(note: This is a transcript of an episode of a podcast I was invited to take part in. The hosts were eager to talk to me about the music in the newly released game Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box and I feel honored to have been invited to appear on their show. The hosts will be familiar to anyone: Frankenstein’s monster, Bigfoot, and an alien. Their podcast is called “Frankenstein, Bigfoot, and an Alien Discuss Game Music and Ice Cream”. Look for it on iTunes. My segment appears about halfway through last week’s episode… )
ALIEN: Welcome back, humans. One of your kind is now with us. Behold Matt Sayre!
MATT: Thank you, Alien. I’m happy to be here.
BIGFOOT: (English accent) Welcome, Mr. Sayre.
MATT: Hi, Bigfoot and Frankenstein’s monster.
BIGFOOT: Oh, go ahead and call him “Frankenstein”. He’s grown accustomed to that particular appellation.
MATT: Great. I will, thanks.
ALIEN: Begin this interrogation by giving us the history of your project and the human faction that has created it.
MATT: Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box is a new hidden object puzzle adventure game based on the paranormal romance novel Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu. The game basically covers the first half of the book. You play as Dela Reese, a young woman traveling in China. She finds a mysterious riddle box and once she opens it she discovers an ancient warrior, Hari, who has been trapped within for centuries. He is cursed to serve as a slave to whomever possesses the box. You try to rid him of the curse and deal with the Magi, the antagonist who is responsible for the curse and who wants his riddle box back.
Our team, PassionFruit Games, was formed specifically to make this game and, we hope, all its sequels. Tiger Eye is the first in the Dirk & Steele (the psychic detective group Dela belongs to) series of books and it’s an exciting series, perfect for video games. The members of PassionFruit Games previously worked at Her Interactive (I did contract work for them, the rest were full-time), where they worked on the Nancy Drew Dossier series. Unfortunately, the Dossier series did not pan out (even though Resorting to Danger won Yahoo’s 2009 Hidden Object Game of the Year award) so the team was laid off. The day after being laid off, however, we were already planning this new venture. And last month we shipped TE: CotRB!
FRANKENSTEIN: Ahh… funn, ME play!
MATT: Oh good, glad you liked the game, Frankenstein! So far the reviews have been very positive and we’re very proud of the work we’ve done.
BIGFOOT: I was surprised to learn that you did over 70 minutes of music for the game. Dear chap, that’s a great deal of music for a casual game!
MATT: Yes, I decided early on that since this game and company are our own “babies” (even the author, Marjorie, is a founding member of PassionFruit and wrote the game’s script) that I would go way above the typical amount of music found in a casual game. For the two Nancy Drew Dossier games, for example, I only did around 13 minutes of music for each. In total there are, as you say, over 70 minutes of music and over 200 sound effects. I also contributed to the voice casting and edited the hundreds of voice files for the game (I also got to perform the very last line of the game… three whopping words which are not “I love you”, by the way). It was all a labor of love (pun intended) as I wanted the game to really shine in every aspect… couldn’t let audio be a weak link!
And, as an aside, I must mention that the soundtrack is available on the PassionFruit website as part of a package with the game or alone. It will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, and all the other major online digital music stores soon.
ALIEN: Capitalism will be the downfall of your species. That will make conquering your planet a straightforward undertaking. The time approaches!
BIGFOOT: Come now, Alien. Let’s leave those matters for another time. Getting back to topic, one of the things that stood out to me was the length of the menu tune. Over 7 minutes! Dear fellow, that’s a real shocker!
MATT: The menu tune was the first piece I composed for the game. I wanted it to be the basis from which the rest of the music was derived. And it does contain the three main musical themes for the game: the Riddle Box theme, Hari and Dela’s love theme, and the Magi’s villain theme. Here are the three themes:
FIG. 1 – Riddle Box theme
FIG. 2 – Love theme
FIG. 3 – Villain theme
Most of the pieces in the soundtrack contain an aspect of one or more of these themes. Sometimes the relations are explicit. Sometimes they are more hidden. But it’s important for a game soundtrack to have enough coherence to form a pleasing whole.
ALIEN: Yes. My people have analyzed the Tiger Eye soundtrack. And we constructed a visual representation of the overall structure of your soundtrack. Behold!
FIG. 4 – Visual representation of Tiger Eye’s soundtrack overall structure
MATT: Hey, that’s Stonehenge!
ALIEN: Correct. That is its human-given name.
