Soundscapes from the Underground – a review.

Today I’ll be reviewing a 10+ hour, 36 track audio album released by Satyr Productions and presented by @ratkingnow.

Soundscapes from the Underground
Soundscapes from the Underground

Soundscapes from the Underground is the first of what I hope will be many albums designed to provide non-intrusive, ambient sound for your games. Not just your home game either—once you’ve purchased the album, you’re allowed to use the music in any non-commercial stream or other creative endeavour provided you properly credit the creators. Non-commercial is defined as any project that does not attempt to earn money except via reliance on generosity of the audience (eg. tipping), If your project is commercial, you can license the album for $150.

The actual price of Soundscapes from the Underground is ridiculously good. Artists on bandcamp can set a minimum amount, which in this case is just $3. You can voluntarily pay more, and let me tell you up front that for the amount you’re getting here and the production quality, it’s definitely worth more. You don’t have to pay without knowing exactly what you’re getting either, as you can listen to the entire album before making your purchase.

As mentioned, the album includes 36 tracks. All but one are around 18 minutes long so should probably last plenty of time for a scene, and if not they loop pretty well. The theme of Soundscapes from the Underground is, of course, the underground. These particular tracks are therefore designed to be perfectly suited for adventures deep beneath the surface of the earth.

The Campaign Begins is the shortest track at 1:43 long and serves as a piece of intro music to the actual soundscapes. I don’t know whether it’s intended that you would actually use this music too, given its short length, but it is a wonderful piece that conveys the magic and mystery of a fantasy realm. At under 2 minutes I might wish for it to be a little longer to make its potential uses less limited, but I could see it being useful as the audio accompaniment to a short introductory video playing before your stream, or as one of a handful of tracks played during a break.

Common Location: Fire is exactly as it sounds—18 minutes of a crackling log fire! Most groups will probably never reach the end of this track before changing it for a new dawn or a midnight ambush, but if you’re lucky enough to have a group who’ll happily spend twenty minutes making up stories for their characters to tell each other around the campfire, you’ll especially love this track.

Common Location: Chains provides the sound of rattling, jangling, and dragging chains. Not exactly an everyday sound! To get the most use out of this track, you’ll likely want to have your PCs captured so they can be marched through the tunnels or an underground city in chains.

Common Location: Cold Place is a slightly haunting soundscape made up of some kind of wind instrument that hums like a finger run round a crystal glass, occasionally interspersed with chimes. It does a decent job of putting me in mind of an icy cavern!

Common Location: Forgotten City evokes an ancient, abandoned metropolis. I’m not sure how common a “forgotten city” really is, but quibbles of naming aside this track does a credible job. The theme here is gongs, which follow a slow, fairly repetitive beat occasionally interspersed with lower and higher notes. The overall impact suggests a quiet, not obviously threatening, but slightly mysterious environment. I like it for a “Forgotten City” as intended, but I’d be equally happy playing it as the soundscape for any kind of man-made ruin whenever there is no imminent threat.

Common Location: Lava includes the sound of fiercely crackling heat set to the backdrop of a low, ominous ambient track. Other than lava, I think you could use this track for a burning building to good effect. I went into this one expecting an occasional bubbling, which is not present. Having done some research it seems that this soundscape is actually fairly accurate, I suspect I’m just used to the sort of sounds added to movies for cinematic effect. Authenticity aside, a more cinematic, animated lava sound might actually have been a good thing here to make the scene more dramatic.

Common Location: Rift is a percussive track with an echoing quality. It sounds somewhat mysterious, which is probably what you want when your adventurers are climbing down into the unknown.

Common Location: Temple is a quiet and contemplative piece, broken up by the occasional tolling of a bell. There is a persistent ringing noise throughout, and I’m not that sure what it’s supposed to represent, but it does give the music a slightly otherworldly quality.

Common Location: Water is the perfect accompaniment to an underground pool. Water drips and splashes, and occasionally bubbles as though from the rise to the surface of a pale, blind fish from the pool’s hidden depths… This is the most animated soundscape so far, with near-constant activity, to the point I’d almost prefer it if the drip drip drip of water was a bit more irregular. But on the bright side, your players are certainly never going to forget where they are!

Bear in mind that this collection is called Soundscapes from the Underground when you listen to Common Location: Wind. Rather than simply recreating the sound of a strong wind, this track captures the deep, slightly echoing and distorted sound of a strong airflow blowing underground.

We’re moving on to a new grouping of soundscapes now that are themed around foes that your adventurers may encounter. I assume the creators intend these tracks to represent common underdark creatures but are avoiding using specific creature names that might run afoul of licensing issues. This has resulted in some quirky names in a few cases!

First up is Enemy: Aquanoid. My idea of an underground “Aquanoid” would be a Kuo-Toa. I have to say that this track does a good job of capturing the spirit of that monstrous species, even if it wasn’t actually they who inspired it. Its intermittent notes paint a picture that’s both alien and a little schizophrenic.

Enemy: Dark Elf is next, and now I’m sure that actual specific monsters were the inspiration for this set of tracks. This ominous track certainly captures the idea of “dark”, there is a deep atmospheric background noise that gives me the impression of an impenetrable void, such as the pitch tunnels the drow might patrol around their cities. This is punctuated by an occasional forboding beat. And throughout, grinding and skittering noises that definitely conjured the image of spiders scuttering across the stones toward hapless adventurers…

Enemy: Dark Gnome is, I would guess, the soundtrack of the derro (although they are actually a type of dwarf). If it’s not, it certainly fits them. The slow, drawn out notes of this piece carry a sense of impending but as yet unrevealed horror, which seems to suit their stealthiness and their sadistic personalities. The derro are also insane, a feeling I feel the track captures well by drawing each note out just a little past the point of comfort, lending the track an air of disquiet.

