River Boy won fans across the world with the soundtrack for CULT OF THE LAMB, we sit down and find out about the upcoming Orchestra Victoria collaboration
When you first hear the soundtrack for CULT OF THE LAMB it's immediately clear how much of a part it is to the experience of the game. Narayana Johnson who performs under River Boy made his first soundtrack when working on Massive Monster's smash hit, and it will be rearranged and performed this Melbourne International Games Week with Orchestra Victoria.
Narayana shares the origins of this work, some of the techniques used to make the music, and what it's like to be making all the sounds for the game now.
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GIANNI: Hello and welcome to Lightmap from SIFTER. On Lightmap we have conversations and explore the culture of games and interactive media and you meet game makers, journalists and thinkers from around the world. My name is Gianni, thanks so much for joining me. My guest this week is Narayana Johnson, who you would probably know as River Boy, part of Willow Beats and composer and musician on Cult of the Lamb. Narayan, it's a pleasure to talk to you.
NARAYANA: Hey, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
GIANNI: We're really keen to hear a little bit about your process and find out about all the cool things that you are doing this in Melbourne International Games Week, because it sounds like you've got a lot on. But before we jump into that, all right, Narayan, take us all the way back to the beginning. How did you get involved with the team at Massive Monster and start making music for, probably their biggest game and one of the biggest games in Australia?
NARAYANA: Yeah, so I was in a group called Willow Beats. It was like an electronic duo of me and my niece who sung in it. And we were touring around and Julian (Wilton from Massive Monster) just happened to like our music and had come to a couple of shows and then down the track a little bit, I was on Twitter, on the Willow Beats Twitter. And I never even used Twitter, but it happened to be that time that I was on it. He followed us and I saw that he had like, it kind of popped up and he had like a gamey-looking profile picture. I've loved games my whole life and messaged him and he said, oh, you make games? I love games.
And then he was like, oh, well, I really like your music it'd be sick to do something one day. And then sure enough, not long later, we made a small game called Unicycle Giraffe, which is a little phone game where you're a giraffe on a unicycle, Not the other way around and you're just trying to balance basically, but I made a couple of tracks for that. It was really fun.
And we had a lot of fun and then down the track, a couple of years, he hit me up again and he was just like, oh, we're making a console game now. We'd love to get you on board. And the rest is history, really.
GIANNI: It's a game that sold millions of copies now. A lot of people have been listening to your music. Tell me a little bit about the process of, I guess, developing the sound for Cult of the Lamb. What were those discussions like? And did they just let you go wild or did Or did you sit down and say, these are the elements we want to include when building into the gameplay?
NARAYANA: Initially, the team had already heard a bunch of my music. Julian had showed them a bunch of my stuff.
And they already liked what I was doing.
So I was already off to a good start and initially, they did send me a bunch of references. So we were working on the game.
They were all sending me a bunch of different stuff that they liked, and it was all really different.
It's kind of that thing of being like, oh, how do I do this, but also this, and also this, and also this. But you kind of just try your best at mashing it all together.
Yeah, we did that for a while. At the very beginning, there was quite a bit of iteration.
I would send stuff and I would send a track and I would literally make a track and then, I would bounce it out with different instruments, replacing all the instruments.
And then I would bounce it again with all new instruments and bounce it again.
I'd send them four or five versions of the same track, just trying to narrow down, like, what is the sound palette of this game?
And then eventually it just kind of started, it just started clicking, I guess. We just, we made a track that, yeah, it just was like, oh, this is working. And then from that point it was kind of like, okay, well, I take all those instruments and I'll save them.
Throughout the whole process, like I, a lot of my process is experimenting with like electronic sounds inside my computer and I'm trying like unconventional things and, you know, bouncing things and reversing them and like warping the audio out and then cutting little, just all kinds of like little audio manipulations.
As I'd figure out like new techniques, I would like add that to the palette and it's like, okay, now this is also part of Cult of the Lamb. Then I could add that to other tracks and it would just grow and grow and grow until I have, you know, I have like these big folders of, different instruments and effects chains that are made and different things that are part of the sound of Cult of the Lamb.
