A good soundtrack can make or break a gaming experience. Pairing the right sounds to the perfect scene is imperative, and setting the stage for what the player feels is an incredibly powerful — and sometimes daunting — task. With Cyberpunk 2077 just around the corner boasting some killer tunes, we sat down with the OST team to learn more about the inspiration behind the sounds of Night City.
Speaking with Marcin Przyblowics (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), P.T. Adamczyk (Gwent: The Witcher Card Game), and Paul Leonard-Morgan (Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II), we learned a ton about the tracklist for the highly anticipated action-RPG. While “cyberpunk” tropes may instantly bring to mind such scores as Blade Runner or Deus Ex, this talented team of composers drew inspiration from all sorts of sources, including draws from jazz, through downtempo, hip-hop, metal, industrial, to various incarnations of 90’s techno (rave, trance, etc.); putting an unexpected modernized spin to everything while still keeping a cinematic vibe that pushes and informs the narrative and action.
Ready to learn more about the sounds of Night City? Let’s dive right in!
The three of you have an impressive background, can you talk a little bit more about how you knew composition was the right path for you and about where it all started?
P.T: I started out as a drummer although I always wanted to write music. The idea of being a composer felt so surreal, that I put this dream on the shelf and became a session drummer for Poland’s top rap artists. In my early 20’s I started doing music for commercials, shorts, and things of that nature. That gave me a confidence boost and I realized that maybe I can do that. I put my drumming career on hold and followed the composer path. I relocated to LA in 2015. I studied at USC’s SMPTV program, did some ghostwriting, some additional arrangements, small short movies, and things of that caliber, and in mid-2017 I got a job as an in-house composer at CDPR and I moved back to Poland to work on Gwent, Thronebreaker and eventually Cyberpunk 2077
Leonard-Morgan: I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Glasgow has a phenomenal music scene, and I started working with a ton of bands back then. I started out by scoring a few films (my first one got me a BAFTA), and then it really just took off from when I scored the film Limitless with Brandley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and then Dredd.
Przyblowics: For me, it all started back in music college. I figured out I’m not that great of a musician on instruments, but I was quite OK with writing and arranging music. That eventually pushed me to game music, kind of an obvious thing at the time. I’ve been playing games since I was seven. I worked on several smaller titles for a few years, and in 2011 I joined CD Projekt RED and we’ve been working together ever since.
How has your approach to game composition evolved with each new project?
P.T: I think because of the experience you gain with every project you become slightly more confident with the decisions you make even if they might seem unproductive or just stupid to an outsider. For example, I did a lot of research before jumping into CP2077, I figured out my core set of instruments and I spent the first 6-8 months learning how to use them. I would press record and just jam with them, then save the bits I liked and then move to a different instrument. If I haven’t had the experience that would seem counterproductive to me, cause I would be worried about not starting with “the theme”, but I knew that this could be an equally valid point of entry and “the theme” will get discovered somewhere into the process.
Leonard-Morgan: I’ve scored a few games before (Battlefield Hardline and Warhammer: Dawn Of War 3), and with each of those, I’ve been learning about the technical aspects of composing for games. But what I’ve found the most fun part in them all (including Cyberpunk) is coming up with the sound for the game. In Cyberpunk, the three of us were playing with all our synths and experimenting for about 6 months at the start of the process. It’s so important to find a unique sound, and, particularly for a game the size of Cyberpunk, it’s a challenge to create something that hasn’t been done before.
Przyblowics: I think it always evolves — every project is different, even if it’s a part of a franchise. It brings different artistic and technical challenges. After years spent on The Witcher, I had to rethink my approach before starting doing anything on Cyberpunk 2077. It’s a completely different universe, characters, story, everything. Plus, the music we’ve made is so different from anything I’ve ever done personally.
With a game like Cyberpunk 2077, there is a grittiness heard in the tracks, and it’s not the obvious sounds people might expect from an experience in this genre. What was the creative process like when nailing down the sounds of Night City, especially when looking at how different the three of your tracks are from one another?
P.T: All the inspiration comes from the game. Whether it’s Mike Pondsmith’s lore, or quest design, concept art you cannot complain about a lack of inspiration while working on a game like CP2077. Grittiness and the hard-hitting beats and bases were our response to the world and the stories that were presented to us. This is not a digital, sci-fi cyberpunk, it’s not retro-futuristic cyberpunk. It’s a special, singular take on the genre, that dares to create a new paradigm. So, as a composer, when you’re tasked to create a musical score for a game like that, you have to give it all you got and look for uncharted musical territories.
