Tuesday, July 22, 2008

OMG, I'm a Composer

Last week, I tried to explain to Henry Solberg, the composer on our team, what kind of music I had in mind for Faithless. My idea was to have theme songs for the more important NPCs in the module, like what was done in NWN1 and NWN2. Unfortunately, my ideas for some of the theme songs were difficult to pin down. As an example, for one of the NPCs, I wanted the music to convey a sense of both sacredness and profanity. That is easy enough to say, but how does one actualize this idea into music? I realized that my words were inadequate for expressing my vague ideas.

I figured that what I needed was to send Henry my ideas in MP3 form. I intended to "compose" snatches of tunes and arrange the music monophonically. (That basically means having only one note playing at a time, which is what happens when you use only one finger to tap a tune on a piano.) It generally takes talent and/or training to produce good polyphonic music (the ones that have more than one note playing at the same time). I've always thought of myself as being musically challenged, and the only music training I've ever received was two months of piano lessons more than thirty years ago. It has been so long since I've played the piano that I don't even remember how to do it anymore.

Getting software for producing MP3 files is no problem in this day and age of open-source computing. I chose OpenMPT (a.k.a. ModPlug), which I downloaded from SourceForge. Being open-source, the software costs nothing, which is perfect for a non-composer like me.

The real question was whether I could come up with a simple tune that conveys whatever mood I intend. There was only one way to find out. Armed with my new software, I sat down in front of the computer and entered a monophonic sequence. When I played it back, it had little resemblance to the tune that I had in mind. Not only was it a challenge to figure out the correct notes, but it was also difficult to determine the proper timing between them.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated. For me, composing was like solving a puzzle wherein notes are to be arranged in the "correct" (that is, aesthetic) sequence. Arrange them properly, and you will be rewarded with your very own musical composition. I decided to persevere with this task until I came up with a polyphonic melody. That's right, polyphonic. I was so hooked with composing that creating monophonic music was not enough for me. It had to be polyphonic.

From the time that I downloaded the music tracking software, it took me three days to compose my first melodic draft. My composition had one drum beat and synthesized vocals in two voices. I still wasn't satisfied with the result. I added more instruments, more voices, more notes.

After three more days of composing, I asked my wife to listen to my second draft of the composition. She sat down in front of the computer as it played back my music. When I saw her tapping her foot to the beat of the song, I interpreted that as a good sign. When the music was done, my wife told me that she liked it. I was pleased because knowing her, she wouldn't have given me her thumbs up if she didn't like the music at all.

A few hours later, I had completed my first serious composition, which I call "Peccata Mundi". I immediately uploaded my MP3 file to the Vault with the following description:

A celestial host has assembled for glorious battle to cleanse the world of its sins. Hovering over the Earth, the angels sweetly sing while twirling their +20 Holy Avengers. This music is a good choice for getting them (and your NWN2 players) in the mood for righteous fighting.

"Peccata mundi" is Latin for "sins of the world," which never cease to flow from the hearts of men. This song reflects the serene enthusiasm with which a celestial host would face its endless battle.

Although it is supposed to be battle music, Peccata Mundi has a strong religious style to it, especially at the opening of the song. Since the Faithless module revolves around that eyesore of the Faerunian belief system, the Wall of the Faithless, it is only fitting that the music have a spiritual air about it. Peccata Mundi may be downloaded at this link.

Does my music pass muster? Everyone is welcome to download it and hear for themselves.


Elf des coquillages said...

Welcome to the realm of the sacred, Frank. ^_^ Looks like it's been quite an experience, but you've managed well for a first track. (I wish my first tracks sounded like this...)

I'm nowhere near a expert musician, but I'll try to give you some comments on the song, and share directions and tips to explore further down the road:


The bells 'gimmick' you used is a nice touch. I like how in this new version you added strings that helped underline the chord progression, whereas in the previous one it seemed as if we had only the melody (even if harmonized) during the choir parts. However, beware of the 'I'll add more' circle: there's always a point when adding more instruments or effects is a disservice to the song, and will mean big trouble and headaches during the mixing part.