GIANNI: Can you tell us about some of the things that you were first thinking about instrumentation-wise that just didn't work when you started to actually put it into the game and they listened to it? And what were some of those key elements that made it into the final soundtrack?
NARAYANA: Yeah, yeah. So initially, I think the first, few tracks I made were like too bouncy and jolly, I think, actually. We were like, Like I was making some tracks for.
I'm just trying to think of like the first ones I made.
Oh, actually, no, I remember I was making biome tracks and I was really struggling to get the energy right. I just didn't really know how to make a track that felt like had that kind of, excitement and that edge that you need for combat. Because all the music I'd made beforehand was a bit more chilled out and a bit more spacious. And so I struggled for a long time to get the energy right. And the feedback would always be like, oh, it's really good, but just needs more energy. And then like over iteration, you just figure out different ways to add energy to a track.
But yeah, some of the main stuff that made it through, a lot of vocal manipulation. So I knew from the start that I wanted to use a lot of vocals because it is a game that is very occult.
And I think, oh, occult, so chants, hymns, it also has like a bit of a biblical theme going on. So, you know, I was thinking like choirs and that kind of holy sound. So yeah, when I first got the job. Pretty soon afterwards, I bought a couple of different choir instruments or sound libraries.
Sorry, I'm not sure how much you know about music production, but basically, a singer will go and sing every note at a bunch of different velocities and a bunch of different vowel sounds. So like, ah, ee, oh, eh, right? And then they put that into an electronic instrument that you can then playback. So it's like, you can play this person's voice in a way.
It goes against the keyboard effectively, or you can do it in other ways. Yeah.
Yeah. So I bought a bunch of libraries like that. And then I started looking at ways that I could manipulate them. So one of the main ones that I think is that I think of when I think of the Cult of the Lamb soundtrack is that stuttering vocal that goes like, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. And the way that I achieve that is through an effect called a gate, which is basically stop sound coming in. And you can use another sound to tell it when to open. So I use another like very percussive sound that's like, and that's feeding into the gate that's on the vocal. So the vocal is like like opening in time with this very percussive sound.
GIANNI: Is it a sustained note? Is that how it kind of goes through the background and you're using the gate to actually, with that percussive?
NARAYANA: Yeah, it's sustained, but I'm changing the vowels. Yeah, so it's like, E, A, O, E, like that kind of thing. And then, yeah, it's getting cut up by the gate.
GIANNI: Can you tell me a little bit about, like, you know, once you started getting to the rhythm and the flow of actually making this, and you kind of had an idea of what the flavour of Cult of the Lamb was like, what did that process look like for you? Was it completely electronic? Because I've seen videos of you going and, sampling barrels and things like that and making sounds out of that. What does that look like to actually get to the final picture?
NARAYANA: Yeah, for sure. So, a lot of it is electronic. I also sing in a few tracks, just like little vocal lines here and there. I play, Bansuri flute, which is like an Indian classical flute. I'm not that good at it, but I'm good at editing. So I'll record for like 20 minutes and then find like four seconds of good playing.
So there's a lot of that. I play guitar as well. So like in tracks like Knuckle Bones, all that guitar is me. But a lot of it is in the box. A lot of it is in my computer using plugins, but I like to use them in kind of like, I don't know if you call it hacky, but like just try and think outside the box, inside the box.
So an example of that might be like, okay, I've got this vocal line. All right, I'll bounce it out with a bunch of reverb on it. So then I've got this really reverberant version of it. I'll pitch it up seven semitones and I'll reverse that. And then I'll lead those notes into the actual melody. So it'll ramp up this kind of, higher note of it into the actual note. It's weird stuff like that. I'm just always trying to, find that little extra source where I can.
GIANNI: What that really reminds me of is when you see musicians who use a lot of circuit bending to try to adjust the sounds and just kind of like make weird, quirky sort of stuff out of cool old bits of electronics and things like that. You know, when you're trying to translate that, because one of the exciting things is that your music is going to be played by an chamber orchestra, how do you take that with all these little pieces that are sliced together out of lots of big takes and, you know, keyed to a synthesized instrument and things like that. How do you turn that into something that an orchestra can actually play?
