Winner of the New Grounds Underdogs' Audio Contest

I'm honored to have received first place in the final round of NGUAC 2017 (having previously placed 1st in the first round, and second in the second). During the course of the competition, I was able to receive some great feedback from the judges which has helped me reconsider some of my working methods.

In recent years I'd adopted more virtual instruments into my workflow. In a world that often values speed of turnaround over quality of production, working with all live instruments (as I had done in the past) proved to be a time consuming and inefficient process. With the encouragement and tutelage of my friend Kevin Macleod, I began learning more about large scale MIDI production. While edit requests can be performed incredibly quickly, the tracks seemed to lack a sense of personal touch and detail of sound I had previously valued so much.

This track marks a return to my older style of working wherein everything is created from scratch...custom sound design from simple wave forms, recording of live instruments, and unique sound processing facilitated via bespoke patches created in Max/Msp. While I still feel that the use of virtual instruments is many times necessary, I would like to begin blending elements of this thought process into my hired works moving forward. I'm honored to have won this competition, but the bigger takeaway is a rekindling of the love of a more hands-on approach to production.

The winning track is provided below, along with a description of my inspiration/working methods.

I was inspired by the incredible videos of hummingbirds created by Anand Varma for National Geographic.

Not only was the information fascinating (of which there is more in the linked article at the bottom of the aforementioned post) but I had an emotional reaction to the videos themselves. His images captured a world very familiar, yet when slowed down, have an otherworldly ethereal beauty.

Harmonically, everything is based on stacked 5ths. The harmony is extended in the bridge.

Most of the sounds came from the acoustic guitar (played with fingers, chopsticks, ebow, allen wrench, and slide). Other sounds for the percussion came from cardboard boxes, a wood block, and simple wave forms (mostly white noise and sine waves). There's an 808 bass drum sample as well.

The prominent melody is voiced primarily by sine waves, then doubled with glockenspiel and vibraphone. I also used a really crappy flute soundfont which was mangled, distorted, and detuned to mimic the feel of a mellotron.

The guitar glitches were painstakingly chopped and hand placed.

The guitar was purposely tuned just a touch flat in the beginning and was distressed using a combination of distortion, eq, heavy compression, and a vinyl plugin. Background noise and tape hiss is purposeful and in some places, added artificially using a combination of pink noise and samples from various fans (air conditioner, kitchen vent, bathroom vent, computer). In general, quirks like hisses pops and subtly (and at times not so subtly) drifting pitch are the name of the game.

I encourage you to listen to this track while scrolling through the videos linked above.

Burglars Inc. Score

Burglars Inc. is an exciting new plot driven puzzle game centered around a collective of thieves who crack safes with benevolent intentions. As a huge fan of 1960's era heist movies, Archer, Venture Bros, and Cowboy Bebop, I may or may not have squealed a little at the prospect of scoring this game. Here's a little bit about the process of writing one of the main character themes.

Chase is new to Burglars Inc. She's playful and fun but her youthful veneer belies her natural talent for burgling. The levels she's featured in are fast paced so the challenge was create a sense of urgency while keeping the music light enough to fit her personality.

My initial demo took stylistic cues from shows like "The People's Court", "The Powerpuff Girls", and "The Venture Bros". I wanted the actual substance of the music to be all business, while the instrument choices wrapped it up in a cutesy package. I'd describe myself similarly, but personal experience has taught me it tends to work better as a musical approach than a dating strategy. The rhythm ticks away regularly to mimic the feel of seconds counting down on a mechanical clock. All of this is against heavy piano stabs which add a little more emotional weight and allude to a sense of danger. Since the piece needed to be able to loop infinitely, I opted to keep the melody simple in an effort to avoid annoying the listener upon the 150th repeat. This first demo is provided below:

While I received some positive feedback, the general concensus was that the track came across a bit too modern and dark, and not jazzy enough for the style of the game. In short, it felt too "Brock Samson Smash (Venture Bros)" and not enough "Rusty and Danny Ocean (Ocean's Eleven)". I created another version with some horn parts sketched in, but it felt a bit forced so I went back to the drawing board.

