My First Step into Audio Recording

Like a number of independent/freelance composers, my music is usually all performed with virtual instruments and samples. Most of my experiences with music writing have involved either writing for live instruments, with music notation software like Sibelius and Finale, or by using virtual instruments in programs like Garage Band or Logic Pro. A number of pieces that I wrote back in college were recorded, but the actual recording process was always handled by someone else. It was something that was considered a separate discipline from music composition and only a few of my peers actually went out of their way to learn some of the basics. To this day I’m not entirely sure why we weren’t all actively encouraged if not required to study it by our professors and instructors. It’s something that I regret not pursuing as much, in hindsight.

For most of the past year, I’ve remained focused on learning more about the mixing and arranging process for music production. As much as I’ve wanted to incorporate live instruments into my pieces, I decided that learning the different plug-ins and interfaces for Logic Pro needed to take priority. There’s no point in getting audio uploaded into the interface if you don’t know how to edit and process it. I wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of my DAW (digital audio workstation) before adding recording equipment into the equation. After gaining some experience producing tracks on Logic, I decided to finally start looking into acquiring some recording equipment.

I began doing research on the different types of microphones and what would work best for my home studio. Specifically I needed something that I could use for recording a variety of different sound sources. I needed good entry-level microphone that would be good for recording vocals, guitar, and my studio piano. The type of microphone that was recommended by most people was a condenser microphone. There’s a good selection of brands to choose from, and I could find a decent condenser microphone for around or below $100. A few microphone models that were recommended to me were the Samson C01, the Behringer B1, and the Audio Technica AT2020. These three became my focus for researching opinions, technical specifications, and reviews.

After talking to some people and debating with myself on which one to get, I finally settled on the Behringer B1. Most of the reviews I read on it were very positive. Even people who thought that it was lacking in some aspects stated that it was a great microphone when compared to other mics in the same price range. Many people reported that it has a very flat EQ response, as advertised, meaning the recordings would be very accurate to the original sound source. The primary criticism that I heard about the microphones, and Behringer products in general, was that they borrow the designs of better mics and keep costs down by manufacturing them in China. Despite this, a majority of people seemed to be pleased with the microphones and many people with their own studios recommended it as a good entry-level microphone, which is exactly what I was looking for.

I ended up ordering the Behringer B1 as well as a small audio mixer, the Xynyx Q802USB. The mixer was needed in order to supply the microphone with 48 volts of power and to transfer the recorded data to the computer via the mixer’s USB interface. Both the microphone and the mixer arrived in about a week.

Behringer B1 Condenser MicThe Behringer B1 came with its own carrying case along with a shock mount and a windscreen. The case is fairly low-grade and lightweight, made of aluminum and plastic, so I don’t think I’ll be using it for traveling anytime soon. It looks like it will work fine for storing the equipment when I’m not using it. The shock mount is well-built and has some padding on the inner ring to protect the mic from getting scratched. The microphone itself has a sturdy nickel-plated brass body and has a heavy solid feel to it. Overall a very well constructed look and design.

Q802USB MixerThe Behringer mixer, much like the carrying case, is very lightweight. A lot of lightweight metal and plastic went into the construction of this mixer, which had me a little worried. For the low price I paid I wasn’t expecting much, but I was still a little skeptical. Once I read through the instruction manuals for the mixer and the mic, I set them up for a test run. I kept the setup fairly simple. I connected the mixer to my computer through the USB cable, plugged in some headphones into the mixer to monitor the sound, and attached the B1 to the first mixer channel. After some minor fiddling with the gain and channel levels, I got a consistent and clear response from the mic. Everything that the mic picked up sounded almost exactly like the original source. The one big thing that I noticed was that the mic was picking up just about every sound that was in its range, no matter how subtle. Hopefully this won’t provide to many problems for actual recording sessions. I may need to do some more soundproofing for the room in the worst case scenario. Everything on the mixer worked very well. My only minor concern is that the mixer did get a little hot after my testing session, but it seemed to cool down relatively quickly. I’m hoping that it won’t cause any problems in the future or during any lengthy recording sessions.

