Creative Colleagues: Steve Portillano-Barr

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Steve Portillano-Barr first hove into my view when he joined my Keeper’s Support Group for Masks of Nyarlathotep, one of the greatest roleplaying adventures ever published. The news that he was creating Syrinscape SoundSets for the great campaign thrilled those of us currently enticing groups of hapless investigators along the global path to madness and destruction.

Steve has designed SoundSets for the Peru, America, England, and Egypt chapters of the campaign, and they’re fantastic additions to an experience that already includes an embarrassing trove of high-quality supplements, like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Gamer Prop Box and Dark Adventure Theatre radio drama. When you put them all together, you can run an astonishingly immersive roleplaying experience.

Steve recently answered a few questions about his work and influences.


Are you more often thinking “jump scare” or “rising tension” when designing soundscapes? What’s the right balance?
Syrinscape lends itself well to both, with the Keeper easily able to switch between moods as the story necessitates. Many of the Call of Cthulhu stories focus strongly on the rising tension as the situation spirals ever closer to either madness or doom for the investigators. But it is important to also have those jump scare moments, where the Keeper can touch a button and all hell breaks loose. With Syrinscape, the sounds fade from one SoundSet into another, so when you have that jump scare it will make your heart leap. But, at the same time, the effect naturally flows from the previous sounds and not sound disjointed or like you have just stopped and started something.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of the most celebrated roleplaying campaigns of all time, and it’s based in historical times and events. How do you honor that history with your work?
I’m a huge fan of history and love reading about that particular time period, so working on the Call of Cthulhu soundsets and bringing the 20s to life has been amazing for me. With each of the chapters of Mask of Nyarlathotep, I’ve really tried to capture the spirit of the period and the locations. Each of the cities has been recreated using a mixture of foley work (by myself and the Syrinscape team), along with public domain recordings, audio shared as Creative Commons from various museums, and at times visits to some of the locations. Of course, period music really helps bring the scenes to life. The Old Bell Inn, which features when the Investigators head to Derby, is one of my local pubs, so I had to visit once or twice while drafting my outline for the chapter.

You can run Syrinscape from your computer, a tablet, or your phone.


Who are some of the sound designers or score composers whose work most influences you?
I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmerman and Lisa Gerrard. The soundtracks for Black Hawk Down and Gladiator are two of my favorites. Hans has such an amazing way of capturing the spirit of the moment with his music and he has such a distinctive sound that his work has always stood out for me. Lisa has an unforgettable voice and the ability to sings songs that make you feel as if you are listening to Arabic, Latin, or Croatian, yet she uses no true words to achieve that affect, just the tone of her voice.

For sound designers it would have to be Ben Burtt, who for me has worked on some of the most iconic films of my generation. He brought a more natural organic sound to foley work in a period when many of the sound effects for sci-fi films were electronic and computerized, one of the reasons why to me Star Wars: A New Hope still stands out as such an iconic movie.


Some of the most effective horror stories evoke not only visuals but scents, tastes, tactile feelings, and of course sounds. What are some of the stories whose non-visual imagery has stayed with you?
The use of the Goldberg Variations in the Hannibal franchise has always stood out to me. The mixture of the music, the imagery, and of course Hannibal’s unique character led to making Hannibal one of my favorite films despite its disturbing nature and violence. The opera scene accompanied by “Vide cor Meum” is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

What’s some of your favorite music? How do you decide what influences get into your work and which ones you keep out?
I have an eclectic taste in music, ranging from classical right up to industrial rock. I’ve already mentioned Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, but there are also other great artists like Regina Spektor and Trent Reznor that I like to listen to. To me, music and sounds can evoke such an emotional reaction. Often, my taste at any one given time depends on my mood or how I want my mood to be. That comes in really useful when deciding what music to use in my SoundSets as it helps me hone in on how I want the investigators to feel. Should the music be center stage or in the background, just loud enough to intrude on their thoughts?


Can you recommend five great horror films to watch this October?
I’m actually pretty squeamish when it comes to most horror movies, so I haven’t seen a lot. But my top five would have to be 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and of course In the Mouth of Madness. I tend to prefer suspense thrillers over gore-fests!

You can sample and buy the Masks of Nyarlathotep SoundScapes directly from Syrinscape, who also offer many other sets for fantasy, SF, and horror RPGs.

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