Banjos and chiptunes: How I scored the solo dev game "FixFox"

Every team was trying to impress each other with their game. Then Jaroslav’s turn came - he was on his own, humble and quiet. The video projector showed the game he had made during the game jam. “It’s nothing special”, he said. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us were looking at each other, asking ourselves “How the fuck did he make that on his own in just two days?”

This was at the end of a game jam in Prague, Czech Republic. I had been living there for a few years, soaking in cold winters, Czech beer, a bit of Czech language, and of course the exploding game dev scene.

Me (left) and Jaroslav (right) during a game jam. On my right is one of my jam teammates Jan, maker of Beat Saber.

I had met Jaroslav in a previous game jam. He was the friend of two artists I had teamed up with, BuBu and Yuffie (the two girls behind me in the picture), and he would come regularly to check on us. More than a year later, he would offer me to score FixFox, a game he had been making on his own for years.

Coincidentally, it was during that game jam - the one in which I met him - that I started to develop the music style that I would later use on FixFox: Hybrid 8-bit.

The hybrid sound of FixFox

FixFox is a wholesome Sci-Fi adventure game with charming Pixel Art visuals and a Hybrid 8-bit soundtrack. Hybrid 8-bit means combining 8-bit/chiptune sounds with non-retro sounds, and it works great with modern Pixel Art games.

Most of the soundtrack has 8-bit sounds here and there, but this approach is most obvious in the title screen. There the music switches between acoustic, 8-bit, and Hybrid 8-bit depending on the submenu you're in. 

Check it out: 

First impressions matter, and I wanted to show what this game offers musically from the first moment. And most importantly, I wanted to show with music that this game - and Jaroslav - care about the little details.

However, getting the music tone right was a delicate balancing act, and both the game and soundtrack are much more than just cozy vibes. 

What does a cozy space odyssey sound like? 

When Jaroslav approached me to score the game, he already had in mind an approximate idea of how he wanted to game soundtrack to be, including various reference tracks. This is good practice because describing music with words can be hard, so showing an approximate of what you’re thinking about puts everyone on the same page and prevents misunderstandings.

Use reference tracks. Be like Jaroslav. 

(it’s also ok if you approach a composer and you have no clue of what you want, but what’s important is that if you do have an idea in mind you should communicate it)

Initially, Jaroslav wanted the soundtrack to have parts of cozy Country and parts of mysterious synths. In his words: “The music in SPACR [provisional game name] should oscillate between two music genres: Country music (relaxed, bringing a sense of travel and exploration) and ambient synths (cinematic, ambient, bringing a sense of mystery and space)”. 

I liked the idea. Synths clearly fit well in a Sci-Fi story. And interestingly, Country in Sci-Fi games is a quite original, yet proven formula.

But finding the right tone for the soundtrack wouldn't be that simple. FixFox's story is deeper than it seems at first sight and its world is full of contrasts (and comfort meals). Getting the right flavor for its music meant coming up with a complex recipe, one that involved banjos, chiptunes, FMOD, and more than a dozen musical genres.

Setting the tone with "Vix"

The idea was to first make "Vix", the main theme and title screen music (what you've heard above). Jaroslav shared this reference with me - this is approximately of how he wanted it to sound:

This would be the first track I wrote for the game and nailing it was crucial because I knew it would define our approach to the rest of the tracks. Ultimately, the way this track turned out would define a big part of the emotional flavor of the game. High stakes here.

While keeping in mind Jaroslav's preference for the Country sound and the reference he shared, I wanted to experiment with something a bit closer to the vibes of Undertale's "Undertale" track - introspective, transcendental, hopeful. That, but combined with a touch of Country and a tiny bit more adventurous.

I remember perfectly the moment I came up with the track. November 2020, a cold evening in a warm cozy flat in Prague. After a dinner filled with personal conversations, my partner and my two other flatmates were still chatting in the living room. I was next door, sitting on my bed with an acoustic guitar in my hands. These kinds of moments - the human connection while sharing a meal, the coziness - were a core part of FixFox. Perhaps that's why my subconscious started bombarding me with ideas, and I rushed to try them out.

What came out felt is more lively and less introspective than the Undertale track, but I think it still has a hint of its vibe. The first half of the idea came up immediately. It was one of those delightful "Eureka" moments as a composer - clearly, my subconscious had been "working" on it previously (good boy). I immediately recorded it with my phone. 

