Kuckaw!

Along with all of the composition work I do for games, I continue to play live shows to fulfill my love of performance. I specialize in jazz, rock, and funk, and Kuckaw! is one of the funk projects I am involved with. Led by my friend and amazing bass player, Adam Lowdermilk, we’ve hit the scene running, already playing several great venues around Oakland and San Francisco since December 2013. Follow us at kuckawmusic.com. You can hear our work below. I’m playing the Rhodes piano.

This is some heavy-hitting NOLA influenced funk. Other influences are Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, and Jamiroquai. If you ever need something funky for your game soundtrack drop me a line.


I’ve been writing lately at two ends of a spectrum: either high energy or very mellow and atmospheric. Wanted to try my hand at some puzzle music but specifically using orchestral instruments. Searching for a suitable puzzle game didn’t take long; I’ve spent many hours playing Carcassonne. It’s a fantastic tile based strategy game on both the tabletop and Xbox 360, and I can easily lose an afternoon playing either.

The music I composed here is somewhat similar to the original, and I was no doubt influenced by the soundtrack. We share a duple meter, but I slowed my tempo down to a loping amble so the 2-feel is strong but relaxed. The effect represents my interpretation of the gameplay. It’s hypnotizing, calming my focus so I’m only aware of the game. I’m very much a fan of this kind of state of awareness while playing games, and it’s reflected in a lot of my music. The ambient music I wrote for Spec Ops is an example.

Thoughtful use of woodwinds makes the music playful in the beginning. While the basses and cellos lope along, a bassoon dances around the downbeats with short staccato passages. An oboe shares the stage and highlights a sweet a melody, draping notes over the pulse and rhythm so the ear isn’t distracted by the momentum of the low instruments. The melody is subtly supported by a harp, adding an ethereal texture that is easily missed but certainly felt. The melodic passage is short, however, so the strings support the oboe by adopting the melody, allowing the ear to focus on a new timbre.

To preserve the sweetness of the melody, the strings quickly relinquish it to the french horns who take the music in a new direction. Now, a tambourine enters and softly coaxes the pulse to stay alive while the basses and cellos switch to long legato notes. The flutes and oboe foster the new melody, providing simple counterpoint underneath the horns, and then the song is complete. It’s a simple AAB form that could easily repeat, especially with a new section, or even variation added to melody or orchestration.

Made this a while back and thought I’d share it. This Zelda theme has been my favorite video game theme since I first heard it as a kid. The music is very simple, but definitely compelling and worth examination. Melodically and harmonically, it travels downward. As the melody meanders down it flirts with a #11 on every 4th note, creating very rich harmony in the first section, and a sort of melodic sweet spot. (Incidentally, the #11 interval has been my favorite chord extension for years. Pretty sure there’s a connection).

In the second section, it takes a turn upward before quickly returning down, still using #11’s every 4 notes until the final 8 note descent, where the pattern departs for one 4 note sequence but gives the ear a treat in the final 4, changing the sweet spot into a “blue note.” This adds a colorful tension and release with a b3 resolving to natural 3 on the final two notes.

Here are the changes I use:
Gm7 – C7#11 – Fmaj7 – Bbmaj7#11 – Em7b5 – A7alt – Dm7 – G7#11
Gm7 – C7#11 – Am7b5 – D7#11 – Gm7 – C7

Anyhow, I sort of send it through a gamut of different feels. Hope you enjoy it.

Sci-fi and Synth Pads

Here’s another I did in a series of XCOM music replacement videos. I tried going very minimal with this music, choosing largely to support the images on screen with mostly synth pads. Sci-fi film has long been married to synth pads, and it’s become ubiquitous in sci-fi media. Done right, pads works fine; but there are several things composers sometimes do that make them wrong.

In terms of the pad’s texture, less is more. Synth designers and composers sometimes go a little overboard with pad design. Where the instrument should unobtrusively augment gameplay, designing pads can be an immersive, complex, and highly technical task, so it’s easy to get carried away and lose sight of its original purpose. In my sample libraries, there are countless pads with far too much fluff. They’re not good for much except for electronic music, which is fine, but I’d rather my libraries were tuned for something cinematic. Getting into the guts of the instrument and stripping it down is the answer, assuming I have the time to do so. For the music in this video, I chose some of the most basic yet functional pads I could find in the shortest amount of time. My goal was to crank out this music as quickly as possible while achieving high quality.

