Train Jam 2017 Albums

On my way to the 2017 Game Developer’s Conference, or GDC, I took part in the Train Jam. Like all game jams, Train Jam is an event for game developers to get together and make a game in a limited time with specific restrictions. The Indie Train Jam takes place on a the Amtrak California Zephyr line running from Chicago to San Francisco. The trip was a 52-hour journey across the western half of the United States that resulted in some fun collaborations and interesting games.

As with many game jams there was a mix of artists, programmers, and audio people all working together to create games within the time limit. On this jam we had more than 20 composers/audio designers participating among the 300 game jam attendees. By the end of the Train Jam, over 70 games were finished.

Charlie McCarron, one of the other composers on the Train Jam, had the great idea of collecting all of the songs created by the composers during the jam, and putting them up as a set of albums on Bandcamp for free. There are over 60 tracks created by the twenty or so composers that participated in the event.

The music is divided into five different albums, with each one representing a music genre of sorts. For example, my piece from the game Chicken Fight is on the Train Jam 2017: Chip album, since I went for a retro synth style on that track.

 

The games from Train Jam 2017 can all be played on the itch.io website and you can find all five Train Jam 2017 albums on Bandcamp. There’s some excellent material here from all of the composers who participated. A special thanks to Charlie McCarron for taking the time to gather all of the music from the composers and assembling everything into a coherent set of albums on Bandcamp. The Train Jam was a lot of fun and I hope everyone enjoys the games and music that we created.

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Projects and Plans for 2015

Once again it appears that I’ve managed to neglect my blog. The past few months have been really intense in terms of workload. In addition to working at the day job and writing for Original Sound Version, I managed to land a few gigs writing music. A long story short, I’ve been juggling a lot of different projects, jobs, and responsibilities over the past several months.

Things have finally calmed down a little, so I can finally get back to posting updates here. Part of what I want to do this year is focus a lot more on my music writing and on this site. One of my new year resolutions was to post a lot more frequently and get more music content up on the site and out on the web. So expect to start seeing more updates from me in the coming weeks. Sometimes they’ll just be simple updates of what I’ve got going on with music projects. Other times it will just be a post on a game or music related topic that I just feel like talking about.

In terms of music, I’m finally getting to work on some new projects. The first of these is an intro theme to a podcast, which should be launching sometime this month. There may be a closing theme written, depending on what my collaborator wants to do. The other project is a soundtrack for a game that I worked on at a recent game jam. It was my first time attending a jam and everything went relatively well with the team and the game that we created. There was interest in continuing to work on it after the event, so I’m going to continue writing music and a handful of sound effects for the project. I’ll have more details on that as well, as we get closer to a final build of the game.

With all of that said, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on this site. This has been a long time coming and I’m glad to be finally shifting my focus onto my music and projects. I’m aiming to make my posts a weekly or bi-weekly thing, so with any luck you’ll be hearing from me again soon.

New Opportunities and Some Changes

Over the past few months I’ve been given some great opportunities to pursue my passions, both as a musician and as a writer. The first of these came when I entered a piece of music into the GamerCon-pilation 2013 competition. I wasn’t expected anything to happen with it, but it was a fun challenge. Much to my joy and surprise, my piece was selected for the album and suddenly I had my first published piece of music. Published at least in the sense that it was mastered and put on an album on Bandcamp, rather than something I put up on Soundcloud myself. I talked about it in more detail back when the album launched during the San Diego Comic Con, but long story short it was a real morale boost for me as a composer. It was a moment where I was able to look back at how much I had improved over the past few years in terms of my writing and mixing. It was great to have my work acknowledged and it has encouraged me to continue pursuing a career as a composer. As part of that, I began working on re-arranging and improving my studio setup. The studio will ideally serve as both a recording/studio space and as a teaching space, when I have time to take on students. It will be a big project that will potentially disrupt my other activities, but I think it will be worth it in the end.

While all of this was happening, I was informed that the website Original Sound Version (OSV) was looking for people who could help out with the site. If you’ve never been to Original Sound Version, it’s a site dedicated to reviewing video game music, interviewing composers, and discussing anything that falls into that specific field of the gaming industry. There’s a talented group of people writing for it and it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of game music. Much like the GamerCon-pilation I figured it was a shot and the dark and there was no harm in at least sending them an email telling them about myself and this site. After having an interview, discussing different things about the site, and several rounds of emails, I was brought on as a contributing writer. My first review, for the game soundtrack Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, is already up on Original Sound Version with more on the way. It’s an honor to have been brought on as a contributing writer and I’m look forward to writing more articles and reviews for the site.

