Being the New Year I’m going to try and be more active with my blog. But with most NY resolutions (looks at ununsed dumbbells on studio floor) we’ll see how long I keep this up. 🙂 My approach is going to be somewhat concise, easy-to-read thoughts on game audio and what it is like to work in such an industry. I hope you find it useful and if not that, at least entertaining!

My first topic of the year is something quite important: listening. As composers we pour over our pieces for hours or sometimes even days and weeks, stressing over how to best convey what we feel and hear inside our heads. (No, not the voices you hear in your head…) Sometimes the music flows out at a fast pace of inspiration and sometimes it’s a true chore. But one thing we must never, ever forget is to be a listener of our own work! After taking the time to really solidify a chunk of a piece, sometimes we cheat our listeners by jumping to the next *new* idea instead of really sitting on a theme. A melody or chord progression may appear tired and stale to a composer’s ears but not to a new listener’s! This means we’re missing a chance to let a piece really stew in the listener’s ears! (Hmmm… stew.)

This is something I’ve struggled with at times as well as a trap I’ve seen many young(er) composers fall into. You have a 4 or 8 bar intro then launch into a theme then to something else right away. Go back and listen to some of the older film scores – the ones where melody (instead of a mood bed) was really effectively crafted. Take note of how often you’ll hear the theme(s) that help propel the story forward. It’s pretty striking! Even more modern scores can really take their time and let the music unfold around the listener. The Che Valiers De Sangreal by Hans Zimmer in Da Vinci Code comes to mind as a good example of this. We’ve all read reviews of how games, books and movies can not talk down to it’s audience. It doesn’t cheapen the experience. We as composers can (and should) strive to do the same.

I read David Morgan’s book Knowing the Score (it’s cheap – go pick it up here: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Pfir3jAzo1YC&source=productsearch&utm_source=HA_Deskt…) and many of the giants in film scoring talk about stating a theme, then repeating it over and over. Of course these are not strict repeats. Changes in instrumentation, harmony, orchestration, etc are highly effective. I’m not advocating lazy, copy-n-paste musical writing. In fact to be able to repeat a theme over and over in an interesting way is very hard to do.

The best way to act as a listener instead of a composer-trying-to-listen, I’ve found, is with fresh ears. A fresh mindset. Not right after a long drafting session. Go out for a jog. Eat a burger and fries at a local hang out. Sleep. Come back and take a moment to listen to your work like a new listener would. Listen to your music in various contexts and places. Even better – test your music on a few friends and family members. As you become stronger in your compositional chops, this becomes an easier problem to avoid.

Don’t cheapen your music and your listeners by forgetting to play the part of the listener yourself.

Hope you enjoyed it and have a good one!

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands.

 

I’ve been asked many times for advice when buying a piano – specifically a digital one so I put together this quick-n-dirty guide. Since my students all take lessons with me on a full-sized, acoustic piano I’m going to approach it from that angle mainly but I will bring up some other factors that are helpful to consider.

88 Keys!

You want a keyboard with 88 keys on it. Why? Because smaller keyboards, while awfully convenient with regards to a smaller scale and lighter weight, can make it very hard to transition back and forth from a full sized to a smaller keyboard. Playing piano is both a visual and a muscular activity and if a student gets used to a smaller keyboard size it can make it harder to adapt to a full sized model.

Weighted Action

Ever play on a super cheap Casio keyboard and noticed how thin and plastic-y (is that even a word?) the keys felt? This is because the keys didn’t have weighted action. On acoustic pianos there are tons of tiny (and not so tiny) parts that have to interact and move. Check out this graphic to see what I’m talking about.

Cited: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Broadwood_grand_square_action.svg

A digital keyboard is usually quite a bit more simplistic due to the electronics. Non-weighted keys give a much different type of action (i.e. how the key moves) can be quite distracting and even hinder proper playing technique if the student ever moves from a digital to an acoustic model. It’s well worth the extra cash!

Velocity Sensitive

Sounds complex but all this means is the harder you press down a key, the louder it sounds. Playing on a keyboard without velocity sensitivity can destroy a student’s touch and concept of dynamics because there will be none! Playing dynamics on an acoustic piano requires proper technique and touch so make sure what you’re buying has velocity sensitivity. If it’s not labeled, it’s easy to test! Just play soft then hard and see if the volume changes! The good news is most models that have both 88 keys and weighted action usually have velocity sensitivity as well.

Headphones Jack!

I practice a lot at night so having the ability to plug in and wail without disturbing others is a godsend! One helpful tip to parents however is to occasionally make your child practice without the headphones to ensure they’re actually practicing their assignments! 🙂 Also you always want to make sure the volume isn’t set too high when using headphones to prevent hearing damage/loss. I’d say about 99% of the digital pianos come with a headphone jack but it never hurts to check before sealing the deal. If you’re buying used bring a pair of your own headphones when you test out the piano to make sure it works properly!

