Tag Archives: OST

“Why is the Princess in a Magic Forest?!” PART 2

(This is part 2. Please read part 1 first.)

I mentioned at the end of my last post how I finished composing the five tracks for “Magic Forest” over the summer of 2013. I exported two versions of each, one that ends exactly at the loop point so that it can be used in the game, and another one that repeats twice and fades out for use in a future soundtrack release. I sent the tracks to Michael (the game’s creator, in case you forgot) and I was ready to call it done.

I listened to my finished tracks over and over, partly for enjoyment, partly because I wanted to make sure I was completely happy with them. The game was still not finished at that point (and as of my writing this it still isn’t, actually), so I had plenty of time to torture myself over every little detail in the compositions. Sometimes I’d find a single note that I didn’t like, or an artifact left over during the mixing phase when I let a track clip. Any number of things. So I went back into the tracks many times, fixing them, changing them, adding to them, taking away. Eventually, I really did settle on them for a long time. I moved on to other personal projects, just writing music for the sake of writing music as Michael continued to work on the game.

I wrote a number of tracks, stepping out of my comfort zones in terms of instruments and styles. I felt like I was increasing my skills more and more with each track that I completed. Not only was I getting better at composing, but I was also learning a lot about mixing. It seemed like each piece that I finished felt more polished than the last.

During the winter holidays of 2013 I treated myself to a major upgrade for my modest home studio. I bought a bunch of new, professional quality virtual instruments and mixing plugins, and a 2TB external USB 3.0 hard drive to house them. I started writing new pieces using these instruments and was blown away at how good the samples sounded.

Likewise, I now had a plethora of new mixing tools that I had never used before now at my disposal. As I started to get a feel for how best to utilize them, my mixes started to really come alive: they were clearer, roomier, louder, and more dynamic.

All it took was for me to listen to my old “finished” tracks for “Magic Forest” to know what I had to do. The game still wasn’t done, which meant that I had plenty of time to revisit each track, and improve upon them with the tools I’d acquired and the skills I’d developed over the previous few months. I did the absolutely crazy thing and decided to rework to large extent every single track that I had finished.

I started with the shortest track of the five, the main menu music. The first thing I did was switch out the old string samples that I had used for the new professional quality instruments that I had bought. Turns out that it’s not so simple though. The previous string library I had used was quite nice, but it was a rather simple instrument without much in terms of changing articulations or dynamics and such. By simply switching the instrument, the performance of the MIDI notes was no longer correct. So I went back into the part and meticulously sculpted every note, providing different articulations for the legato transitions, and dynamic and other performance changes throughout.

After I was happy with the composition and performance aspect of the piece, it was time to bounce the MIDI to brand new audio files and start from a completely fresh mix. Each instrument received its own separate audio track, bounced completely dry (no reverb) and with no panning. With all the different parts before me, I started to mix. I started off by adjusting the relative volumes of the instruments so that they were approximately where I wanted them. Then I panned them to the left, right, and center to my taste. Next came EQ. I learned over the previous few months that less is more, so I adjusted each instruments EQ just enough to make the parts stand out, both in the mix, and from the other parts without being overpowering. Then I added individual reverb to each instrument, dialing in the amount of wet and dry in order for it all to work good together. Lastly, I added compression to a few of the instruments that still seemed to be a little too buried in the mix, mainly the percussion.

After bouncing all of the audio tracks to a new one, I still had a little bit of headroom so I added a limiter and bumped it up just enough to give the overall volume a little extra push, but not so much that every single part of the track sounded the same. I wanted the track to remain dynamic and interesting, not exhausting.

After finishing the new mix for the main menu music and comparing it to the old mix, I knew that I had to do the same treatment to the other tracks. I did the same for the music for stages 11-20 the following weekend, again getting very good results by switching the strings, and applying my improved mixing skills to the track.

Just this past Saturday (February 1st, 2014), I had a marathon mixing day. I worked from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM mixing the remaining three pieces. I started with the music for stages 1 through 10, then moved on to the “boss” music, then finished with the longest one, the music for stages 21-30.

