Composing an Indie RPG Title Track
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
(Cross posted from my personal dev blog site)
While I download and install Unity 4.6.21 beta, I think this is a good time to share all the work that is going into the music side of Archmage Rises.
Music sets mood, tone, and feel. Perhaps I should rephrase that: Music reinforces mood, tone, and feel. Music bypasses the (rational) mind and speaks to the imagination.
A quick demonstration of music's true power is to watch a movie trailer (say, Inception) with just video. Not quite the same without the music, is it? :-)
I met James Marantette three years ago at a game conference in Portland, Oregon. Our first conversation may have been about StarCraft—but deep inside, I realized that I had discovered a very talented composer. We ended up working together on a few tracks for my previous mobile titles—nothing on the scale of Archmage Rises. However, I’m beyond excited to report that James is willing to do all the sound and music for the game!
James is now going to show how we went from a vague idea to a title track that perfectly captures the spirit of Archmage Rises.
Music is fun because we evolved to respond to it. Music tells us how we are supposed to feel. It will let us know if we are winning, losing, suffering, or conquering. That is a lot of power to have at your fingertips, and my job is to provide music that can make a real difference. Thanks to previous works and past gaming experiences, Thomas and I have a very good set of rules and guidelines that help us achieve this with marginal casualties :) Now, what if we break that? What if we break the rules just a little bit?
I’ll say this several times in this piece: Thomas and I like cello. A lot.
What if we run that cello through a tube amp, some fx pedals, and a crazy big reverb? Magic. That’s what happens. Or, you know . . . a really nasty, dirty, bad sounding instrument. But that’s the point of trying and making different choices. While the track featured in this post leans toward a more generic title track, the feel of the game will be heavily set in "a little bit of something old and a little bit of something new.” It should be familiar territory with hints and whispers of something else. Something darker, something unexplored . . . something magical.
Archmage Rises needs a score, and Thomas asked me to do it. My name is James Marantette and I’ve been working on the music for Archmage Rises for the past several months. My background was in classical violin—and from there, I got into making electronic beats on my parents’ old computer. It’s been a long time and a long way from their basement, but the same childish wonder comes out every time I sit down to create. “What will this session produce?” “I wonder what happens if I do this.”
Creating is half technique and half inspiration. It’s about breaking down mechanical barriers and letting the creative side take over and just . . . create. It’s a blur when you look back. Hours can pass by, but the end result is usually exciting. For Archmage Rises, I want to pull from elements of electronic music and orchestral scores to make a soundtrack that stands out. I start everything “in the box” (no real instruments) and will, on bigger projects, go back and track real instruments over the fake parts during the final stage of music production. I run Logic Pro and use most of the East West plug-ins for my samples—and they can get about as close to the real thing as digitally possible.
With Archmage Rises, we didn’t know what we wanted the soundtrack to sound like. We knew it needed to have a serious, darker tone—but it was important for the music to still “let loose” and become what it was meant to be with minimal interference. It’s super important to get references in any sort of collaborative work, so Thomas and I collected a lot of music we liked (and that he wouldn’t mind hearing in the game).
One of the first questions James asked was which game soundtracks could be starting points for Archmage Rises. I sometimes listen to game soundtracks while I work: Mass Effect, StarCraft, and Sins of a Solar Empire. But my most memorable game soundtrack experience is found in Max Payne 2. I love that game. Not many people did, but I was completely captivated with it. It's a third-person shooter that is artistic, that has no respect for conventions. I played it through in one sitting on day one and have played through completion several more times. Something inside me said the cello from Max Payne 2's title track was the right place to start.
With that, I took off. I put together around a dozen tracks with various instruments and moods to see what did and didn’t work. We spent a couple months looking through instruments, locking down ideas, and we both came to agree that cello should be the sound we use as our main instrument. We didn’t want vanilla cello though, and we ended up liking the sound of it running through an amp with some heavy reverb and turned way down in the mix. This gives the sound some “grit” that really lends itself to the game, while still being “pretty."
One evening I sat down, determined to write something good—something fantastic. This would be it, the night I made my best piece. I got nothing done that night and mostly browsed Reddit while listening to iTunes for ideas. So I tried the night after . . . but nothing. Then the night after. . . and that’s when I got the first glimpse of “Choices." If the game is about choice, how can I put that in a piece? (Pretty simple idea, not sure why I couldn’t have thought of that the first night—but hey! That’s part of the creative process). I decided to use two cellos and have them follow two melodies that would become one unified harmony. Two cellos making two choices. Half the time, the melody would lead them to new places; sometimes, it would bring them right back where they started. It worked.
