Hi everyone. This week’s update is something a little special. We
kidnapped politely cajoled Raj Mann, our composer, to break down his approach and process to writing music. Raj introduces four new tracks and explains how he goes from initial concept to a completed track. Without further ado, here’s Raj!
So this Desktop Tuesday falls on me giving you guys an update into the Stonehearth soundtrack; I’m excited for everyone to hear what I’ve been working on and also to give a kind of peek behind my approach and process!
Seasons & Soundtrack
Without spoiling too much, the biggest focus behind the music is the implementation of Seasons; something we’ll see implemented further down the road but must be planned for in advance. As seasons change, so do the game’s environments and aesthetics and, ultimately, the mood and feel of the world around you. So the idea was to not only create music that ‘levels up’ so to speak with your town, but also music that captures the changing world around you and puts you right into the heart of it. Spring needs to feel like it’s thawing out and life is sprouting out of the frozen ground. Summer needs to feel hot and lazy and bright. Autumn needs to feel like back to school savings are all around y…ok well, no, but you get the idea.
So! Let’s start with some seasonal tracks and show you what I’m talking about! (Twitch streamers might recognize some of these)
Spring is all about strings, harps, flutes, violins, celestas and should feel, well…springy. Bouncy, quirky, productive, up and at em! The long, soft strings come in occasionally like a warm breeze but for the most part: you have no more excuses not to get back to work. The world is sprouting to life again.
Summer is all about blue skies and bustling towns. Guitars, tin whistles, ukeleles, accordions… There are two types of characters this music is meant for: the ones taking a well-deserved break after a long day of work to wipe the sweat from their brow in the face of a cool breeze…and the ones who’ve snuck away from their jobs to snooze under the shade of a tree in the mid-afternoon sun. You know which ones you are >:(
Autumn is seeing all the energy of Spring and Summer begin to tire out and fade; somber, reflective pianos lead the way. I wanted to keep that quirky nature of Stonehearth in the second half of this one and the pacing between the slower and fast parts makes a nice comfortable flow that suits the season well…right? Well…I think it does… Look it does, ok? Trust me.
Ah, Winter. I’m Canadian you see so this is our default weather. Crisp, clear and plucky, winter is all about percussions: Kalmibas and marimbas, xylophones and vibraphones, dulcimers and….I can’t think of anything that rhymes with dulcimers. Nevertheless, this song shifts and changes melodies as often as the Hearthians would be changing temperatures, working outside, warming up inside again and back out again. Cold hands carrying wood, muddy boots closing the door, morning frost in the sun and hot soup by a bright window. You know? Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, you’ll get a sense of the cold/warm/cozy/busy feel too
Now this is tricky because making music isn’t quite the same as game development; there’s isn’t a process you follow to create a song, or at least there shouldn’t be, I don’t think. (editor’s note: if there is a process to game development, someone please let me know) Music is about experimentation…unfortunately, this means if I did a behind-the-scenes streaming session on twitch, you’d all watch me for 8 hours, struggling with melodies, mixing, listening to the same things over and over, working for hours on something ultimately to ditch it, possibly swearing, staring into nothing contemplating the decisions I’ve made with my life and why I didn’t go into law, etc etc.
Music making is a volatile and unpredictable process, like mixing chemicals in high school; you experiment and experiment and sometimes nothing happens but, occasionally, if you’re lucky, something explodes. I’ve lost control of this metaphor.
Anyway. To give you kind of, sort of an idea of how I go about it…I do have three rules for making Stonehearth music.
1. Every track must be melody driven; centred around a melody, grounded in a melody. No atmospheric, new-age wishy washy less is more tone and sustained notes here. Every song MUST be able to be stripped down to just one instrument (most often for me, a piano) and be able to retain it’s charm and personality. If it needs lots of instruments, then it isn’t melody driven and I goes back to the drawing board.
2. Every track must have the 16 bit feel to it. What 16 bit feel?, you might ask quite rudely. Well, while Stonehearth is a pretty modern game, it throws more than a few nods back to it’s 16 bit lineage and inspirations. So every track goes through a quick retro-izing to make sure that sense and feel is there. It’s often during this phase that I make important cuts and changes before going back to the regular instruments. It makes a difference, trust me
3. Every track, at least day/night themes, must have a couple of seconds of zoning-out time. In transitioning between melodies or wherever I can fit it. It’s music that continues to play but doesn’t demand your attention; kind of just playing in the back of your head, setting up like cushions that you can relax on while you focus on more important decisions that demand your full attention, like where you’re going to put that table so that it looks good with the new curtains. Vital stuff.
Keeping that in mind, here’s a sample process. Let’s show you how I came around to the Summer Theme.
