Sava Tsurkanu: studying the depths of phonk.

This is a guest article written by Sava Tsurkanu, our brilliant outsourcing composer.

I love music. Different kinds. The more I learn about it, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as bad music. But there is a certain type of musical material that catches my interest more than any other – videogame soundtracks. 

In the summer of 2021, Ressa approached me with a proposal to create a soundtrack and develop an interactive music system for the demo version of the game Nitro Nation VR by CM Games. I thought that all I had to do was to compose a few groovy hip-hop/rock tracks for dynamic drag races in VR, and that’s it.

But, as it turned out, the task was way more difficult than it seemed at first glance. The music should have been as interactive as possible – every small change in the race should be reflected in the music. Firstly, we had to determine the possible “states” of the race. There were not so many of them:

  • preparation for the race (we can start the car, try the controls, look at the opponent)
  • the initial start of the race
  • we are losing (during the race)
  • we are winning
  • we have won (at the finish)
  • we have lost.

Each part of the musical material should transit into another.

At first, we tested a vertical system in which the rhythmic base – bass and drums – stayed the same, and only the melodic layers (guitars, synths and other cool stuff) were changing. Later, we decided to abandon this approach for several reasons:

  1. This system completely disables any variety of rhythmic basis, which is not very good.
  2. It is extremely difficult to correctly compress the music, when you render the layers and channels separately for VR.
  3. Even if you apply maximum of your creativity and come up with a masterpiece for the new “layer”, the player may simply not notice it. Because the main outline has not changed, and the sounds of the car catch most of the player’s attention. And, since the race is not very long – approximately one minute – there was too much information the player was getting during that short time.
  4. Follows from the previous paragraph. We wanted to designate each change of state with a kind of “transition”, which would explicitly let the player know what is happening during the race.

The fourth point led us to the horizontal interactive music system.
This approach means that we create some musical passages that we can switch sequentially using “bridges” as transitions. Sounds like a plan!

This is what 20% of one track looks like in Ableton live:

To test the music system and the process of creating the assets, we have decided to take the rock/hip-hop track “Nine Thou” from NFS Most Wanted as a reference. Excellent reference, clear and simple. I have made a couple of riffs, paying special attention to the starting part, making it as juicy as possible. The bass was in the tonic of the power chords, then I added a couple of vocal samples. All of that I’ve put on a breakbeat, seasoned with percussion. 

Next, we subtract or add elements.

The first problem, in my opinion, was the choice of the tonal plan of the parts. I didn’t want to use a single scale, because such an approach would limit me greatly. I’ve decided to use Drop D tuning on my Telecaster, and the scale was changing from D minor natural to A Dorian. Even harmonic D minor was there somewhere twice. One or two flat/sharp notes won’t hurt anyone 🙂

I attributed more euphonious (natural, with a minimum number of alterations) tunings/scales to more positive states – winning (in the process), have won. And everything containing minor seconds, and general sad-burning mood, I’ve attributed to the negative ones — losing (in the process), have lost. I will be using a similar scale/mood principle throughout all of three interactive tracks. Sometimes I limited myself to parallel major/minor, e.g. in the track “Riding” – Em (B frigian)/G major.

Here are the examples of guitar riffs for the first track:

Winning state in the second track:

Losing state in the second track:


Since the starting piece of the track was played only once in the race, I could afford to make it strikingly different in terms of rhythmic basis. In addition, switching from a straight drum kick to a breakbeat can dramatically change the mood and help the player enter a state of focus due to a more sparse rhythm. However, in the main states (winning/losing), we cannot afford changing the rhythmic backbone in order to make these two race states equal.


Bridges connecting equivalent states should be of such nature, that the player would react to them. For that, they must have both something in common and something unique. As in the case of the winning/losing parts, I decided to keep the rhythmic basis by making one drum filling for transitions inside the main parts and another one for switching to the final have won/have lost pieces. If we transit into a more positive state (winning/have won), the riff goes up, and for the negative state (lose/losing) – it goes down, even if it does not quite fall into the first chord of the second part.

For a consonant sound, it is enough to come to the dominant or the subdominant. Although, as practice has shown, in most cases everything works (except for a minor second) if you add several risers/downers to the transition 😉 So, after listening to these transitions for several times, you will surely be able to determine how the race state has been changed.