This is the first raw phone recording, sitting on my bed, with flatmates in the next room. You can hear the main melody at 0:32. After that, you can hear me babbling to myself in Catalan :

I knew I had hit gold when the next day I heard my flatmates absentmindedly whistling that melody. This would become Vix’s motif, which I would pepper in most of the other tracks - after all, we experience the adventure through her eyes, and having a common motif gives needed cohesion to a soundtrack that’s very varied in musical genres.

Days later I changed the ending of the melody, inspired by this video by youtuber "8-bit Theory" analyzing how Austin Wintory writes musical themes.

It was time to send Jaroslav a demo of this idea. While recording it, I tried throwing in some 8-bit spices. Why? Because it's a Pixel Art game, and retro elements in the music (ie chiptune sounds) make it fit better with the retro visual aesthetic.

This wasn't in our initial plans though, so I sent Jaroslav a version with the 8-bit synths and a version without them, asking which one he liked better. 

This is the demo without 8-bit elements (this is just a low-quality demo):

And this is the demo with 8-bit elements (at the intro and at 0:35):

This is what he wrote to me in response:

"I'm very impressed, great job! :D

The general vibe is very much in line with my vision of the game. I love that the central melody is nicely clear! 

Thanks for making different variations of the track to see what works best. I'm glad you took the liberty of experimenting with the 8-bit sounds. It sounds great to me and you've managed to make it work together very nicely with the instruments!

Even though the game is in pixel art, I'm using realistic sfx recordings (not 8-bit ones). So originally, I was hesitant about using chiptunes since I was not sure if it would mix well realistic sfx. But hearing your banjo with chiptune undertones, the combination works perfectly for me. It makes especially sense to me since you have a lot of experience with chiptunes. 

So let's stick with 8-bit sounds! :)"

We had it! A track with the right mood, a catchy leitmotif that we could reuse in other tracks, and a flavorful Hybrid 8-bit sound. Finding the right attitude is half of what makes a good soundtrack, so this was a big step. This track became the beacon that would help us find the way for the rest of the soundtrack.

This is the finished track, fully composed, with properly recorded banjo, guitars, and violin played by the awesome Jáchym Šimon.

Learning how to play the banjo to score FixFox.
The awesome Jáchym Šimon in action.

A big part of the soundtrack is experienced while riding your speeder bike through the four open-world regions in the game, each one with its own personality. My idea was to give each one a distinct musical vibe, while reusing the main theme's leitmotif (aka Vix's motif) in all of them to have a unifying element between them.

For the Salty Desert, I would make a Western film type of track; for the Sour Woods, a mixture of Celtic music and other folkloric styles; for the Sweet Fields, light-hearted Country; for the Bitter Mountains, depressive snowy music. All of this peppered with 8-bit sounds to make them fit well with the Pixel Art visuals.

Now take your helmet and jump on my speeder. We're riding to the Salty Desert!

Western vibes in the Salty Desert

The Salty Desert is the first region in the game. In open-world areas, you hear music only while you're riding the speeder. And since this is a desert, I thought that cowboy-ish-sounding music would make it feel as if you were riding a horse in a western movie, in a lighthearted and almost comedic way. 

This association helped reinforce the idea that it was a desert, which the top-down pixel art looks don't give away at first sight. Also, I just love Western-sounding music and recording the whistling and electric guitar was a blast. 

Here's a sneak peek at the recording of this track and me talking to myself: 

Like the other open-world tracks, Salty Desert reuses Vix’s theme to give cohesion to the soundtrack. In this case, the chorus is very similar in terms of melody and harmony, but with different instruments, tempo, and time signature. 

This is the initial demo that I sent to Jaroslav:

And this is Jaroslav’s reaction (here we started to use Trello). 

"Great! I can just feel the wind blowing through the open dusty plains :) Nice selection of instruments and the combination of classic instruments and chiptunes works for me."

Some months later, the demo evolved into this final version:

When nighttime comes while exploring any of the world regions, the music changes to a toned-down version of the original track I played on clean electric guitar. In the Salty Desert, the night version preserves the whistling of the day version, with quite some delays and reverb in there to give it a dreamy feel:

For the second open-world region, I decided to complicate my life a bit.

A bizarre blend of World music in the Sour Woods

The Sour Woods is a wild and lively region. This track is probably the most complex one in terms of harmony, and it has a weird blend of folk music from different cultures around the world (our world).

The initial idea was to make it a Celtic track (because Celtic equals forest, right?) but then I decided to blend in other folk music to give it more energy (and because I like unexpected blends of genres).

The result is a delicious mess of instruments from all over the world: Celtic/European (violin, mandolin, guitar, flutes, pipes (!)), Latin (all kinds of Latin percussion), and African (a “thumb-harp” or kalimba). And of course, a touch of 8-bit. The chorus of this track has a variation of Vix's theme in minor to give it a Celtic feel.