MATT: That was constructed thousands of years ago!
BIGFOOT: Yes… indeed… our extraterrestrial friends do work in marvelously mysterious ways. Moving forward… does that formation of stones look like it represents the musical relationships accurately?
MATT: Yeah, it’s very accurate. Looks like the solid lines represent more obvious connections while the dotted lines represent more hidden connections, such as melodic inversions or fragments of theme. You can really see how most pieces link back to one or more of the three center melodies. Also, you can see how not all of the pieces are connected to another one. While I love coherence in my soundtracks, I find that not every piece needs to be connected to every other one. Most of them use similar instrumentation or a similar “feel” though so nothing really comes out of left field.
MATT: Yes, left field.
BIGFOOT: Sorry, one of his legs comes from a baseball player. He’s sensitive about baseball.
MATT: Gotcha. Anyway, maybe it would be helpful to talk about some of the specific pieces in the soundtrack? I’d love to give a little extra information about some of my favorites or the ones I find most interesting…
MATT: Ok, A) Main Theme … I’ve talked about how it contains the three main melodic ideas for the game. What’s interesting though is that as a 7+ minute piece only played during the main menu , I sort of consider this as an “Easter Egg”. How many people will actually sit and listen to the entire thing? That would probably only happen by mistake, if the player happens to answer the phone or otherwise be interrupted before they click “Play”. Players who have not yet bought the game and are only playing the one-hour demo will especially be disposed to getting into the game as quickly as possible. That’s the idea behind casual games anyway, right? To get in and get out whenever you want, as quickly as you want. But anyone who does hear the entire thing will be presented with a trip through the characters and emotion of the game, further helping to give the game an identity.
B) Find the Riddle Box
FIG. 5 – Find the Riddle Box snippet
This piece was created after a couple rounds of beta testing where the feedback indicated that players would probably like a more upbeat tune early in the game. I was probably about half done with the soundtrack and agreed that the music could be a little more upbeat. Going in to the project, I was envisioning lots of lush and beautiful pieces that would help relax and inspire the player. So I was thinking tempos would generally be slower and activity lower. But this is a game and the player does need a little kick in the pants every so often to propel them to the next scene and keep them playing. Also, music is all about contrasts and having a combination of quick, fun and slower, lush pieces just gives every piece more significance. I was very glad the beta testers were there to remind me of something so important.
ALIEN: This is why we breed Rigelian Flugmarfs after feeding them Goom treats. Makes the entire process less stressful for all involved. You will continue!
MATT: Yeah. Flugmarfs. Anyway, going on… C) Neuron Connection
FIG. 6 – Neuron Connection snippet
Talk about a contrast… this piece is the biggest departure of all. I wanted this to sound like it was recorded in the player’s head, sort of muffled and mysteriously active. The neuron minigame takes place essentially in Dela’s brain so I wanted this piece to feel very “inner” and contemplative. It’s a thinking game, after all. I think the piece also really helps to grab the player’s attention if it’s been drifting at all.
FRANKENSTEIN: Brain loud. SHHHHH….. Quiet! (throws his laptop across the room)
MATT: Sorry, Frankenstein. You probably shouldn’t play that so loud.
ALIEN: Final warning, Frankenstein. Cease all throwing. (shoots beam from his pinky finger towards the laptop, which starts floating and moving towards Frankenstein, repairing itself along the way)
BIGFOOT: I never fail to be amazed by those beams. Sorry, please do continue.
MATT: D) Bonus
FIG. 7 – Bonus snippet
This music is for the bonus level, a simple matching game which can grant the player extra “Psi Points”, or hints basically. It’s another departure piece, more exciting and fun than most of the others. I wanted to include it here to show how it hides one of the main themes, the love theme, within its melody using a common compositional tool, inversion. The contour of the melody is basically inverted, going up instead of down and down instead of up (at least for the first couple of measures, then the melody goes in its own direction). You can see it here:
FIG. 8 – Bonus – love theme inversion
E) Together We Rest
FIG. 9 – Together We Rest snippet
This piece actually introduces an entirely new melody. I didn’t want to use too much of the love theme early in the game so I created a new melody more about their growing friendship. It also is one of the more Chinese sounding pieces in the game, with the melody being introduced by the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument.
