Today’s post will take a look at a piece of equipment that I’m sure all of you have in your studio, the most valuable composition assistant you can have… your cat.
If you’ve ever heard cats wailing outside your window at 3 in the morning, you know what genius insights they can bring to your music. They understand it all… dynamics, mood, flow… and of course they understand how to craft your music to fit perfectly in your games, having had all those hours on your lap observing you playing game after game. You thought they were bored? No, they were soaking in every detail of every game.
Don’t shut them out of the process. Seek their advice. Not sure you should use an F or an F# in your melody? Ask them, they’ll know. Not sure in which direction to take your music? Watch them as you play through it. It will soon be quite clear.
Where does their expert knowledge come from exactly? The latest felino-musical research indicates that cats always have music in their heads. That music forms their personalities, in fact. Their meows are simply times when a note or two escapes their heads. It’s no coincidence that they meow more when food is present, by the way. The only thing cats love more than music is food, so naturally when the food shows up they lose concentration and lose meow control until they begin feeding and their heads fill with songs of feast and joy.
Different music can call for different cats, of course. Ragdoll cats tend to be more helpful with large scale, slower, elegant pieces. Siamese cats are usually specialists in popular music types… rock, R&B, that sort of thing. Burmese cats enjoy helping with jazz. The typical domestic shorthair has a great balanced knowledge of music which I usually prefer.
If your studio currently lacks cat technology, you should consider getting one. In these uncertain times, with environmental and economic problems all around us, you can be happy in your choice to obtain a cat. They are an inexpensive investment while also being a wonderful green technology. They run on tuna power and pollute minimally. Take a trip to the cat corner of your local music store and sit down with a cat or two to see if they match up with your musical philosophies. You’ll be glad you did.
(This post is dedicated to the memory of our cat Charlie who lost his 7 month battle with lymphoma early Monday morning. Thanks for reading, and please go give your cat a scratch on their head for us.)
The Nancy Drew Dossier series is a new series of casual games coming out from Her Interactive, the makers of I don’t know how many thousands of (actually only 19 to be exact) Nancy Drew retail PC mystery adventure games. The PC series is a tremendously popular series so it made sense for HI to go after the casual market with the Nancy Drew license. I feel very proud to be the composer in this new Dossier series and, as Lights, Camera, Curses! is coming out in box form in June and the second game in the series is coming out soon as well, I thought now would be a good time to do a little “postnatal” on the music in the first game.
Yeah, they’re usually called postmortem’s, but that’s always bothered me a little bit – we’re creating not destroying!
As for the game itself, it is a hybrid seek-and-find and puzzler. It also feels to me like an extremely streamlined adventure game and is quite fun to play. It’s easily worth your time to check out, as I haven’t seen any game quite like it. Number 2 in the series is really hitting its stride with this new formula and I can’t wait for players to check that one out too. But back to the music…
I’ll take us through many of the pieces in the game, of which there are 16 total, and talk about how each piece came about, how they are structured, and how each one fits in with the rest of the music. One common theme throughout the music is that the game takes place on an old-fashioned movie set for a movie that takes place in Egypt, so much of the music will have a classic Hollywood style with some Egyptian touches . So what better way to begin than by talking about the main theme of the game?
Main Theme: This is actually the “signature” of the series and introduces Her Interactive, Nancy, and her new series of games to the players. It is going to play every time players start up any of the Dossier games so it was very important to get the exact feel they were going for in the new Dossier series, which was timeless, nostalgic, adventurous, and lightly mysterious (more “curious”). This also actually served as the test piece which would decide who gets hired as the composer (in a blind comparison by the developers) so it was doubly important to nail that feel. And it turned out exactly how I had hoped. This is one of my favorite pieces and I’m proud every time I hear it:
Main Theme (Signature):
The violin was played live by an excellent local Seattle-area violinist, Valerie Tung, who is going to play on the next soundtrack as well. It’s amazing how much even one live player can breathe life into a score. The art for the opening, which I encourage you all to download and watch, is reminiscent of the beginning of the great PBS Mystery! series (why do all mysteries have exclamation points?) and is great fun to watch. The music was composed before the art, so they matched everything to the music and did a fantastic job. You can get a taste for it in the trailer:
Notice the main theme played by the violin. It’s Nancy’s theme and will be heard throughout the Dossier series in many different forms. I’ve already used it a couple of times in Dossier game #2. Sometimes it will be noticeable, sometimes more hidden.