Go With What You Know

Whenever possible go with a known brand. You get what you paid for, right? This is especially when you’re buying used since you’ll have a better idea of the kind of quality the brand offers as opposed to some off brand. Some well known brands are:

– Roland
– Korg
– Yamaha
– Kurzweil
– Studiologic

These are just a few of the brands but each provide decades of stable, professional and recognizable products and service. Avoid off brands as you can never be sure of the quality and customer service the company will provide. Buying a digital piano can be a hefty investment so you always want to make you’re getting the best investment for your dollar! A great tactic is to go play many models at your local music store. They usually don’t mind – so spend some time there. Get a feel for the set up, sounds, interface. See what you like and don’t like then see what kinds of deals you can find for the model(s) you liked online!

Beware the Controller!

When looking for a digital keyboard to buy you want to make sure you understand the difference between a controller (sometimes called MIDI controller) and a digital keyboard. It’s actually really simple: a controller has no built-in sounds. It’s simply an interface which when attached to a computer communicates with it and uses the sounds on the computer. Why is this important? Because without a computer the keyboard will be completely silent. Sometimes folks think controllers are a good option because the price tag is usually much lower but you really need a keyboard to make sound, right?

Other considerations:

There are some great keyboards out there that have amazing sounds and functionality! So aside from your budget what are some of your other concerns and needs? Will you be playing live gigs with this keyboard? Will you be using the keyboard to record audio and produce songs? (Yes there are keyboards that actually do that!) Will this keyboard basically be stationary in your home? Consider all of these factors when looking at what to buy. I own a Roland Fantom X-8 which is a great keyboard but it’s quite heavy. It’s listed at 65 lbs which doesn’t sound heavy but when you’re handling an odd shaped, expensive piece of gear that can quickly become very heavy. Then when you add in the hard case it’s even heavier! If you’re not going to be doing much gigging then maybe weight is less of an issue? If you’re not planning on producing songs on the keyboard then don’t worry about spending more cash for that feature. Don’t need 40,000 different sounds on your keyboard? Then don’t worry about buying them! You get the point – spend some time really figuring out what your goals and needs are now and what they might be in the near future.

Buying Used:

I always tell my students and parents to really do research when buying used and only buy from local people. Ebay is great and when buying new is pretty safe but that can change quickly when buying used products. It’s vital to always go over and play the piano first before buying it and you can’t always do that via Ebay. Even if you cannot actually play the piano (yet) just push down each key and make sure it works. Turn each knob and make sure that works as well. If someone doesn’t let you play the piano before buying it – walk away. There are so many folks on Craiglist.org and other online communities selling pianos that you can easily find other options. Always be careful when buying used and be picky. Finally avoid the scams. During a recent search, I saw $4,000 keyboards on sale for $50 on Ebay. If it’s too good to be true just skip it. You don’t want to be scammed out of your hard earned cash.

So that’s about it – hope it was helpful. If you have any specific questions that I didn’t address please contact me! I’m always happy to help!

 
I’ll be joining Erya on stage to help promote CFC (Cops Fighting Cancer) this coming Saturday Feb. 25th. Show starts at 7PM. Come hear some great music, enjoy yummy drinks and food and support this great cause! To hear some of the music we’ll be playing jump on over to: http://www.eryamusic.com/fr_home.cfm

 

I’m very happy to announce that BrainCandy’s Fray is going on pre-order. Madsen Studios LLC helped provided sound design for both the GDC 2011 Announcement trailer as well as for some of the actual gameplay. Their website, http://www.fray-game.com/, has tons of media and more info about the game. This is a very talented team which I’m thrilled to be working with – so check out the website!

 
Many of my articles have focused on how best to network, promote yourself, negotiate and interact with potential clients. In this article I’m going to share a few pointers to help after you’ve landed the job. As with anything, nothing is a fix-all solution so always take these suggestions with a grain of salt. Carefully evaluate each situation, each client and if one of these tips seems to be a good fit then by all means use it! So let’s get right to it:
 
 

Don’t begin work until you have something to work to.

 
Sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But in my experience it’s been rather surprising how often less(er) experienced clients expect me to begin work right away without any art or visual references. Usually more experienced teams already understand that audio is one of the last elements to be placed into a video game. Less experienced teams, however, tend to get excited and also not be aware of the common and more effective pipeline. Even for more simplistic sounds (like a generic button click) if a game isn’t there yet, so much can change during the production cycle that any sounds created early on could end up not fitting or matching the game’s vibe and feel. So if a team doesn’t have anything ready for you to work to – they’re not ready for audio yet.
 

Balance your workload – especially when extra tasks pop up.

 
Several times I’ve had clients expect me to capture video of the game when it was never part of the assigned tasks set up in the contract. These clients didn’t offer any kind of payment for my time or use of my equipment. Instead of getting upset or simply saying “no” I told them I would be happy to assist but we’d need to first figure out an appropriate cost for this extra service and the time it would take. Every time I’ve used this approach the team, which previously was too busy to capture video or didn’t have the needed tools, suddenly had the time and resources to provide those videos. So remember – unless a task is specified in the contract, it is extra work and as such you could require additional payment.