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After all that, you’d think I’d be done, right?
No.
Stick around for Part 3 and see why I was pretty much forced to go back and do one final rewrite.

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“Why is the Princess in a Magic Forest?!” PART 1

It has been my dream to compose music for video games for a long time. Last summer (the year 2013), I was particularly motivated to somehow land a job writing for a game. I didn’t care what it was. I had been writing music for too long to have it just sit, unheard, on my computer hard drive. So I sent out a message on Facebook asking if anyone knew someone who was making a video game and needed a composer. A friend of mine who I studied with at Kyushu University a few years before was classmates with a guy named Michael who was currently hard at work making a game. Turns out he was doing everything from programming, to level design, to art design entirely by himself. Luckily for me he was in need of a composer. My friend put us in touch and we started communicating via Facebook.

Michael was working on a kind of puzzle game that he called “Why is the Princess in a Magic Forest?!”, or “Magic Forest” for short. When I first got in contact with him he had the basic gameplay mechanics in place, and some very rough-looking sample videos showing character movement, bad guy interaction, and general play mechanics. The actual visuals at that point were pretty much just stock models and bare grids. But I got a good idea of how the game was supposed to play.

He explained a little of the story and setting to me and asked if I’d like to write the soundtrack for the game. Of course, I gladly accepted.

I believe that it was that very night that I started work on the very first composition I would write for “Magic Forest”. I was picturing a dark, eerie forest that the main character would be making his way through. I wrote a melodic, yet somewhat dark and somber theme. I spent quite a few nights on it and was very anxious for Michael to hear it. I sent him the file and he gave it a listen.

His response: “I have to admit, I really like this piece. But it’s doesn’t exactly fit the world I have envisioned for the game.”

It turns out that, yes, the game is going to be set in a magic forest, but the overall feel of the game is less foreboding, and more whimsical and comical.

So that’s what I get for being too anxious and starting on the music before even seeing any concept art for what the game will look like visually.

It was a very good lesson that I learned right away. A game’s visuals are a key component in determining how to structure your music. You can’t rely on your own conception of what you feel a magic forest would look like. It may be the case that your image is entirely different from that of the game’s creator. Ultimately, it’s the creator’s vision that trumps and you must work very closely with them in order to settle upon a tone that works with his or her vision for their game.

I had been writing music just for the sake of writing music for so long that, while slightly disappointed that the piece I wrote wouldn’t make it into the game (though I should mention that I am planning on putting the track up on my Youtube and Soundcloud page so you all can hear it at least), I wasn’t really fazed. Michael described a little more to me about the game’s visual style and showed me some sketches and concept art he’d done. He asked for a more expressive instrumentation and a more whimsical feel, especially for the opening levels. He intends to divide the stages into sets of ten levels: the first ten being more the outskirts of the forest, the next ten actually inside the forest, then gradually getting deeper and deeper inside.

I got to writing a new theme, looking at the concept art for reference and inspiration. I utilized expressive strings and woodwinds, tuned percussion and harps. This would become the music that is played during stages 11 through 20.

In my current job I’m lucky enough to be able to take off about six weeks in a row during summer, so I continued writing almost every day throughout that summer vacation. I wrote the theme for the first ten stages, which Michael wanted to be even more whimsical than the previous theme I had completed. I then moved on to the main menu music, followed by some a dark, brass and percussion heavy “boss” theme for a special type of stage in the game. The last piece I wrote was the music for stages 21 through 30. The difficulty of the puzzles gets higher and higher as you progress, so the amount of time the player will spend increases the further in the game you get. Knowing this, I wanted to make a relatively lengthy piece for these final stages. I spent the most time on this last piece, and it’s definitely the most ambitious one I wrote for “Magic Forest”.

I finished composing all five tracks over that summer, getting a lot of very helpful feedback from fellow composer Chris Muggli-Miller along the way (Chris and I run a composing blog together called Compose and Contrast). But, as is often the case, the first time you think you’re done with a piece, your rarely are.

In the next post I will talk about how my “finished” compositions went through more changes over the following months.

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