Here we have useful article on music writing for your game by Specplosive, including tips on harmonization and instrument selection in BAM conversion. Specplosive has written music for several Ohrrpgce games, including Moogle1's Way of the Wizards. Outline:
Part (autonumber): Introduction
As we all know, OHR games with original music are still rare. Still, many existing original soundtracks (Origin, Ends of the Earth 1-2, Beyond Destiny, Paladus, etc...) are impressive enough to intimidate the newcomer, who immediately thinks he/she can't reach this level of talent. However, it is possible to become more skillful at music...as all aspects of design, it requires practice. This article is meant to provide basic tips for anyone who wants to start composing RPG soundtracks.
I may not be among the most talented composers (my RPG design skills in general being hardly focused on one field), yet I think I gained sufficient experience to write this article, hoping that more articles by more veteran composers will be posted after this one. Since we would all like more OHR games with original music, and since the current composers cannot handle an unlimited number of projects, it's definitely a good thing if more people give a try at their composing skills.
I included a list of what you might need, followed by the actual article. The first section of this article is a general overview of what makes music differ from other fields of design. The second section is a basic tutorial that includes solutions to common flaws your first tracks will suffer from. The third section includes random comments and more tips I acquired while both listening and composing to RPG music.
1. First, obviously, you'll need a sequencer program. I suggest using NoteWorthy Composer (which can be downloaded at www.noteworthy.com) to sequence MIDI files, then convert them in BAM. Of course, you can also use Notate (which is very similar although not in conventional musical notation), but you may want to download NoteWorthy anyway to view the scores for MIDI files (including the examples provided in the designmusic.zip file).
2. As for musical theory, basic knowledge of major/minor scales and chords is almost essential. I will go into this later, but the best way to avoid unharmonic sounds in to have all the instruments play in the same key, and create a chord line to base the melody on.
3. I would also highly suggest to have access to a keyboard (even the cheapest 25-key electronic keyboard will do). Except if you can set on paper (or on screen) any melody you hear in your head, playing on the keyboard permits you to find the appropriate melodies faster and put them in musical notation. If you're lucky and have a MIDI keyboard at hand, you'll be able to also test the different instruments easily, as well as record directly to your computer with a MIDI cable (which, however, I DON'T suggest...more on this in part two of the article).
This section is more theorical than the others, so you might want to skip it. It is meant as a reflexion on the role of music and the major elements that separates it from other fields of design.
On the second part of his design article (Planning a game), Rinku mentioned that music cannot be planned, as planning music is the same as composing it. Let's see why it appears that way. It begins by the role of our two primary senses, vision and audition. Vision is a synthetical sense. As you may know, our eye contains series of captors, some which perceive each color, other which perceive brightness, other for horizontal and vertical lines, etc... The visual stimuli comes to the eye as a bunch of details (like pixels, but at a much better resolution that a computer screen), which are put together by our brain to give us a global image. Audition, at the opposite, is an analytical sense. The information that comes to the ear is the global sound wave. This wave is brought on to the internal ear, and reaches series of captors, again, which decompose the wave in sounds of different pitch, tone and volume.
Now, what's the point I'm trying to reach? Well, if you tried to draw sprite graphics, you probably noticed that you usually make a simple outline of your character, then add details, shadow, etc. You can "plan" your drawings by making rough sketches of your characters, because in your head you "visualize" the general picture. However, it's harder to visualize it in details, and poor graphics, usually, lack in detail. Now you can see the process of imagining images and transposing them in reality is the inverse operation of vision; it is natural that it must be analytical (general to particular). It happens that in most other parts of design (story, gameplay, etc.), you get a general idea of what you want before putting it in details.