If you plan to keep creating music (and you should), I'd suggest you to get a cheap MIDI keyboard, so that you can see, play and feel what you create. I find a real instrument (in my case, my guitar) helps broaden your horizon when creating, as both fingers and mind take part in the process; whereas clicking notes in a PC app lets the mind do all the job, and makes you more prone to repeat the same composition tricks over and over.

Along with the instrument, maybe also learn or have another look at basic music theory (notes, tonality, chords and such), this always helps.


When you feel like it, I'd recommend trying out a sequencer or a full-fledge DAW, instead of a tracker like OpenMPT (I'm so getting hate mails with this comment - tracker vs. sequencer can be a hot subject). Main difference is that you'll have a piano roll and / or in some case a music sheet, which makes the instrument programming less, well, programming, and more 'musical'. Trackers are more indie, it's more or less the old way to do things. Some free or cheap sequencers are Mutools MU.LAB (previously Luna), Tunafish, Zynewave Podium, Reaper, EnergyXT. A comprehensive list, albeit a bit old, can be found here.


The instruments in your song don't sound bad, but I think the violin parts work better than the choir ones, as the choir sound you used is a bit slow and lacks 'edge' (especially in the third part, when the choir sort of takes back the celtic melody and seems to have a hard time doing so).

In fact, beyond MIDI and samples bundled with trackers or sequencers, lies the huge world of VST instruments, sample banks and soundfonts. And choosing one instrument is often a mess. For VSTi (free or commercial), check KVR. For free soundfonts (.sf2 files, can be played in sfz for instance, which is a VSTi itself), search for 'soundfonts' on KVR forum (it's one of the biggest online music community). The sound of an instrument can be the thing that makes or breaks a song.

A good and realistic sound also comes naturally when you respect the instrument constraints: how would a drummer actually play that part, is this note still inside the instrument range, when does the flute player breath during this melody line?

Mixing / mastering

I feel the 1.1 version of the song is more balanced and polished: the front choir takes less sound space (it used to squeeze the other sounds), and I didn't seem to notice distortion this time (that is, volume that go beyond the 0db threshold and is squashed as a result; I think there was some in the theme reprise at the end of the previous version).

This part is maybe the more technical part of creating a song: adding equalization and / or compression on individual tracks, maybe monitoring the frequency spectre, ensuring with a limiter that nothing goes beyond 0db, and so on. All of this can be done through the use of dedicated VST effects.


If in the future you need to play real-time, processed audio over the song (such as me with the guitar), you'll likely need a specific soundcard or audio interface, supporting the ASIO protocol. But there are also unofficial ASIO drivers for 'common' soundcards (not dedicated to music), such as the well-known ASIO4All or kXProject drivers.

There's a wealth of sources and references for the musician available on the net. A nice site for beginners is http://www.tweakheadz.com/guide.htm, as it's quite exhaustive.

A general tip is to try to analyze commercial songs, approaching them with a 'how did they do that' mindset. There are a lot of good practices to discover this way, and also some things to avoid. I smile each time I listen to the latest radio hit and discover the chord sequence is the same as in the one from the month before.

Feel free to ask me or Jason (jclef from Bouncy Rock) for tips and stuff. Technically, we're both metalheads, but it doesn't mean we're narrow-minded when it comes to play and record music. ^_~

Frank Perez said...

Thank you so much for your comment, Alexis. That's a wealth of information that you gave me. I'm definitely going to make use of this. :)

Right now, I'm glad that I have a *real* musician composing music for my module -- Henry Solberg, whom I've mentioned in this blog. Nevertheless, I find composing to be a fun and engaging experience. Even if I don't use any of my own music for the module, I'll still have fun taking a shot at composing music. Your advice will go a long way toward helping me improve. :)