left Mm to go freelance in 2015, I had a network of contacts spread all over the industry and a reputation to exploit, which made the transition relatively smooth. I wasn't sure if anyone would want to hire me as a composer, but it turns out they do! That might not be your typical composer story of grit and determination, because it's an incredibly competitive field to break into, but everyone’s path is different. In all honesty, I don't think of myself primarily as a composer – I'm a game maker first and foremost, and I specialise in creating bespoke, creative audio experiences for new IP. I'm incredibly lucky and appreciative of the fact that I get to wear different hats depending upon a project's requirements, be that as an audio director, sound designer, composer, or music supervisor. At the very least, it keeps things interesting!
We’d like to thank Kenny for being willing to have this discussion with us, and for taking the time. The wonderful Astro's Playroom soundtrack is being made available on digital music stores, which you can read more about through here. What are your favourite tunes from Astro's Playroom? Pop your headphones on in the comments section below.