I’m Your GPU – Crafting the digitally-infused pop of Astro’s Playroom

PS4 & PS5

Hi folks! To mark the release of the official digital soundtrack for Astro’s Playroom later this week, I thought it’d be fun to take a wee “behind the scenes” look at the creative process for the track that players have responded to the most enthusiastically – the GPU song.

Most of the music featured in this post doesn’t actually appear in the game or on the soundtrack – it consists of excerpts from top secret, slightly embarrassing sketch material that was never intended to be heard by anyone’s ears other than those of my Team Asobi collaborators. But hopefully that’s also what makes them interesting!

The GPU Jungle was the first area of the game that I tackled – whilst it was still a work-in-progress at that point, the gameplay felt the furthest along so it seemed like a sensible place to start. My first attempt was quite a traditional approach to scoring a jungle stage, complete with the requisite panpipes:

The feedback from the team was that this was a little too predictable. However, it did have a catchy melody, which is something we strive for in the Astro Bot games because they are, at their heart, ‘old-skool’ platforming experiences. So, before moving on, I had a go at making it a little more “digital” or synthetic sounding:

That certainly felt more appropriate for Astro, but we were still concerned that folks unfamiliar with video game music culture might not “get it.” So, I started exploring something a little more contemporary sounding and began playing around with the idea of writing a song.

Before I’d even started working on the game I had been thinking about personifying the PlayStation 5 console by giving it a voice. This tapped into the idea that perhaps you’ve always known PS5 or somehow encountered it before, as if it were your true love. But I had been saving this idea for the CPU Plaza area as it felt like the most appropriate spot. But now that I was starting again on the music for the GPU Jungle, I saw an opportunity to introduce this concept to the team. Here’s my first sketch:

The lyrics there are:

GP-You and GP-Me, here amongst the trees.
GP-You and GP- Me, as far as your eyes can see.
Voxels and sprites; pixels delight; shaded perfectly.
GP-You and GP-Me.
GP-You and GP-Me. 

Which is intriguing, but the overall tone was too closely aligned with the aforementioned “ethereal true love” concept which wasn’t a good fit for GPU Jungle. So I didn’t share that with the team (this’ll be the first time they’ve heard it too – surprise!). But I stuck with it as a starting point and came up with this:

The feedback on this version was that whilst it was playful it was missing the fun, had gone too far the other way and become too serious in tone. D’oh! However, the team really liked the main riff at the end and thought that we could find a home for it in the CPU Plaza area.

Starting over again, I felt like having tested the waters in a couple of different directions and found where the lines of acceptability were. I could now come up with an approach which would hopefully offer the best of both worlds. I was still keen on trying to make the song idea work, but rather than lead with that and getting side-tracked, I started with the groove of the drums and bass to get the energy right and then worked on the lyrics and melody. Here’s what I sent over to Nicolas Doucet, Creative Director of Astro’s Playroom (with reassurances that I was going to add a vocoder to my voice!):

It’s rough and ready, but even at this stage it had something going on and we were excited to try and make it work.

When I was writing it I was thinking about the genius graphics coders I know or have worked with and wanted the lyrics to be something that they would recognise as being at least vaguely authentic. But I also knew it couldn’t just be a shopping list of rendering terminology, because that’s not something most people can relate to. I’m not sure at what point I realised that the love song idea I had been exploring previously could be made to fit, but I do remember being excited about getting the lyrics to operate on multiple levels because that’s what chamfers the hard techy edges off and makes the song palatable.

Getting the tone of the track right took some iteration – it was tricky to add elements to the core I’d established without them taking something away.  Here’s a version from this exploratory production phase:

You learn something from every little misstep and, if you persevere, each of them leads to something that clicks. Rinse, repeat. Then at some point you realise it’s baked! Here’s a preview of the final version found on the soundtrack album:

I’m incredibly grateful to have such brilliant and trusting collaborators in Team Asobi that give me the encouragement, time and space needed to explore ideas such as this and then use their skills and craft to find ways to incorporate them into the project in a holistic fashion. Not every piece of music I write is subject to such a circuitous or lengthy gestation period – by being the first thing that I tackled, this track had to bear the burden of finding a direction for the entire project.

But I also wanted to take the opportunity to shine a light on a creative process which is so often hidden from view – composers have a tendency to discuss work through the lens of the finished product, but our ideas are rarely, if ever, born fully formed. Music direction is arrived at through a journey.

Thanks for coming along for the ride! I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my world. The official soundtrack for Astro’s Playroom, released by Sony Music Masterworks, will be available digitally March 12 – happy listening!

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