Meet the Composers: Interview with nervous_testpilot

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Posted July 9, 2011 - By Rick Damigella

Frozen Synapse Logo

TheFeed would like to introduce you to nervous_testpilot, an up-and-coming player in the indie game scene. Not only is he the composer of the music for the newly released Frozen Synapse, but he’s also co-owner of its developer, Mode 7 Games. On top of that, this game audio pro has an established background in the electronic music scene and a newly launched chiptune alter-ego. Come inside and meet nervous_testpilot and hear some sounds from Frozen Synapse!

The Feed For our readers unfamiliar with your work, please tell us a bit about yourself, your music background and the projects you have created music for.

nervous_testpilot I’ve been writing electronic music for about ten years now, which seems a startlingly long time. The first time anyone really heard any of it was in the early 2000’s when I did an album of Plaid-influenced noodly electronica as nervous_testpilot; from there I started playing live around Oxford and London.

After that, I hit a point where I realized it basically doesn’t matter what you do in a live setting, as long as it gets a reaction.  So, I started doing stuff like strapping keyboards to myself and triggering drum ‘n bass loops over Del Shannon’s "Runaway" while jumping up and down.  That was fun but it wasn’t a long-term career path!

Around that time, I started to produce dance music in a more concentrated manner and that led on to working with my friend Ian Hardingham who started the indie game studio Mode 7.  I’ve since written two game soundtracks: Determinance and Frozen Synapse. I like experimenting, so in my career I’ve done everything from ambient to 175bpm hard dance.

The Feed So we understand you created your first game soundtrack project for Mode 7 Games and now you are the co-owner of the studio?

nervous_testpilot That’s right - I initially worked on just the sound and music for Determinance (a sword-fighting game) and then I decided to go into business with Ian and take Mode 7 forward into a bold and bright future!

Being the owner of the studio means that I don’t have any constraints on what I can do musically.  I find that dance music has a lot of rules, trends and stylistic restrictions that people want you to adhere to; when I’m writing something that’s entirely originated by me I don’t have to put up with any of that. I did the art direction and wrote the script for Frozen Synapse as well, so it means I really have a lot of control over the entire aesthetic of the projects we do.

The Feed Let’s talk about your music for Frozen Synapse. This is a rather unique looking game. What were the inspirations for its music?

nervous_testpilot Frozen Synapse is a tactical game which has an abstract neon-like aesthetic - it’s intended to look like a futuristic tactical display. I wanted to write music that was evocative and had a strong melodic component, as well as bringing about the necessary tension that a soundtrack should have, especially in a strategy game.  I find a lot of soundtracks quite emotionally monophonic and I wanted this one to be more complex.

So I took loads of different influences: composers like Jesper Kyd and Amon Tobin; Vangelis; 90’s electronica like Boards of Canada; modern breaks-based music like Noisia...

I’m also quite fascinated by some of the soundtrack work in cinema like Ghost in the Shell, where there’s this very freeform approach to using electronic production alongside more traditional soundtrack behaviour. I like the combination of lo-fi and hi-fi; so there’s really expensive sample libraries mixed with badly-recorded screeching Game Boy sounds I sampled.

Frozen Synapse Soundtrack: "Deeper" »

The Feed Were there any challenges in creating the music for Frozen Synapse?

nervous_testpilot I really had to up my game in terms of production values to do this, so I spent a long time working on dance music trying to improve my engineering.  I’d say I still have a way to go, but things are now at a level where people immediately will react and say, “The production quality on this is great,” so that’s where I wanted to be.

Also, balancing out the melodic content with the more abstract sound design-type stuff is something I always find quite challenging. Finally, containing my general pervasive awesomeness is always difficult.

The Feed
How much music did you craft for Frozen Synapse?

nervous_testpilot There are 11 tracks - I’m not sure what the total duration is!  Quite long!

The Feed Talk about the soundtrack album. The fact that you put it out is awesome. Did you have to do any special arranging or make changes to the in-game tracks to build the album?

nervous_testpilot I actually didn’t have to make changes.  We were originally planning to do dynamic music but I tried out various systems and I wasn’t happy, so then we switched back to linear music. I’d also just got really into StarCraft II, which has amazing music that is all linear, and I decided that was the route I wanted to take...and that made the soundtrack album quite easy.

Getting the album together, I found the tracks fell into a natural order, so compiling it wasn’t much of a challenge! I think the tracks work really well on their own - I always wanted them to stand up outside the game.  I’m really a thematic - rather than an atmospheric - composer: I need to have a tune in there that I can whistle.

The Feed What attracted you to becoming an electronic musician?

nervous_testpilot A lot of electronic music is boring and rubbish, I just couldn’t understand why people weren’t doing it the way I wanted it to be done, so I thought I’d better do it myself! When I was a kid, I really loved things with lots of buttons and flashing lights that made bleeping sounds...not much has changed.

I think it was my friends initially who encouraged me - I had a lot of friends who were doing creative things and I wanted to join in with that; I wanted to contribute to the cool stuff I saw going on. 

The Feed What kind of equipment and software do you use?

nervous_testpilot I actually don’t use any equipment: the music emerges fully-formed from a special orifice in my neck I refer to as “The Mysterious Sound Hole”.

That’s not true.