I’ll probably do some other tests with my guitar and external effects at a later date, but for now it looks like I’ve got my new recording studio setup. I’ll need to spend more time with the devices before I can truly give a final verdict or endorsement, but it looks like they’ve been a good investment so far. Both the Behringer B1 and the mixer work great and I can’t wait to start doing some more recording and experimenting with them.

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Derelict Ship track

Last week I had the privilege of having one of my pieces featured on a new compilation album of video game composers. Titled the Gam3rCon-Pilation Album 2013, the album features a collection of original pieces by composers from around the world. Originally I wanted to have a post up on the day of the album’s release, but I decided to wait until I had a chance to listen to it in its entirety before commenting or discussing it and my piece. Today I want to present my thoughts about the project and give you a small glimpse into what went into the creation of my trackĀ Derelict Ship.

I originally heard about the Gam3rCon-Pilation Album through some people on twitter who had posted a web link for the project. The members of Slightly Ajar Treasure Chest and Gam3rCon were looking to gather submissions of new music by game composers for an album to be released and played at Gam3rCon 2013. The only major requirement, in terms of style of music, was that it had to be a piece that you would hear played in a video game. It could be in any genre and I could use any tools that I had available to create the piece. Given that I am still working towards earning a living as a composer, I didn’t want to pass this opportunity up.

One of the first things I needed to decide was what type of piece I wanted to write for this album. My first thought was to do a big orchestral piece, primarily a boss or battle theme. I felt that, with my classical music background, it would be better to go with my strengths in orchestral writing, rather than working in a genre outside my discipline. However, I began to question if that was the best approach. In some previous composing competitions, I had seen a lot of orchestral composers write big, dramatic, attention grabbing pieces. Many of them were good, but it seemed to be the default approach for a large number of people. I wanted to do something that was different from what others would write. With that thought in mind, I started thinking about alternatives. I began looking at some of the older games in my library, particularly games that I had played over the past decade. One franchise that I’ve really enjoyed, especially in terms of the music, is the Metroid series. Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime games have some amazing atmosphere and the music plays a huge roll in setting the tone of the player’s experience. At that point I decided to try writing a piece for a game in a science fiction setting.

One of the elements that I really wanted to emulate from the Metroid series, Metroid Prime in particular, was the mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. I wanted to have an acoustic instrument provide the melodies and have the rest of the piece built around it. I spent some time exploring my instrument libraries and eventually decided on the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute, for the featured instrument. A majority of the writing process involved experimenting with different melodies against a set bass line. Once that was all figured out, I began fiddling with different electronic and bass instruments. The organ and low synth pad were brought in first, with the harp and electric bass added once I decided at what points I wanted them to enter in the piece. I ended up adding a majority of the higher pitched instruments much later in the project’s development. The high synth pad and the voices helped add a more foreboding and tense feeling to the track. I spent a majority of the writing process trying to find a good balance between the shakuhachi’s tranquil passages and the more dissonant synth and vocal sections.

Most of the mixing process was very straight forward. The two instruments that took the longest time for me to finish adjusting were the drums and the shakuhachi. I experimented with a lot EQ settings and reverb effects for these instruments. I wanted to give some reverb to the drums to help give a cavernous sound to the piece, while making sure the drums had enough presence so they wouldn’t get washed out against the other instruments. The EQ for the shakuhachi was something I spent the most time on, out of all the elements in the piece. In the final version I boosted some of the high-end frequencies, which brought out the breathier sounds of the flute. This also helped separate the instrument from the rest of the mix. Once I was finally satisfied with what I had, I submitted Derelict Ship and waited for the verdict. A few weeks later, I received confirmation that the piece had been selected.

