Straylight OST interview with Rob Kovacs

interview OST Rob Kovac STRAYLIGHT OST

STRAYLIGHT released on all platforms on Jan 31, 2023!
It is available on everything VR.  
Get it for Meta Quest 1 & 2, Playstation VR, all Steam VR headsets, and Windows Mixed Reality devices.

The STRAYLIGHT OST by Rob Kovacs was recently released on January 27, 2023 on Emperia Records. Rob took the time to answer a few questions we had about their work on the STRAYLIGHT soundtrack. Here's what he had to say!

Favourite Track: The Last Campfire

Q1: Do you ever generate ideas on the piano and then transcribe them into electronic music?

A1: Yes! Almost all of the STRAYLIGHT ideas were started on piano. Ouroboros and Devil Star were the only ones that begin on the Prophet 5. "Ascent of the Juggernaut" started out on a string patch when I was learning the keyboard 2 part of the musical White Christmas. The Railgun Run started out as just a rhythmic concept. As I’d compose each song, I would use both piano and the synthesizer to generate or develop ideas. 


Q2: Were you able to demo the STRAYLIGHT while composing the soundtrack? If so, how important was it for you, and was it your first experience using VR?

A2: Yes! I was a part of the game’s development from the beginning! DR BLOC is a very small, five-person dev team. We started working together five years ago doing a Global Game Jam project, which was the genesis of STRAYLIGHT. If I recall correctly that weekend was my first VR experience. They threw me in Space Pirate Trainer and it was pretty awesome!

Had I not been a part of the game’s development working closely with the whole team, and understanding exactly what we were trying to make, the soundtrack would be different. I was certainly very invested in the success of the game and I wanted to make a soundtrack that amplifies the experience of the player. I also wanted to make something good enough to stand on its own. Almost every song was inspired or composed with a certain level in mind. The Last Campfire was not necessarily for any specific level. And The End was mostly written before we ever conceived of the game, but I thought it would work perfectly for the final level. It was originally just a piano piece and I had to rework it to fit the STRAYLIGHT aesthetic. 


Q3: Did the VR aspect of the game affect your process?

A3: Yes. I tried to stay away from getting too clever with panning. Though there are parts in songs that are clearly panned left or right I mostly stayed away from that so the player doesn’t get confused or think something is to the left or right of them. My main goal was to create a sound that is totally new and immersive to really draw the player into this foreign VR world. 

I took a page out of “Hip” Tanka’s book when he wrote the music for Metroid. I heard in an interview with him that he thought of the music as being the atmosphere for each level. I loved that. I took that same approach with STRAYLIGHT as there are no foley or atmosphere sounds to compete with, just the music, sound effects and voiceover. 


Q4: STRAYLIGHT is your first video game OST. Did you hit any unexpected roadblocks while working on the project?

I hit a lot of roadblocks, ha, the main one being time. We all worked on this in our spare time. I’m a musician and artist for a living and often have a lot on my plate. 

Another roadblock was using the Prophet 5 itself. It’s about 40 years old and keys would often break that I’d have to solder back together which would be time-consuming and break my workflow. To get around taking apart the synth, I’d sometimes play and record a part a half step up and then pitch the synth down a half step.  

Another roadblock is the Prophet 5 only has 40 sound patches. I was a little reluctant at first to record over the factory sounds but eventually, I recorded over almost all of them except for a few including patch 32 which Daft Punk uses on Robot Rock and I also used for Devil Star.

Devil Star in and of itself was a bit of a roadblock as I knew that I needed to write a heavy song for that level. But I’d never written anything like that before. It was one of the first levels where we knew we needed a unique sound but it was one of the last songs I wrote. 


Q5: The game was in development for almost five years. Over how much time did you compose the STRAYLIGHT soundtrack? Did you consult any experienced video game soundtrack composers before or during the project?

The main STRAYLIGHT theme was written that first weekend and then I didn’t start the next song (which would be Ouroboros) until a year later. And then I didn’t finish that until about 9 months after that. Part of the delay was getting work done on the Prophet 5. I wanted to install a midi kit that would allow me to program notes and layer sounds. It took some time to find someone to work on that around here. 