In some situations you can choose to take on some extra tasks to help the team out – which can really help your reputation with the team! This is usually when your work load is very light and you don’t have other projects also demanding your time. But be careful. Always explain if you’re making a concession. Something as simple as “well I usually charge for X but I had some extra time and wanted to help the team out.” The key here is balance. Don’t allow a team to repeatedly throw extra tasks at you which were not set up in the contract without added pay for your time and efforts but don’t nickel and dime your clients to death either. It’s a fine line but remember: it’s YOUR choice.
 

“Just play the game and create sounds from watching the game.”

 
While more rare, I’ve had a few clients give me a build of their game and expect me to just play it and then make sounds or music to that game build. When I asked for animations to “score” directly to they tell me to just play the game. I’ve even had a few clients push back after I explained my workflow process (placing animations directly in my DAW and creating sounds directly to that file). What usually convinces the client is this simple question: Do you want the sounds of the game to be estimates and guesses are do you want your sounds to be precisely synced to all animations?
 

Not all feedback is useful feedback.

 
I once had a client give me one-word feedback for about 20-25 sounds I had delivered: “Rework.” I explained that with that kind of vague feedback, I didn’t have enough information to know what direction or changes needed to happen. I didn’t know what the team didn’t like, I didn’t know what the team did like. It didn’t even specify what sounds needed to be reworked. After asking for more detailed feedback I found out there was only one sound they wanted reworked and the changes requested were minimal. The initial feedback was so vague, it gave me nothing to work with. Don’t accept vague feedback like this or you’ll end up running in circles and wasting a good deal of time. Asking for specific feedback isn’t challenging or rude when done in the right way. It shows how invested you are in making sure the sounds are the perfect fit for the game.
 

Iteration for the sake of iteration is crap.

 
I once worked on a team where the culture was to iterate just to see what would happen – without any clear goal or direction. In my frank and honest opinion it was a crappy attempt to cover up a clear lack of vision on the project. So teams just started iterating and making content, remaking content, scrapping content, going back to previous content, creating new content all in the name of iteration. And it was crap.

I’m ALL for iterating and adding polish to make something better. To achieve that end goal. To push the limits. But if a team wants you to iterate just to see “what happens” or “what comes out” then inform them that it raises audio costs and slows down the production time table as you’re stuck iterating on level 4 over and over again. Side note: this is why I have a revision limit on my rates. If a client feels they can have unlimited revisions at no extra cost then, by God, they’re going to use them! So make sure your rates allot for those situations where you’re drafting 15 versions of a game theme and explain those costs and limitations upfront to the client.
 

Play the game when mixing/implementing audio but push for alternate testing methods as well.

 
Once I was trying to test a sound I had created in a client’s build of their video game. The certain sound was on a stage that was so buggy and the game event so rare that it literally took me an hour to just hear the sound. Once! Then I made the needed changes and still had to fight the game to make that sound event happen again. It ended up taking much more time than it should have and made me quite frustrated. For those harder, more rare game events push for an alternate testing method. Perhaps a virtual soundboard of some sort or slash commands (if it is similar to a MMO-type game). Anything that can help you speed up mixing/implementation time. Some clients will push back on this but if you charge for your mixing/implementation time (which you should) then this can help speed up these tasks and lower the cost to that client. This is usually enough rationale to help convince the client that it is worth their energy and time.
 

Setting the right expectations.

 
As with many things in business, this is all about setting the right expectations and then fulfilling them. Even exceeding them. Explain to your clients what you need and why. Show them how by providing these items it will help you do a better job for them, make their product’s audio that much better and help you keep audio costs down and on schedule. So the final tip is really all about communication. I strive to have fluid, frequent communication with all of my clients and I have yet to hear a single complaint about it. The better you communicate, the better everyone understands their tasks, their roles and the needs of the project.

Get out there and make some noise!

 

I was happy to provide saxophone takes to six of the tracks on the debut album for a wonderful local band, Erya. I hope you enjoy it! You can learn more about this band and buy the CD here: http://www.eryamusic.com/fr_home.cfm

Here’s one of the tracks, Never Enough:
 

If you’ve ever wanted to hear classical music covered with human whistling, kazoos, toy pianos and hiphop beats then this is the collage (and game) for you. Zipline Games has created a really fun experience that I think anyone would enjoy! For iPhone, Android and Chrome and best of all IT’S FREE!

Here are a few highlights from some of the game themes:

Track listing: Title Screen original by me – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Abraham Dukas – Die Fledermaus Overture by Strauss – Maple Leaf Rag by Joplin – Anitra’s Dance by Gynt – Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg – Waltz of the Flowers by Tchaikovsky – Next Round! original by me. I hope you enjoy the music and get the app!

 
Madsen Studios LLC has been contributing audio to MechWarrior: Tactical Command which has just been released! Check out the trailer:

 
I’d like to wish you and yours the warmest wishes for a great holiday season! This is a special time of year where we can get together with the ones we love and forget some of the craziness of normal, day-to-day life. This has been a spectacular year and I cannot wait to announce some of the cool things Madsen Studios has been a part of once they’re made public. Safe travels!

 
Madsen Studios has had an INCREDIBLE year and I have much to be thankful for!! To all of you who are celebrating Thanksgiving this next week, have a wonderful time with your friends and family! Safe travels!