Archive for May, 2013

May 11, 2013


I composed a new piece of music for an upcoming IGT game this past week, that is quite different from anything else I have done for a slot machine. It is rare to use electronic instruments, but the producer and game designer feel strongly that a modern dance mix style would work well in this game and we should push the envelope. So I started experimenting with my synthesizers to come up with a track that conveys that vibe.

The drums in this music style are very simple, yet infectious. There must be something primal in human beings, causing a simple, pulsing beat to get them up on their feet and dancing when hearing it. So the drums are a very simple, repeating pattern.

Electronic dance music also relies heavily on arpeggios. This is a musical term that refers to individual notes making up a chord, rather than all the notes being played at one time. Modern synthesizers often have arpeggiators that will automatically arpeggiate chords played on the keyboard. More sophisticated arpeggiators will also allow for extensive control over the timbre of the sound. So if the composer is locked into a very specific tempo and a repeating pattern of notes, the thing that will make the song interesting then, is the chord progression.

My first layer of arpeggios was actually composed on a piano so that I could hear the basic chord progression. That chord progression was then transferred into an arpeggiator, which then automated the rhythm and timbre of the notes.

As I added more arpeggiated tracks, the challenging part was in creating music that has interesting musical counterpoint. Counterpoint in music is when there is more than one melody being played at the same time. These different melodies play off of each other and combine to create a whole, seamless piece of music.

As I always do, once I have a good demo of the direction that I’m taking with a piece of music, I call in the producer and game designer to get their feedback. That way I’m not wasting time. After they heard this piece, the producer turned to me and apologized for not knowing the musical terminology, but she didn’t care for the “tinkly” sound. Despite the description, I knew exactly which layer she was talking about. I disabled that layer and played it again. This time she loved it and they both gave me the green light to finish the piece and put it into the game.

That fifth layer of counterpoint was the only issue she had with the piece. And that made me start wondering how many layers of counterpoint can be played before it becomes confusing to the listener.

As it so happens, my family just watched the 1987 film version of “The Untouchables,” which features an outstanding music score by Ennio Morricone. There is a scene toward the end of the movie where United States Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) is chasing Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, a henchman for the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. The music in this film sequence is very intense and it uses counterpoint to convey those emotions. When the movie was over, I listened to that music again. It contains four layers of melody and rhythm— just like my piece when I removed that fifth layer.

So I’m thinking that four layers of counterpoint is the magic number that the brain can understand, without being overwhelmed or confused. Thank you, Ennio Morricone, for not only a great movie soundtrack, but for also teaching me another lesson in music.

And by the way, if you are interested in learning more about Ennio Morricone, he also was famous for scoring several of Clint Eastwood’s “Spaghetti Westerns” such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

Here is a YouTube clip from “The Untouchables” to which I am referring:

May 5, 2013


As the projects get bigger, the budgets expand and more people’s jobs are on the line, you jump through more hoops as a composer. That’s not necessarily bad. It just means that the iterative process becomes longer.

When I was hired to create the music score for Rise Of Legends (ROL), I had already proven my composing and producing skills on many other games. This game had the fortunate circumstance of having a big budget for the music score. While I did have a budget for live musicians on Rise Of Nations, it was not big enough to hire live recording session musicians for every part. But as you gain more experience, people tend to gain trust in your abilities.

When you get to the point of managing a large music budget, there are lots of checks and balances that go along with it, every step of the way. So in ROL, I didn’t just start composing full-length music cues. I was presented with a rough script and concept art that depicted the direction the game was going. I was then asked to come up with a number of short themes that might support that direction.

This can be a double-edged sword for a composer, or any other creative person. On the plus side, you have an opportunity to come up with a lot of ideas in a short format that might work in the project and actually help steer its direction. And when the creative spark hits other team members in the project, great things can happen. But the down side is that the creative flow is interrupted. Composing is often a matter of following your gut emotions and interpreting them in musical form. Those emotions can be lost if you stop, then go back to finish the piece that you started weeks or months ago.

While researching this blog, I took a listen to the initial themes that I came up with for ROL. It was interesting to hear that one actually made it into the game as written. The rest of these themes were used as a starting point to create music cues that ended up in the game. There are other short themes out of the original 15 that were never used because the emotional connection to that feeling had passed and couldn’t be restored.

But you never know when listening to those short cues which ideas might reignite a fire in the future. Always press that “record” button. Always save those files. Because you never know when they will inspire you to finish your original thought.

This YouTube video is a montage of my favorite short themes that I created electronically for ROL in my studio in Woodinville, WA.