Leonard-Morgan: Going back to that whole trying to create a unique sound thing, one of the things we quickly realized was that we wanted to avoid an 80’s synth vibe – it’s been done before, Blade Runner, etc, but synth/electronica definitely plays a big role in our process. But we processed and crushed so many of our sounds on this. From drums to electric cello, to all our synths – distortion can be beautiful. And so many of the sounds that we created was from a process: for example, I would feed my moog into my matrixbrute, then into my vocoder, then finally into this wonderful synth called a Folktek. It was all about creating a hard, edgy sound for Night City. Throbbing Basslines and weird distortion
Przyblowics: I think that’s one of Night City’s highlights — musical variety within a very well defined soundscape. Both the story and the city itself are soaking with exciting moments for the composer. It’s not always about the action — sometimes it’s the color, or what’s being said in dialogue lines. Whatever it is, it makes your mind go places. Once you realize what the story is really about, and how it’s executed, you know where that grit comes from.
When composing for a game that has this much of hype behind it, what does a typical workday look like for you?
P.T: For the past 6 months we’re in playtesting mode (at least Marcin and I) so everything is pretty normal. We just play the game a lot and tweak things according to our music design. Earlier, when I was actually writing and producing the music it was a workday like any other 🙂 cause you know, when you’re in the middle of the ocean, it doesn’t matter how deep it is, you just have to make it safely to the shore :). But in all seriousness, more than anything, the hype is a great motivator. It pushes you to give 100% every day and not cut corners and do everything to justify the anticipation. I felt really lucky to work on this game and the support we got from gamers was overwhelming.
Leonard-Morgan: Hype doesn’t really come into it – you just keep your head down in the studio and be creative. There’s no point thinking “I wonder if the millions of fans will like this”. You’ve just gotta stay true to your artistry/what you believe in and hope that people like it! A typical day would be me looking at a new scene which I’ve been sent a rough movie for (CDPR are in Warsaw, and I’m in LA, so the time difference means that we’ve kind of been working on this “round the clock” for 3 years!), then I start coming up with ideas/sketches, getting into the groove. Then I’ll send some stuff back to PT and Marcin a few days later for feedback before I go and produce the track up properly.
Przyblowics: As PT said, the last couple of months have been pretty standard, more so than I think a lot of people would think. We played the game all of the time, fine-tuning, making sure everything works as it should. The music phase though was interesting for me, because of the hype – for the first time there were so many people talking about the music for the game – be it specific tracks we announced, or the music of Cyberpunk in general. I can’t wait to see how players react to what we’ve created.
How do you keep yourselves from burning out when ideating for creative musical compositions?
P.T: New instruments, new sounds, new process. Sometimes you have to shake up and change a few things. I leaned heavily onto synths with unique interfaces so that I wouldn’t rely on muscle memory or the typical ways of making music. If you check how Folktek Mescaline looks like, or Elektron Digitakt or the L.E.P. Loop you will see that they all require different ways of operating.
Leonard-Morgan: Ha! Good question. I tend to be working on multiple projects at the same time (a film, a tv series, a game, a classical composition), so I guess that’s what stops me from burning out. If I was just doing the same thing over and over I think it’s very easy to become stale – you need to challenge yourself as a composer. I also go for walks first thing in the morning to try and clear my head.
Przyblowics: Every once in a while it’s good to have change — after those few years spent on The Witcher, I went straight into another few years for Cyberpunk. Opportunities like this let you stay alert and try out new things — and there are so many ways you can make music.
Was there any particular part of the game that acted as a catalyst for inspiration? A moment where you thought ‘this, this is what this project is about’?
P.T: I love Johnny Silverhand. I did most of his material and it was a pleasure to score. You definitely don’t want to skip through his lines (laughs).
Leonard-Morgan: I freaking loved working on anything relating to Arasaka — creating the sounds for that was a blast. Detuning various basses, distorting, adding electric cello, processing Koto’s and a few Eastern instruments so you can’t tell what they are, but it adds a flavor to the score.
Przyblowics: I was blown away when I saw the cyberspace sequence. I’ve spent a good time with Sound Designer Piotr Malinowski, talking about how cyberspace should sound. I really enjoyed working on it.
Did you ever have a moment where you felt stuck or hit a creative roadblock?
P.T: Obviously, when working on a project this big, there are times when things are not clicking. In moments like that, you just have to get into the groove again somehow. For me it usually meant, getting a new piece of gear, or using one that I own already in a way and I haven’t used it before. Something to make things interesting again and to forget about the work that needs to be done.
Leonard-Morgan: Actually, no! Night City is such a huge place, once you immerse yourself in it, as a composer, it’s just fantastic fun to imagine yourself there, composing for all the different parts. And the wonderful thing about having the 3 of us collaborate means we could always bounce ideas off each other if ever we wanted a second opinion.
Przyblowics: It may happen you get short of breath eventually during a marathon, but with a project of this scale, there’s always a different angle you can look at it and find something new to create. You relax, clear your head, and create a new thing. And if you really need a break – you get a new instrument or another piece of gear and play with it. That always helps with finding new perspectives.