In the next round I shifted my focus to music that had more of a straight jazz feel. I took more influences from the likes of Lalo Schifrin, Mal Waldron, and of course, Yoko Kanno. As it turns out, having an awesome name is like 80% of writing really great music. Forget studying theory/orchestration/sound design/etc. From now on I will be known as Bif LeStrange.

I decided to go with a more identifiable melody - something that even amateur burglars could hum to themselves while cracking safes at home. I kept the plucked strings and glockenspiel from the first demo, but pushed them into the background and used the falling line in the glock to paraphrase the melody played in the saxophones. I slowed the tempo down quite a bit so that I could add a bit more rhythmic density. Protip: Hand drums always make jazz cooler, and when in doubt, add more shakers! Taking cues from the epically named composers above, I let a funky bass line drive the piece. The overall effect was the following demo:

This track was received much more favorably and I got the thumbs up to move forward. After that, it was simply a matter of fleshing harmonies out, developing the material, and hacking away at finessing the production.

I wanted the melody to grow like a Chia Pet in an advertisement, so I started each phrase as a thin line, and gradually fattened it as it went along. This was also a dating tactic of mine, and it worked as well as the last one I mentioned. I'm beginning to suspect I'm not very good at courtship. I added a countermelody in the trombones to give the repeated sections a little more spice. At this point the plucked strings were demanding too much attention, so I dropped them down an octave and pushed them further back in the mix. I also decided the solo needed to be played on the flute because obviously...the solo needed to be played on the flute. It captures Chase's playful qualities, and creates more diversity in sound. Also jazz flute is funny.

I'm incredibly happy with the way the music came out! I'm rarely able to work on this type of music so I had a blast with this project. Overall I contributed three tracks, and my only regret is that I couldn't contribute more. On the plus side, there's a fair amount of demo material that didn't work out for this project. Perhaps I'll finish some of them up and put out a Burglars Inc B-sides and Rarities collection someday. Until then, check out this game. I'm sure you'll have at least as much fun playing it as I had composing for it!

Burglars Inc, coming out on February 2nd!

New Video Creation Engine!

After what feels like ages of coding, I've FINALLY finished a background engine that will generate videos from musical midi data. Though this inaugural video is pretty simple, it's a proof of concept so I can make sure everything is working properly. From this I can create a template that will allow me to create all sorts of animations from musical data and spit out HD videos without having to spend ages editing a timeline. What this all means is that I can finally start uploading music to sites like Vimeo or Youtube and actually have something more visually interesting than a static image. I'll still put review tracks on soundcloud, but this will be another way to find new pieces I release.

Orchestral Mockup/Transcription of Hans Zimmer's Chevalier De Sangreal From The Da Vinci Code

When learning jazz improvisation, transcribing your favorite solos by ear is one of the best exercises you can do. You learn the function of every melodic fragment, how the improviser is thinking, and how you can manipulate these ideas for your own use. I've applied the same idea to music production over the years. To learn how to effectively use new software (or new orchestration/production techniques), import a track into a DAW and try to copy it. It can be laborious transcribing each note, and even more painstaking trying to copy the production, but it really is a great way to learn new orchestrational, sound design, and production techniques.

I did this transcription awhile ago after purchasing my first virtual instruments. Until that point I was limited to recording live instruments and manipulating synthesized sounds; this is a practice that is sometimes more desirable, but often takes more time than deadlines will allow. Despite the fact that this excerpt is just shy of 2.5 minutes, I learned more about breathing life into these samples than I ever could have by simply writing my own music. The original is posted below for reference.

Disclaimer:I did not write this music, nor do I claim any rights to the original music. It is not available for use. This was created as an education exercise.