BIGFOOT: I do love the erhu. It reminds me of an instrument my mother played when I was but a wee foot. (takes pipe out of his bag and begins loading tobacco in it) If only I could play it, but I’m afraid my siblings took all the musical talent in this family! (lights a match and starts to light his pipe)
FRANKENSTEIN: FIIIRRRE!!! Burn Frankenstein… NOOO!!! (jumps up, knocking over his chair, pushes Bigfoot over and runs out of the room, screaming – more crashes and screams coming from the next room)
BIGFOOT: (picking himself up) I should have known that would happen. Lost in my own memories, once again. Don’t worry about old Frankenstein. He’ll soon forget why he’s afraid.
MATT: Poor guy. I guess I’ll just keep going. Ok, F) In the Restaurant
FIG. 10 – In the Restaurant snippet
Now this piece is the most Chinese sounding one in the soundtrack. It’s a new melody once again and uses many Western instruments but features the erhu and a Chinese flute. I wanted to include it here because it is a fun and catchy melody and completely transformed the scene once it was implemented. It really brought the player into an authentic restaurant in China. Next up is G) Games at the Dirt Market
FIG. 11 - Games at the Dirt Market snippet
This scene is all about helping kids find their lost toys and playing games with them so it had to have a very playful feel. It transforms the Riddle Box theme into a 3/4 time signature and turns it into a bouncy, joyful melody. It’s easily one of my favorites from the soundtrack and shows how malleable, while still recognizable, any melody can be. And finally, H) A New Disguise
FIG. 12 – A New Disguise snippet
This piece is unique because it is the only one, besides the Main Theme, to go through all three melodic themes. The Riddle Box and love themes are not as explicitly stated as the villain theme, however, as this scene is one of the more tense ones, seeing Dela and Hari needing to escape the scene of a crime. A lot of stuff came to a head right before this scene, so it made sense for the music to come together as well. The love theme actually blends right into the Riddle Box theme at one point, as you can hear in the snippet in FIG 12.
FRANKENSTEIN: (walking back in, quietly humming and holding a flower) Prettyyy… many parts… (hands flower to Matt)
MATT: Thank you, Frankenstein.
ALIEN: Frankenstein is constructed of many different parts as well. An inefficient and dangerous way to create life. Will you humans never learn?
BIGFOOT: Haha… so true, Alien. But this piece does seem to affect him more than any of the others. (Frankenstein smiles then closes his eyes then quickly falls asleep)
MATT: Glad it has soothed him. Anyway, those were some of the pieces I thought were worth pointing out.
BIGFOOT: I am glad you shared your insights to these pieces, sir. Now, I have heard about one of your theories concerning game composition and modularity. Something about seeds? Do share.
MATT: Yeah, this is just a way of looking at composition that one of my teachers and I developed in grad school. Since game music doesn’t always come when expected, it’s useful to look at game music as modular and try to structure it in a way that makes sense no matter what order you hear it in. So instead of plodding along, melody after melody for instance, you sometimes just allude to a melody or other musical idea with a short snippet of it, even if only for a few notes. If this snippet comes early in the gameplay, it becomes a “seed” and grows into something full later on when the player encounters it in its full form. This is a very satisfying experience, whether or not the player realizes why. If that snippet comes later in the gameplay, after the player has already heard the full theme, the snippet is then an “echo”. That is also a satisfying musical event. It’s important to season the music throughout the soundtrack with these seeds and echoes.
TE: CotRB was more of a linear gaming experience, however, so modularity wasn’t that important when constructing the soundtrack. I could control when the seeds and echoes appear. One important seed comes in the very first cutscene, when a flute briefly appears in a dream and plays the first part of the Riddle Box theme. As I’ve already mentioned, that theme continues to grow throughout the game. Then, a very effective echo comes in the very last cutscene, as the protagonists go forward towards their next adventure in a cliffhanger ending, the melody comes back as an ominous echo.
ALIEN: We have seeded many planets with our kind. Yours is next!
MATT: Yeah, you keep saying stuff like that, but…
ALIEN: Quiet! You will be our laborers. And we like your doughnuts. We will need many more doughnut fabrication centers.
MATT: That might not be so bad.
FRANKENSTEIN: (waking up) Doughnuuuuts….
BIGFOOT: Oh dear, Frankenstein’s waking up. That means our hour, regrettably, is almost up! Before we go, could you talk a little bit about the cutscenes and scoring music for them?
