Gamedev Grievances #5: Music – Prison Escape

A screenshot of the Melody Assistant UI.

As an indie developer working solo on Ambience, coding is only half the battle. I also have to look after sprites, sounds, music, story, and a whole host of other things that make the game nice to play. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been using various incarnations of GameMaker for about 10 years now – but I’ve also been a casual music composer for about that long as well.

The software I’m using to compose the Ambience soundtrack is called Melody Assistant. It’s fairly old software now and hasn’t been updated in quite a while, and is probably a bit underwhelming when compared with many of the more professional programs. However, it still works pretty well for most things I need it for, including support for soundfonts, special effects, and even karaoke. And, given I’ve been using it for about a decade, I’ve become pretty familiar with its user interface.

A screenshot of the Melody Assistant UI.
A screenshot of the Melody Assistant UI.

So as a change of pace, I decided this week I’d talk a little about my compositions, and specifically one piece I’ve been reworking lately: the prison escape theme.

Adjectives

Before I compose something, I usually think about what words come to mind when I think of that place, and make a composition accordingly. For example, dark prison corridors generates words like “dark”, “mysterious”, “foreboding”, and plenty of other adjectives like it. So you’d expect a theme for a dark prison corridor to have that feel.

However, in the context of Ambience, you’re not just sneaking through the prison corridors – you’re desperately fleeing, with prison guards hot on your heels. That scenario changes up the list of words quite significantly. “Fast”, “desperate”, “heart pounding…” And so on.

The theme I ended up composing was a mix of the two. It was fast-paced, but still had that dark, pounding feel to it. The piece still needed to match the fact that your character is sprinting down a dark corridor, rather than through a forest or across a battlefield.

Audio Normalization

Another problem I encountered with this piece, and quite a few others too, was problems with the dynamics and overall sound of the piece. Often I’d compose a piece and get it sounding the way I wanted, but then I’d export to MP3 and suddenly it’d sound a lot quieter for some reason. It turned out this was a result of Melody Assistant normalizing the audio during the export process, which also made it sound quieter – something that I couldn’t fix just by amplifying the audio in Audacity without clipping the audio. However, when I turned off the Normalize option, it messed up the dynamics of the specific piece – for example, it would make quiet sections of a piece too loud and aggressive, and even deteriorated the quality of the percussion.

Here’s a short section of the final boss theme that illustrates this quite well. First, the normalized export – which is way too quiet. (Maybe turn up your speakers a little if you need to.)

And here’s the non-normalized export. Note the low quality of the percussion, especially the fluctuating volume and the “wish-wash” sound of the snare drum towards the end. (Turn down the speakers!)

In the end, I tired of battling with Melody Assistant’s MP3 export function, and just used Audacity to record the audio directly from Melody Assistant as it played the piece. Then I trimmed the audio and exported it from Audacity.

Here’s the result of the direct recording. The percussion sounds much clearer now compared to the non-normalized export, and the changing dynamics elsewhere in the piece also came out nicely. For the time being, I’m happy with this result.

 

But nothing’s ever perfect!

I’m a bit of a perfectionist sometimes – which really comes out when I’m composing. If something doesn’t quite sound right, or doesn’t quite have the right feel, it needs to change. That means my music usually undergoes several revisions before it even comes close to the final version, and the prison theme is no exception.

The “old” version of the prison theme, which appears in the Ambience demo, sounds like this:

However, as time went on and I started hearing that theme again and again, I realized I wasn’t totally happy with it. It wasn’t quite enough of those descriptive words I’d thought of: it needed to be darker, more desperate, more fast-paced. The “normalized”, quiet audio from Melody Assistant didn’t help, either – although the sample here was a direct recording, which still sounded too quiet and subdued.

So I made a few changes. First of all, I switched around  the instrumentation a bit to make certain sections sound better. In particular, I changed the bass to a louder, fingered bass, which sounds a lot darker and captures the prison environment much better. I think it sounds much better than the quieter, acoustic bass I used previously.

In terms of dynamics, I made the piano theme at the beginning of the piece louder and more prominent, just to give it more of that “awesome piano solo” feel. However, I kept the piano soft during the rest of the theme. I also increased the tempo slightly: just enough to give it that more urgent feel, but not too much.

Meanwhile in the percussion, I changed the snare drum to make it sound a little heavier, again to match the “prison escape” feel. I also tried a new strategy: turning the whole percussion stave down a few semitones, to make the percussion sound a little deeper and not quite as tinny. It actually worked much better than I thought it would.

In the end, here’s what it sounded like on the direct recording:

Again, I’m fairly happy with this result. For now.

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