Core idea laid out with a few surrounding ideas
I wrote “Choices” in two hours. The core of the song is only about 20% of the work. Another 30% is finding a way to start and finish it while making the whole thing work. Then 40% is review, and adding small parts in where they fit. To throw out some more percentages: I spend an equal amount of time on the first 90% of the work and the last 10%. It’s that 10% that counts; it’s what makes the song sound good on my laptop speakers as well as my studio monitors. When I play it in a car or through headphones, I still hear all of the instruments and I don’t miss out on anything. The mix can be equally important to the arrangement and should always be given the time it deserves. Hopefully, the following breakdown gives you an idea of how I put a track together from start to finish.
First you have to pick your color palette: What key will you be in? What general progression do you want create? I pick an instrument, usually the one I want the core of the song to revolve around (in this case, cello). Then I sit down and play several bars on repeat and record take after take. I try different things, play with ideas, and enjoy a jam session with my computer. On “Choices,” I loaded up a cello sample library and went to town trying different arrangements with two cellos playing different parts.
Hopefully, I find something I like after a while. You see, art can be hard; it’s quite difficult to brute force it—and when someone does this, the audience can tell!
Once I have a theme or core idea, I write a full chord progression. Now I have a structure in place, and it’s time to decide on energy. Usually, I write the highest or lowest energy part first—and fill it in with either some synth pads/atmosphere or drums/staccato strings. Now I have my main part—and it just needs a beginning, middle, and end . . . like a story.
This is where I try other instruments. Find a second melody that complements what I’ve done so far—or perhaps a negative to my positive. In the case of “Choices,” I wrote the two cello lines first. I made three or four really good melodies and picked two to use in the first third of the piece. I surrounded it with slow but powerful strings and drums. I then wanted this extreme contrast where it goes from slow but strong to fast and delicate. It gives the song a needed change and ushers in the final third. This I wrote last, and it was a compilation of everything I had done up to that point. It crescendos to its peak, which mixes fast with slow and ends up just sounding fun. I was trying to have a good time with it; the game is an adventure story in a realm of fantasy, after all!
Now, keep in mind that throughout this process I was constantly sending tracks to Thomas. I religiously updated him with my thoughts every time I got some solid progression -- like the professional composer that I am :)
This is the point where James, excitedly, sent me a rough complete track to listen to. The track was a mess in places, but something about it was perfect. It doesn't sound anything like Max Payne 2, but it captures the feeling I wanted to extract from it. This is where it is important as a team leader to have imagination. It's not about what he sent me; it's about where he was going with it. James was totally on the right track. I gave some specific feedback on sections I thought were too long or didn't transition well, but I ultimately needed to trust his ability to polish the piece.
The thing I have enjoyed most in working with Thomas is his honesty. It’s straightforward, and it cuts a lot of time out of my work when I know that something isn’t sounding right for the game. It also lets me know that when I’ve done something right, it’s really right.
The end is added and overall movement is realized with additional instrumentation
Once I have the parts laid out, it’s time to go back and add any instruments that could be needed or pull out any that aren’t helping. Then I have to make final decisions on how the instruments will sound. Do I want these violins to be light and happy or dark? Is this synth easy to hear while still not drawing too much attention to itself? There are 30 tracks in my session, and each one needs some time alone with me to determine its rightful place in the mix.
Then it’s time to face the final 10%. Job one is listening to the song over and over and again--spending several hours mixing and making sure that everything is in its exact and correct place. Burning copies and listening in cars and through headphones. This is where the technical side has to take over. Creativity needs to give way to mechanical prowess and knowledge. I need to edit out the frequencies of the string section that are cutting into the drums. I need to have the piano cut through without just raising the volume. I need 35 tracks to sound like one big movement of sound. Oh, yes: Since the last chunk of work, I now have five additional tracks full of reverb and effects filling out space that was empty or tightening up drums.
The song is finally organized, parts are cleaned/edited/finalized and mixing begins
My hope is that you enjoy the piece. I like feedback and always look forward to what the community has to say about my work.
Seeing the collaboration slowly come together has been exciting. I’ve enjoyed the game’s art, and it has definitely affected the music I’ve made. I’m excited to be a part of Archmage Rises and can’t wait to play it!
[Phil Fish voice] I'm only one guy! I'm working as fast as I can! :-)
Check out James' SoundCloud portfolio. Feel free to contact him about your project.
You can tweet me @LordYabo