I contacted Ben and he was kind enough to answer some questions I had about FTL and the other stuff he is up to right now. He just launched a pre-order for his new album "Curious Merchandise" and has two preview tracks "Fractal Wheel" and "Swamp Witch" available to stream on Bandcamp.
jdodson: When you look back at your work on FTL now, what comes to mind? Anything you might approach differently?
Ben Prunty: I might not have had so many hi-hats in all the battle tracks. Seriously, they're everywhere! Other than that, I'm pretty satisfied with how it came out.
CapnCurry: The first time I played FTL, I noticed the title music was kind of lonely and maybe a little regretful. I was intrigued, because I was expecting more of a hero's-fanfare, never-tell-me-the-odds kind of overture. Having played through FTL a few (hundred) times, I have to say the music is strikingly appropriate to the tone of the game itself -- when I start a new game, the title music is almost a reminder that I'm almost definitely going to die alone in space. Can you tell us a little about how you came to select that musical direction for the title music?
Ben Prunty: I was asked to have something at least vaguely chiptune-esque and not overly dramatic. I'm a fan of space horror more than space opera, and there's already plenty of bombastic sci-fi music out there. I decided right from the start that FTL would sound cinematic but without an orchestra. I thought this would help make it distinctive. Space is creepy and lonely, and there's nothing particularly bombastic about suffocating to death on your own ship. So I really tried to convey that. I think you can hear that most in Void, Deepspace, Debris, Wasteland, and Engi.
jdodson: The FTL score clocks in at 1.5 hours. When you were talking with Matthew and Justin did they give you an outline of how much music they wanted? Did you get any other cues to work off for the game in terms of direction they wanted you to take?
Ben Prunty: The amount of music needed was more a mutual decision after a lot of discussion. The only other direction I got from them was "We really like the music from Battlestar Galactica."
jdodson: What other composers do you look at as doing great work? Any video game composers come to mind?
Ben Prunty: My favorite game soundtrack is from EarthBound, written by Keiichi Suzuki. For FTL I was listening to funk music, Gustav Holst, and chiptunes. Right now I'm obsessed with Empire of the Sun's new(ish) album and John Williams music for the Indiana Jones movies. He weaves so many different themes together, which is similar to what I tried to do with FTL.
CapnCurry: Did you play the finished game before you wrote the score, or did you have less-complete materials to work with?
Ben Prunty: I had the great privilege of playing a build of the game that was very far along before I had to write anything. I joined the project about a year into its development.
jdodson: One of the unique aspects of the FTL score for me is the battle music. Most battle music is somewhat jarring and fierce. The FTL score battle queues don’t follow this tradition and instead focus more on darker tones and occasionally quicker tempos. When you were creating the battle queues I wonder what your plan was?
Ben Prunty: I just wanted battles to sound exciting. Something to get your pulse going. An extreme generalization would be that the Battle versions of tracks are simply the Explore track with percussion added. The most basic example is Colonial: same track but with drums. On the other end of the spectrum, Cosmos Battle is pretty much an entirely different track from Cosmos Explore. And then throughout the soundtrack there are many shades of difference in between. Try arranging arranging a playlist where the Battle tracks come right after their respective Explore tracks and you'll get a good idea of how it works.
Jarring and fierce works for a 2-hour movie but not for a game that you'll be playing for 30 hours or more.
jdodson: What would you suggest to people that want to break into scoring video game music?
Ben Prunty: Keep making music constantly and go out and meet people! Find where game developers are and where they gather and crash those parties! Also be ready for this to take a long time. I started making music in 2000, when I was 17. Since then it's been 13 years of practice and work and many canceled projects. I made almost no money from my music during that time. It's discouraging when you find that no one cares about your music, but you just need to keep at it.
jdodson: What projects are you working on right now?
Ben Prunty: Here are some soundtracks I'm working on, with links! Gravity Ghost with Erin Robinson. Scale with Steve Swink. A secret project with Robot Invader. Another super secret thing that I can't tell you about. I just put up a new album for pre-order called Curious Merchandise. It's similar to Chromatic T-Rex. Unlike T-Rex though, it has many tracks written specifically for the album.
jdodson: I just checked out the preview track from Fractal Wheel from Curious Merchandise, I really like it. How did you approach this album and how do you consider it in terms of your other video game scores?