NARAYANA: Yeah. So that process is called arranging. And we worked with Orchestra Victoria, who helped me arrange it into versions that people can play. So Alex (Turley) was the guy that worked on it from Orchestra Victoria. I sent him a bunch of MIDI and the tracks. And then he took all that, And he basically said, okay, we've got a seven piece band.
The marimba is going to play this. the vocalist is going to sing that and kind of takes it all and.
Arranges it for that band, which is a really cool process. And then he would send me drafts, and then I could go through and say, oh, yeah, this is great, but what about this little bit?
And we just went back and forth a bit, but he is honestly amazing. So it was pretty spot-on, almost right away.
GIANNI: I wonder if there was anything really surprising from that process of someone having access to the music that you've had such a fine touch on the whole time, then looking at your music and reinterpreting that. Did you notice anything like that through that process?
NARAYANA: Yeah. Actually, there's one thing that I noticed that is quite interesting. There's some melodies in the game. So there's this melody in the song, Saviour. And it's just weird. In my head, it's a vocal melody and I picture it one way.
And I was like, oh, this is the melody. It's really simple. It's got these notes. And then the way he scored it is differently because it kind of uses this vocal that goes between different notes. I play this vocal that goes between different notes and it's kind of like a little bit not clear exactly what's going on there. It's like a little bit ambiguous.
And then I have this way, I have this idea of what it is in my head of what the melody is.
And then he came back and it was different. And I'm like, oh, what's going on? That's not how it But then I actually went through and listened to it, and I'm like, oh, actually...
Kind of is. And so it's just weird that, yeah, I just found it kind of bizarre. It's kind of like, I think it was like, it may be in between both of us, but it's just funny that I had pictured it as this like really simple line. And he interpreted it completely differently.
GIANNI: Those arrangements, has anyone else heard them yet? Or will it be an opportunity for people to see it in the very first time in Games Week?
NARAYANA: No. So to be honest, like I haven't even heard them. Like I've heard the.
Like the MIDI equivalent, right? So you kind of put it through your software instruments and you get like a draft of what it kind of is going to sound like. But it's a completely different thing when actual musicians that have played instruments their whole life are interpreting this music. So yeah, I haven't even really heard it.
GIANNI: I think it's really interesting because when we did a lot of composition in Sibelius and programs like that when we were in school, and you can obviously do things in software that you just actually can't physically play because your fingers can't get to the place. And I think it'd to be really interesting to see how that has been adjusted and reinterpreted so that a human being can play these things that were designed to be played completely by computers.
NARAYANA: Yeah, totally. And that's part of it. Hey, sometimes you've got to take a melody.
Whereas I might take a marimba. It might hit some notes that an actual marimba won't have, or the scale of marimba that we can fit on the stage can't go that high. So then you just got to take it, pull it down an octave, and work it all into a format that can be played by this band. Tell me a little bit about what the process was like once you had got all the pieces in there.
GIANNI: You've now come back and done DLC and additional pieces for this game. It's expanded beyond, I think, what everyone could have had in their wildest dreams. What is it like revisiting that place and then adding new elements into the score?
NARAYANA: Yeah, no, I'm really enjoying it. So, We had Joonas Turner on sound effects for the game and he did the first big, huge bulk of all the sounds that were in the initial release. But then he moved on to other projects and we needed more sounds for the new weapons and such.
Someone sent them to me and I kind of just tried my best. And being able to look at the project, what he had already done, I was able to learn from that and then pull it all together and make sound effects that everyone was happy with and so now they were like, oh, you can do these now. So like, yeah, have all the sound effects, which is really sick.
I'm stoked, but it's like a whole new, I've never studied it or I'm just kind of learning it as I go. But, you know, I've got his amazing work to look on and I've got the FMOD project with all of his stuff there and I can see the way he's stacked things. So one of the major changes is I'm doing all the sound now, which is great. And yeah, it's been interesting. A lot of the songs that we have been working on, for example, in the first update, we had those remix biomes, right?
