So it's a little later than I would have liked, but I finally managed to cobble together a music track that represents some of my current thoughts on gaming. Nothing concrete, or particularly insightful. It's just a track that's inspired by various gaming flutterings, happenings and thoughts that have occurred to me over the last few weeks. The month of February as seen by Titus in musical form, if you will.
It's scrappy as hell, badly in need of being re-recorded and re-polished, but I'm quite chuffed with it all the same.
For those interested, read below to find out the long, needlessly complicated process I went through to make the track. For everyone else, press play, and I hope you enjoy.
You actually want to know how I made this? You sad buggers. Anyways, the recording process was broken down into three key stages:
1) working out which tunes I wanted to remix and fiddle around with, and working out how they'd fit together.
2) creating the drum loops which would act as the foundation of the song.
3) recording everything else, and putting it all together.
Step 1 was pretty easy. There were a few recent games I wanted to reference for their topicality, and some I wanted to include just for the heck of it. As it turns out, a PC port of Deus Ex The Fall was announced this week, so that ended up being pretty on the money anyway.
Step 2 was a lot of fun. I've been playing around with Famitracker a lot recently, and that proved ideal for creating the sort of drum loops I wanted. For those of you who are unaware, Famitracker is a program which allows you to create genuine 8-bit music, using a hacked version of the actual NES software. You can genuinely compose in Famitracker and, if you have a way to put it to cartridge, get a NES to play your compositions. It's used a lot for chiptune compositions, and is a lot of fun to work with, if you like composing in hexadecimal.
What's really great about Famitracker though is that you can load samples into one of its channels. I had a notion of having drum loops with a really old-school gamer vibe, so decided to import individual drum samples into Famitracker, then build up the drum loops from scratch, rather than using a standard loop creator. It's a lot more work to create individual loops from scratch, but the upside is that you get a lot more freedom and creativity than you do with something like Fruity Loops. Having downloaded a large collection of free drum sounds and samples, I then imported the ones I liked into Famitracker, got that old school 'Tchk!' sound I wanted, then built up some drum loops.
I really like creating drum loops. It's a lot of fun trying to create drum grooves that go beyond the simple 1-and-2-and-3-and-and feel, and finding good places to pit in accents and fills. Once I had a collection of loops I was happy with, I exported each of them as an actual sound file.
Now, when you're creating drum loops from scratch, you can't just export them then use them straight away. Exporting loops as a wav adds a decay period of half a second or so, which means they won't loop properly. If you want to sue them, you have to use a sound editor to cut off the extra tail, and create a sound file that starts as soon as it finishes in order to loop cleanly. I prefer to use Audacity for this, as I find it's the easiest tool to zoom in and select and delete the exact amount of sound I want. Again, it's extra work, but it all adds to the joy of creating your own loops from scratch, rather than just getting a sequencer to do everything.
Once the loops were edited properly, it became time to actually create the song proper, in a full DAW program. I used to use Cubase, but have recently moved over to Reaper, and would genuinely recommend it to anyone. It's a fully featured recording software suite that comes with an unlimited evaluation period. If you're looking for free software to start dicking around with recording, Reaper is where you should definitely start, and it's what I'll be sticking to for the forseeable future.
I imported the drum loops into reaper, and used them to create a basic 'skeleton' for the song, working out how many bars I wanted dedicated to the 'funk Halo' section, how many to the Donkey Kong section, how many to the Dubstep drop, etc. Rather than building the music up section by section, I laid out the entire song in drums to get an idea for the length and flow, and sang along as it played. I find it's better to get a good idea of the length and flow of your song right from the start, rather than spending hours perfecting a lovely section, only to discover you need to add/subtract another few bars or measures in order to make it work.
I also found some vocal loops I liked, and imported those into Reaper to. Vocal samples are something I've been wanting to play around with for a while, and it was a fun effort to try and get various snippets lined up with the various drumbeats.
Once that was all done, it was time to record the music proper. All the non drum/vocal loops on the track were recoded by a guitar, plugged into a knackered old multi-effects processor, then into my PC through an external soundcard. I'm planning on upgrading my recording gear at some point this year to have a proper keyboard and effects rig, but right now I can bet by with what I have.
Putting the actual music together involved a lot of practising parts, making stuff up on the fly, and experimenting with different ideas. A lot of the time, ideas I had planned had to be drastically altered. Originally I planned to have the Deus Ex theme play more prominently over the dubstep drop, but I couldn't get the syncopated melody to line up with the half-time drumbeat adequately, so instead kept it as a little snippet at the end, and instead allowed Jock's sample to convey the Deus Exyness. On the plus side, I'm very chuffed with the deep 'synthy' sounds I managed to create with nothing more than my guitar and an octave effect.
The Bloody Tears section is probably my favourite, as it allowed me to really show off my alternate picking chops, and to re-arrange the tune in a different way. The main refrain becomes a chunky, dancey guitar riff, and the first snippet of the main melody becomes a Nile Rodgers-esque guitar lick that plays over the top. I was originally tempted to slow the track down, record the guitar parts, then speed it back up, but decided that would be cheating. So everything you hear in the song was recorded at the same speed, and it was quite a fun challenge to make sure everything was in time. I might have made a few minor wobbles in a couple of places, but I think for the most part I kept the temp pretty well.
This is a snapshot of one part of the total Reaper piece, covering about 1/3 the song's length, and 1/3 the tracks recorded.
For anyone looking for advice on how to record parts in a DAW, I don't have too much to give, considering how much I'm still learning myself, but here are a few things I learned that I consider essential:
- Double track everything. If you're recording a part, don't just record it once, record it twice. And by that, I don't mean copy it into a second track, I mean actually play the part for a second time, and record that on a second track. If you do that, and pan the tracks left and right, you get a much greater sense of depth than if you leave one track panned in the middle.
- If you're recording guitar parts using distortion, record the same part using a clean tone on a separate track. If you set the volume just right, so it's on the edge of being audible, then it's a great way to add definition and clarity to guitar parts that can run the risk of sounding muddy.
- Make sure you include reverb. If you're not mic'ing an amp, then make sure you have some kind of reverb applied to your track. Reverb is what gives a track a more organic feel, and without it, tracks can sound sterile and overly digital. You don't need power metal levels of reverb, just enough to give the impression that the sounds may have actually been in a room somewhere.
The most important thing is not being afraid to change things up if needed. Get a good idea of what you want a song to be, but if something needs to be changed at the last minute, don't be afraid to get rid of it and try something spontaneous. The song I ended up with is very different from the song I had in mind when I first embarked on this crazy scheme, but I'm chuffed with it all the same.
Hopefully I'll be able to keep this blog updated with other bits of music I come up with. I had a lot of fun making this. In fact, recording music is just about the most fun you can have by yourself at a computer, and I've already got ideas for the next VG Remix I want to do.