Let's come back to music. From the last paragraphs, you probably guessed I'll conclude composing is the inverse of hearing, and must then be a synthetical process. It is, indeed. Composers don't hear the whole song in their head and then try to find what each instrument should do. A song idea often starts from a melody (notes and rhythm) which is the main theme, then it's expanded with other instruments playing variations on this theme, or background instruments to "fill in", or drums and bass, etc... There is no particular order to do it, but the process will always be going from particular to general. The composer has to expand the song while keeping its harmony. And as we know, poor music is often not harmonically or rhythmically consistent.
In conclusion, it is probable that the reason composing music seems more difficult than other design fields is because it follows a synthetical rather than analytical approach, which effectively makes it "unplannable".
This part should be the most useful to newbies who know some musical theory, but can't seem to come up with something harmonic at first. It can give you a good start from which you can improved by practice.
First, there is no way I could write a tutorial like "How to write a battle music?" Having played many RPGs, you probably have your own ideas about which characteristics a battle music (more percussion, fast-paced) has, which ones an overworld theme has (slower, more strings, woodwinds and "long" sounds), etc. These are not absolute rules, but are sort of "stereotypes" that any RPG player has.
So now, you listened to RPG music, chose your instruments and melodies and composed your first songs? They sound terrible? Do not fear! The point of this part is to fix common yet easily correctible mistakes.
(Note: Examples for this part and the following can be downloaded here.)
Unzip designmusic.zip, and open batl2-original.mid (in NoteWorthy or
any program that allows "sheet music" view). This was the battle music
for SpellBind, that I've composed three years ago (proving, once again,
that practice does makes one improve). If you first song comes out somewhat
like this, don't think it's hopeless! Let's look at what we can do for
1. Arrange Rhythm
You probably noticed everything sounds offbeat. Look at the first staff (rock organ). See all the notes linked together? This song was recorded directly from a keyboard and, as the timing was not perfect, the notes didn't fall on full beats.
Open batl2-edit1.mid. It represents the rhythm adjusting process on the 4 first bars (intro of the song).
Note: Use File -> Page setup in NoteWorthy...in the Option tab, you can set measure numbers to be showed.
First two staves are the organ/bass part, last two (not counting tempo staff) are the drum part. In the first staff, I removed the notes that were recording errors (when I accidently hit a note, for example...that's why I don't recommend direct recording from the keyboard). Now, what interests us is the passage from first staff to second one. If the shortest note you use is quarter time, make all your notes be on full beats (1, 2, 3, 4...). If you also use eighths, put all notes on full or half beats, etc... Parts which derogates to this rule (as quarters on half beats) is what we call "syncope" (english translation, anyone?) and it is ok, but it is a good habit stick to the standard rhythm at much as possible. The drum track is very simple, as all notes fall on beats 1 and 3. However, I added a eighth note on beat 2 1/2 to go with the 2nd track, where there is a "syncoped" quarter on the same beat.
This is the most complex rhythm of the song, so if you understand the
process, you may see how I've been able to use it for the whole song. Open
batl2-after rhythm adjustments.mid to see the final result of this step.
It's already better, isn't it?
2. Arrange Tonality
You may find the song still annoying, especially the guitar melody. As we'll see, this is because all staves are not at the same tonality (or are not using the same scales, if you prefer).
Open batl2-after tonality adjusments.mid. We'll compare it with the last file to see how to harmonize the song (batl2-after rhythm... becomes our original file). Look at the first staff. In the original file, notice that the intro uses the notes: C#, E, G#, B, G. Except for the G (which doesn't sound unharmonic, so we'll keep it), it is corresponding to C# minor tonality. However, the 5th bar uses the notes C-G, which seem like a C chord. So we'll just transpose the intro one semitone lower, to make the whole song in C minor tonality. This is fixed in the new file.
Note: To transpose part of a staff, cut it in a new staff, then use Tools -> Transpose staff. Then cut-paste the transposed part back in place.
