Playing the piano with a sledgehammer: creating the unidentifiable score of Death Stranding

One of the first places where Joel Corelitz went when he left Chicago was a nearby Home Depot. He did not receive any wood, supplies or electrical tools for a renovation project. He was looking for instruments. Everything he could use to make a noise: a paint roller without the brush, a sledge hammer and almost everything that was made of metal.


"We just walked around Home Depot and treated it like it was Guitar Center," Corelitz, who previously scored matches like TumbleSeed and Gorogoatold me. “We probably looked like we were absolutely crazy. We did things like bring air vents to our ear and touch them. Who goes inside and buys a piece of metal ventilation, a heavy rubber hammer and all kinds of random junk? & # 39;

He recorded a three-day recording session at the end of 2017 in San Mateo, California Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima & # 39; s enigmatic new adventure game in which Norman Reedus plays the leading role. Corelitz, together with Kojima Productions composer Ludvig Forssell and some others from Sony, had to look for objects that could make sounds that nobody could identify.

"Some items were easy to recognize, such as a frying pan with a very irregular metallic sound," Forssell said via a Skype call from Tokyo. “It was something we had to get used to when we were there. At first I had no idea what to do, but then I just grabbed a pipe and started hitting it somewhere, without of course disturbing the staff. "

Forssell had worked with Kojima to get a general feel for the score of the game, with the main idea that it had to be different than anything else. “Hideo gave me the soundtrack for the film It follows, & # 39; Said Forssell. “He wanted it to be dark, he wanted it to be sandy. Then I developed my own approach for that. Kojima has such a vision with so many details, so I would still get a lot of direction from him. One of those directions was the sound of chains. & # 39;

Kojima wanted more than the sound of chains that bumped against floors and walls throughout the score. He wanted unique sounds that felt familiar and real. This led to the trip to Home Depot and the three-day recording session, something with which Corelitz was coordinated and executed. Although Forssell and Corelitz had an idea of ​​what they wanted, many of the recording sessions related to experiments; bring different objects together to see what kind of sound they would make.

Although it is difficult to make a strict experimentation plan, Forssell and Corelitz had to come up with an idea of ​​what they wanted to use to make noise before going into the studio. Corelitz had a few ideas in mind, but there was one thing he knew they would need: a piano that they could do whatever they wanted.


"A piano is the ultimate percussion instrument," said Corelitz. "We think of the piano as something expressive and delicate, but it's in the percussion category, simply because it's about the sound of something being struck. It's this mechanical instrument that hits a chord in a very sophisticated way. opens up and gets more control over how that string is tensioned, the possibilities for sound open so much. & # 39;

That is exactly what they did. They took a piano and placed it on its back so that the sound hole, a small hole that exposed the strings, stood upright. They removed everything around that hole to open the strings even more. They then place screws and playing cards between the strings, lay duct tape over the dampers, place stones on the sustain pedal and other kinds of strange adjustments. "If you put a screw between two strings, it no longer sounds like a piano," said Corelitz. "You have disrupted the way the piano works. It sounds like a weird, twisted bell."

It is called one prepared piano, a concept created by John Cage in the late 1930s. Corelitz made these changes to make the strings react longer and make a more dominant sound when struck. They then used a rubber hammer, a rake and a sledge hammer to hit both the strings and the side of the piano. "The use of the rake on the belly of the piano is something that has just happened," Forssell said. "I had never done anything like this."

The three-day session inspired Forssell to make more sounds with strange objects and adapted instruments. He went back to Tokyo and adjusted his guitar and used things like polystyrene and a cardboard box to produce more sounds.

Death Stranding

Almost a year later, Kojima Productions contacted Corelitz again, but this time it was to help compose musical pieces for the game using the sounds he had made in San Mateo. Forssell had written music for hours before Death stranding, but they needed more so that the player would not hear the same thing too often.

"When we got to the section where I was writing directions for the game, this is the most oppressive music I've ever made," said Corelitz. "The sounds we made were raw but they don't sound loud or digital. They sound big and have a natural feel for them. They don't sound like anything else."

The whole point of the recording session was to create acoustic sounds that felt alien and were everywhere in the score. The sound of oil drums being hit with sticks, a rake being dragged over piano strings and a whole cart full of metal wiring being shaken all appear on the score. "Everything is everywhere," Forssell said. "The larger sounds, such as the large piano or oil drum hits were stingers, some of the things I did on my guitar were more tonal, simple percussion sounds, while the paint roller became your faster, clickity, rhythmic things."


It was the perfect balance for the compositions of Forssell that mostly consisted of synthesizers. Forssell had never before worked on music for horror games, but wanted to imitate the sound It follows. "I really took into account the pickiness of older synths and how fake things can sound and still sound musical," he said. “That worked really well with the BT & # 39; s idea, the darker, more horror-like parts of the game. I wanted things not to sound musical, but at the same time musical. "

These segments of the score would mainly fit Death Stranding & # 39; s fighting sequences with BT & # 39; s – extraterrestrial stranded things that somehow stranded on Earth – that were divided into four different tracks. "Each track consists of a different energy level," said Corelitz. “The highest level of energy is for when you take on the enemy. The lowest level is when you sneak around. The two intermediate levels indicate that the enemy may know that there is someone. As you play, the music constantly adjusts between four songs. "

Forssell wanted the transitions between levels to be subtle for the player. They used an external audio engine to help build a system that used a procedural generation. It helped to keep the score unique during a playthrough.

“We have a pot full of sounds, it doesn't matter what tempo it is or what sound is played after the next one. It should just work together, & he said. "You can't really identify what the track is while playing; I'm sure people will hear the soundtrack and think they haven't heard a track like this in the game. It's not 100 percent procedural, but it's a soup of sounds that have an identity. It is just the intention that it responds to the gameplay. "

The end result is an eerie score with layers of synth and sounds. The sounds were edited and mixed to help gel with the synthesizer, but they still fit well Death StrandingThe gameplay. "Many movie scores and game scores are still known for their sense of melody and harmony," said Corelitz. "Death Stranding is it not. It's about disturbing emotion and aggressive relentless sensitivity. It is a score based on texture and feel. "


Much of that texture and feel came from that three-day recording session where they hit a piano with a sledge hammer and a rake. It was something that neither of the composers had done such a thing before, but they cannot imagine that they are doing it differently.

"Sometimes the most horrible, distorted things are known to us, but presented in a way that is unknown," said Corelitz. “If you want to create something that is truly unique, you cannot start with a clean slate in many ways, but it must have something familiar to offer context. These sounds work because they come from something familiar. "