While making these tracks I live streamed some parts of the process on Twitch. During this stream below I took a rough draft of this track and turned it into a hopefully decent demo: 

This is the result of the live streaming session, a demo of "Sour Woods": 

This is Jaroslav's feedback after sending it to him:

“I've liked it during the stream, but wanted to test the track in the game.

It matches the sense of wild nature perfectly for me. I like that it sounds like some ancient dance in a magical forest. 

I have no change requests, let's go with the current version”

Sometime later, I re-recorded the guitars, recorded the violin (Jáchym FTW), and added the rest of the instruments, which are either virtual instruments or pre-recorded loops - I don’t usually use pre-made loops on my tracks, but for the Latin percussion it gave the best results.

I also learned to play the mandolin to record the final version of this song, which turned out to be a nightmare: 

And this is the polished version, all mixed together - quite a challenge in this case! But I love the blend of cultures in this track, and Jáchym's violin really shines here:

Jaroslav's feedback:

“My mind is absolutely blown! I thought the demos are almost done, but this takes it to a whole new level!

I love that it feels much richer overall, the instruments more rounded, and the violin is just dreamy.

Keep calm and carry on producing the OST of the decade!”

The acoustic guitars from the intro are a direct inspiration from Rodrigo and Gabriela, an acoustic duo that's always been a big inspiration for my approach to acoustic guitar:

At the same time, the violins and flutes that play Vix's motif are heavily inspired by Celtic and Folk Metal bands (mostly Mago de Oz, the Metal band that got me into music as a teenager):

As in Salty Desert, there's a night version of the Sour Woods, with electric guitar and including some of the flutes of the day version: 

Let's move on to the easy-going Sweet Fields!

Country music in the Sweet Fields

Sweet Fields is a light-hearted region, full of fields, farms, and friendly robots. This is a proper Country track, with only a touch of 8-bit. As in both previous tracks, the chorus has a variation of Vix's motif, this time modified to sound rather Country/Blues. 

I didn't make the first demo of this track during a live stream, but I did analyze and explain it:

This is the demo I showed in the live string, the first demo of "Sweet Fields":  

However, Jaroslav wasn't completely convinced with the results (this was the only time this happened, which says a lot about how smoothly everything went).

“Finally I've had some time to listen properly and see what it feels like in the game.

At first, I thought sounded a little too intense, but then I realized that sweet fields are supposed to be the busiest region in the game, so you actually nailed it and it the tempo feels great when riding among the fields, engine puttering in sync with the main beat.

The only thing I'm not sure of is the echoed hihat instrument, e.g. at 0:07 or 0:15. It feels to me like there is an action going on (like a chase). At the same time, the instrument makes sense in the drum solo 0:27. So maybe I'd try tuning the hihat (or its echo) a bit down outside the solo, or finding another less prominent instrument.

Just a wild idea - it might be interesting to see if washboard could work in this setting. I mean this instrument: 
Cincinnati washboard 'Big Farmer RUSTED'. There's a fun example here, a classic czech oldie song: Ivan Mladek - Jozin z Bazin

I don't feel very strongly about this, just checking if there's a chance to tune down the action-vibe a bit. Let me know what you think. Thanks!”

As soon as I read it, I picked up my guitar and poured out a new version. I realized I had been carried away with the upbeat Country feel. So I tuned down the excitement and immediately recorded a new demo. Without percussion yet - just a raw demo.

The next day, I sent him this message and a new demo: 

“Noted! Thanks for describing what you like and what you don't.

So instead of polishing a track that you're not convinced about, I've decided to give it a try to a different idea. Check it out, I've just attached it here. This one is more relaxed and I believe fits better what you're looking for. Let me know what you think about it!

Oh and I actually knew the Jozin z Bazin song :D

Adding the washboard is a good idea (also for the new version). I can't promise anything yet but I'll try to include one (either get one and record it or using samples).”

His response: 

“Man, how do you do it? This is absolutely SPOT ON! 

I like that the base is a simple country tune, but the violin part adds some perspective and spaciness, while the chiptune bass at the end keeps it nicely grounded. Feels pretty sweet!

Great job!

As for the original demo, I love it too, would be great for some action or upbeat sequences, just have no specific plans on where to use it.”

The final version ended up having acoustic drums and shakers instead of washboard, but we both liked the sound. Recording it was a blast!

Here’s how it sounds in the game. Once again, with Jáchym violin magic: 

When it gets dark, the day music morphs into this calm night version:

It's getting cold. We're arriving at the last region, which also happens to be the most inhospitable one.