Example #1, the main Nancy melody: It’s a mysterious, adventurous melody and is also very malleable, as we’ll see in the next piece…
Noir: Good ol’ film noir. This can be an orchestral style, but I prefer the jazz combo feel with walking bass, piano, vibraphone, sax, and muted trumpet, with a touch of tremolo strings in the background. Also, most of the other pieces in the soundtrack are orchestral so it’s nice to get a change to a different ensemble.
(For the sake of the blog, I’m only playing relevant excerpts from most of these pieces) The sax is playing the main Nancy melody with a couple jazzy notes thrown in, nothing too different. The main thing here is that the instrumentation instantly throws the player back into an old movie mystery set and Nancy’s theme helps keep the soundtrack coherent. But using only Nancy’s theme throughout the soundtrack could get repetitive so what we need is another theme to help glue the soundtrack together. With two themes, there is plenty of material to work with…
Egyptian: And from Egypt comes the second main melody for this particular game:
This melody is certainly more exotic than the main Nancy theme, but that helps it to instantly transport the player to the set of this Egyptian movie.
Example#2, the main Light, Camera, Curses! melody:
This is also a very malleable melody, which we’ll see later.
Egyptian2: Since so many of the scenes take place in an Egyptian setting, we needed a second Egyptian-sounding piece to keep the first one from getting too old.
This should sound at least slightly familiar. I took the melody from the original Egyptian tune and put it on its head (called an inversion). Looking at the music can help show this.
Example #3, main LCC melody inverted in Egyptian2 Ah ha, we have more coherence!
The rhythm stays pretty much the same so there is familiarity there. But all the movement is inverted, downward motion becomes upward motion and vice versa. This is an old trick that I and most other composers have done lots before and will do again and again in the future. It’s a great way to get more material out of something you’ve already written and is an important ingredient in keeping soundtracks (and symphonies) coherent.
Wonder: With all this talk of themes and structure, sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everything has to be rigidly set in a system. It’s ok to have pieces come out of left field and just be something fresh. When you hear a theme over and over in every piece, it does lose some of its power. So Wonder, which comes late in the game at a pivotal moment, really does help expand the palette. I even used a choir, which is always risky in looping music, but it turned out to work very well in the game. The choir was more of a texture than a driving force. Here is the excerpt:
When I first sketched Wonder, it was meant to be the Egyptian piece. However, the producer felt it was too grand of a piece to be used in that way so we saved it for a more special occasion late in the game. Interesting fact, the producer is actually my wife (part of the reason for the blind audition), and she had great insight into the game and the music and how they would work together. Being very musical herself helped us communicate and I encourage all producers out there to take a music theory and/or history class or two… or even pick up and learn an instrument yourself.
Spooky: Spooky was full of scary string effects and helped set the mood for some of the more tense moments in the game. Sometimes it’s hard to work in any deep thematic elements in such a piece, but I did manage to insert the main LCC theme in the lower strings toward the end of the piece, as you can hear in this excerpt.
The theme is there, but its shape is a little darker. It is still recognizable though, especially with the similar rhythm.
Generic: This may be my favorite piece in the game. It feels a lot longer than 46 seconds, thanks to the fact that I always keep it moving forward (see my post last week about keeping repetition to a minimum to get more details on that subject). It’s also very playful and fun, but keeps in line with that mysterious feeling. It is called “Generic” because it is used in situations where no other music fits and works well with almost any scene, though lighter is a little more appropriate.
It also utilizes the LCC theme in a more hidden way, adding a few notes here and there, but still keeping the main shape of the melody:
Example #4, LCC theme in Generic melody
Yep, it’s there.
