Interview: Jesper Kyd on making his Warhammer 40,000: Darktide score

With a hugely respected body of work under his belt, video game maestro Jesper Kyd’s pulse-pounding new score for Warhammer 40,000: Darktide finds the composer harnessing the unpredictable magic of analogue synths from the 1970s…

As the architect of some of the very finest scores to grace the last twenty years of video games, the name Jesper Kyd is synonymous with both quality and individualism. His work has been acclaimed by both gamers and those who just like to wallow in solidly written, dense soundtracks. With the Danish-born’s frenetic, epic soundtrack for the upcoming Warhammer 40,000: Darktide building anticipation for the first-person shooter’s release, we caught up with Jesper to delve into his idiosyncratic scoring approach, and drill into the conflicting disciplines of writing for both interactive entertainment and films.

AMI: Hi Jesper, first off, let’s talk about your work on Warhammer: Darktide, it’s a really awesome soundtrack, and a dazzling fusion of genres and sonics. What was your starting point?

Jesper Kyd: The starting point was the lore of Warhammer, the more I dug into the world the more awesome I found the lore is. I can’t think of a franchise out there that has better lore than Warhammer. It’s just unbelievable. They’re been going at it since the 80s and keep adding more to it. One of the first things I was told by the developer was that they were looking for music that gave you a sense of ‘machines that were alive’. I wanted to deconstruct that idea.

So, the game takes place 40,000 years in the future, on a planet called Atoma Prime. There’s a city called Tertium, which you go into to eradicate the bad guys (called Chaos). This city was built thousands of years ago, but the inhabitants there have forgotten how its machines work, they only really know how to maintain them. So they look at this machinery as something almost sacred.

That gave me a good way in; what I found worked well to illustrate that was using vintage synthesisers. They don’t sound fresh out of the box, and they all sounded aged. Each synthesiser is pretty unique once it has aged a significant amount. All the components inside have got slower. So I started creating electronic music with these vintage synths, making stuff that sounded a bit anarchic.

Not only did some of these sequences that I created sound more organic and alive, but they also sounded like they were barely keeping up. That added a funk to it. I was using these old drum machines and analogue sequencers as well, to create this kind of swing, it added to the feel that the instruments were being performed as opposed to being perfectly sequenced in a DAW. That’s an important part of it.

AMI:The main theme in particular, kind of sounds like a smashing together of fantasy and sci-fi, with shades of both Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. How long did that theme take you and how long was the whole process?

The whole thing took a few years (on and off), but the main theme was the first thing I created. It has a really intense bass-line running through it. In the game, you start at the bottom, you are what the developers called a ‘reject’, so this idea that you work yourself up from the bottom led me to incorporate a lot of folk music instruments and acoustic performances to celebrate where you came from, to remind you of who your character is, no matter how high you rise in there ranks.

Also you get hired by the ‘Imperium’, and that’s when things get epic. We had a big live choir which we recorded in Budapest with the Budapest Scoring Choir – it helps give the sense that now you’re a badass for the Imperium.

That first track took a while to create, because I wanted to build it using analogue sequencing, I wanted to build the score around the idea that the electronics sounded as organic as possible. The analogue sequencers I used were the Roland 104 and an old ARP Sequencer. They’re really interesting instruments that definitely sound like they have life in them.

AMI: There’s so much incredible synth-texture on this soundtrack, pieces like Immortal Imperium have a real savage, industrial grind to them. What were some of the key vintage synths you used to build up this aural universe?

Key synths I’d say were the Yamaha CS-80, that was a big part of the sound, also the Prophet 10 from the 1970s – that’s probably my favourite keyboard of all time.The Roland SH-5 and SH-1000 are a big part of it, too. The latter has such a cool sound, the filter on there is unbelievable. I think it was Roland’s best ever filter.

The Korg Monopoly is pretty great, my Octave Cat is an original, from the 1970s – that’s one of the most out-of-control instruments ever. I also like to use Waldorf stuff. But I tend to always lean on my big Eurorack system, which is featured heavily in the score.

AMI: What is it about that older gear that made you want to use it for this game? Do you think those analogue sounds outshine more modern synths?

 I do use modern synths as well, but when you play these new instruments that are trying to emulate older instruments there is a difference that you have to appreciate. If you were to do a quick comparison between them, things sound pretty close. But when you do things the ‘wrong’ way on a vintage synth, real magic can happen. When you do the same on a modern keyboard, it doesn’t have the same effect. They emulate how you’re ‘supposed’ to use it. Those experiments into the weird just don’t go as deep on a new synth.

AMI: That sounds exciting and explorative, but there must be a lot of challenges to using this older gear…

 I think the biggest challenge is the fact that they are old. The CS-80 came out in the beginning of the 70s, so that’s got some years on it. They don’t always have MIDI, so you’re trying to really capture a performance. Other times, I build in like a CV Gate, then suddenly you’re able to sync things up with Cubase and with your modular, then everything runs in tempo, which is a huge help.

AMI: It seems like the role of a video game soundtrack composer is changing constantly. What have been the biggest shifts you’ve experienced over the last decade?

 I think that the emphasis on music in games is growing. Developers are aware of how important music is. I feel like in film and TV, you don’t need to tell people that music is important, because without it a certain genre of film won’t work. But, for video games, people are really catching on to that now.

I get that totally because the gameplay needs to be fun first and foremost. The music adds a huge amount of depth, but I think people are catching on to the fact that people will want to keep playing the game more if it has a good score.

AMI: What are the major differences between writing for games and say your work on films – which do you prefer?

 Jesper: I don’t think I can live without doing both, if we start with video games, the amount of creative freedom that you can achieve is astounding. For the games I work on, I get asked to do my thing and I get really creative on those projects. I think that’s what I’m known for as well. In film, it’s very important that you can transition between cues very fast. You might have ten seconds of ‘walking’ ten seconds of ‘danger’, and then two seconds of ‘elevation’. It’s about always enhancing what’s on the screen.