The album was released on July 17 on Bandcamp in time for the Gam3rCon in San Diego. This was the first time that I was able to hear everyone’s piece with the final mastering touches that Nate Herrera, aka N8bit, implemented. The Gam3rconPilation Album 2013 has a very diverse collection of styles from the different composers. The genres range from chiptune, orchestral, to electronic. I can honestly say that N8bit did a great job with mastering the Derelict Ship track. He brought out all the elements of my music that I wanted to have stand out and gave the whole piece the extra audio polish that it needed. Every piece on this album sounds excellent and each composer has their own unique sound and style on display. Give it a listen if you are a fan of video game music of any kind. There’s something for everyone to enjoy.

I would like to thank everyone at Slightly Ajar Treasure Chest, including N8bit, and the people from Gam3rCon for putting together this Gam3rConpilation event. It’s been an honor to have been selected for the album and it was a great learning experience for me. I look forward to seeing them continue this as an annual project that helps showcase a diverse range of new artists. Again, if you haven’t checked out the album yet, it’s available on Bandcamp for free at name-your-own-price. Any money put towards the album will be used to support the next album and a portion of the proceeds will also go to the Child’s Play Charity. I had a lot of fun creating the Derelict Ship track and I hope you all enjoy the album.

Mixing and Music Writing

The past few months for me have been an adventure into the complexities of the world of music mixing and audio design. As someone who always wants to learn and improve upon my current set of skills, I occasionally find myself exploring some avenue of knowledge that I have yet to truly master. For the past month or so I’ve been studying up on mixing techniques and just general information on how to better organize my studio setup. I come from a classical music background so the use of more modern technology in my creative process has been a very recent development. In most scenarios within the classical music world, I only had to worry about composing the music itself and arranging the parts for the performers who would be playing the piece. The music is looked over by the performers, details and errors are fixed, the piece is rehearsed, and if all goes well a performance of the piece results.

Music writing before I discovered Logic 9.

Music writing before I started learning Logic 9

Usually the end goal or product to reach in the classical music setting is the actual performance of the piece in front of an audience. Getting the music recorded is often an afterthought. It presents its own set of challenges and requirements, but is usually fairly simple in its execution. Recording and mixing adds another series of steps to the process. So for me, it’s a new set of skills and disciplines that I’m still learning.

During my information scavenging, I’ve come across a variety of opinions and preferred methods for mixing. It’s been interesting to read the varied theories from different sets of professionals and experts on the subject. For the most part I’ve spent time testing out some of these methods on my earlier projects with some encouraging success. Most of this has been alternate ways of using EQ, compression, and reverb. Through some of these experiments I’m finding which methods I find more suitable for what I’m writing and how I want my mixes to sound. It’s been a time-consuming process, but I can’t really argue with the results.The Mix The improvements have been substantial enough for me to actually create alternate mixes of the pieces that I’ve had up on my Video Game Music page. The newer versions are much closer to what I ideally wanted in sound quality. Inevitably I will always have this feeling of wanting to tweak the older pieces more and more, but it’s something I’ve learned to avoid. It’s a phenomenon that many of my creative friends and peers seem to experience as well. That nagging push towards perfection is just something we’ve all had to learn to live with. So for now these new versions will stay to represent my mixing skills or lack thereof.

I have a few new projects in the pipeline. The first being a piece for a composition competition. The work in question needs to be written specifically for this event, so the immediacy of a looming deadline makes it my highest priority. There is no limitation on the style of the music, but it needs to be something you would theoretically write for or hear in a video game soundtrack. I’m definitely going to be trying some new things with this particular piece. My current plan is to write something in the style of a science fiction game or setting. Very atmospheric and much more experimental than what I normally write. I really want to push for originality in this project and hopefully I’ve come up with something that will separate my work from the rest of the pack. It is a piece that I will be showing off on a future post regardless of how well it ends up doing against its competitors. I am also working on a few other pieces that I plan to add to my portfolio. Their progress will obviously depend on how much time is taken up by the previously mentioned project. Until then I’ll try to keep posting updates on the music and get some other articles posted in between those. It’s going to be a very busy month.