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Composing Borderlands 3 with Raison Varner – Borderlands 3 Interview

Borderlands 3 Music Interview with Raison
Borderlands 3 Music Interview with Raison

What’s your exact role on Borderlands3?

I’ve been a sound designer and composer with Gearbox since 2009. For BL3, I was the internal creature coordinator/sound designer along with Josh Davidson, I am still writing and voicing the Psycho bandit (he has a sister now btw, which is going to be amazing material to play with), I had the opportunity to score a large area of the game and I also have been directing music on the series since Borderlands 1. 

Every hero has an origin story, how did you got started in the industry?

I knew at an early age that I had a music career ahead of me. Nobuo Uematsu is my childhood hero of a composer. I’ve always loved games, RPG/Strategy nerd mostly, and I found games to be so much more interesting to score than films. You get to hit so much more range and different styles of music in games and I find my sense of humor is well placed in games. I love the people in games and I always wanted to be an internal dev. The contractor lifestyle just didn’t appeal to me because I wanted to be in with the team-building things for years at a time.

What defines Borderlands sound/vibe? For me personally, it’s that Firestone soundtrack from the original game.

Our general formula is something like: “Hybrid score/song writing approaches combined with heavy synth work and ethnic instrumentation.” In terms of executing on that, we have a finer set of guidelines, but they are all flexible. They’re just a tool to help everyone conceive of what a BL space is so that they can more purposefully branch out from it when they need to. What I really want from our composers is to hear their voice within that BL space. How would they describe that concept themselves? Sometimes that’s actually the hardest part for new composers on the series to acclimate to, we have a solid idea of what makes a BL track a BL track, but we don’t actually have any desire to sound like a previous Borderlands. My goal is to have our music space be unique in a way that speaks to the attitude of the series while presenting the authentic voice of each composer.

With Borderlands 3 we are going to other planets.  Each having their own unique look and vibe. How do you compose music for that?

We usually cue off the environment as the primary influence. Then I will take elements of the story or impressions of how an area should feel and we work to build emotion in that direction. For each act, I had a distinct music feel in mind and I think Borderlands is served best when we have a variety of styles to present. So each planet is owned by a different composer and we also break certain style guide rules in purposeful ways for each. But there are of course always familiar Borderlands elements running throughout.

For example, on Promethea, Michael McCann will present one of the strongest film vibes in the series to date. But Eden-6 will feel familiar to fans of BL2 in many areas. There’s a lot of nostalgia built into Jesper‘s work on Eden-6 and it has huge range as you progress through the act. Finishing Move (Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White) give a new take on the Pandoran desert and the bandit presence there, they also wrote a lot of really killer boss tracks.

I can’t praise our composer team enough. I am so proud of what we have made.

Eden-6 Cabin in the Woods - Borderlands 3

Eden-6 Cabin in the Woods – Borderlands 3

Everything in Borderlands 3 seems to be a step up from previous games. How do you take music to the next level? 

Our music system pretty much skipped a generation between BL2 and BL3. Scoring most levels required 4 – 8 weeks of fulltime scoring from each composer. The only looping music in the game happens during safe zones and boss battles. Most of the music in the game is systemic and involves 7 stereo layers that change based on a concept of interest and the intensity of the music increases based on a concept of threat. Each layer also contains a number of randomized options to pick from so you’re rarely ever hearing the same set of clips within a small segment of music playing. They are all recombining on the fly as you play. We can change the way music rises in an arrangement by pulsing interest values (like say moments when you find amazing loot), and we have a mechanic of threat like all our past games that drive the concept of intensity, rising into our familiarly intense combat music.   But even with all of that systemization, our music never lost its soul.

In previous Borderlands games, the music had 2 states. A calm background ambient and an uplifting combat rhythm. Is that setup returning and what can we expect in that regard, also how challenging is it to compose for that?

The challenge was intense. The composers also don’t have the advantage of being inside the studio and working every day with the game tools I have access to. So the more complex the system gets, the more the composers have to mentally model and imagine while they write. 7 layers of recombining material is not a lightweight technical challenge. Both with mix considerations and just writing compatible parts. 

One of the saving graces, a process I would still like to further improve, is that composers had access to steam builds. So I would work to minimize any bottlenecks my implementation might present so that they could usually hear the music working in-game within a day or two of delivering the material. That was the best method we had on this project to get them a faster feedback loop. But I really want to do more in the future to put more tools directly in our composer’s hands.  

In the Borderlands universe, specific characters are linked to specific aspects of the game. Do you also take that in account while composing for the game? Will we have a recurring Boss theme every time we encounter the Calypso twins, like Darth Vader, has its own theme?

This is something we try to do every project and the vagaries of development and quirks of how we deliver narrative tends to cause character themes to feel like shoehorns. However, that said, there are some musical allusions in cutscenes people should pay attention to this time around. 

I heard that there are weapons that verbally abuse your enemies but can we expect a gun with its own theme song? It’s kinda like you are activating your super-hero mode.

Musicality of the environment is a strong theme in our department these days. You can bet your ass there is.

You are not the only composer on the project. Who co-produced with you and how did you divide the tasks?

Since each composer had a planet, there was a natural kind of progression to their work as they became more and more fluent within the system. As we explored certain themes we would then choose new focuses in each level based on the tone of the narrative and the purpose of the environments and what tone the player would be exiting from. If we had any wacky ideas, we pretty much pursued them all. At the very end of the project, I wrote my pieces. So each composer has their own area of the game that they really made their own. I just tried to assist everyone in getting to a place where they felt solid in that process.

Who wants to BANG a Bazzillionaire - Borderlands 3

Who wants to BANG a Bazzillionaire – Borderlands 3

Personally, I enjoy dance/trance music. Therefore I enjoyed the Mouthpiece boss fight as it has a ‘wub wub’ track. Will we hear more of those house tracks?

This is probably both one of the prettiest sounding soundtracks in BL history and the most EDM heavy soundtrack we’ve done to date. But it all feels so great together. There’s something about BL that often times, listening to pieces outside of the game we all were like nervously hopeful, but mostly skeptical it would work. Then we pop it in the game, I get it all wired up, and we’re like “huh, it’s perfect actually.” The BL universe tends to pay dividends when you take risks.

Our boss music is pretty intense. Some of the most intense in the series.  

You did the voice of Loaderbot. What did you think about the speculation that FL4K is Loaderbot?

>FLUK is not a recognized protocol.  

Will Loaderbot make an appearance in Borderlands 3?

>Memory bank contamination. Imminent.

While on the subject of voice acting. Did you get to reprise your role as the psycho Bandit? When asking players who their favorite Borderlands character is, they always mention one of the main vault hunters or a key NPC, but we all know who the real iconic character is in the franchise as you are featured on the box art.

The psycho’s melodiousness will find its new uncharted lands within everyone’s hearts, though they know not to make of what his visage brings, joy follows and shall follow. 

Who’s your favorite playable vault hunter in borderlands 3 and why?

I can’t get enough of playing as Amara. But I can’t lie, my true love is still Brick. 

If you could have one Borderlands action skill in real-life which one would it be?

Mech suit or shiva pounders… MMMM… I pick both?

Where can people find you and your work?

I try to keep my SoundCloud as up to date as I can. I actually have close to 2 years of work, maybe more, that nobody has heard yet. Excited for this year!

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I'm a Content Creator by day and a BattleBread Baker at night. I'll provide you with your recommended slice of entertainment! I'm a Gearbox Community Badass and a proud member of the official Borderlands & Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Creator Team (2K Games / NextMakers).

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