'Blade Runner' tech gives 'Borderlands' its signature sound

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'Blade Runner' tech gives 'Borderlands' its signature sound

"The Commodore 64 is like my Bible; that's when [game] music began because that's when they put an analog chip into a computer," composer Jesper Kyd says of the nearly 33-year-old home computer. "Before that it was PC or Atari and everything was like 'beep, beep, beep, beep-beep beep' and who the fuck wants to listen to that?"

While you might not have heard of Kyd, you've almost certainly heard his work: It's been featured in some of the past three decades' biggest games. In addition to scoring what comprises the Borderlands: The Handsome Collection (out this week for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), he wrote the soundtrack for the first Borderlands, Sub-Terrania on the Sega Genesis, Darksiders 2 and the first four Hitman and Assassin's Creed titles, among many others. He's been composing video game music since he was 17 and started doing it full-time a few years later, writing tunes for, you guessed it, the Commodore 64.

"I was totally blown away. The music that these composers were able to do, it had emotion. When you go 'beep, beep, beep,' there's no emotion," he says. "There might be a catchy tune, but then you've gotta get away from it because it's annoying." Kyd says that the C64's analog chip allowed for all sorts of experimentation, like adding fake ring modulation, emulated echo and reverb. All of which is to say, it was much more advanced than what the competition offered at the time and sounded like real music instead of a series of chirps. "It just sounded like this really rich, beautiful sound and I became fascinated with that," he says.

That sound, and much of Kyd's style, is firmly rooted in the analog world. He loves the imperfections and warmth that analog gear provides, and over the course of our half-hour conversation, it became clear that it wasn't a passing fad for him -- it runs deep. With the score for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, he was able to set it free and let his 1980s sci-fi inspirations show. "In other scores where you'd want to stay away from anything '80s-sounding, you put up a bunch of rules," he says. "Here, it was like I could break all those rules and go crazy." Indeed, Assassin's Creed II's Renaissance-era Italy would probably sound pretty weird with a Blade Runner-esque soundtrack, but that works perfectly with The Pre-Sequel's laser weapons and moon-and-space-station setting.

A vast majority of that sound comes from the gear he used while composing. Synthesizers like Sequential Circuits' Prophet 10 and the Yamaha CS-80, among others. "Legendary" instruments, he calls them, noting that the latter was used heavily on the Blade Runner soundtrack. "I think it's the first time I've been able to use all of it [his analog gear] on one score," Kyd says.

'Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel' features laser weapons, moons, space stations and, yes, giant robots.

He doesn't see the analog revival as just another trend or nostalgia play, either. For him it's that people are realizing that today's gear doesn't cut it anymore; the move back to analog is a natural progression.

"The best hi-fi, the best analog equipment ever made was in the '70s and the '80s. If you want the best, you go buy the stuff that was put out [then]," he says. "If you wanted that warmth and that hi-fi sound, you had a CS-80 that cost as much as a Mercedes when it came out in '76, or you have a digital reverb called the Lexicon 224, the reverb Vangelis used on Blade Runner. That cost the same as a car as well."

In case you're interested, Wikipedia pegs the CS-80's price at $6,900. Adjusted for inflation, that's just shy of $30,000 today. "This was just a synthesizer. ... It's a testament to what they were doing back then, and that's cool," Kyd says.

In case you're interested, Wikipedia pegs the CS-80's price at $6,900. Adjusted for inflation, that's just shy of $30,000.
It's a distinct contrast to modern times, according to Kyd, who says the trend now seems to be making something as small and cheaply as possible. He specifically mentions Roland's new $500-level synths attempts to replicate analog sound, but says that they're actually pretty all right. "It's kind of ironic, but they have techniques in a fully digital machine to make it sound out of tune almost," he says. "When you play it, it does sound pretty good; there's no question about it. But the question is, can you get all these weird mistakes going that you could with old analog gear?"

For example, Kyd says that just moving a synth like his beloved CS-80 can put it out of tune, and the unit takes at least an hour to warm up before you'd want to play it, too. Compared to using solid-state equipment that's ready in an instant and "perfect" no matter what, it's a huge departure. The imperfections are what made it the ideal fit for The Pre-Sequel, though, and Kyd doesn't see himself shying away from them in the future.

"The warmth is what keeps me coming back," he says.

[Image credit: JBLivin/Flickr (lead image), Gearbox Software (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel image)]

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