And so like, I would just like remix the initial track.
And so it's kind of like I'm remixing myself.
And then in the update, the Don't Starve crossover that we just put out, I did the same thing for the boss track. So I like remixed all the boss tracks.
And it's interesting. Like, yeah, I enjoy it. I like kind of like looking back at the old work and reinterpreting it in my own way.
GIANNI: At the very top, you kind of talked about how, you know, the music that you did with Willow Beats was much more chill and you needed to get that energy up when you're creating this.
I'm curious, from your songwriting perspective, how has that process changed for you over the time that you've been working on this game? Are you just working pretty much exclusively on Cult of the Lamb? Are you making other music as well?
NARAYANA: Yeah, so it's definitely the main project in my life, for sure.
It's the main thing that I'm working on. I'm working on little bits and pieces here and there.
I do want to release some more music myself.
I'd like to put out a River Boy EP of just songs that I make just for fun.
So, there's that and yeah, there's like little odds and ends projects here and there that I take up.
But yeah, Cult of the Lamb is definitely like, I feel like the centre of my work at the moment.
GIANNI: And what about your composition process? Has it changed much since starting this project to what you do now?
I don't know, It probably has. I'm just not sure how. It's like one of those things that has changed so slowly that it's like, I feel like I'm better.
I'm a better composer than I was when I started, for sure. But I don't know what exactly it is. I think partially I understand how sounds work together more. So I also mixed and mastered all the music in Cult of the Lamb. And I feel like I have a better understanding of which sounds are going to work with each other. Whereas I feel I I listen to some of the early tracks and I'm like, oh, that's really muddy because I'm like trying to like jam two sounds that are the same frequency, like into the same space.
Right. So that's definitely one thing. And then just confidence.
Like I've just like made that many tracks for the game.
People like them. The team likes them. It's like I just feel more like, oh, like, yeah, more confident, I guess, for sure.
GIANNI: You've come from a music background. You're now part of a game studio.
Can you tell me, what did you learn through that process, things that just never occurred to you until you had to make a game?
NARAYANA: Yeah, so one of the major things that I, that was different than my previous work was using middleware.
So I learned to use FMOD, and Maize Wallin gave me some tutorials at the beginning there, and then Paul Kopetko.
That he also, he gave me some tutorials along the way, And he actually was giving me quite a bit of help whenever I needed anything.
I'd ask him or I'd hit up Maize as well. So I kind of had two people that I could hit up for help.
So that was like, yeah, it's interesting. I'd never used any middleware and it just makes you look at composition in a different way because you realize what can be done.
So yeah, you kind of are like, well, I can use this parameter to fade between a night version and a day version. And yeah, stuff like that is just, I wouldn't have thought of that before.
Yeah, that's probably one of the main ones. And then also just trying to make a very specific mood for a very specific place. My music before was kind of atmospheric and I feel like it did put you in a bit of a place, but in Cult of the Lamb, it's very specific. Like, all right, you're in this forest and you're fighting cult leaders.
GIANNI: Can you tell me a little bit about what the reactions have been like? You won an award, You won an Australian Game Developer Award for a soundtrack last year, but seeing people enjoy and experience your soundtrack, what has that feeling been like for you? Yeah, it's been great. It's amazing. The reception just has been overwhelmingly lovely and positive, and everyone just seems so sweet. Yeah, it's been awesome.
Yeah, I've been in music for a long, long time. I was doing electronic music with Willow Beats.
I think we were touring for seven-ish years.
And we had some success. We had radio play and we played some festivals and we did some big support slots.
I think we supported Flume, Tash Sultana, Alice in Wonderland.
We were doing all right.
The reach that my music has had through this game has been way, way more, orders of magnitude bigger.
And it's just, yeah, it's awesome. I think that as well, people that really get into games, I don't know, this is just a theory, I think that they're kind of like...Are open to listening in a different way. They're like kind of nerdy. And I mean, this is a generalization, but they're interested in that stuff. They care about, I don't know, what vocal you chopped up or like, I don't know. They just, they like to look into things and they care about it.