I would guess that Enemy: Eel Demon represents the aboleth, a creature that one source describes as being “a hybrid of fish and eel”. If not, I have to say I’m stumped. This track has a slightly more hostile feel to it and the level of echo on the crashing notes gives it a sense of expansiveness, making it feel like a soundtrack to a large cavern environment—such as one containing an underground lake, say.

Enemy: Grey Dwarf would be for the other evil underground dwarves, the duergar. Like the rest of the Enemy tracks, it carries a sense of danger. Aside from the Dark Elf track, I think this one is the most truly sinister. The slow, dolorous notes of a hammered gong help complete the dwarven atmosphere.

My best guess for Enemy: Multiclops is that it is meant for the beholder. This is one of the busier tracks, and I like it. There is definitely something aberrant about the sound, which is built up around a slightly uncomfortable ringing. Layered behind this alien noise are clicks and echoes that are quiet enough to give a feeling of distance. As though they were being carried from a far reach of a beholder’s labyrinth of vertical tunnels, perhaps.

I suppose there are no prizes for suggesting that Enemy: Octokenisai must, by process of elimination and also sheer obviousness, represent mind flayers. This one has long, reverberating, dissonant notes which meant I found it slightly grating to listen to the whole piece. However, that affect on my mind was perhaps rather apt, considering the psionic nature of mind flayers. It’s definitely alien, and pretty eerie.

The album moves on again to a new category of soundscapes:  “Major Locations”. It’s a completely minor quibble, but I’m not sure the need to separate “common” from “major” locations, especially when it feels like a few of them are in the wrong lists. How “common” is a Forgotten City, after all, and how often do adventurers really find themselves near lava?

As much as I’d like to continue commenting on the tracks individually, there’s still a lot to get through and I’m conscious both of the time it’s taking to write this review and the reality that your attention span is probably being tested here. So from now on, I’ll just talk about the soundscapes by category, and offer thoughts on ones that particularly stood out.

As far as the Major Location soundscapes are concerned, I like each and every one of them.These are a collection of mysterious, slightly fearful soundscapes that are perfect for the unknown caverns of the underdark. The theming of the tracks is mostly clear enough that I have a good idea when the creators expect me to use them, although by name alone I wasn’t sure of the conceptual difference between “Beneath the Realm” and “Earthen Roots”. Having listened to the tracks though, the difference becomes clearer. Given the watery feel of Major Location: Earthen Roots (lots of dripping noises) I suspect that the key word here is “roots”. The soundscape evokes imagery of underground caverns filled with natural pools from water drainage in the lands above, the great sprawling roots of giant trees tangled throughout the cavern from ceiling to pool.

The last set of soundscapes are in the category “Mood”, and start with four moods for battle.

If I’m honest, I don’t think any of the battle moods is truly fit for their intended purpose. As in all things your mileage may vary, but I just don’t see myself playing them as background for a battle. Like every other soundscape on this album, they are slow-paced and are uncluttered, using a limited palette of sounds to create their soundscapes. This is a choice that works very well everywhere else in the album, because the tracks hit a good midpoint between being atmospheric and yet non-intrusive. Here, though? It isn’t a combination that gets my blood flowing and leaves me thinking “this is what a battle sounds like”. Honestly, if there were any place on the album for more traditional musical scores, this would be it.

At best, I would say these tracks could work for the tense moments preceding a battle. If there are more entries in this series (and I hope there are), and if those albums include battle music, I’d like those tracks to have a higher intensity that captures the action and peril of the moment.

Other than the battle soundscapes, I found most of the other moods very fit for purpose though I do have a few specific notes on a couple of the tracks.

I think I might find it difficult to actually use Mood: Near Death in play, because characters most often find themselves in that state during a battle, and it’s not really appropriate in a battle scenario for the same reasons mentioned above. To be honest, it probably wouldn’t be my track of choice even outside of combat, because I’d want a soundtrack that really increased the feeling of tension as the character’s allies race to save them. When would I use it? If the PC was alone with no chance of being saved outside of NPC help/DM intervention. The ghostly nature of the track would be perfect while narrating how the PC slips from the mortal coil…. possibly to be saved, just at the last moment? It occurs to me that it would also work very well as a soundtrack to the ethereal plane or whatever underworld exists in your game’s cosmology. So all in all a great track, if possibly a fairly niche use case.

It’s important to understand the use case for Mood: Sacred. And it boils down to this – sacred is a word with multiple meanings. It could mean “something connected to God (or gods)”. In the D&D context, simply something divine. Or it could mean “something regarded as too precious to be interfered with”. This soundscape is very clearly based on the latter definition! It sounds very, very ominous. Play it during a scene that includes a holy relic of some kind as a warning: don’t touch, bad things will happen. But don’t play this track to your players expecting the sound of angelic choirs and unicorn farts.

Final Rating and Summary 

17 out of 20! A superb hit.

This album has a clear and specific goal in mind: ambient soundscapes to add atmosphere to underground adventures. It is very successful at accomplishing it. The soundscapes are very evocative and very useful, and there are no problems with the audio quality. They avoid being too obtrusive, without ever letting you blank them out.

There are some minor missteps (in my opinion): just a few soundscapes I wouldn’t use for the purpose they’ve been designed. But even these are perfectly good tracks if considered beyond those original contexts, and I feel confident I could find uses for them.

Soundscapes from the Underground deserves to be on the shopping list of every DM that uses music and sound effects in their game. Furthermore, at $3 this is a real steal, so it’s worth giving more if you can afford to do so.

Still not convinced? Go listen to it and decide for yourself!