Weekly Content Blog #6: Tyler’s Tunes – The Compositional Process (Curtis’ Theme)

Weekly Content Blog #6: Tyler’s Tunes – The Compositional Process (Curtis’ Theme)

Hi there!

Tyler here! Today’s post will discuss the process I used to compose music for this project. I will specifically focus on the character theme for Curtis, who is a main protagonist in “Shadows of Adam”. I will show how I went from email threads with Luke (our writer/level designer), to sheet music sketches, to Finale and finally to Logic to sample and mix all the instruments. Well, let’s begin shall we?

In the past when I’ve composed location or general purpose (battle, inn, victory) music I can go off what I already know and/or use tropes that help establish those areas. When Luke and I decided it might be good to explore some character themes I knew I would need to pick his brain on how he saw the character and how the music should illuminate those qualities. Here are a few snippets of our emails

Email 1

Email 2

(Note 1: I’ve censored anything that could spoil the plot)
(Note 2: This was back when Kellan was named Josel. A fun tidbit that I’m sure Josh can talk about as he explains the progression of this project.)
(Note 3: Luke references lines of the scripts. This gives me context on where this theme will be used.)

Now that I had some ideas from Luke I could begin sketching some ideas. Generally I like to start a new piece by listening to music that will have the same spirit as the composition I’m about to write. In this case Luke shared with me several pieces that had more of a cinematic quality – a huge point of departure from the usual music I had been writing for this project. We discussed using this piece in specific scenes, so it wouldn’t necessarily need to loop. This was exciting to me, because it meant I could give the piece a more dynamic arch. The interesting result of having to write music that needs to loop and potentially repeat hundreds of times on the same map is that the dynamic arch tends to remain fairly flat in order to have evenness.

After doing a lot of listening I went to the piano and started to work on some preliminary ideas. In this stage I generally write down all the ideas I have and worry about editing later.

Sketch #1
As you see, this is an extremely rough sketch. I came up with some basic motifs and had a few suggested chord harmonies. (Also of note is the other rough sketches above Curtis’ Theme. As of today, I’ve used every page of this sketch book for misc. compositions! But I digress.) I then decided to make a second pass after spending some more time on it.

Sketch #2
Sketch 2

My second pass was a lot more fleshed out. I had a better idea of the form and arch of the piece. I even wrote a few basic orchestration notes that I’d integrate later. After this step, I’ll generally play through it more on the piano and start trying to imagine the instrumentation I would like to use. I knew that I wanted to use a large string section to give the piece weight and drama. I also imagined I could add some misc. orchestral instruments such as trumpets, trombones, french horns, crash cymbal and timpani to give it more strength and character. I then decided to add a piano as well, in case I saw the need to use it. I ended up using it for the very last bar. Now that I had this it was off to start writing the parts in Finale!

Finale is a professional music software used to compose music and create sheet music for live musicians. This is an unusual choice to use for a video game soundtrack which will be sampled and mixed in a DAW (digital audio workstation), but considering most of the music I do is for real instruments I have come to prefer using it. Most digital composers will go straight from their midi keyboards and record/program into their DAWs but I’ve always enjoyed seeing the parts on a score. As I began taking the sketch into Finale I tweak things I don’t like and make edits. The great benefit to Finale is it can now play all the parts at the same time with a decent midi representation. This gets me closer to hearing the final product then when I’m just playing on the piano.

Score 1
Score 1
This shot shows off some the string counter-point and orchestration. Seeing it on paper helps me since I’m such a visual person.

Score 2
Score 2
You can see some of the brass in this shot. I used each track as a section; the trumpets are in two part and the trombones are in three part harmony. Also at the bottom you can see the timpani and crash cymbal. They aren’t doing much, but their presence helps give some moments a bit more ‘umph’.

You may notice that I have very little in the way of dynamics in this piece. That’s because I will add that later as midi data in Logic. Once I was happy with the composition itself, I exported the score as a midi (with all instruments on their own tracks) and imported it into Logic (my DAW).

Now it’s time to set up our instruments in Logic. Knowing that I’d need a full string section I divided my string ensemble into 4 midi tracks:

-Violins (Melodic)
-Viola/Cello (Melodic)
-Viola/Cello (Sustained)
-Low Strings (Sustained)

Dealing with string patches, you must account for several different types of samples. Some are made for melodic and articulated passages, while others are best served for sustained passages. After setting all my instruments in the template I then begin mixing the piece. This involves using the volume fader and automation to set levels (dynamics), EQ, compression, reverb, and panning instruments so they all have their sonic space. For string panning I imagined that I was looking at a symphony orchestra from the audiences’ perspective. Where would they sit? The violins are usually to the listeners’ left while the violas and celli are to the right. Despite the fact that the basses usually sit to the right of the listener, I generally prefer to pan bass instruments dead center. I then decide where I want the instrument to sit in the mix as Finale sends the data with all the parts at equal volume. Once I comb through that, I then find spots where there will be louder and softer moments. Near the end there is a dramatic crescendo to a big chord, I knew I would need to automate the parts to have them get louder. The last part is adding EQ to highlight different frequencies of the instruments, compression, and reverb to give it a more cohesive sound.

The instrument template, set up with my samples:
Instrument Setup

Panning Knobs – these knobs pan the instrument to different sides of the speaker from left to right:

Automation lines – the lines represent how much DB the instrument is producing at that moment in the piece. The higher the line the louder the instrument is:

Once I was happy with the mix, instrument samples, panning, dynamics, etc… I export the file as an mp3 as we are left with our final product!

Here is the PDF of the Finale score for those interested:

I hope you enjoyed this. Stay tuned for the next post!


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