The Soundtrack for Numbers

David Stark / Zarkonnen
9 Jun 2018, 8:14 p.m.

For Global Game Jam 2018, my partner Rae made a great short twine game about numbers stations. When they decided to make an extended version of it, I promised to write a soundtrack. Now, I'm mostly a programming type of person, but I do like to dabble.

Numbers stations are mysterious shortwave radio stations that play short snippets of music and seemingly random sequences of numbers. They are probably used to send information to spies, but we don't really know. And they are real things! They've been happening for decades, a genuine mystery.

In Rae's game, you play a hobbyist numbers station researcher obsessed with one particular station, trying to find out its purpose. As you do, you attract the attention of a mysterious voice on the telephone, who may be trying to help or hinder you.

To match the atmosphere of the game, I wanted to create a disjointed soundtrack assembled from clicks and whirrs and noise and snippets of transmissions. Conveniently, the Conet Project on has a fair number of recordings of real numbers stations. These include beeps, snippets of distorted music, letters and numbers in several languages including English and Russian.

I downloaded a bunch of the recordings. Then I went on and found any interesting sounds from old phones, radios, relays, and so on. I also found a Russian dial tone, a fluorescent tube waking up, and a clattering of jackdaws.

Now I had to assemble this into a soundtrack. I'm using GarageBand, as befits my status as a dabbler in music. After some experimentation, I found a MIDI instrument called "Japanese String Movement" which I could coax into making appropriately spooky notes.

The first track, Tuning, starts out with the lights going on and the player searching through radio bands. Towards the end, the Lincolnshire Piper - the most famous numbers station tune - makes an appearance.

The Terrible Night of the Telephone then spells out the the Piper as a whole before launching into a fuller tune. There's dial tones and a Russian voice counting to three. Something is happening.

Research starts calmer, more melancholy, underlaid by radio chatter. As you learn the mysteries of the numbers, it rises in intensity.

Now Despair is what happens when things start to go wrong. A phone call no one answers. A dirge. At the end, only the squealing of a mis-tuned radio.

The Great Game reprises the tune of Research, more insistently, before shifting up in speed. Things are definitely in motion now. Clicks and hisses. Aspirations. At the end, jackdaws. Probably my favourite.

Train is about a long journey, hastening towards a destination. An impatient tune, but also the longest one. The ba-dumm ba-dumm of your carriage's wheels is in the bass, and the strings have the ringing of railway crossings moving past.

The First Animal is Dead: By this point, I wanted to try some new things. So I cut together snippets from "No Man is an Island" and "Horse Latitudes" to suggest that a terrible, violent thing has happened. Then I had to re-record the snippets because copyright law is scary and evil, but hey. We've come out of the center of the soundtrack now, and things now fall apart again.

Lost in the Noise is what plays if you get nowhere in the game. It's an unexciting song for the unexciting endings.

Poacher is what you get in the (probably?) good ending. I tried to make it uplifting, but the material I built all this from did rather resist me.

Death combines the tune of Despair with the snippets from The First Animal is Dead. Did you know that jackdaws are a symbol of death?

In conclusion, this was an enjoyable project for me. And you should check out Numbers, which is spooky and does some great things with words and layout.