MATT: There were a ton of cutscenes in TE: CotRB, something like 25 of them. And I was responsible for all the audio in them. I must say doing the cutscene music was in many ways easier than doing the gameplay music. Being tied to specific visuals takes some of the pressure off. You know exactly what’s going on while your music is playing, unlike during gameplay when it’s much more abstract. Also, the cutscenes have a great deal of dialog so the music is always secondary to that.
There is a great deal of pressure providing the audio, however, as the audio is always last in the cutscene assembly line. I had to wait for the cutscenes to be time locked before I could really sit down and start writing the music and adding the voice and sound effects. This meant that I had to be on top of my game to really crank out the audio tracks. I was actually still working on them the weekend before launch. If I’m late, the game’s late. Yikes. I ended up doing 3 cutscenes a day on some days. But that’s just the way it is. It’s pretty exciting and always extremely rewarding to see how it works in game.
ALIEN: Our time expires! Now give us a summary.
MATT: Ok, sure!
What went right:
1) No time limit for the soundtrack. Oh so nice to be free of the 1-minute loop beast. Ended up with 70+ minutes. And being part of the team from the start meant I didn’t have to rush to finish that much music.
2) Communication with the team. Both the art director and producer have musical experience and were very helpful in communicating what they needed for a scene or cutscene. Any change requests were very effectively communicated.
3) The material (the story). Marjorie’s book is a paranormal romance novel. I normally wouldn’t read such a thing but when I did I discovered an entertaining story full of suspense and emotion. The story isn’t all sappy lovey mush (if at all), but it is rather a captivating read with a variety of emotions that lent itself very well to an array of musical moods.
4) Team’s drive to succeed. PassionFruit Games was born out of harsh times. The entire group had been laid off in the middle of an economic disaster and decided to tighten their belts and make their own game. Our fate was in our own hands. Nobody wanted to be the weak link so there was a dedication to making the best game possible to try and bring this new romance reader market to games. It wasn’t easy, but our survival depended on making a great game so the drive was generally unquestionable. In only 7 months, we made something we could be proud of.
What went wrong:
1) Time crunch at end. As mentioned, this was stressful but fairly unavoidable with our aggressive schedule. Simply the nature of doing audio for games as well.
2) Not enough Chinese flavor. Since this half of the novel takes place exclusively in China, it would have been nice to have at least a couple other heavily Chinese influenced pieces in the soundtrack. I think there is enough as is, but it would have been fun to do a little more.
3) Wasted tracks. A couple of pieces I composed had to be cut out of the game. Due to beta/focus testing, we decided to alter some of the gameplay and remove a cutscene. This ended up definitely making a better game, but it was sad to see that music go to waste. At least now the soundtrack had a couple of “bonus” pieces, so it’s not all bad.
4) Budget. As a start-up, the necessities funded by loving family, we didn’t have a lot of extra money to use for some of the things we’d like, like a few more live instrumentalists or equipment upgrades. I should mention here that live musicians are very important, especially evident in the Main Theme where the flute and alto flute were played by amazing Seattle musician Dane Andersen.
BIGFOOT: Thank you very much for sharing your time with us. Good luck to you and PassionFruit. I’ve played through the game and had a wonderful time.
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
ALIEN: You have represented your planet well. You will be spared in the coming invasion.
MATT: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on the show!
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
ALIEN: Now leave us. On next week’s podcast, we will discuss the recent rise in chocolate chip mint quality and what it means for French vanilla. Good night.
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
(You can reach Matt Sayre at email@example.com )
(Frankenstein’s monster, Bigfoot, and the alien are probably not real. Nor is their podcast.)
Today, PassionFruit Games announced the project they’ve been working on for the past couple of months. And by “they” I mean “we” as I am a member of the new company along with my wife and the rest of the team that did such good work on the Nancy Drew Dossier games.
…quick digression before moving on… I should mention that Nancy Drew Dossier: Resorting to Danger took home Yahoo Games’ 2009 Hidden Object Game of the Year award and was nominated for their overall Casual Game of the Year, losing out to a little game called Plants vs. Zombies. So that’s a nice little feather under our cap and we feel very good about our new project… which I’m getting back to now…
Today we announced that we have the extremely good fortune of being able to adapt Marjorie M. Liu’s book Tiger Eye to video game form. More specifically, it will be a hidden object casual game with plenty of other puzzles to take you from exciting location to exciting location. The book is in the “paranormal romance” genre, and there are almost no other games of this genre in the US today. We are excited to bring the game to romance readers and casual game players alike.