The time signature switch from 4/4 to 3/4 meant I had some leeway in how I brought the melody over. I decided to be a little more playful with it, appropriate considering the instrumentation. Pizzicato strings lend themselves well to this kind of playful feel. I will admit this piece was inspired by a particular piece from the Fable soundtrack which the lead artist thought was a good style to go for. But besides that feel, I believe I steered clear of any musical thievery.
Minigame: This piece was created for a timed minigame and needed to create a sense of urgency… without being too annoying. So I kept it very rhythmic without too many noticeable upper instruments. One minor point about this one, I don’t know about you, but now whenever I hear a low marimba like in the beginning of this piece I think of the new Battlestar Galactica series. I didn’t want BSG to “own” that sound so I went ahead with it and kept it in.
Bonus: This piece takes the LCC theme and makes it the happiest you’ll hear in the game. It’s meant for bonus levels where the player gets rewarded for doing so well in the game. The theme is played fairly straightforwardly and is quite recognizable. The orchestration in this piece is reminiscent of those fun old Hollywood traveling movies.
Hotel: It’s important to keep the overall flow of the game in mind when doing the soundtrack. You can’t have too many pieces with the same theme following each other. Since they loop, chances are higher that the player will get sick of that theme and soon reach for the music off switch. (nooooo!) Sometimes that’s tough for the composer to gauge if they haven’t played it straight through enough. In that case, make sure and pick the developer’s minds on the subject. And definitely demand those cheat codes so you can zip through the game and see how your music is doing in the game.
When the player arrives at the hotel, it was a good time to bring back the Nancy theme. And this time it’s played by the bassoon, lending a more lighthearted feel to the setting. The theme is surrounded by a great lush Hollywood sound which adds an even greater effect to bassoon orchestration choice.
Nancy Drew Dossier: Light, Camera, Curses! was a joy to work on. Being a part of this first game in a new series was thrilling. I think we’ll see many more games in this series as it continues to find its footing. The music for LCC turned out to be integral to the plot, as the player ends up playing some of the music for themselves toward the end of the game. I didn’t include the music here in order not to ruin the surprise, but the player actually plays the main LCC theme (inverted again) and uncovering something amazing. It was great to watch that all come to life once the music was being completed.
What went right?
1. Her Interactive. Everyone who I worked with on the project had very helpful feedback and understood the importance of all aspects of the game and how they work together: gameplay, art, and sound. The fact that my wife is the producer for the series didn’t hurt.
2. The vision for the game was very clear from the start and that helped me focus my vision for the music.
What went wrong?
1. Lack of communication concerning style before starting a couple pieces. “Wonder” ended up working… wonderfully… in the game. But I first composed it as the “Egyptian” piece and feared it would be wasted. The simple solution is just to get the developers to point out existing pieces that are in the style they desire. That really does speak 1000 words. But on the whole this was only an issue on 2-3 pieces.
2. That’s about it!
Thanks for reading this! I hope to do more of these in the future as they help me gather my thoughts on the process and, I hope, help you find new ways of looking at your own soundtracks.
A friend recently sent me this post from Craigslist. See if you can point out the one major flaw in this person’s offer:
I’m a video producer working on advertising media for a new, young company that makes wearable digital sports cameras — small cams that fit in a durable housing and are attached to helmets, wristbands, etc., and are specifically designed for surfers, snowboarders, bikers, racers, bungee jumpers, any crazy athletic person out there. It’s a very cool product and has started to attract lots of young people.
I’m looking for music segments to pair with the footage these athletic users have shot and donated for promotional use. What I’m looking for in music pieces:
- AIFF format (the highest quality)
- 2 to 5 minutes long
- adrenaline music (I’m kinda old, but Propellerheads comes to mind), also good old rock
- can be completely computer-generated by one person or generated by a group with instruments
- looking to communicate excitement and “in the zone” mood (but needs to engage, not alienate)
- no lyrics needed
- can’t be samples of existing copyrighted music but 100% original (imperative!)
Who you might be: somebody who noodles around with music, comes up with cool/energetic/meandering riffs and pieces, looking for a creative outlet.
What I can offer: what will probably be national exposure if this campaign takes off, and we’d give an MTV-style credit with band name/music piece/website info. Also a camera (worth about $200).