Ben Prunty: Thanks! I had been wanting to make another compilation album like Chromatic T-Rex, but I didn't quite have enough material to make one. I had this other album in mind that didn't quite get off the ground. The individual tracks sounded great, but they weren't forming the cohesive whole that I had in mind when I started. Ghost Jazz, Fractal Wheel, Gleaming Copper, One Lifetime, Canister Perplexing and Tribal Crisis were all reconstituted from this unfinished album and made to fit with the rest of the random stuff I put together for Curious Merchandise. The result, I think, works pretty well.
jdodson: Do the songs Curious Merchandise follow any particular themes or concept?
Ben Prunty: One of my favorite albums of all time is William Orbit's Strange Cargo. In fact, the whole Strange Cargo series is fantastic. They really influenced my style. Those albums are a real eclectic mix of electronic and acoustic instrumentals and ambiances. Every track in each album feels like it is part of something much larger, like it's part of a soundtrack to some forgotten movie. I tried to recreate that feel with Curious Merchandise, and even the title is a reference to Strange Cargo. The title of each track was carefully chosen to evoke imagery and help drive home that feeling of belonging to something big and mysterious. That's why the album cover is a creepy pawnshop. Shout out to Beau Blyth (teknopants.com) for the fantastic art.
jdodson: What was the first album you ever owned?
Ben Prunty: I think that would've been Weird Al's In 3D. On cassette tape. But let's get a little more pertinent. I think the first thing I bought was a 2-disc compilation album of really mediocre German trance called "World of Trance Vol. 2". I loved it and would listen to it every night for 2 or 3 hours before going to sleep. I was probably 14 at the time. It's long out of print now, but if you're really curious, I believe the record label was called ZYX. I also used to hold up a tape recorder to the TV's or PC's speakers and record game music to listen to later. Listening to game music is so much easier now than it was 20 years ago.
jdodson: As video has moved from VHS to DVD to High Definition with BluRay and makes its way to ultra HD 4k I wonder why we don’t see the same movement in music audio? For the most part it seems that music has peaked at CD quality Stereo with the rare album release on 5.1 on DVD or BluRay. There has also been a kind of resurgence in vinyl as a music format as some prefer its analog nature to more modern digital formats. Why do you think video keeps reaching at the higher quality formats while audio seems to have stagnated or regressed somewhat?
Ben Prunty: I honestly don't care much about sound quality, and I don't think I'm alone. CD quality is pretty great. If the music sounds great to you, why should the format matter? Chuck Berry's old recordings are going to sound the same coming from a CD or a Blu-Ray, and so is FTL. The FTL soundtrack on Steam is only available as 256kbps mp3s. I've sold thousands of copies and not one person has complained about it being on an "inferior" format.
jdodson: I honestly can't tell the difference between a 256k mp3 rip myself either and it seems music quality is "good enough." I don't mean that in a negative way, things really do sound great. That said, I do prefer to buy a CD now and then and am curious if you have considered a physical release of your music?
Ben Prunty: I've considered it, but really there's just not enough demand to justify the cost of printing the discs, which would have to come out of my pocket. I've had maybe 5 or 6 requests for a physical copy total. I thought there'd be more, but there you have it. If I could give people a really good reason to buy the physical copy over digital, like extra tracks and cool artwork, then I might do it.
jdodson: When you sit down to score how do you have an idea of the kinds of themes you want to create or is it a somewhat emergent process?
Ben Prunty: For FTL and Gravity Ghost it was definitely an emergent process, but now that I've done more than a few complete soundtracks, I'm pretty good at coming up with at least one theme right from the start, and then working towards adding a second or third later. So I guess that's a combination of directed and emergent.
jdodson: For the new game projects you are working on now how different are they in terms of direction and style?
Ben Prunty: The secret project with Robot Invader is a completely different style. Not a chiptune in sight. It's been really fun and liberating. Scale is actually still really early and I'm not sure how it's going to turn out. And I still don't know how to classify Gravity Ghost.
jdodson: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, is there anything you want to save before we finish up?
Ben Prunty: I want to thank FTL fans for changing my life. I live in financial comfort now thanks to them. You guys are the best!