Snowy piano in the Bitter Mountains

In contrast with the other regions, the Bitter Regions are inhospitable, unsettling, and almost depressive. So this and its night version would be emotionally further from the main theme “Vix”.  

I composed this track during a snowy day in Prague, in the huge Stromovka park. It was the perfect setting to make a track for the snow region. The park was empty, and I enjoyed a long session of musical daydreaming, my favorite sport. I came back home with cold feet and a new song in my head. 

My Prague office in winter

This early demo is the result: 

It's a snow region, so I added jingle bells because... yeah, Christmas, I guess. But hey, I think it works. The metallic sound combined with the high-pitch piano arpeggios gives me a feeling of coldness. 

Here’s Jaroslav’s feedback:

“The jingles instantly paint the mental image of a snowy landscape for me, the echoes of the main melody evoke vastness, the piano brings on the right amount of solitude. 

I have no change requests right now, great job!”

Have I said already how good he is at describing music? 

You can hear part of Vix's motif at 0:49. This region feels more alienating, so instead of adding the full motif, I only added a hint of it. Like in the Sour Woods variation, it's in a minor key, but in this case it sounds much more sad and dramatic. 

Here's the finished version. In this case, the demo and the final version are practically the same:

The night version of Bitter Mountains is different than the rest. Instead of being a low-key guitar version of the day track, this one is unsettling and dramatic, with deep piano next to an electric guitar whose echoes seem to be crying in the distance. This is not the best place to spend the night.

Now that we’ve explored the sonic palette of planet Karamel, it’s time to go further. 

Let’s go to space!

Floating in Space

While the previous tracks expanded on the “cozy adventure” vibes, we still had to figure out the “Sci-Fi” side of the soundtrack. After all, FixFox is a Sci-Fi odyssey! 

I’m going to dig into two of the Sci-Fi sounding tracks of the game: “The SPACR Fleet” and ”Floating in Space”. They both share the same leitmotif, heavily inspired by 2001: Space Odyssey's soundtrack. You know, the typical one: 

So I stole it and recycled it into this: 



Does it work? 

Hell yeah.

It means "SCI-FI". In capital letters. 

This track, “The SPACR Fleet”, plays during a short transition early in the game. During a cinematic panning, we go from seeing the immensity of the SPACR fleet (represented by the orchestral 2001: Space Oddisey style part) to Vix’s little messy spaceship (portrayed by the cute guitar and 8-bit synths playing Vix’s motif at the end). 

But the game also needed a track that looped for the various scenes in space. This would be the track “Floating in Space”. Like “Sour Woods” and “Sweet Fields”, I made the first demo of this track during a live Twitch stream. But this one is especially interesting since here I started from scratch.

I also had the terrible idea of recording myself singing as part of a choir. Sorry in advance. 

Here's the result of that session: the first demo of "Floating in Space", which includes an epic variation of Vix's motif: 

But when I tried it on a build of the game, I realized it didn't work.

Initially I had been trying to make something like “To Know, Water” by Austin Wintory, from the game Abzu, and it obviously wasn’t at the same level. But even if I had managed to make something that good, it wouldn’t have worked. The concept was doomed from the beginning: it was too epic. 

But it’s space Sci-Fi, can it ever be too epic? Sure it can.  

It was intense and with a strong climax, and while these concepts are cool in non-background music, in the game it became annoying. The player can potentially spend a lot of time in the space areas hearing this track on loop. At the same time, the player is solving puzzles while listening to this, and it’s hard to solve box-moving and spaceship-docking puzzles while hearing the same Earth-shattering choir climax you’ve already heard six times in a row. 

I needed to refocus. 

Jaroslav had mentioned at some point that he liked the soundtrack of “The Dig”:

So I studied The Dig, scavenged the few parts from my initial demo that worked (like the ascending 8-bit arpeggio synths), and added a touch of watered-down 2001: Space Odyssey spices. I blended it all together in my brain and I let it ferment in my subconscious for a few days.

This was a delicate one. I had to make sure that it’s interesting enough to stay interesting but discrete enough not to distract the player, and also stable enough so that you don’t notice that it has already looped various times while you’re stuck on a puzzle.

Oh, and it’s the first song you hear in the game (besides the title music). In the era of Steam and easy refunds, the first impression is extremely important in a videogame. So more reason to give extra love to this track. 

After a lot of experimentation, this is what came out: 

This is Jaroslav's response:

“Good call!

