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Making the music for my game

January 10, 2011

As I have already mentioned, I wanted to stay true to the context of the retro look and feel of my game by taking the same approach with the in-game music. Even though I have been immersed in chiptune music since a young age, I still wanted to do some research before I wrote the fist note of music for my game.

There are two ways of approaching chiptune music. The first way is to adhere to the original context of chiptune music fully. This would mean using the original hardware to create the music, by hacking and modifying the original game’s consoles so you can use and manipulate their original sound chips to create the music. Also, this would mean adhering to the original limitations of that games console and sound chip.

So, for example, if you were going to use the original Nintendo Game Boy, as the context and source to create a chiptune piece, you would be limited to 4 audio channels and 3 note polyphony, for example.

The other approach to writing chiptunes is to adhere to the ‘sound’ and stylistic approach of the genre, but by using modern software and emulations of the original sound chips instead. This provides many benefits over the previous method in that you are not limited by the original soundchips and can use as many audio channels as you like, as well as the added benefit of using more modern production methods that would be impossible by using original hardware.

I chose to make my music using the second method, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I already had the necessary tools and equipment to make and produce music this way, owning a number of plugins that emulate the sound of various sound chips from old games consoles. And, as I have already mentioned, doing it this way would give me slightly more freedom musically, giving me more audio tracks to work with and allowing me to be more liberal with modern production techniques.

So, getting started on the process, I knew I wanted to adhere to the conventions and context of chiptune music by it being melody lead. I also wanted to evoke the beginning of a journey, as it was the first (and only) level of my game. I also wanted the music to be bright and catchy, and almost ‘cheesy’. This was so that it would effectively match the  bright and colourful array of characters in my game. Basically a game where the main character is a pink haired girl and the enemies are plants and other monsters, sets the tone aware from ‘seriousness’ and more comic-like and humorous.

Originally, I wanted the music to coincide with some in-game events. For example, when a new enemy appeared I wanted the music to change in some way or have a new element join in. I soon found that this was going to be hugely impractical. Firstly, the music needed to loop. This meant that once the track had looped everything would be out of sync again. So practically, this would of been an impossibility, but would of been doable if my game had a definite end, which it does not. So, in this instance I was limited with what I wanted to do musically by the context of the game I made.

Sound Effects (SFX)

As well as making the music for my game, the original intention was for me to also make the in-game SFX as well. But an unforeseen difficulty has made this problematic. After I had made the first sound effect, the sound of Pink Hair Girl shooting the ‘bullet, I implemented it into the game and tested it. The music was playing like it should of, but when I pressed the space bar to fire the ‘bullet’ the sound effect that I had made for it sounded but at the same time stopped the in-game music from playing.

Obviously this was a big problem. I tried to work out what was causing this problem. I double checked that the sound effect that I had created was in the correct place in the game engine. Which it was. I tried converting the sound effect’s audio file into different formats, to see if that would make any difference. Unfortunately it did not. I was still having the same problem. I looked to see if I could find a fix on internet forums and the like, but I could find no answer to my problem.

In the end, I felt that the music was contributing a lot more to the game in terms of enjoyment, immersion and atmosphere than any amount of sound effects could provide, so I decided to keep the music I had written for the game.

I would like to talk a bit about what I would of done with the SFX, if it had all worked correctly and Game Maker’s audio engine was a bit more robust/advanced.

Firstly, the things that would of had sound effects applied to them would of been:

-When Pink Hair Girl fires a bullet
-When each of the different enemies is destroyed by a bullet (matching the explosion animation),
-When each of the enemies collides into Pink Hair Girl (and again there is an explosion).
-And a separate ‘shooting’ sound effect for the two enemies that shoot bullets, to differentiate Pink Hair Girls ‘bullet’ sound.

Here is the one shot sample that I made of the SFX for what would of been Pink Hair Girl’s ‘bullet fire’ sound effect (This SFX was made with Magical 8bit, a plugin I talk a bit about when I come to make the music):

Which is okay by itself. But as it would sound every time the player pressed the space bar to ‘shoot’ they would hear this sound over and over again. To add an element of randomness, if the implementation of the SFX had not been problematic and the Game Maker audio engine was more robust I would of created a number of these sounds and made them slightly different by altering their pitch and e.q settings slightly. Then when these were all made It could of been set that a radom one of the shot sounds would play every time the player shot. Even if I had had no problem with implementing the SFX into the game Game Maker does not have functions that would of allowed this ‘randomness’. But it is certainly possible to do, and is something I found professional sound designers do a lot to make a single sound more interesting in the course of hearing it hundreds if not thousands of times in the course of playing a game.

Producing and composing the music

I primarily used two software synthesizers as the main pallet for my sounds for my composition. ReFx QuadraSID, which emulates the Sid chip and the Magical 8bit, a plugin that emulates the soundchip of the original Nintendo and Gameboy.

QuadraSID’s interface:

I also used a modern sound kick drum and modern production methods, like compression, e.qing and mastering on the track. I thought that this would give my track a modern edge, while still remain faithful to chiptune music.

The piece was built around a verse/chorus structure like most of early chiptune music. I wanted the verse sections to convey a sense of journey through space, and the chorus sections to be light and reflect the battle between Pink Hair Girl and the Plants and other monsters.

I added a short synth solo near the end to break up the structure somewhat, before leading back and re-looping.

All though I have posted the track by itself for reference, I would like it to be judged on it’s relationship and merits within my game and not as a piece of music on it’s own. Consequently I have made no effort to promote it in anyway as I feel it needs to be heard in the context of the game to see why I made the composition and stylistic choices that I did.

Here is the finished track:

Evaluation between the relationship between my Game and Music

I think the marriage between my game and music succeeded somewhat, if not completely. I think the main area where I was not completely successful was in the authenticity of the sound of my piece. While it is no doubt a chiptune piece of music, my inclusion of modern sounding drums and production techniques made the final track a bit too clean and lacking in the grit and unrefined nature so characteristic of original chiptunes.

Stylistically and compositionally I think I was more successful. Because my game is tongue-in-cheek in nature and the content (a pink hair girl fighting plants) is slightly comically, I wanted the music in part to reflect this, which I think the chorus sections do a good job of doing. I have no doubt that some people might view the sections as being ‘cheesy’ but that is what I was aiming for to get a good match with my colorful, over the top visuals.

I think the length of my track was suitable for a looping piece. Of course there might be an element of it getting ‘annoying’ after a while, but that was a common feature of chiptunes. And while my game can potentially go on indefinitely (the actual length will be determined in how long the player can stay alive) it is not a game I would expect people to play for any great length of time, so I don’t view that as a potential problem in  this instance.

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