What makes a horror soundtrack work? What makes your skin crawl? What makes you want to glance around behind you, just in case? Sound has incredible power to cue unconscious, subliminal, involuntary reflexes that are as ancient as homo sapiens themselves.
Hi, I am Ben Loomes, the CEO and Creative Director of Syrinscape. In case you’ve never heard of Syrinscape, it’s the app that brings beautiful, immersive, dynamic sound effects and music to tabletop games. I could go on and on about how useful Syrinscape will be at your gaming table, but instead, I encourage you to download the player and the free SoundSet using the voucher code below, because to get the most out of this blog, you’re going to want those dynamic sounds and spooky atmosphere playing as you read!
Now onto the blog.
In order to fully illustrate the power of adding sound to your horror adventures, I’m doing something a bit different with this blog. I’m going to walk you through the thought process of creating tension and fear while you listen along. To do that, you’ll want to go to: https://syrinscape.com/store/voucher/, and enter this code “refugeblog”. Or click this link directly: https://www.syrinscape.com/store/voucher/refugeblog/. That will give you (permanent) free access to the SoundSet we’ll use as we explore the sound design. You’ll want to download the Syrinscape Fantasy Player here: https://syrinscape.com/download/ and install the “Refuge of Dreamers”, the second of five SoundSets we built to support the awesome Cthulhu-esque adventure path “Strange Aeons” (search in the text field at the top left for “dreamers” to find the SoundSet). Note on the first startup, Syrinscape needs to download quite a lot of data from the server and create a search database etc, so give it a few moments. If the download fails, just cancel it and restart and it will resume from where it got up to.
When you’re ready, stick on some headphones and trigger the MOOD “Chapel barricade” while you read on (you can find the moods in the 2nd column).
Listen to what you are hearing, a number of layers of sound, none of them natural or human. Have a look at the various elements (3rd column) and we’ll investigate the ones that are currently playing (lit up). If you want to listen to an element by itself as you read, hit the square ‘stop all’ button at the bottom left and then restart the element you are interested in by clicking its play button and dragging its volume slider to the right. Once you’ve finished listening you can hit the Mood button “Chapel barricade” again to return to the full mix.
“Critters” is a disturbing element, various skittering bugs, things that disappear up your leg and sting, weird clunking alien sounds rich with the suggestions of teeth and jaws. These sounds make a person nervous, fearful of poison and pain. The less consciously perceptible this kind of element is, the better. When a person hears these sounds only at a subliminal level, they will feel nervous and tense and not know why. Perfect for creating a sense of unclear unease.
“Haunted wind” is there to glue everything together. It’s a ‘white noise’ type sound, but with some strange aspects to it that drift in and out. Long distorted, wailing notes that hint at something appearing out of the dark. Note how this element loops seamlessly once every five minutes or so.
“Quiet chatting” is a less important part of the ‘horror’ of this Mood, but still valuable. Here we have the sound of the refugees huddled together, quietly comforting each other against the horrors that assail them. If all the other sounds were softer and this element were the dominant part, then we might actually be comforted by it. As it is, these quiet voices are almost completely drowned out by the inhuman and horrifying elements. They are ‘lost’ in all the grief.
Now scroll down to “Souls in grief”. Here we find the sound of people weeping, which is sad in itself, but note the reverse reverb on these samples, an acoustic echo that actually precedes the sample, as if reality were rendered backwards. In film, this kind of effect is typically applied to ‘voices from the other side’ and other unworldly creatures. More sickness and inhumanity, sourced from a very human feeling. Sadness distorted into horror.
If you haven’t already, now restart the “Chapel barricade” Mood and listen to the whole mix, how all these sounds combine for an overall ambiance. Effective?
Now let’s step through just a few of the other Moods and I’ll note an element or two from each one.
“Tension level I” brings us “Critters” (from before) combined with a “Tinnitus” element, like the sound of weirdly ringing windchimes, once again, a familiar sound distorted into an unnatural shape.
“Tension level II” brings us that “Haunted wind” again, combined now with “Ringing in the ears”. This Mood exemplifies a commonly used horror soundtrack technique where there is a wide pitch gap between the low and high frequency elements in a soundtrack. The middle ground is where human voices reside, the comforting voice of a mother, the reassuring sound of a friend. The presence of everything BUT these sounds, makes us feel very uneasy indeed.
“Tension level III” uses “Critters” again (lovely critters), but this time with an actual musical theme, “Aeon’s song”. This theme is used as a Leitmotif in Strange Aeons, a recurring theme which becomes more and more strongly associated with danger, weirdness, and discomfort as this adventure progresses.
Now trigger “Tension level IV”. Here the horror soundtrack is ‘amped up’ with the addition of an ominous bass drone and a series of short drum samples that randomly combine to create an improvising drummer who never quite manages to get ‘in time’. Just imagine how silly and NOT scary a regular rock beat would sound at this point, and then note the effect of these unsteady rhythmic elements.
And finally, “Combat” adds in, “Horror hits”, sudden orchestral builds, most commonly associated with jump scares and other similarly shocking moments in horror movies.
The combined effect of these sounds, plus the well-honed descriptions of a good Game Master, work together to make for memorable gaming sessions, which will have players glancing over their shoulders well after the game comes to an end.
Now you’ve seen the mixing that we’ve done to make people feel uncomfortable while they play “Strange Aeons”, have a go yourself. Note the many elements I haven’t mentioned already, the many sounds that haven’t even been triggered by the Moods we have looked at. There’s so much horror available!
Have a play turning on and off any of the elements in the big long list. Find a mix you like, and then you can save your unique ambiance by hitting the little plus symbol at the bottom of the Mood list, and if you are inspired to try your hand at creating your own horror soundtrack from scratch, grab a SuperSyrin trial subscription here: https://syrinscape.com/freetrial/. With the Syrinscape Online Player (https://www.syrinscape.com/online/) you’ll be able to mix and match all of Syrinscape’s existing horror elements, and bring in your own fresh samples. If you like you can even share your creation with the whole Syrinscape subscriber community. I’ll be very interested to see what you come up with.
If you have any questions or problems getting set up, don’t hesitate to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop by the forums where there is a great community of helpful and friendly people: https://forum.syrinscape.com/.
Most importantly, game on, have fun, and MAKE SOME NOISE!
Syrinscape Pty Ltd