So what’s this got to do with my GAME MUSIC blog? Well, I am positively giddy about working on this game. All shackles have been removed and I have free reign to make a soundtrack worthy of Marjorie’s story. All told, the game will have between 50 and 60 minutes of music. Every cut scene requiring music will have its own unique music, as will each hidden object scene. The puzzle games will also have their own music. Bye bye, minute loops! I am genuinely excited that this game will be able to avoid the aural repetition so prevalent in even the best of today’s casual games. The size of Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box’s soundtrack would consume too much budget for most casual game companies, but this being our own company, we can do what we want! The main menu music alone is over 7 minutes long. Many casual games are lucky to have 7 minutes of music in the entire game.
The game’s entire soundtrack will be available to buy as a bundle with the game in April when it is released. And if you preorder the game now you can get the 7-minute “Tiger Eye Suite” instantly, a good sneak peek at what the rest of the soundtrack will sound like. Here are two short samples:
Riddle Box theme:
The 7-minute main menu suite takes us through three musical themes. The first is the “riddle box” itself and serves as the overall theme of the game. The player will hear it in many incarnations as they play through the game. The second is the love theme between the two main characters, Dela and Hari. The third musical theme is based on the Magi… a very very bad guy indeed. The suite wraps up with the riddle box theme again presented in a much more positive setting (minor to major of course).
The flute is played by an excellent local professional musician, Dane Andersen. His playing instantly added so much life to the music and is once again proof that you should bring in live players as often as time and budget will allow.
I should also add that over the past week I’ve been editing (and finally finished yesterday) the game’s voice files. Voice actors really help bring the characters to life, and having voice is probably even more important in a romance game. Marjorie was integral in the selection of the voice actors so hopefully we’re getting something very near to what she intended her characters to sound and behave like.
I will keep you posted as we continue working on this game. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as we have our dream team together and a dream license to work on. Maybe I don’t have absolute free reign, as the music of course needs to complement the game, but it is coming together already as something very special. You can expect a full post-natal on this once it’s been released.
My first composition professor in college asked one day what I wanted to compose next. I mentioned some pieces I’d be interested in writing, including a big blues piece with horn section and maybe some strings. I was listening to a lot of BB King and other blues artists at the time and wanted to create something big, not just guitar, bass and drums. My professor said I should do that, but as a side project on my own time since that really just involves “laying down tracks.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that comment, as composition can take many forms. I decided to just let the comment simmer in my mind awhile and figure out its deeper meaning as I continued on my path towards compositional Enlightenment (which I have yet to reach).
Now I’ve come to understand several things about this “laying down tracks” comment. This gets to the heart of what it means to compose. Composition, as I now define it, is the process of working various sounds together in a meaningful construction of varying complexity. Technically, laying down tracks is composition. But it puts greater limits on the complexity aspect of the music. While doing a new track, you are at the mercy of the track that came before it. You can go back later and change any track you want of course, but this soon becomes a practice simply of trial and error.
That’s not to say it’s not fun. It can be. And great pieces of music can result from the process. But it’s like building a house one wall at a time with no architectural house plan. You will build something, but opportunities to make something really interesting will more likely than not be lost. To take full advantage of the sounds available to you, it’s important to start with an overall vision and work in the details. Your sounds will all fit together just like you want and this will give your music a depth that will be appreciated by the listener, either consciously or subconsciously. But it will be appreciated. And you will also enjoy the side benefit of more often avoiding the plague that is writer’s block.
What does this mean for game music? It means getting a copy of Garageband or Acid or some other looping software and using it to create pieces will result in only the shallowest, most cliched type of music. This should not be good enough for today’s games with their ever-increasing production values. Of course, game soundtracks do not need to have the complexity of Schoenberg or Bach but they do need to have their own spark. That spark is often only created when the piece is first lighted in your mind.
The last time I upgraded my music notation/transcription software was when I bought Finale 2000 back in… 2000. It served me well, but in the course of going through the latest mega music store catalog I saw the list of stuff in the latest Sibelius version (6). And there it was: Rewire support.
Sibelius seems to have all the same sort of stuff Finale has. It doesn’t have music scanning software built in, but I don’t really need that. Other extraneous stuff that Finale has I won’t miss either, like the Garritan instruments. Sibelius seems to have improved some basic notation things as well, like its “magnetic” item placement. But what’s really sold me is the Rewire support.