As I was working on Ouroboros, I showed it to David Young one of the composers for a bunch of Sega CD games including Sonic CD and Ecco the Dolphin: Tides of Time. He gave me great advice to bring more life to the sounds, suggesting adding more modulation. You’ll notice that that one has a lot more modulation happening throughout. I still did some sound modulating in other tracks but opted for more layering to give it life and fullness and life. 


Q6: [Correct me if I'm wrong about your classical music training, but I read about you saying 'your parents wished you had done more with classical music] Many kids are forced to play an instrument by their parents, was the piano your choice? I took piano lessons and wished I could have practiced something other than classical music in my piano lessons ... Did you like playing classical piano at a young age? Did your love of video game music make playing classical piano more appealing as a child?

A6: Yeah, earlier in my career they’d express that. I think to them that's the highest form of musical art. They weren’t big fans of rock bands or that scene. And any time I would be doing some classical gig they were very encouraging of that. 

I always loved the piano. My older sister played piano and that’s what inspired me ultimately. She’d play and I’d dance around, and I just loved it. I had a really great first teacher, Mrs. Valley. I would sometimes ask to learn popular songs not in the beginner piano books and she would go above and beyond to find easy piano versions for me to learn. I didn’t love practicing and struggled with reading notes. So, I would memorize everything. 

I liked playing classical music, especially in college. It was so challenging and beautifully composed. I loved practicing some pieces more than others and felt accomplished when I was able to play them. But also very frustrated when I attempted pieces beyond my ability.

In my first year of high school, I was taking lessons with a fairly strict classical piano teacher. But after a year of that, I found a teacher who taught rock and blues and improvisation. That was extremely formative. 

I do remember sitting at the piano as a kid and practicing a bit and then improvising and coming up with my own music and my mom, well-meaning, sometimes chiming in “Is that what you’re supposed to be practicing?” I always loved writing music. In 7th grade, I made my first mini album on cassette of a bunch of piano songs I’d written and passed them out to my class. 

I didn’t play much video game music as a kid. It really never even occurred to me that that was even an option. I grew up with the NES and SNES which sounds so different than the piano. I remember my friend showing me the Final Fantasy prelude music and trying to learn that on piano. I also had a Yamaha keyboard with a bunch of midi sounds. I was really into The 7th Guest and the sounds in that game were just like my keyboard. I was able to recreate one of the tracks pretty well. That was really the first time I recall ever playing video game music. 


Q7: What would you say is your proudest or perhaps the most memorable moment' in your musical career?

A7: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is performing Piano Phase solo during my senior year of college. We managed to bring the composer, Steve Reich, to our school for a 1-day event. It was so wild. And the performance went great. I was never more nervous in my life. And the next day I never felt more accomplished, like I could do anything. I was the first person in the world to perform the piece that way. 

But aside from that, this STRAYLIGHT soundtrack and the game itself is the thing that I’ve created that I’m most proud of. It’s to me the best, most creative music I’ve ever made. I made something that not only enhances the game but is music I just enjoy listening to!


Q8: Favorite David Wise soundtrack (or if you want to get more specific - song/arrangement)?

A8: Wow, well I played a lot of Donkey Kong Country so Aquatic Ambience has always been a favorite. It’s a beautiful piece both in the notes and of course the sound design. Another favorite is the title theme to R.C. Pro-Am. I loved it as a kid. It’s so rich for an NES soundtrack! You get full chords and bass notes that rock. I love playing that one on piano. :)


Q9: Do your dreams ever have a score/music in them?

A9: Very rarely. And if so, I’m usually not able to remember them or don’t make an effort to as they don't really interest me, ha. 

Some composers can hear an entire work in their head before even writing a note. I am not one of those composers. I'll stumble on an idea and then have a vague idea of what it can potentially be, or sometimes not. Then I'll experiment, seeing what I can do with this idea, what feels good, or how I can make it into something I couldn't have imagined. 


Q10: What is the longest time you have gone without playing the piano?

A10: Maybe 2-3 weeks? I love playing and will often just sit down and play for fun. The times I don’t play are if I’m on a long non-music-related trip (which isn’t often). 


Q11: What have you been gaming lately?

This past year I’ve played two games - a bit of Psychonauts (the first one) and Dragon Warrior/Quest 3. I haven’t finished either, lol. 

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