Composer Sam Webster made his video game debut in late 2019; Grindstone drew praise for its punchy, eclectic score as well as its addictive gameplay, and remains high up on Apple Arcade’s Must-Play list.

Sam generously agreed to answer some questions about his work.

With exciting new projects soon to be released, Sam generously agreed to answer some questions about his work. Below, we discuss the process that led to his collaboration with Capybara Games, his musical background, and some of the unique challenges that come with scoring video games. We garner some insights into his creative process, and he hints tantalisingly at some potential future directions for his music. Firstly, congratulations on writing such a successful soundtrack for Grindstone! It can be difficult for a young composer to know where to look for that first big break. How did you end up working with Capybara Games?

Sam Webster: Thank you so much! I’m very privileged to have had a peripheral connection to Capy for many years. My cousin Dan Vader has been working there since 2007 in various roles. When I started making music as a teenager, Dan was one of the few people I felt comfortable sharing my songs with. Over the years the team at Capy became aware of me because apparently my tunes would make the rotations at Capy holiday parties. Fast forward like 12 years and Nathan Vella (then president of Capy) reaches out to ask if I’d be interested in making some test tracks for Grindstone. I’d never made music for anything more than a hobby, so this was a pretty amazing/scary moment. I spent two or three weeks just cranking out what I thought were cool “puzzly” and “grindy” beats and the team at Capy loved them, so here we are! A handful of those early test tracks like Loot Bag and Puzz actually made it into the game. There seems to be a rich blend of influences at play in your soundtrack for Grindstone. Were you drawing upon your own musical background or did you have to look beyond this to find the right sound?

Sam Webster: Definitely both. My sound is largely influenced by beat makers/producers like J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus, Knxwledge etc. We thought it would be cool for the beats in Grindstone to sound as if they were sampling ancient, otherworldly sources, grounding the music in the world while also being eclectic enough in style to help the player (and Jorj) stay motivated to keep grinding. When it came to finding references for that ancient/otherworldly sound, the choral and percussive elements of Basil Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian soundtrack was a big one. Throughout my song Big Chains you’ll hear the Conan-esque percussion and vocals blending in with the trap drums in a fun way. That mixture became my roadmap for much of the other music in the game.

Flying Lotus In terms of how the music is implemented into the game, there’s a subtlety here that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the arcade puzzler. For example, I mentioned in my review that music can still be faintly heard over the wind when the player leaves or approaches the inn. Did you have these touches in mind early on? To what extent do you feel that implementation is an integral part of composition in video game music?

Sam Webster: I think it depends on the game. When I play something like Tetris Effect, I can’t even fathom how that music was implemented, it must’ve been quite an undertaking that was deliberate early in development. While Grindstone doesn’t have complex musical implementation on that scale, there are some little tricks that make a big impact. I’ve got to shout-out Sean Lohrisch, the incredible sound-designer at Capy Games. I think Grindstone feels so nice to play in large part because his sound work is so thoughtful, and he’s always considering how his sounds and my music will blend together. For example, one of the neat things he did was put a short vocal grunt every time the player draws a chain long enough to create a grindstone (10,15,20 etc).

Grindstone – pagan synthwave

This effect adds little choral accents into whatever song is playing in a serendipitous way that always makes me smile. As you mentioned, having the music slightly audible outside of the Inn is a simple effect that really brings the map to life, like you’re actually interacting within the space. Sean also created a neat fade-in/fade-out system that takes into account the metadata of whatever level-song is playing to determine a smooth fade-out into either my percussive endgame music or the death/victory stings. It’s a little trick but it smooths transitions that would otherwise draw unwanted attention. My concerns were mostly occupied with making the level songs as fun as possible while being nicely loopable and unfatiguing. Creating the percussive high energy music that’s triggered once you’ve unlocked the gate helped with the possible level-song fatigue while communicating to the player that things are getting more risky and they should think about an exit strategy. The possibilities for where video game music can go are set to multiply as the tools for implementation become more powerful. Do you see more in-house positions springing up for composers as music implementation becomes more specialised?

Sam Webster: That would be cool! Any new tools that get developers thinking about music earlier on in the process I think is a good thing. Also maybe that would create more work opportunities for music-makers which is also a plus!

What is elegance, and why are video game composers obsessed with it? Do you get much play time in yourself? Have you been really impressed by a particular game’s soundtrack recently?

Sam Webster: I don’t play as much as I’d like to, but I’ve been catching up on some Apple Arcade titles and there’s some wicked soundtracks in there. A Monsters Expedition has a beautifully calming score by Eli Rainsberry (Wilmots Warehouse, Bird Alone) and Creaks has super cool music by Hidden Orchestra. I understand you’re currently working with Broxcorp on Skies of Chaos. The trailer is beautifully animated and makes me think of Studio Ghibli films like Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises. Can you talk a little about your approach to this project?

Sam Webster: Yes, that trailer is unreal. That was done by animator Olof Storm who really nails the Miyazaki feel. Working with Broxcop has been a blast. I don’t want to say too much but the game has a cool mixture of airy-poppy-punky-rocky tunes that lend themselves nicely to soaring through gorgeously pixelated battlefields. What is your ideal game to work on? Is there somewhere musically you haven’t gone yet, but want to try?

Sam Webster: I think making music for an open world action/adventure/puzzle game could be a pretty cool challenge. I haven’t yet had to make music that organically comes and goes with the movement of a character or time of day à la Breath of the Wild. More intricate implementations like that I think would be really fun. Any hints about whom you might be working with next, or is it too cheeky to ask…?

Sam Webster: Haha, not too cheeky! I’m currently finishing up some music for a charming little golf game called Faraway Fairway alongside designers Rokashi and Taylor Anderson. It will be coming out on the Playdate console at some point!

My creative process involves making A LOT of stuff, especially when I’m working on a game. I noticed you have posted short pieces titled ‘sketches’ on your YouTube channel, starting in January this year. Was this part of a new-year’s resolution?

Sam Webster: My creative process involves making A LOT of stuff, especially when I’m working on a game, so I inevitably end up with loads of songs/ideas that don’t make the cut for whatever reason and just collect dust on my hardrive. Uploading them to YouTube has been a fun, low-stakes way for me to release stuff into the world. Some of them have also become songs for games that they weren’t originally intended for which is cool. Finally, what would you be doing right now, if not music?

Sam Webster: I have a lot of different interests. I love nature and drawing, maybe I’d be out in a swamp somewhere studying endangered frogs or turtles!

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Pearch Charlie

I wanted to write symphonies, now I design music systems. As a composer, my interest lies where music meets narrative; video games take this meeting point to the next level.