Example of such a transition:

After I created a rock/hip-hop track and added a lot of variations to it, the team suggested that I try to write something in the style of Phonk. At first I was surprised, and I laughed, remembering that this is the subgenre of hip hop, where strange cowbells are used for melodies. Something like “I downloaded FL-studio yesterday for the first time in my life, because the cool guy from fourth grade told me that it’s dope.” Usually some rapping is sampled and compressed into the mix, and the overall sound feels like you’re torturing your dad’s old boombox – the exact one he used back in the day to win over your mom.

But man was I wrong. After listening to a huge number of records, I came to the conclusion that in general it is exactly what I thought. But there are also some rare gold nuggets (Kaito Shoma – Haunted House, Ghostface Playa & Pharmacist – I Don’t Give a F**k, DVRST – Close Eyes) that made my jaw drop. In fact, these tracks could have sounded “better” with a different approach. But phonk gives them the very necessary charm of street racing, dark neighborhoods and Vin Diesel, with an infinite number of gears in the box.

I wrote a couple of music ideas based on the 808 bass, kick and hi-hats patterns typical for phonk and hip hop. And I also put a synthesized cowbell on top. It sounded good enough, but one thing was still missing. The very rapper whose spoken word had to be compressed deep into the mix and serve as a kind of instrument inself. Ressa suggested I try a couple of lines myself.

I’m not a rapper. I’m a guitarist. I would definitely not be able to work with the required tempo. So, after calculating the optimal difference between the target tempo and the one in which I could rap, I started recording. I wrote it high on purpose so that I could pitch the vocals down and hide the flaws. It turned out pretty well, listen for yourself:

Now I’m definitely the coolest rapper in the classroom! B-)

As the final touch, my phonk track desperately needed the appropriate mastering. That of “my oldman’s boombox” – you remember, right?

After a big number of experiments with various tape emulators, saturators and other exciters, I managed to reach the target value. My track turned into a very beautiful brick with a loudness of -6 LUFS. Perfect!

But there was more than just phonk! Our race also had three variations of the time of day:

  • day – rock or hip-hop
  • night – phonk
  • twilight

For twilight/evening races, we decided to create an intense Synthwave-Retrowave track.

As always, I started my work with the search for the optimal references. After listening to a bunch of cool guys, such as Waveshaper, Perturbator, Essenger, Kavinsky, Lazerhawk, Carpenter Brut, I decided to focus on the latter, because this artist was the closest one to what we were looking for in terms of tempo.

What determines the sound of Carpenter Brut? Of course, this is energetic music filled with the neon spirit and other attributes of cyberpunk. But let’s take a closer look at the sound. Carpenter Brut’s music is very dense. In some parts of some particular tracks my analyzer was showing -5 LUFS. But how does the sound remain so clean and pleasant to the ear?

In my opinion, Carpenter Brut, as well as many other synthwave artists pay more attention to the bass. It spreads like sweet syrup, filling all the frequency and dynamic gaps. Why is it sweet? Because it’s analogous, synthesized with simple oscillators using ordinary FM synthesis. And then it’s “seasoned” with the ordinary filter. Otherwise, the artist is simply using an analog synthesizer, creating all the textures with it. I would say, this idea is applied not only to bass, but to lead parts, pads and arpeggiators as well. 

This is how our track sounds without the drum section:

In my opinion, the drums here have a secondary role. Often they are slightly compressed and deliberately “weak”. The kick has almost no low part – the whole low-end is taken by the bass. The sound of the snare drum and the kick are both quite “subtle”. The rhythm is usually straight, with some periodic fills.

 And here’s how our drums sound. Everything is as simple as possible. I definitely wouldn’t give myself a Grammy for drums like these:

Yes, the kick came out much more dense than planned. Sorry. 

So, we have decided on the sound in general. What do we have for other instruments? As I mentioned earlier, everything about the drums is quite archaic: a straight kick, periodic fills and potential transitions to half-time beats. In synthesizers there are dense pads, arpeggiators and juicy lingering leads with the “fat” dripping down from all the edges.

I am very grateful to Ressa for giving me the opportunity to participate in the project, from which I got an exceptionally positive experience.

You can listen to the full soundtrack here:

And thank you for reading!

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