Friday, September 13, 2013

Creating COSMOS! - The Music

     Making music has been the most mysterious and fraught with technical and emotional difficulty of any art I have ever undertaken. If just one skill from this experience could go on with me, this one would be it.

     Music sets a critical foundation for how a game feels and plays. I knew that the music had to be perfect and wouldn't be something to be done cheap. With loads of license free music out there, which would have worked just fine, it would have been extremely easy to skip over this step. In fact, several of those pieces were used as place holders early in development. Yet, everyone who played the game told me the temp music had to go. It didn't serve the game well. This revealed a need to explore new skills and techniques I had never used before. New music had to be created for the game.

For the Philip Glass fans in the audience.

     Having grown up as a musician, my background was filled with strong influences as a performer and as one who appreciates a wide variety of musical styles. Yet, writing music has never been part of my musical experience. Drumming, piano, trumpet, guitar and singing are all skills in my musical toolkit so performance skills were not in short supply. Being a longtime Film, theatre and show score junky also served me well in this endeavor. Therefore, the music was up there, it just had no way of coming out of my head.

     Music production tools have, for so long, been prohibitively expensive. Keyboards, interfaces, editing software, sequencers, high powered audio editing workstations have historically made producing music extremely expensive. However, with the advent of the iPad and a legion of developers cranking on digital audio software, that threshold has dropped precipitously. Three tools were all that was need to create all of the music for COSMOS! The Akai SynthStation 25, iPad and MusicStudio2 for iPad was all it took. Music Studio2 is a straight forward digital audio workstation with all the standard bells and whistles one could desire. It also includes a fairly robust library of existing audio samples assembled into very usable instruments. The SynthStation plugs directly into the iPad and works with several of the major DAW apps. Overall, having spent less than $100 on tools and software, not including iPad, it blew me away that this was even possible.

Making it happen:
     Now I had to make music with all these cool toys. That first step was always the hardest. Coming up with a catchy phrase. Sitting at the keyboard, plinking out tunes that came to mind, then massaging them to perfection was the tricky first step. It had to capture the essence of the experience, which didn't always happen and several first drafts still lay unfinished in this stage.  Yet, with persistence and several nods to my deep well of influences, the melodies kept coming. That step was the one which is impossible to explain. It was the mystery that can not be put down in words, it just happened and I am glad it did, just in time. The next step was to layer in a bass track as well as harmonies and chord inversions in order to create textural complexity. Another trick was to build two melodies that would complement each other. Listen on COSMOS #8 for the Pachelbel Canon melody that intertwines with the alternate tune. The last step was to add in a drum line. This is the step that makes me feel guilty and conflicted. I used the drum tracks built into the software with only limited alteration on several songs. As a drummer, this makes me cringe but after weeks of trying to get it right, it just never happened and I had to rely on another source for the drums. Next time around I will most likely call on the talents of a skilled beat maker to fill that critical role.

     What amazed me most was how fast the process was. One or two evenings of work would result in the core sound being generated. Once the melody line was established, the tools made it extremely easy to pull the rest of the music out of my brain. Some quick editing for length and it was good to go.

Next Time:
1) Call on someone talented in beat making to build my beats.
2) Make a more conscious effort to unify the musical styles. I ended up all over the place style-wise and could have brought it back around to being more stylistically unified.
3) Make more music earlier. I think if I had written one piece early on, it would have set the tone of the entire project much more clearly. Instead, I used a temp piece that wasn't right and therefore held the production back.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Creating COSMOS! - Lets get started

     Having been involved in game production for 10+ years in the art and production side of the business, I have managed several internationally distributed teams with monster budgets. Overseen complex pipelines of production crisscrossing the globe. Answering to executives for budgets and decisions that could cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. This time around, however, I needed to do something different. My goal was to create something entirely by myself, with a budget of nothing, except for my time. I needed to create something simple. Something I had never done before. I needed to create an iPhone app.

     Over the years, having watched as others got to build cool games while I managed budgets and schedules, I filled a book with ideas for the next great video game. But as we all know, everyone has a "great idea for a game." We have been told this by countless well meaning folks who just want to help us make great games with their awesome ideas. Yet without having the experience of bringing an idea to fruition, all it is, is an idea. Enthusiasm and imagination only get you so far, then you need to sit down and do the work. Make it come to life. I needed to make something come to life.

     At this point, I had no idea how this was going to happen. I asked around. Several folks were working on apps with big teams and tried to discourage me because it took too much time, money and programming. I lacked basic programming or design skills and since my game would, no doubt, need cool music, I lacked any musical composition skills to create cool music. Add to that, as a full-time stay at home father, time is not exactly a luxury we parents are afforded much of. Last but not least, I was a PC guy and final dev for an iPhone app had to be done on a Mac. Not a conversion to be made lightly. Too many hurdles to jump. This was not going to happen. Not in the version of the universe I was inhabiting. So what did I do? I got started.