In addition to all of this progress, I managed to find myself a full-time job for the fall/winter season. It’s nothing music related unfortunately, but it will help me pay the bills. While this is good for me financially (those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves), it is going to throw a wrench into everything else that I’m doing. I’ll still be able to work on my projects, but I’ll have a lot less free time to focus on everything. Obviously any time not spent at the new job is going to be dedicated to my work for Original Sound Version. As far as I’m concerned, my work for them gets priority. I want to take the opportunity they have given me seriously, so no slacking off. Any remaining time I have will be dedicated to my music. I still want to get work done towards producing my solo album, in addition to some other smaller projects. All of this is going to be a lot to juggle and hopefully I’ll have enough time for everything.

So what does that mean for this site? Well, unfortunately it means that I will be posting less frequently here. Any type of review or game music industry related article I write will likely be content that goes up on Original Sound Version. I had always planned to shift this specific site away from covering game industry content and put more focus on my music projects. This latest series of events has propelled it towards that design. You will still see some occasional content, most likely a glimpse at some of my projects or experiments. I will also make any announcements about conventions I’m going to and any other big things that are happening, in terms of my music. With all of that said, please be sure to check out everything happening on Original Sound Version. I’ll also announce any of my writing activities for this site and for OSV on my twitter account, so feel free to follow me there for updates. With any luck, I should have more things coming down the pipeline soon. It’s been an exciting few months for me and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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.

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 track 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.

Technology woes and project updates.

Computer and technical problems always seem to manifest themselves at the most inopportune moments for me. Last month I began working on a piece of music for a competition. I was giving myself a good chunk of time to get the composition written, recorded and mixed. When I was just getting ready to start working on mixing the tracks, the faulty wiring in the house decided to strike. Apparently, the previous owner of the house had the brilliant idea to set the wiring in the power outlets backwards. Luckily most of my gear was in a surge protector, leaving a majority of it unharmed. Unfortunately, this event still somehow managed to do damage to my computer’s sound system. With only two weeks before the piece was due, I now had a computer that had no ability to play sound from my computer through any means.

After some troubleshooting and a considerable amount of cursing, I was no closer to finding out what was wrong or what exactly had been damaged. The software was fine, the computer’s memory seemed okay. I had no choice at this point. It was time to take a trip to the local Mac store. Luckily, I still had the computer covered by a warranty, so the repairs were financially covered. However, this still left me without a computer for almost a week at a time when I had a deadline I needed to meet. So the goal of that week became how to continue working without getting overly stressed or losing my mind. The only option available to me at that point was to focus on writing other pieces without my computer.

LVB Composing

My actual work area is a little more organized than this.

I’ve mentioned before that I still like to do a portion of my writing at the piano and with the computer out of commission, it was the only way I would be getting any work done. My other projects had taken a back seat with the competition deadline approaching, so this incident shifted my focus whether I liked it or not. I’ve been planning on creating a set of pieces for a solo album for awhile, but I had only set up some general ideas for what I was going to do for certain pieces. Without the mixing project to work on and without the distraction of the internet, I had a much more productive and distraction free environment to work in. By the end of the fifth day without the computer, I had sketched out music for at least three pieces. One for another demo track and the other two for the album. None of these were complete, just early drafts, but it helped me set the building blocks for what I want to do with the rest of the album as well as giving me some new ideas for other pieces.

So in a way my technology problems were a mixed blessing. I was able to work on some new music, without any major distractions, and I was able to keep busy and keep my mind of the competition deadline. Once I had the computer back, I set to work immediately on mixing. I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to get everything set the way I wanted, but I managed to make the deadline. As of this post I haven’t received any word on the track that I submitted, but I’m hoping that it will be well received. In the meantime, my progress that I made on the rest of my music during this disaster has been a good motivator for me to stay focused on composing for the album. I like what I’ve got so far and I’m excited to keep building and adding to it. I’m also hoping to hear about the results of the competition within the next few weeks. I’ll make sure to post a little more frequently here and if I’m lucky I won’t have any more technology issues for awhile.

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.