The downside: We want to own the music in perpetuity and there’s no money.
Find the flaw? He even prefaced it with a hint (“The downside”). He wants you to transfer all your rights to the song for the princely sum of ZERO. Well, you would get a gimmicky camera and… credit. But please, everyone, never transfer your rights to someone else for a penny less than what it deserves. And that is going to be greater than zero. Probably much greater.
The poster did seem to indicate the gig was aimed more toward hobbyists but even hobbyists should be compensated for their time and talent. If they think the music is worth using in their national campaign, then the music is worth paying for. Both professional and hobbyist musicians, never transfer for your rights to your music for anything less than an adequate sum up front. Royalties are acceptable for people to use your music in their work, but not for transferring rights.
If you think getting the exposure is good enough, then fine. That’s a risk that could pan out. But, again, there is no need to transfer your rights. That is an outright scam. Once they have the rights, they can do whatever they want with the music. And all that possible profit will not find its way to the music’s creator. That is simply unfair. And it’s disrespectful to musicians to insinuate we would be happy to hand over our music’s rights just for the chance of getting a little exposure.
Anyway, be careful out there. Always keep in mind your work is worth something and don’t settle for any bad deal.
Oh my. It’s been FAR too long since I’ve posted here and I must get back to doing this blog more regularly. So without further delay, here’s a little something to help you get the most you can out of a minute-long music loop.
The best way to make a minute seem like longer than a minute is to keep repetition to a minimum. The whole tune is going to be looped again and again, so why have things repeat internally? Music is generally structured in one of two ways, A->B->A or A->B. Music either returns home to the opening material (which is usually very nice, since we are temporal beings who tend to enjoy temporal art more when we recognize it and become more familiar with it) or it takes us on a journey from one place to another… home to somewhere else (a more risky proposition since the listener can become overwhelmed and unsure of what exactly is going on with no familiar landmarks to hold on to).
In concert music, ABA is king. The second A is pleasing and indicative of the end. In game music, AB should be king. Since game music usually loops, AB effectively becomes ABABABABABA… and so on. If you were to do ABA, there would be too much A. ABAABAABAABAABA… Yikes.
Of course, this is a very simplified example. In AB form, A and B are not each going to get 30 seconds. And in ABA form, A will not get 40 seconds while B gets only 20. When I speak of using AB form for looping music, I really mean that the music should take us on a journey that sets it up so that the listener will not recognize that A has returned. And that is best done harmonically. This is where the Shepard tone comes in.
The Shepard tone is a never-ending loop that appears to go either up or down forever. Hear an example and read more about about it here at Wikipedia. The listener can’t discern when the tone repeats itself and this is exactly what you should be going for as you construct your minute loop. Of course, this won’t be done in exactly the same way as a Shepard tone. That’s just an extreme example, but the end result should be the same.
Surprise the listener with your harmonic progression. Don’t give as I-IV-V-I in your loop. Take us somewhere unexpected, but make your last chord bring us back to I in a way that’s consistent with the rest of your piece. Often that means it’s not a dominant V chord. It could be chromatic or something else a little more interesting. Yes, the listener may feel a little overwhelmed at first but the beauty of it is that they’re playing a video game and music isn’t foremost on their minds. As it repeats a couple of times, their minds will grow accustomed to the journey your music is taking them through and they will get a never-ending sense of progression as the beginning of your loop flows so naturally from the end of your loop.
As an aside, and something that I’ve mentioned here before, this is another reason why techno music is so ill-suited to video games. Techno, at its core, is one of the most repetitive genres around. It’s cheap and easy to create, which is why I think it’s been used in so many video games. But it’s tiring. So tiring. 8 measures of drums, then those drums repeated with bass, then all of that repeated with some pad, and so on…
That’s not to say that techno instrumentation can’t be used as a force for good. It definitely can. But used in its typical way… not so great.
Anyway, I hope the concept of the Shepard tone can help you construct your next minute loop in a more interesting way. This is all pretty abstract stuff so when I find an example that I think can be useful, I like to let you know about it.