Mar 282013

Kendandra here!

Let’s talk a bit about percussion.

Percussion is the lifeblood of any musical piece.  One of the ways I want to make each of these character themes unique is to make sure they have vastly different percussion sections.  For Lucas’s theme, that’s as simple as making it a waltz.  The ¾ time signature gives it a much different feel than the rest of the themes regardless of what instruments I use.  For Richard’s theme I’m using a snare-heavy marching beat.  This fits his military nature and, again, keeps his theme unique in feel.  I’m a bit antsy to do Bob’s theme; it doesn’t use drums at all and instead relies of the percussive nature of a rhythm guitar, which I think will be quite a challenge and a reward.  As is the purpose of these blogs, I will explain why I’ve chosen each style for each character in turn.


But today we’re going to talk specifically about Erika’s theme.


Erika Stark is the engineer of the group.  A position that could arguably be called the most steampunk of the whole quad.  When she’s at her best, she’s right in the thick of all that hissing, clanking, and metal squealing.  So it should only be fitting that the underlying percussive track of her theme should be the sounds of a steam-powered machine whirling and sputtering away.  I know Yami will hate me mentioning this (and that’s half the reason I am [remember, Sarcastic Jackass]) but it’s very much the same idea as the Flimflam Brothers’ cider machine huffing and puffing in the background of their song.  (Check it out if you are curious.  WARNING:  CONTAINS PONY.)

I now imagine either I have lost all my readers or gained an unfathomable amount by uttering that four letter word.  Let’s not dwell on it.

Anyway.  I started exploring Fruityloops’s options for percussion.  And let me tell you.  Illidan was right.  I WAS NOT PREPARED.


Button, button, who's got the button?

Anyone ever watch Dexter’s Lab in the 90’s? I felt a bit like DeeDee “Ohhh what does this button do?”

The sad part is, this is like just one of the many drum mixers that are built in to this thing.  And get this, there are more complex ones with even more options.  I mean, damn.  I actually used one of the simpler ones; one that’s actually just that orange section in the middle.  Still though when I was messing around with the presets a found a list of “Industrial mixes” that contained sounds of anvils clashing and clocks ticking.  And that meant one thing.  Jackpot.  What I was envisioning for Erika’s theme was not only possible but probably ready to implement without downloading additional soundfonts or configurations.  Something I’m very happy about.

So now down to hard part.  I had an idea of what I wanted the percussion section to sound like, now it was time to actually create it.

First I wanted to find the sound of steam hissing.  That’s going to be a cymbal crash of some kind, but the question is, how to make it?  Fortunately there were several presets in the Drumpad.  I listened to dozens of sounds trying to find Erika’s steam piston.  Including one called “Epic Crash 01” which sadly was not as epic as I had hoped.  I finally settled on “Trash Crash 01” out of the sample sounds.  It had a long decay on it, giving it a very piston-y feel, but sadly not quite what I wanted.  I upped the Mallet Decay and Mallet Amplitude to give it a nice hiss before I was satisfied.  This hiss plays every measure on the down beat.  Next I added a muted popping sound that when put together with the Steam Hiss gives a beat that sounds a lot like an old steam train.  Exactly what I wanted.

Now that I had an actual beat, I decided to layer some more engine-like parts on there.  To, you know, really dive the point home that I wanted a machine sound.  I ended up with something like this:

Bum-tsh! Bum-tsh!

Look at all the drums I give!  Ignore the Cello and Guitar Pluck, those are part of the proto-melody in a different sequence part.

Simplistic, but I think it works well.

Finally I messed with the panning of a few of the channels.  (You can see it on the picture if you squint hard enough).  Now steam hisses in each ear in an alternating pattern.  It was at this point I made an amazing discovery.  Scientists will write papers about it for centuries I’m sure:  my head phones were on backwards.  I think the panning changes really add an extra dimension to the beat.

You can hear the final machine beat here: ErikaEngineBeat

Now I’m certain I won’t use the same beat for the entire song… unless I get lazy.  Yeah.  I’m probably going to use the same beat for the entire song.  But still, it’s surprisingly catchy when you listen to it eight million times on loop.

That’s all for now, kiddos.  Next time I’m going to cover the melody for Richard’s theme and delve a bit into each theme’s core sound.  Right now, I need to figure out what this hissing noise is in my ear….

