Checking the Score: Dale North Talks Composing Sparklite’s Retro Vibe

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

From the creative minds at Red Blue Games comes the feisty rogue-lite adventure, Sparklite. Making its rounds at conferences for the past year, the title is gearing up for its release this Fall 2019. Blending retro-style visuals with classic gameplay style, Sparklite continues to carry the torch of the action-adventure adventure genre. To help enhance the whimsical setting and gameplay style, composer Dale North brings his dedication and attention to detail to the soundtrack. Calling upon personal experiences while paying homage to classic games helps give Sparklite a life of its own. North’s desire for authenticity shines in his composition and gives new depth to titles he’s worked on. Hardcore Gamer previously had the honor of interviewing Dale on his previous work for Wizard of Legend. Now Hardcore Gamer is back with Dale in an exclusive interview about his work on the upcoming Sparklite title.

[Hardcore Gamer] Given Sparklite’s rogue-lite nature, was that taken into consideration during the composition process? What aspects of gameplay influenced the title’s soundtrack?

[Dale North, Composer] Sparklite shows as an action-adventure game more than it does a roguelike so I wanted to treat it as such. What’s cool about game creators playing with these formulas a bit is how the timing and movement changes. It only takes a moment of watching Sparklite in action to get a feel for its pace, and anyone that has played some of the classic action-adventure games of the past will get a familiar sense. So, literally, the pace of the action sets the tempo for the soundtrack. Watching Ada move gave me a sense of how the music should move. What I love about this game is that it has its own unique identity in the way it moves.

Another aspect of the gameplay that really shaped the music is its setting and world. The story, the method of combat using gadgets, and the motivations of the main character all have this kind of organic, earthy sense. The developers had a strong preference for what type of instrumentation would fit this setting so I ran with it and really tried to shape how the music would reflect the settings.

What was the creative process like for composing character themes throughout the game? Were you able to study any concept art to help create music?

I was lucky to have spent time with a build of the game, and every step of the way I had footage and images to work with. For all of the songs I had accompanying footage and I was able to write against them in real time to make sure the feel was just right. In basically all of the cases my inspiration for the song was derived solely from the gameplay. I wanted Sparklite to sound and feel like it looked. I was happy to call a song done when I could have it played against the footage and feel like that song was meant for the scene.

The game has a very “Zelda” feel to it with pixel aesthetics and a retro vibe; are there any inspirations that helped guide the creative process? Did this play into the decision to primarily use an orchestra?

Sparklite’s look, feel, and vibe absolutely dictated how we approached the sound. My very first piece I wrote for the game was a fully orchestral main theme, and it was designed to feel large and adventuresome. An attract mode song, if you will. And that is currently being used as a trailer piece. But when I began working on the project in full my instincts and preferences wouldn’t let me shake that Sparklite felt more intimate and organic. It has this very clean, pure sense and a feeling of warmth, and that’s all set against a bit of a retro vibe. That combination of feelings had me inspired. After hearing the team’s preferences for instrumentation and vibe I came to them with a bit of a pitch on the soundscape for Sparklite. My lead keyword was “GameCube,” and the pitch was that it was hard for me to imagine this game sounding any other way than how a classic Nintendo GameCube action adventure game would. Luckily the developers were also big GameCube fans.

What I had in mind was the clean, bright, charming, melody-forward sound of the era, where soundtracks weren’t full recordings yet. Back then a base pool of small samples created by the developer were conveyed via MIDI data and played through the system’s sound reproduction hardware, giving GameCube soundtracks a very specific sound. This musical approach is practically ancient compared to the production of a game soundtrack today as live recordings and gigabyte-sized sample libraries help flesh out huge, lush soundscapes. Going for something that was tiny and relatively naked in comparison was something I wasn’t sure the developers would be down for, so much so that even in the middle of the process we were wondering what this score would have sounded like with modern production sensibilities. I even mocked up a couple of the songs during the development. Thankfully, at least to me, this confirmed that our original choice was right.

But I did not want Sparklite to sound generically retro. As in, I didn’t want it to just blindly use old-sounding sounds. I wanted it to have its own unique sound and approach, and so did its creators. So the soundtrack features distinct instrumentation throughout, like a small band of fun instruments that work to convey every setting and scene. Sparklite features especially heavy usage of motifs and recurring themes for the same reason. Many of my favorite soundtracks of the era and previous eras overcame the technical limitations of soundtracks by sort of making it up on the music side. I’ve always wanted to try this and I sort of painted myself in a corner with this one to force me to.

So, the resulting soundtrack has no recordings, no sample libraries, no production in terms of mixing or mastering, and really no gloss or finish whatsoever. It’s really just MIDI data controlling tiny, era-appropriate samples, many of which I created by hand, just as they would have back in the GameCube era. This includes wind instruments, percussion, and even voice. And to kind of further shoot myself in the foot in terms of production and finish, many of these sounds I created used self-imposed bandwidth and size limitations to really nail the sound of the era. This basically means that Sparklite’s soundtrack is totally raw and dry, and none of the benefits of modern music production are used. It’s really just data.

All of this is the long explanation of why I’m still incredibly nervous about how the soundtrack will be received.

What is the most rewarding part about working to create the sound for Sparklite?

The most rewarding part of creating the Sparklite soundtrack is easily the trust Red Blue Games had in me. I wouldn’t necessarily call my direction for the soundscape a risk, but it’s definitely a departure. Sparklite is their work, their baby, and to let someone bring different ideas to the table and then to ultimately trust that they’ll work out is a big deal to me. It means a lot. It meant that I could go in to each piece with a trust in myself and my ability and have music that made both myself and the team happy. In that sense this was a dream soundtrack to work on. I feel very lucky to have this kind of rare opportunity.

Are there any plans to produce any physical vinyl or copies of the soundtrack?

I don’t know if I can speak for the developers and publishers but I definitely want a soundtrack to come out! I hope the music connects with players enough that they’ll want to listen to it. I’m happy to say that a psychical soundtrack will come in Sparklite’s Signature Edition release, at least. And we’re looking at other soundtrack release ideas beyond that.

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