Are there any Polish influences found within the music?
P.T: I wouldn’t say Polish, but while doing research for CP2077 I listened to some electronic music from Poland, Ukraine, Russia and I think there might be a common denominator, but it’s hard to pinpoint a specific thing. Maybe it’s in the harmonies…I’m no musicologist.
Przyblowics: I wouldn’t say it is, at least intentionally. We did research many paths, including music from central Europe, but eventually, I guess it didn’t matter whether or not it had those qualities. Our music draws from many places but tries to do it on its own.
For The Witcher and Gwent fans, can they expect to see any of that influence within this new score? Do any other previous projects bleed into this set?
P.T: Not that I’m aware of, to be honest. As a composer, you’re not always conscious of the what’s and the why’s and the how’s. So maybe? I don’t know, I really can’t say.
Leonard-Morgan: It’s massively different from scoring soundtracks — the whole process is different, from length of time for delivery (a few months as opposed to multiple years), to the actual technical process. But compared to other games I’ve scored, like Warhammer, I would say the sheer scope of this game was the major thing. I had thought Warhammer was massive, but Cyberpunk 2077 is something else…so many hours of music, all scored specifically for scenes and spotted (whereas often you might just use a track and its stems in various places after writing it for one scene, so much of this game is uniquely scored.)
Przyblowics: Well, they are, actually, few hidden nods to The Witcher. I won’t say where though, it’s better to find them yourself 🙂
Game composition is not an easy task, what about the process are you the most passionate about?
P.T: I love when music brings out colors, emotions, and contexts out of the story or quest that weren’t there before you scored it. That’s why I’m always conscious of the instruments and tunes I use when certain characters are on-screen or a particular subject is discussed — I like adding the additional layer of meaning to things. I also love it when music can just follow the action seamlessly. Also picking and sequencing the soundtrack release is a lot of fun because you get to present the music in its best form.
Leonard-Morgan: We have lived and breathed this game for so long now, and every time I think we’ve peaked, we get inspired by the next thing in the game. The graphics are insane, and getting to create a sound for Night City is just a dream. Really getting into the zone with the attack cues, or chase scenes, pulsing sounds and thumping drums, to atmospheric tracks with soul, it’s been a huge undertaking, but blasting it out loud while we’re composing, it’s a total adrenaline rush!
Przyblowics: For me, the best moments are when you’re taking action and actively working with other teams to create something special. I got to work every day with a bunch of wizards on a project that has insane ambition. I’ll remember working with our CD PROJEKT RED cinematic team on polishing certain scenes. You see how every day this game shines brighter, and how all the elements — story, narrative, visuals, sound, music, and so on — come together. It’s fantastic.
Do you have a favorite track? Don’t be shy!
P.T: My favorite tracks were done by Paul with Mining Minds and The Sacred and the Profane. They’re great, I can’t stop listening to them!
Leonard-Morgan: (He winks) Just about all of Marcin (Przyblowics) and P.T’s tracks.
Przyblowics: Hands down Paul’s The Sacred and the Profane and P.T’s take on Never Fade Away. Absolutely brilliant stuff!
OK, slightly weird question. When I have a big project, I get super weird dreams about it. Have you ever had a completely bizarre dream relating to your work? You compose a soundtrack for a nightmare, show up to work and can’t hear anything? Anything like that, or am I just weird?
P.T: Yeah, so many dreams where I just work on a cue and things are happening, and everything sounds great, then I wake up and can’t remember a note. Or the other recurring one is I am backstage at some gig, and all of a sudden some guy hands me a trumpet and tells it’s my turn and pushes me on to the stage (I never played trumpet in my life…). It’s horrifying.
Leonard-Morgan: Often! Mostly to do with a cue that I’m working on, and go get a few hours to sleep at maybe 4 AM, I go to sleep dreaming the tune/beat. I actually have recurring dreams about standing in front of an orchestra, and there are record turntables on everyone’s chairs, but no musicians are there. What the hell does that mean?!!
Przyblowics: Sometimes it happens, but most of the time I can’t remember a thing. But I do have moments before I drift away when ideas come. Nothing else occupies your mind, it’s you and the music in your head. It’s kind of beautiful!
It was a genuine pleasure speaking with the team, it’s obvious that this is an A-squad for the game. After listening to Cyberpunk 2077’s soundtrack and playing some more of the adventure, I genuinely think this OST quickly rose to the ranks of top five video game soundtracks for me of all time, which is saying something! I’m super picky with music, but everything about this tracklist was perfect. Especially when in the moment within the game, it’s paired so expertly that you forget you’re playing something sometimes! It’s wild.
You’ll be able to see how the music of Night City intertwines with the story when Cyberpunk 2077 debuts on December 10th.