Another thing that plagues pad-based game music are dissonant intervals. Sometimes composers attempt to illustrate eeriness by using distasteful melodic leaps. I usually always notice this and it removes me from the moment. An untrained ear may not consciously perceive these types of ill-conceived musical devices, but I would wager it affects them in other ways, like a modicum of patience loss. Eerie scenes don’t need cliche dissonances. Yes, they’re easy and quick to write, but tacky.

Often, pads are paired with repetitive percussion. Pads in themselves are atmospheric and can easily become boring. When the situation calls for percussion, composers should augment the pad with a variety of atmospheric percussion, keeping the ear from picking out repetitive figures. If the music calls for a constant pulse, an evolving rhythmic line works best. Variation is key.

In this video, augmenting the melodic pad are various atmospheric percussion elements. In retrospect, I would have added more of a pulse in the first half of the video in order to marry the action with the music. However, for this particular video, I was determined to make it work using the least amount of musical elements. I also wanted a strong musical contrast for when the player completed their primary objective of defusing the bomb. You’ll notice that once the bomb is defused, the music changes pace, morphing into a cool and confident vibe. It illustrates a satisfactory shift in gameplay, coupling a positive event with rewarding music. It’s my favorite part.


The video above contains end game spoilers. Don’t watch if you intend to play it.

Back in late 2011 I was approached by 2K Games to write music for the climactic ending of Spec Ops. They wanted two things: background music to set the tone for the final encounter, and a score for an eye-opening final encounter cutscene. I’ll talk about the background music in this post as proof that something very simple can benefit highly from careful consideration.

In this scene, Walker, the protagonist, limps through a dark and eerie room. Night has fallen and shadows embrace him. There’s a single light illuminating a large canvas portraying horrific events. After what seems like days of battle, Walker is mentally and physically spent, wounded, burned, alone. He can hardly stand yet he is moments away from finally confronting the game’s antagonist. The music for this scene needed to reflect the exhaustion in Walker’s body and the complete uncertainty of the impending confrontation. It had to embody all of the unspeakable and psychologically traumatizing things Walker did up to this point under the shield of war, and had to foreshadow that there was one final terror on its way.

Something foreboding and atmospheric was clearly needed for the level’s aesthetic, and where I would normally prefer to have ample time to develop a musical idea for something like this, the music had to be contained to a 30 second loop. Short musical loops like these are challenging. You need to write something that is supportive to the gameplay yet essentially unnoticeable. Repetition fatigue is the last thing you want a player to experience. Even when game designers expect players to spend 60 or 90 seconds on a certain section of gameplay, the composer should assume that players may spend far longer. This inherently rules out certain musical devices. Anything catchy should be discarded because even the most compelling music can become tiresome. You may be able to stretch out a few notes of the theme, but you have to be wary of using melody, chord changes, or potentially distracting instrumental effects. There are definitely solutions, and for this I chose to use a drone, something perfectly suited to the mood of the gameplay.

A drone is a sustained pitch (or several) that lasts throughout the entirety, or a section, of the music. Drones often serve as gateways. In many cultures they’re used to open doors to spirituality, initiate rites of passage, or simply lead the way to unfolding musical ideas. They can be used transport us or our characters somewhere even if the music stays relatively static. In Spec Ops, when my drone fades in, it supports the visual aesthetic well, and the player gets the feeling they’re about to experience something very dark.

My instrument of choice for the drone was a Rhodes piano. The Rhodes can have a very mysterious, amniotic tone paired with a biting attack. The tone fades quickly and requires restating which gives the ear something to listen for. This all seemed appropriate but still lacking something, so I added an oscillating effect, giving it an even pulse. This ended up serving as a kind of heartbeat, making the drone more interesting yet still wonderfully unnoticeable. It was far from finished, though. I couldn’t deliver 2K a half-minute loop of just a simple pulsating drone. Despite the mysticism and deeper meaning, it felt inadequate. I wanted to create music, not sound design.