No more will I have to go from program to program just to hear stuff through Nuendo. This is going to make my work flow easier and quicker. Why Finale hasn’t yet put Rewire into their program I’ll never know. It’s such a basic item and I’m sure tons of music professionals would appreciate that.
I’ve heard for years that Sibelius is the program the pros use. Finale worked fine for me for 16 years, but I’m looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about. Anything that might save my time is going to get my attention.
All that said, my copy of Sibelius 6 came in the mail today and I’ll let you know how it goes…
About a year ago I posted an interview where I gave my advice on how to break into the game industry as a composer. It focused on your abilities and readiness. I thought it was time to get into one of the more technical details of breaking in, which is… just how much will getting started cost you? Assuming you’ve got the skills and the legitimate confidence to make it in the biz, let’s take a look at the equipment you’ll need and the associated cost.
And a disclaimer: I will mention specific pieces of equipment in this post, but I don’t have any monetary interest in doing so. Either I’ve had good experiences with the equipment or they have a good reputation and should serve you well for years.
And another disclaimer: I’m assuming all the equipment I list will be compatible with everything else on the list. I’m not actually putting together this studio, but if I were I would make sure all the equipment will work together in harmony… you know, drivers and all that. Your local music store or an online store (Sweetwater is very nice in this regard) can help you make sure all your parts will work together.
1) Computer & Accessories ($3050)
You don’t need the latest, greatest computer to get started. Even mid-range machines these days are going to give you enough horsepower to run your demanding audio applications. I’m a PC guy (more bang for the buck) so let’s look at a system that should work well for us:
Computer- I put together a quad-core Velocity Micro system for our hypothetical studio with 6GB RAM and 2 500GB hard drives for about $1900. It’s important to keep your samples on their own hard drive for most efficient performance. 6GB of RAM is a good start, but it never hurts to get more RAM. Samples are very RAM hungry. ($1900)
Computer monitor- 23″ widescreen LG: The bigger the screen, the better. You’ll have lots of information on many windows to sort through as you work. ($250)
Audio interface- RME Hammerfall HDSP 9652: You need this to get audio from your microphones into your computer, and then from your computer into your studio monitors. This is a high quality, very clean sounding PCI card. ($700)
MIDI controller- M-Audio Keystation 88es: This is a basic 88 key controller. You can upgrade to something with more buttons and lights, but this will get you the basics. ($200)
2) Recording & Monitoring ($5460)
Microphone preamp- PreSonus DigiMAX 96k: 8 channel microphone preamp capable of up to 24bit/96kHz output. This will be all you ever need for live recording every now and then. ($1300)
Microphones- For recording instruments and voice: AKG C 3000b ($430), Shure SM58 (2 for $200 total), Shure SM57 (2 for $200 total), AKG D112 (for bass instruments, $250)
Studio Monitors- Mackie HR824mk2: Great studio monitors, flat frequency response, very true sounding. (2 for $1300 total)
Monitor stands- 1 pair ($100)
Digital to Analog converter- Apogee Mini-DAC: This will convert the digital signal from the computer to the analog signal the monitors can understand. ($800)
Mini mixer- Behringer XENYX 1204: To easily adjust the volume of your studio monitors. ($130)
Headphones- Get at least 2 pairs, the brand and style is up to you. (2 for estimated $300 total)
Headphone amp- ART HeadAmp V: Independent volume levels for up to 5 pairs of headphones. ($120)
Misc- Cables, mic stands, pop screen ($200)
Acoustic treatment- Auralex Roominator D36: This is used to get rid of common acoustic troubles like flutter echo. You may need more treatment such as bass traps depending on your room. Speaking of your room, make sure it’s as large a room as you can spare. This will help make sure the audio you hear coming out of your monitors is as true as can be. ($130, maybe more depending on your needs)
3) Software & Samples ($5700)
Nuendo 4- This is a very powerful piece of software that can do it all. It’s a great (much more affordable) alternative to ProTools and will handle all your music, sound effects, and voice. ($1800)
Adobe Audition- This will help you edit individual files, including mastering. ($350)
Finale 2010- This is notation software, useful for giving parts to your live players as well as orchestrating your pieces for sampler. ($500)
Samples- I would suggest many of the East West Quantum Leap samples to get started, including their Orchestra Platinum Complete, Symphonic Choirs, Goliath, and Ministry of Rock. Look around for other samples to start your collection. And be ready to invest in samples throughout your career. The more options you have to choose from, the better. ($3000)
Front Porch Band- Banjo and tuba: Ok, this one is completely self-serving since I created these. But in my humble opinion, you won’t find a better banjo or tuba! (http://frontporchband.com) ($50)
So, there you have it. To get a nice studio up and running will set you back just under $15k. A keyboard and a few soundfonts just won’t cut it if you’re serious about making a career out of your music. You’ve invested in yourself through your education. Now don’t cut corners when it comes to the studio in which the magic will happen.