Developing a Song
So first things first, find the collection of instruments I need to get the feel I’m looking for. Guitars, ukeleles, accordion, strings, celesta and a retro synth at the end. Kind of the way a painter mixes his colours before he starts, or a chef gets his ingredients together or a poker player…shuffles…the deck (?). Whatever! Getting the tools ready for the mood I want to create!
Next is finding the melody. This is the longest part, working to find/create a melody that works well with the instruments, is memorable and suits the season it’s for. Here I started with just strumming these chords and, quite accidentally, came to that interesting riff at the end.
So off to expanding on it. I’ve added a ukelele to give it some pluck and energy and accordion for the melody that plays over top. It’s like a treasure hunter hitting something hard in the sand and knowing that THIS is where he’s gotta keep digging. Most importantly, I’ve got a name for the song now and that’s something that helps me aim and focus the song a bit better.
The arrangement is all coming together now and the song has it’s structure. The accordion’s been replaced with a Tin Whistle to give it more of a breezy pasture feel rather than the seaside vibes that were going on before. Here’s I’ve retro-ized it using 16 bit sound fonts and going back and forth between this version and the full mix helps to strip away all excess and make sure each instrument is as simple as it needs to be. If it could work in an old SNES game, then I’m on the right track.
And here’s the full version you’ve heard before, completed with all the parts arranged and simplified and hopefully, charming and memorable
(Spoiler: that little zone out moment happens from 1:16 – 1:32)
Finally, here’s me stripping the tune down to it’s basics and playing it on piano. Yes my playing isn’t the greatest, I haven’t played this song since October But the piano melody retains all the same personality as the full version so I’m satisfied that this one’s a keeper.
Developing Snow Castles
Do we have time for one more example? Of course we do! Onward to winter.
So, again, finding instruments for this small tune which would play when there’s a weather change in winter to snowfall. Getting the feel ready.
A little different from the Summer Theme, here I started with creating the ambience that would surround the melody and the song first. More prep work? Yes but for any aspiring songwriters out there, they’ll know this trick. You don’t always have to start with drawing and do the filler work and colouring later, sometimes it pays to start with the colouring (apologies to any artists who are mortified by my metaphor).
A bit backwards, this song came from out of a piano melody at it’s barest. There’s a lot of humour and personality and quirks etc in Stonehearth and I try and encourage that with my music but occasionally, I like the idea that something touching or tender could also happen and that’s how I wanted a snowfall in the middle of winter to feel. Delicate, beautiful, a tiny bit sad, touching. I’m really happy with how it came out.
And here’s the final version, using the atmosphere I built up before and merging it with the melody and replacing it with a chubby clarinet so that it doesn’t sound sad anymore but rather peaceful and pretty (hopefully). So much opportunity to go in so many different directions with the second half of this one, I decided instead to go with restraint and keep things bare and simple; bass notes are echoing but almost not there and the song feel light and airy for the second half. Like, you know: snow #slowmosunglasses
And of course a retro version that helped me clean up the final mix a bit. Just making sure it will fit with all the other tracks
Q & A
Q: How do you go about writing a new piece of music. What inspires you.
Honestly, other work. Not just other music and musicians (of which I have lots of inspirations here: Howard Shore, Yasunori Mitsuda, Joe Hisaishi, John Powell, Thomas Newman, Koji Kondo, Yoko Shimomura, etc, etc.) but artwork, movies, books, photography, great views, cool moments. Whereas most are compelled to capture a great moment with a photo or a conversation, I like to scribble out a melody. Then, one day, when I’m looking for melodies, I’ve got a whole library to pick from.
For Stonehearth, my inspiration is very much, not just the aesthetics of the game, but the attention to detail. The way the characters warm up their hands at the fire or animals stop, stare and scatter…it’s very Miyazaki-esque to me and it pushes me to make music that retains or at least measures up to that personality and charm! I hope it’s working!
Q: How do you want the music to influence the mood of the game in the various seasons?
Hmmmm, I think I answered this in a lot of detail above so instead I’ll answer a different question: Fish & Chips…but not on Sundays.
Q: Looks like you’re experimenting with some chip-tune moments in some tracks. What’s your thinking there?
The idea originally was to inject a tiny sense of nostalgia and to help kind of ‘sharpen’ the corners of the music the way the voxel squares ‘sharpen’ the graphics of the game. There are a lot of nods to older games and series, especially with Doug incorporating retro sound effects and the music helps to make that all fit together….but I’m trying to be very sparing with it. Some tracks might have more, some might not have any at all. But overall, the soundtrack is filled with accents of old synths and chip-tune effects and the idea is to not only wink at the past but also to help gel all these different aesthetics into a kind of harmony. It feels right, doesn’t it? The blocky trees and square cloud shadows…it helps to feel like the visuals and audio belong together. No?
Q: If you could have one super-power, which would it be, and why?
Magnet Hands. Yes, I’m sure this is probably going to cause more problems than anything but I’m come too far to turn back now.