Dark Powers: The Magic and Benevolence of Synth Bard

Thick cold fog swirls around in this darkened courtyard. Sporadic flashes of lightning lance the angry clouds overhead. Thunder pounds the courtyard. A light drizzle begins to fall. Ahead, torch flames flutter in the wind on each side of the keep’s open main doors. Warm light spills from those open doors into the courtyard. Doors in the gate towers on each side of the tunnel entrance are shut against the rain. A howling wind rushes through the courtyard. The dark towers of the keep loom above in the mists. Flickering lights shine from a short round tower on the south east side of the keep.

Synth Bard was an accidental find. Being tagged as dungeon synth led me to stumble onto the debut record The Gold Box Renditions. The album, marked by one of the coolest illustrations of all time, was a glorious retelling of the music for the Advanced Dungeon and Dragons (AD&D) computer games produced by SSI during the late 80’s and early 90’s. I soon bought the tape for Goldbox Renditions and continued to play it at all hours of the night while looking over the character sheet included. This was a mystical experience. With the current announcement of the artists second album, an unofficial soundtrack for the 1983 AD&D module Ravenloft, I decided to venture up to the foreboding castle and ask this recluse a few leading questions. If you have never heard of Synth Bard, it is probably becasue this artist never really knew dungeon synth was a thing until now.

Would you consider yourself apart of the Dungeon Synth community as an active member or maybe even curious outsider?

To be completely honest, I didn’t know about Dungeon Synth until after I put out Gold Box Renditions. Once I discovered the album was getting such a positive response from the Dungeon Synth community, I starting checking the genre out on blogs, Bandcamp, etc. Then I got really into it. I’ve always liked music that can invoke new and fantastic worlds, which is what Dungeon Synth is all about. But am I an active member? I don’t know. I listen to it, but don’t participate in any forums or anything.

Do your friends and family know you do this in your spare time? If so what do they think about it?

I think only my wife really knows. I believe she is amused by it. But you know, we have a kid to put through school, groceries to buy, and rent to pay, so my life as Synth Bard is pretty off of the radar most of the time.

Your first record was a retelling of the music from an old computer game. How did Goldbox Renditions become a reality?

It’s kind of a long story. It started when I was training for exams for my music degree. A big part of the exams was ear training and transcription, like knowing what notes are being played on a recording and notating them correctly on manuscript paper.

So I knew I had to study like hell for these tests, and thought it would be more fun to make a project out of it. Somehow around that time I was thinking back to old computer games I liked playing as a kid, and decided that would be my big transcription project. So yeah, I did all of the Gold Box Renditions covers by ear, I wasn’t locating the MIDI files or anything.

After a while into the project, though, it became a bit more than faithful transpositions of the original themes. For some tunes, like “Secret of the Silver Blades,” I was compelled to add a fair amount of original material. For other tunes, like “Gateway to the Savage Frontier” and “Treasures of the Savage Frontier,” the originals were so minimal and short I had to find a way to make them longer. Coincidentally, those three tracks became my favorite on the album. The whole thing made me want to make an album of all originals, which is why I started up the Ravenloft soundtrack project.

Was it your intention on donating all the proceeds to charity?

Yes, it was always my intention. I felt weird profiting off the work of the composers who wrote those original themes, and the artist who made the cover. So I started looking at the Wizards of the Coast website (the company that publishes Dungeons and Dragons stuff) to see where they donate money. SOS Children’s Villages, which helps orphans, caught me first, and I decided to give all the proceeds to them. I’m in the education field by day, so I have a soft spot for kids.

Ravenloft is stated as an unofficial soundtrack with even tracks matching the original module map. Is it your intention to play this music while playing the game?

Yes, completely! The fun of making the album was reading the descriptions Tracy and Laura Hickman gave for the original adventure, and thinking through what the soundtrack for that part of the adventure might be. But of course, people can use the music however they damn well please, and I would hope each of the tracks stand on their own, or they can be used for other campaigns.

Your first record came with a character sheet for use in role playing games with stats that were accurate to the 1st edition of D&D. What is your relationship with RPGs?

I played a fair bit of tabletop RPGs and CRPGs growing up, I think up until college. These days I don’t really have the time, which made this music project fun. I am able to kind of nostalgically look back to those times while creating the music.

Synth Bard

What is your favorite system to play and/or run?

Almost always Dungeons and Dragons. I particularly liked the Ravenloft (obviously!) and Dark Sun campaign settings. Planescape, too.

Lets say I am running Ravenloft and you are settled in for a few months of playing. What character are you making to maximize your time going through the adventure?

Well, with a setting like Ravenloft, cleric is the clear answer! Heal, turn undead, negative plane protection – all vital.

When not making music or thinking about RPGs what do you do with your time?

I suppose most of the rest of my free time is spent running a small cassette label I started, ephem-aural. In fact, it would be cool to have some more Dungeon Synth releases on the label. So Dungeon Synth people, get in touch!

Two years marked the space between your two records. Is this the last synth bard release we can expect until 2019?

Ha! In my defense the Ravenloft release was a pretty massive undertaking: 28 composed tracks, each tied to a particular moment in the adventure, and a 20+ page illustrated booklet on top of that. I like big projects, so I can’t make any promises!

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