Call and response was the solution, but how do you add call and response to dronal music? Take a listen to Tibetan monks meditating over Aum (or Om). Their voices are usually accompanied by a large gong, a small bowl, perhaps a bell. These instruments are tuned to the same note the monks sing. What usually happens is the gong hits first (the call) and is then answered by voices (the response). It’s really that simple but I wanted to make my call and response slightly more engaging. First I hit an octave and let it pulsate for a few seconds with the oscillation effect I added earlier. Then I hit a minor 10th on top, giving it a moody tonality, and let that pulsate too. I also added in a furtive yet steady low tone accompanied by an equally obscure ostinato guitar rhythm (which actually ties into the next piece of music). There it was–something musical flying underneath the listener’s attention. You can hear this in the first 40 seconds of the video.

In the end, this background music is something you can let run on for a very long time. As for the rest of the music, I’ll have to talk about that another day.

I record a lot of gameplay video footage with the intention of rewriting the music. I’ve been looking forward to this one because I enjoy writing metal. Although I can’t play guitar well at all, with a template ready to go, I can crank out metal tunes really fast on my MIDI keyboard. This track was laying around and only partially finished when I decided to adapt it for this video clip. The soundtrack is rather heavy for this kind of game, but at the right volume, and with the right stunt course, it could be perfect. Other genres it would be suitable for are racing, modern combat, or a high intensity side scrolling action game.

Metal can often substitute well for techno or electronic tracks. Think of playing Geometry Wars with this kind of music. It could work, although it would be a bit extreme; but just because a game is set in outer space doesn’t mean synths need to dominate the music track. Many developers default to requesting specific styles of music for canonized aesthetics, and obviously for good reason. People already identify with established and traditional musical instrumentation for game or film genres. But just because no one has done anything different doesn’t mean you should exclude thinking creatively about instrumentation. Consider the film, American Beauty. For that kind of drama, traditional orchestral instrumentation was typically used. However, Thomas Newman made the marimba the star of the soundtrack in a unique way and immediately created a new sound for scoring drama. That sound is now used ubiquitously in TV and film.

Toying with ingrained conventions is definitely a risk in game production and film. Music is often brought in rather late in the process, so trying something completely different on a deadline can spell disaster if it doesn’t work. A lot of communication is necessary, and in that situation, if you haven’t been carefully planning and practicing a specific musical departure from canon for some time, I believe inspiration or epiphany is key. Otherwise, stick with what works. In the end, or rather, in the first place, it likely needs to be something your client was considering before you brought it up. In the case of American Beauty, the tone of the movie absolutely begged for something new.

To insinuate that the music I wrote for this video is any sort of clever departure from the norm would be ludicrous. I believe it’s just slightly unconventional enough that I started thinking about this stuff. Anyhow, this track actually has some real guitar in it. I wonder if you can differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.

 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was in its infancy just as I finished working at 2K in late 2010. By far, it was the release I was anticipating most after I left. Firaxis was absolutely the top choice to resurrect the esteemed franchise. Proven masters at turn based strategy games, they made the leap from world based strategy to squad based strategy naturally. When XCOM finally released, I celebrated by naming my squad after friends of mine in the hopes they would be invested in the characters on screen, their own personal success and demise unfolding before their eyes.

When I first launched the game, I turned off all the music with the intention of creating videos like these to write my own soundtrack. Never having listened to a single note of the original score, I have no clue as to how similar or disparate my music is from the real thing. Once I’m finished creating these videos, I look forward to finding out. To be clear, this is not the original game music. I did not write any music for this game.

I designed the music to showcase its use as in-game music for similar games in the genre. This particular track was written to augment the gameplay with a subtle yet driving intensity. Some keywords I apply to music like this would be covert, mysterious, sci-fi, anticipatory…. It’s a hybrid of indie, sci-fi, and modern warfare genres. The tune’s pulse is delivered by the bass, and a steady thumping one at that. Without implementing a drum kit in the beginning, and instead utilizing atmospheric percussion, the music doesn’t overpower the gameplay during moments of relative calm. If a dynamic music system was at my disposal, I would consider adding a drum kit layer that kicks in when combat intensity is high, matching the player’s adrenaline.