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.
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.
I thought it might be useful to make a list of some excellent free VST’s for some of the composers and sound designers out there. I’ve been using these regularly over the last five years (or more in some cases) and they all have been solid, stable, and of a value much beyond their price:
MadShifta – A quick and easy way to pitch shift your tracks, MadShifta can help quickly add some spice to your music track or sound effect. With controls for delay, feedback, and resonance, you can shape the sound of your new pitch shifted track. This is an especially useful plug-in when used for sound effects creation.
Triangle I and II – Well, this was a surprise… as I was researching for this blog, I discovered this VST has been absorbed by Cakewalk (Roland). Thankfully, it’s still free! Triangle I and II are full of many excellent synthesizer sounds and give you the ability to shape your own sounds as well. It’s a very well designed plug-in and has been very stable in my rig for more than six years now. Great stuff.
Crystal – Another excellent synthesizer, Crystal can help bring some unique sounds and rhythms to your music. Like Triangle, Crystal is full of many great sounds but also has a powerful way to synthesize your own. One hit against it is that it is not as stable as other VST’s, but on the whole it is well worth a download. The user interface is decent but could also be a little easier. But for a free VST, you won’t go wrong with Crystal.
Audio Arpeggiator – This one unfortunately isn’t VST, but rather a DirectX plug-in. It can help add some neat rhythmic effects to any of your audio tracks. I find it useful for some music tracks, but mostly use it in the creation of sound effects.
Delay Lama – Ok, this one’s not going to get a whole lot of usage, but if you ever need a virtual singing monk, this one is the one to use. It’s got a hilarious interface and lots of different options to help you get just the right virtual monk for your music.
So there you have it, some of the VST’s that I’ve gotten tons of use out of over the last few years. Give some of them a try and see what you think.
It’s the nature of humans to seek to create great things in art. And often, they do. Then another nature of humanity kicks in, and that nature is to copy that great thing until it is worn so thin that nobody wants that great thing anymore. It goes something like this:
Mr. Doonbugger figures out a cool new way to light a scene for his still camera. It brings out an aspect of people’s faces that nobody has really seen before. He shows his photos in his gallery, then his photos gain a wider audience through magazines, books, and even TV. Before you know it, people around the world are using his method. A shoe company starts using his method in their advertisements to sell their shoes. A movie director figures out a way to use the method in video. Within a year, you see Mr. Doonbugger’s lighting method appear in consumer electronics stores. Six months after that, everyone’s sick of that look. What once was unique and original and idiosyncratic of one person’s work is now a cliche. Nobody want to see it anymore.
Mr. Doonbugger is of course a fictional character and his lighting method story is just a piece of fiction. But it’s got to remind you of many, many things… The Matrix bullet time, live motion animation, Ken Burns photo panning just to name a few. It’s easy to see when a visual style gets ripped off time after time, but it’s important to recognize (and put a stop to) sonic clichés as well. This blog post will point out some of the big musical clichés through history. Let’s take it chronologically…
213,000 BC – Branch hit against tree: This brilliant invention of Kurpnar, a struggling composer of the era, was used at first only in the performance of Kurpnar’s unforgettable opera “Me Eat Bird I Hope”. It was received so well in that opera that he used it in the rest of his compositions until his death at the late age of 20. Other composers of the time of course saw the possibilities in using branch hit against tree and used it in their music as well. There were many years where you couldn’t walk by a forest without hearing improvisers banging away at their favorite trees. Needless to say, the trend didn’t last more than 15 years or so, after people got tired of listening to the same general sound again and again. All sorts of experimentation with branch and tree sizes yielded results that couldn’t save this particular cliché. (it should be noted that this particular cliché is unverifiable, and probably made up)
mid 20th-century – Soap opera organ fully diminished chord: This is a joke today, but it was a staple of television soap operas before they got electronic instruments. Here is an example (thanks to Soundsnap):
Soap opera, uh oh!
This is the first thing I think of when I think about audio clichés. It’s so worn out that it doesn’t have its intended effect anymore. It can’t possibly be taken seriously and is now used ironically whenever you hear it. Even ironically, it’s old however.