Software-wise, I’m a giant Ableton Live fanboy.  I actually truly believe that other sequencers are worse, and Live is the best thing on the planet, so ludicrously entrenched am I in my views.

I have Mackie HR-824 monitors which are the best bit of equipment I own.  All other monitors are defeated by them.

If I’m going to single out one piece of software I love, it’s Plogue Chipsounds.  That’s an amazing piece of work - they’ve sampled every possible setting on tons of original sound chips from things like Game Boys and the original NES.  If you’re an electronic musician and you don’t own that, you are a giant failure as a person.

The Feed For those who want to delve deeper into your catalog, what else is available from nervous_testpilot?

Frozen Synapse Soundtrack: "Focus" »

nervous_testpilot The best intro you can get is to buy the Frozen Synapse Premium Edition from www.frozensynapse.com (massive plug) that contains a copy of my first album “Module YOU.DLL Caused a General Protection Fault in Application MY_HEART.EXE”...yes it’s really called that.  That’ll give you a good grounding.

Other than that, there’s quite a few nervous_testpilot dance tracks on Beatport; check out Five Years in Singapore.

Finally, I have a chiptune side project called _ensnare_.

The Feed Let’s talk chiptunes then and about _ensare_. As an already established DJ and electronic musician, what attracted you to getting involved in chiptunes?


nervous_testpilot I’ve always loved video game music and as soon as I discovered that people were making new tracks that sounded like classic game scores, I was hooked. The scene is one of the most amazing I’ve come across as well - there are so many brilliant artists and people involved with it.

In around 2007, I was part of the micromusic.net community, and I got invited by an Atari musician called dubmood to do couple of gigs with him in Oslo and Marseilles - probably two of the most fun musical experiences I’ve had. Personally, I just wanted to do something that wasn’t about glossy production values, and was all about great tunes and simple sounds.

The Feed What are your goals with your _ensnare_ or where would you like to see its music go?

nervous_testpilot At the moment, I’d just like to have time to write some more!  I had a great response to the first album, No Carrier Rush, and I want to do as many tracks as possible.  It’s a proper side project - basically a hobby - so I have to fit it in when I have time. I’d love to do a game soundtrack as _ensnare_: that’s something I think would be cool and may happen at some point.

The Feed Have you performed live as _ensnare_ yet? If so, how does a chiptune performance differ from your more mainstream electronic performances?

nervous_testpilot Haven’t done an _ensnare_ gig yet!  I’d love to play at Blip Festival or one of the bigger chiptune events, so that’s definitely an ambition.

I cheat when I make chiptune-type material - people in the scene would call it “fakebit” - as it doesn’t predominantly use the original hardware.  I emulate that hardware on the PC (mostly using Plogue Chipsounds, which I mentioned earlier and a few other things). So, live I can perform with Ableton on a laptop  in the same way I would normally do.

The Feed Are there other chiptune artists you count yourself a fan of?

nervous_testpilot Definitely!  I think the first chiptune artist I came across was the legendary gwEm, who I’m now proud to count among my musical friends.  Anyone who can DJ with two Ataris has god-like status in my mind.

Bit Shifter is a technically and melodically brilliant musician who does an enormous amount for the scene and is also a fantastic bloke. Two guys I met in Marseilles, Jellica and Josstintimberlake...some of their respective output is completely off-the-charts mental and the kind of thing you’d only find in the chiptune scene.  GOTO80 similarly...some of his music is kind of terrifyingly amazing.

Finally, the “newer wave” of chiptune artists like Sabrepulse have a lot to offer.  I also like artists like Dels and Slimes who integrate chip-type sounds into a more hi-fi general production.

The Feed Can you tell us what you are working on next?

nervous_testpilot I’ve just signed a deal with a brilliant publisher called License to Thrill Music who work with a lot of top composers, so hopefully that will lead to the Frozen Synapse soundtrack being used in other media.  I really want to get the biggest possible reach for my music so I’m looking into ways of doing that.

Musically, I’m about to finish the first additional track for Frozen Synapse - you’ll be able to buy more music for the game as part of its downloadable content so I’m excited about that.
The Feed What would be your dream soundtrack project? It can be any genre from Film, to TV or Games, or even all three!

nervous_testpilot Probably would have been Tron: Legacy but that’s already happened and Daft Punk did quite a good job!

My absolute dream project would be a big budget production where I get to work with live musicians, singers, sound designers and a wider team on something like a sci-fi action / stealth score similar to Frozen Synapse.  I’d like to take what I’ve learned doing this and apply it to something incredible like a Ghost in the Shell / Blade Runner-type movie or game.

The Feed And we have to ask, where did the name nervous_testpilot originate from?

nervous_testpilot The idea of a test pilot being nervous just amused me. I thought the underscore was cool when I was 16, and it's an ironic underscore because there should be a space in "test pilot"...but there isn't!  Surprise! Punctuation larks! Anyway, I like to think I beat Deadmau5 to the punch when it comes to daftly-formatted producer names...

Be sure to check out nervous_testpilot’s various projects, including Frozen Synapse and _ensnare_ and follow him on Twitter. Know someone amazing and up and coming like nervous_testpilot and think we should feature them on The Feed? Tell me here!

Meet the Composers: Interview with nervous_testpilot


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