(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.
After all that, you’d think I’d be done, right?
Stick around for Part 3 and see why I was pretty much forced to go back and do one final rewrite.