1989 onward – Batman theme: I already talked about this in an earlier “Thou Shalt Not” blog, but wanted to bring it up again in this blog because I recently noticed they use it as Sharon’s theme in the new Battlestar Galactica. Now as a cliché it only serves to take me out of the moment when I’m watching that show. I didn’t know Cylons were Batmen.
mid 1990′s – Waterphone: Spooky! (he first starts playing about 45 seconds in)
The first time you hear this instrument, you can’t help but be creeped out. The first time you hear it in a scary movie, you can’t help but feel the tension rise. Then, maybe the second and third time you hear it in a movie it still is pretty freaky. Then you hear it in a game, then another game… then an ad, then some idiotic reality TV show. Well, its power has now been exhausted. We’re at the point now where it’s not scary. It’s a cheap shortcut to try and achieve a mood of fear, but its overuse has made it ineffective. It can now be retired, along with all those scary little kids that are supposed to frighten us in every scary movie and game.
late 1990′s – Autotune: I’ve already chronicled this plug-in’s overuse in an earlier “Thou Shalt Not” blog. But, for fun, here’s the Cher song that made that effect famous:
This could be seen when it first emerged as a way of futurizing a piece of music. Ooh, we’re now in the future… cool! Well, with its overuse once again we see a once intriguing idea be run into the ground.
Well, there you have it… a brief history of some of the most obvious musical clichés. Next time you hear one in a movie, game, or on tv, be sure to throw your chair through the monitor and let them know you’re not going to take it anymore.
Compression is a useful tool. It lowers the loudest parts of an audio waveform so you can then raise the volume level of the entire waveform. It basically reduces the dynamic range of a sound. It can be used on individual tracks (commonly vocal tracks) or used on an entire piece of music. That is where it can be quite dangerous. Over the past couple of decades, audio engineers have been squashing the soup out of their music. Things that should be quiet are just as loud as things that should be loud. A solo acoustic guitar will sound just as loud as a full metal rock group.
Why have engineers been doing this? Partly because people perceive louder things to sound better. Also, because a vicious cycle has been developing… one engineer pushes their group’s levels up, so another engineer goes one level up, then another engineer goes even higher and so on. The result is that every new CD that comes out has its dynamic range further squashed. It’s gotten ridiculous. Check out this example of The Beatles’ song Something over the last 25 years:
Thanks to Wikipedia for this image. It’s a great illustration of this trend toward higher volume levels and lower dynamic ranges. Check out the “Loudness war” Wikipedia entry to find out more about the history of this issue.
I hope this blog can serve as a warning to audio content providers for games. With games, volume is even more of an issue. With sound effects, voice, and music all needing the player’s attention it’s tempting to just squash the music’s dynamic range so it’s more easily controllable. But with proper planning and attention to context, that shouldn’t be necessary. Orchestrate the music correctly. For mellow scenes or levels, go quiet. For action-packed scenes and levels, write loud. This is common sense of course. And we’re talking about averages. It’s ok if the music isn’t always completely audible. The player can deal with that. If they miss a particular section of the music during a loud explosion or gunfire, they’ll hear it again next time the music loops. It’s ok. A large portion of today music engineers may think that is heresy, but they have forgotten one simple idea:
When everything is loud, nothing is loud.
I’m not sure who originally said this, but it’s absolutely true. What makes music interesting is, at a very basic level, contrast. Loud vs. soft, high vs. low, quick vs. slow, simple vs. complicated. Abusing compression effectively kills the possibility for contrast between loud and soft. And, frankly, it starts to tire the ears. And things end up sounding not quite right, especially in orchestral music. A solo bassoon should not sound as loud as an entire orchestra. The listener should have to listen a little more attentively. They’re not going necessarily to hear the bassoon’s keyclicks or the player’s breaths. Unfortunately, with compression they might hear that sort of thing.
So, let’s not fall into the trap that the recording industry has fallen into. With them, they want it all to be super loud on the radio and over the internet. They have succumbed to the “louder is better” philosophy of music, using loudness as the main criterion for goodness. Louder is, in reality, just… louder. And probably worse… unnatural and tiring. Don’t be afraid to let your music breathe and flow as you compose it. And then don’t squash all the life out of it when you mix and master it. Trust that, if you have done your job correctly as a composer and a sound designer, the music will work just fine in your game.