GIANNI: You think they're a more technical audience?
NARAYANA: Yeah, maybe, maybe. But even like from a story perspective, like on the YouTube, people will comment like the wildest stuff about like, oh, this song has got this distorted voice in it because Heket loses his voice.
And then so just really looking deeply into the lore of the game and they care a lot about, that.
GIANNI: What are you most proud of?
NARAYANA: What am I most proud of? I just honestly, I'll look at the FMOD project and there's just so much music in there.
You don't realize, each day you're just making one song or one sound effect, right?
But then four years later, you're like, what the hell have we done here?
This is a lot of music.
I think at the moment there's 51 songs in the game and I tried to do my best on each song. I'm proud of each track that I've put out in the game and it's just like a huge body of work.
Yeah, I'm just proud of the body of work and I'm proud of the team.
I feel like we just have so many superstars, that everyone just kills it in their own field.
It's just wild. It's some of the most talented people and hardworking people that I've ever met and We all work together and it's awesome.
GIANNI: And are you in Massive Monster for the long haul, or are you likely to go back into other bits and pieces? What does it look like for you?
NARAYANA: No, I mean, I think so. Honestly, it hasn't been discussed as like, all right, you are here forever now.
But I'm an employee, so I work 20 hours a week on Cult of the Lamb stuff.
I imagine when we move on to something else, I'll just keep working with Massive Monster on that. I don't think it's been official like, you're with us forever.
But I hope that we are, because I feel like we have a really good relationship.
And the three directors, Jay, Jimp and Julian, are the best.
They're so sweet and they're just really cool people.
Really awesome to work with. Super talented. I've just had the best time.
So I just want to keep working with them as long as possible, really.
GIANNI: You've got a big Melbourne International Games Week. It's not too far away at the time that we're recording this.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that people will be able to experience in your work, and also for Cult of the Lamb?
NARAYANA: Yeah, for sure. So we're doing a ritual, a live ritual at Fed Square.
So we're basically going to be projecting across the Fed Square wall.
And I'm going to be on this little booth thing in an occult robe, and doing musical stuff up there.
And so that is on the 5th of October, which is a Thursday. And we're also going to have a four meter high puppet, and we're going to have a bunch puppets roaming around and um...
Yeah, it's just going to be awesome. I'm imagining, I'm hoping that people come in their cosplay and it's just going to be a big party. And then I'm going to finish it out with a DJ set.
So yeah, first we're going to sacrifice some people. Not really, but first we're holding a ritual and then it's going to be a party. So yeah, come hang out.
And then people can catch your music being played by Orchestra Victoria at ACMI the next couple of the days after that. I think it's the 6th and the 7th.
Yeah. So, and then there'll be the orchestral reimagination, the orchestral reimaginings of the Cult of the Lamb soundtrack on the 6th at 6pm and on the 7th at 3.30 and 6pm.
And yeah, it's going to be like a whole new story. It's going to be a whole new Cult of the Lamb story. Yeah. With all the best songs played live. So yeah, come say hi, come hang.
GIANNI: A lot of fun things to be enjoying. Narayana, thank you so much for joining me. I'm a big fan of your work. It's been a real pleasure to speak to you today on Lightmap.
NARAYANA: I appreciate it, man. Thanks for having me.
GIANNI: SIFTER is produced by Fiona Bartholomaeus, Daniel Ang, Chris Button, and Adam Christou.
Mitch Low is senior producer, and my name is Gianni Di Giovanni, and I'm the executive producer.
You can find links to everything we've talked about on our website, and we've had Jay and Julian on the show quite a few times, haven't got Jimp yet, time zones are a challenge on that one there, but we've got quite a few of the Massive Monster crew on the show, so if you want to have a listen back to our archives, have a look on our website, which is sifter.com.au, where you can read more about the games and the guests that we've featured.
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That's all the time we have for now. Thanks for joining us and we'll see you on the next episode of Lightmap.