From the 5th bar to the end, we have three distinctive instruments:
organ, guitar and bass (ignoring drum since it's not a melodic instrument...we
dealt with it in the rhythm section). The organ and bass tracks follow
a C minor - Bb minor (4 times), G minor - F minor (4 times) chord line,
which works with the tonality (C minor). All we have to do is arrange the
notes in the guitar staff to fit this chord line. For example, in measures
7 and 8, I just lowered or raised some notes by one semitone, from C-B-G-G#-A-D-C#
3. Final Settings
Now, it sounds better, but it doesn't look so much of a battle theme? No problem! For any song you make, I suggest playing with the tempo to see if it sounds better faster or slower. I slowed this one down from 160 to 100 and it seems like a nice dungeon music. It will just need some instrument changes, now, to set the mood better. I changed the rock organ to bright piano, the guitar to harp and the bass to vibes. You can check the final version in batl2-after slowdown & instrument changes.mid.
In conclusion, we were able to turn an almost hopeless song in a relatively decent one, without even changing the original idea of the song. The main trick is to experiment a lot with rhythm, tonality (changing a song from major to minor tonality gives it a completely different feeling), tempo and instruments. Experimentation is to music as planning is to the other parts of design...it raises efficiency on the long run.
1. Chord Line
It's always a good idea to make a staff with the chord progression,
so you can base the melody on it. You can then just remove this staff if
you don't want an instrument playing chords in the final song. Again, try
different chord progression to see which sounds better. Check litewind.mid,
it was originally a music for a city in the sky in Veteran RPG and it's
a good example of a chord progression over a simple melody. More complex
melodies can use the same techniques for variations over the main theme.
2. Lasagna Effect
As I said before, composing is basically starting from a main theme
and adding instruments to fill in and bring variations. However, it doesn't
mean that because your music is composed of staffs, it has to sound like
layers added one to another (thus the lasagna imagery); the same way that
even if your maps are composed of tiles, you'll try to hide the "grid"
as much as possible. E2T7-softpiano.mid (this is one music for Behind The
Epic - Monterey Penguin Story) is a song which shows the most obvious form
of layering piano->guitar->flute. It still sounds good, but if all your
musics in your game have the same "lasagna" style, the player may get annoyed.
Note that this is a big challenge for any composer to minimize this effect
(or any other redundant music style, but layering is the most frequent).
I included some of my tries at eliminating the lasagna effect. If you listen
to wizbolt.mid (this is an industrial-like song from Way of the Wizard),
you'll see the instruments (especially the percussions) are more blended
together and that the melody instrument only does the variations. The layering
is less obvious, but it gets repetitive. In wizstage.mid (also from WOTW,
stage select music), different instruments are used for the variations
and it also sounds better. Another important point is the transitions between
different parts of the song (this has been neglected in wizstage.mid).
Finally, although this is something I never really used, you can make the
main instrument do a variation and the new layer play the first theme in
the background. If you want to see what a mix of all these techniques would
be like, a good example if FF9's Final Boss music. You can recognize three
distinctive part in the song that repeat, but the transitions and blendings
are done very smoothly.
3. Learn From Listening
If you wonder how to do certain effects (drum roll, industrial noise,
etc...) you've seen in other RPG music, just look in the MIDI file in your
MIDI editor. There's many things you can learn by looking closely at the
staves of your favorite commercial RPG songs.
4. BAM to MIDI Conversion
In the last issue of OHR Monthly, Rinku suggested the compilation of a table listing indications on MIDI->BAM instrument conversion. The difficulty of doing such a table is that both MIDI and BAM sound different depending of the soundcard you're using. However, I still tried to note which instruments sound very different when converted, hoping results will be similar on other soundcards. Here is the list, by instrument numbers:
#009-016: Chromatic percussion
#081-088: Synth Lead
#089-096: Synth Pad
#097-104: Synth Effect
#121-128: Sound Effect
#129-...: Percussion Set
Some notes on BAM:
This is the end of this article. You will probably get more tricks as you practice and the best way to improve is often feedback. Post your work when you feel it's ready, and you will get both comments and suggestions. Be patient and you'll notice improvement gradually comes with the number of tracks you'll compose...
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