–Kendandra, we’re done here.

Mar 212013

Kendandra here!

So before I delve into the process of each individual theme, I want to take a moment to show you my little studio set up.  But first a little something I have get out of the way.


DISCLAIMER:  I am not a profession musician or composer.  By any definition of the terms.  I’m just a cool-kat with an 80’s keyboard and a USB port.


So yes, you should fully expect the end result of all these character themes to be complete and utter crap.  Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to make.


My musical background consists of far too many years of piano for my skill level, a bit of viola, and pretending to play the harmonica.  I have many pretend fans for my pretend harmonica concerts.  Oh, and a small amount of music theory.  Just enough to be dangerous, actually.

Now, on to the “studio”.  Located in the bowels of my house.  Enter at your own peril, past the bolted door where impossible things may happen that the world has never seen before….  No.  No, sorry that’s Dexter’s Lab.  My mistake.  Anyway, my quote on quote studio consists of a small nook where a pile of junk is located including a somewhat broken flatscreen monitor, a collection of non-working keyboards, a rather nice pair of Philips headphones, and a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak I dug out of my dad’s storage closet.  That’s
right, this thing:

Six-Trak  Sadly not Star-Trek.

That’s real wood on the side there. None of that fake stuff you see on those new Yamaha digital pianos that pretend to be classy with “wood finishes”. Also note that it’s spelt T-R-A-K. C’s are for failures. Stay in shool, kids.

For those who aren’t familiar with this vintage little beauty let me tell you, it’s a pain to actually do anything with.  It has only six oscillators.  Which means two things:

  1. Six means that it has six note polyphony; a fancy way of saying it can only play six notes at once.
  2. Oscillators, which means that it generates the waveform on the fly based off of 35 different parameters.  (You can see in the picture a bunch of writing in the center? That’s where the parameters you can play with are listed).

Not to say that this wasn’t an amazing piece of equipment for beginner mixers at the time.  Because, hell yeah it was.  Though now that we’re no longer in my father’s generation, I can simulate any notes that those little circuit boards are going to generate with software.  So I mostly use the Six-Track for something much more devious.  The MIDI port on the back.

Back in the old days my father used to hook up a MIDI cable to the Six-Trak and run it though a MIDI sequencer.  That’s a funny little box with lots of MIDI ports and buttons.  I’ve cut that out of my current setup.  Fruityloops takes care of much of this now (more on that in a bit).  So I got myself a MIDI IN/OUT to USB cable and I’ve got it hooked up to my laptop.  The purpose of the Six-Trak is to be used for pitch input (it doesn’t have velocity detection, you silly filly, that’s years ahead of its time).  I’m going to use it to input rifts into my computer and then layer the voices on there.  You see I’m a piano player a heart.  I’m not very good, but that’s my thang.  Thing.  Wow that was terrible.  Sorry.  I promise not to do that again.

So that’s my studio.  A table to support that ol’ Six-Trak, a MIDI cable, headphones, and my laptop (supported by a barstool).  Oh and the most important part.  There’s a large jar of pretzel rods.  That’s rather important.  I should have mentioned that first.

(There’s also a rather decent, if small, mixing board, but its output is FireWire and I’m not using a Mac.)

That pretty much covers the “physical studio”.  However the meat of this project is going to be powered by what’s on my laptop.  And no, by that I don’t mean my hard drive full of video game OSTs.  I’m talking the mixing software I’ve chosen to use.  Fruityloops.

Fruityloops.  Contains 5% fruit.

Just take a look at those skeuomorphic controls on the lower right. Thing of beauty.

So why Fruityloops?  Because it’s what I had access to.  I’ve never really used it before so we should see pretty soon how its learning curve is.  At a glance this thing is pretty powerful.  There are so many modules that I have no idea what I’m doing.  Also the first thing I notice is that Fruityloops is probably designed to make techno music.  It just seems to have support for a lot of repeatable beats and wave manipulation.

So of course, I’m probably going to be making use of the dumb parts of it.  Like DirectWave and using instrument samplings.  Indeed, the first thing I went and did was download the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra instrument samplings.  But we’ll see.

That’s all for today, kiddos.  Next time I’ll actually be talking about first steps in making the character themes.  Shocker.

–Kendandra, we’re done here.