I understand it must've been extra work, but it's cool you made another version after the stream. The stream version felt like it did not fit my idea so well, but you've managed to identify what it was - too epic and dramatic (especially due to the choir). Also, the upward blurbs felt very lofty, like you can explore vast space, while the game actually always limits you to a fairly small area around the station. So tuning down the loftiness also helped. 

The reworked track still has the right space vibes but feels much more focused. I love the selection of instruments, it sends chills down my spine in a perfect way. The 8bit chords at 0:23 remind me of robot voices from the shop theme, very nice touch!

The "4. Freespace (alternative version) - Demo" has great moments, would work better for more epic/dramatic scenes (there will be some towards the end of the game, but will probably work with the tracks we already have planned).

No changes requested on the "4. Freespace - Demo". Good job!”

Nice! We've got the Sci-Fi music covered. Now come back to Earth and release your spaceship seatbelts: I'll show you something weird before finishing our trip.

(Weird) bonus track: Karmezina's Jukebox

Karmezina's Jukebox is a crazy mess of genres that plays in a bar when you fix a jukebox machine. This track was actually made in one of the game jams in Prague that Jaroslav also attended. It was for a light-hearted game, and being a game jam, I went all crazy trying to make the weirdest blend of music I could: Jazz, Funky, Ragtime, Reaggeton (?), and 8-bit (of course), jumping from one to the other. 

This is the original Game Jam game:

This is such a chaotic track that maybe I wouldn't have made it if it wasn't during a game jam! But being from one of the game jams I shared with Jaroslav, which lead me to score FixFox, it felt right to make this game the final home of this quirky track. 

This is a bonus track you will get if you download FixFox’s OST album on Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want).

This finishes our trip through the musical landscapes of FixFox. But before you go, let's reflect back on what we can learn from our experience making FixFox.

What can we learn from making FixFox?

We're all very happy with how the soundtrack turned out. And I'm infinitely grateful to see reviews praising the music, both from Steam and from game critics.

But this isn't just because of me. As you've seen with everything I showed until now, this has been a team effort with Jaroslav. I'm the one composing, producing, and mixing the music, but his input was invaluably useful in ensuring I was moving in the right direction.

These are the three ingredients that made this collaboration work so well:  

1. We put effort into good (written) communication.

We communicated purely by text, and Jaroslav is great at communicating with it (you can also tell if you play FixFox, he wrote most of the lines). His feedback on my music was clear and constructive, and he put effort into explaining himself.

I actually didn't see Jaroslav a single time during the whole process, neither in person nor in video calls. And I'm fine with that!

If you’re a developer, please do yourself and your (future) composer a favor and spend an extra few minutes communicating what you think. Your game will benefit greatly. 

2. We used reference tracks.

Describing music with words is hard. That's why using existing tracks as reference tracks to describe what you mean is a clever idea.

When we started working together, Jaroslav already had in mind what kind of tracks he wanted for different moments of the game and shared with me tracks he thought represented what he was looking for (see the excel table at the beginning). This allowed me to know how he wanted the soundtrack to be (though he was open to all kinds of changes). 

As a composer, I must know if my clients have any kind of preconceived ideas, expectations, or desires about how they want their game's music to be. Reference tracks are a great way to communicate this.

So when working with a composer, set some time aside to look for reference tracks. This can be music from bands on YouTube, Spotify, etc., or even royalty-free music from music libraries like AudioJungle or Pond5. Still, sometimes finding reference tracks can be tricky, especially if you're after an uncommon kind of music. If you can't find any, try to describe it with words as much as you can.

It's also ok if you don't know how you want your game's soundtrack to be! Figuring out what kind of music the game needs is part of a composer's job, so simply tell them that you don't have any preferences in mind.

Whether you know exactly what you want or you have no preferences at all, what matters is that you ensure your composer knows what's on your mind.

3. We're a good fit.

I love FixFox. The aesthetic, the story, the topics it touches, the mechanics, the dialogues. And Jaroslav loved practically every track I made for it. We just fit well together. Additionally, my specialty is Pixel Art games with a strong story, and that's exactly what he was developing.

As a developer, you should choose your composer wisely - if you choose someone just because you went to High School together, you'll end up disappointed and your game will suffer. Do your research, reach out to composers, and figure out your best fit.

If you need help finding the right person, just let me know and I'll be happy to help you find a good fit.

You can get FixFox on Steam, listen to the soundtrack on Spotify / AppleMusic, and download the OST album (plus a secret track) on Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want).

Aleix Ramon is a game music composer from Barcelona (Spain). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, where he teaches game developers how to use game music better, and join his email list to be part of a small bunch of creative minds.

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