Daniel Kobylarz - Composer
by, 23rd May 2012 at 07:31 AM (7806 Views)
By Dan Kobylarz
My name is Daniel Kobylarz and I'm a composer for Embers of Caerus. I'm writing a blog for your eyes and ears to get some insight into how I work and make music for you to hear in the game.
First, a little about myself. Like most people in this business, Iíve always loved video-games, and I've grown up with them. Definitely cheaper than babysitters. My love for video-games coincides with music and, even though I've studied music for most of my adult life through academia, I have also performed in just about every role that someone can in video-game creation. This includes being a designer, programmer, 2D artist, sprite artist, 3D modeler, Foley artist, and of course my favorite, soundtrack composer. I've always believed that knowing how other roles work is a key to excelling in your own role. This is especially true when working as a composer, as it has (arguably) the most emphasis on making everything fit in a particular spot. There's no room for sour notes in game music. For examples of this, try this out: go load up a game, any game. Don't play it, just look around, specifically for imperfections. Maybe there's a character model that has hands that are a bit too large, and out of proportion with the body. Maybe on the second level there's not enough ammo to go around for the amount of enemies, or vice-versa. Maybe that crate could have been a bit smaller, or maybe they could have not used that texture for every single table in the game.
But now, listen to the music. Think about those kinds of aesthetic imperfections, and try to find some parallels in the music. You won't hear this: a peaceful town setting with a flute ensemble, and then out of nowhere a rather large male singer taking the melody and screaming it through your speakers. And you won't hear this: a piano outro during the rolling of the credits, and then a random set of off-key notes that instantly takes you out of the game. That's because in game music, you don't make any mistakes (as subjective as they might be), and this is why it is so important to make sure it fits wherever it is being placed. As always, there are exceptions to each of these, but in the big scheme of things, the sentiment I made earlier of "no room for sour notes" is painstakingly true.
On to making music.
First, before anything, coffee, and a snack.
Step 1: Inspiration and Planning
Before I create anything I go through exhaustive amounts of planning. This is extremely important. I usually start with a few ideas rolling around in my head like a simple melody, a particular instrument sound, or even a particular song-structure. But for the most part, I'm working with a blank canvas. To think like a painter, I like to create a bit of a "wash" on this blank sheet of paper before I get to hammering on my keyboard. To do this, I look at concept art. Concept art (specifically for me) is the catalyst that starts that one gear in my head that then moves the others. So I'll look for a bit at concept art of creatures, buildings, and overall art style of a particular area that I know I'll be creating a piece for. After doing some of my own sketches (this engraves the artwork in my head), I look at my trusty whiteboard that's next to my workstation.
It's a bit blank at the moment. The next step is to fill it up.
Step 2: Brainstorming
Now that I have some nice visuals to work with, it's time to get some audial influence. With every track that I make I try to do something different than the last. It's easy to become stuck in the same routes and formulas, so it helps to challenge yourself with something completely different. For this, I decided to listen to some electronic music. Here's some links to the music I'm currently listening to while writing this for inspiration. If all goes as planned, you will be able to hear the influence in my piece.
Ed Harrison - Annul
Steve Reich - Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint
Vangelis - Blade Runner Theme
Now, you might be saying "wait a minute Dan, how are you going to make epic orchestral music from that stuff?"
Well, it's actually kind of simple. Look at my whiteboard now! Bam!
All of these quick little ideas jumped into my head while looking at concept art and listening to some music. At this point I have a good idea of what I want this piece to feel like. I'm thinking a forest/battle scene, perhaps specifically in tundra, where I can use "brittle" and "cold" sounding instruments to paint the soundscape. I'm also thinking of faster tempos, and modal/minor key tonalities, to give the full emotions of battle.
Time to hammer the keys!
Nah, just kidding.
Step 3: Creation
Next I open my digital audio workstation of choice, and start working with some sounds.
For this particular piece, I'm thinking of basing it all around string orchestra, piano, assorted percussion, and some French horn. (These all popped into my head during the brainstorming phase. If you look closely at the filled whiteboard picture, you can see that!) So I will load up some magical programs, turn on my keyboard, and get to work. After a little while, and sound consultation from my whiteboard, my screen looks like this:
Now, itís not that easy, and this is far from a finished piece. The ideas can be there, and even an idea of the specific instrumentation can be there, but that doesn't mean it will all be executed well. Just simply placing the music down in a program with some instruments and pressing the play button won't get you a fantastic piece. 99% of the time, it won't get you a good sounding piece period. It's all about the emotions that can be unlocked through the blend, and final mix. You won't be tugging at any heart strings with a piano part that's so loud it distorts and crashes through every other instrument.
Step 4: Analysis and Mixing
This is the part where it gets technical, and full of music theory jargon.
After placing the music, itís time to analyze and figure out if it is giving the emotion that I was aiming for. As I mentioned before, I wanted brittle, cold, and dramatic music while not lifeless and melancholic.
Looking at my instrumentation, I feel I stayed true to my original plan, with a few deviations. If you see, there are no trumpets, harps or pianos that were there on the whiteboard.
Next I'll take a look at the overall song structure. For this, you might want to listen to the track while you read. I originally wanted something that wasn't completely devoid of structure, but at the same time had boundaries. You can look at this as mimicking battle itself; while unpredictable, and seldom without suspense and surprises, it also can be considered an art itself, with obvious placements and technique. Looking at my piece from a visual standpoint, I think I achieved this as well, without much change.
Starting with the cellos/low strings, it introduces the first idea, and is then repeated to build dramatic tension. The French horns are then introduced, but only in an accompaniment role. This tricks the listener into thinking that they will be hearing the first fragments of the piece's melody and memorable role, but what they get is a soft, rounded instrument tone that simply meanders chords around the top of the already audible cellos. Along with the French horns (note: not only audibly, but they are visually above the string part in the last picture; the bass drums are then above the French horns), the bass drums slowly start to creep up into the tension, with booming blasts of bountiful bass. The point of having this large build up is the following section,in green. This is the first introduced melody. By placing this melody in the context of the piece, it becomes the focus. It is played once through a new instrument tone (low violins/high violas) and new pitches. It is then repeated by gradually increasing velocity, to build up to the next idea, which is the white melody.
The white melody then becomes the next focus point of the piece. It plays once in the violins, (above the red melody that is re-introduced at the same time) and is then repeated in a slight key-change in the French horns.
Before we go further, look at the last picture of the sectioned piece. If you noticed, the RED idea is played throughout. There really isn't a time when the RED idea is not playing. So it's a given that while it's important, itís not something the composer intended to be in the foreground.
Next, look at the GREEN and WHITE ideas. They are both played once, and then repeated, one after the other. If you recall from earlier in the post, I mentioned how the piece was structured to be like a battle itself. This is another iteration of the battle idea. The GREEN melody is fighting the WHITE melody for the foreground... for the listener to hear. It may sound silly to some people, but as a composer you have to constantly envision ways to get your point (emotion) across, while only utilizing sound. (Note: I personally liked the green melody better. So if you looked ahead and noticed the green melody repeats after the white melody, well, green won!)
After looking at it in-depth, I feel the structure holds up to the first ideas that I had, and accomplishes the emotion that I wanted to achieve.
Step 5/Final Step: Mixing
After not listening to the piece for a few days, and then taking a day to listen and examine it from a listener's (and not a creator's) viewpoint, I put the finishing touches on it with a proper mix. This usually consists of perfecting the volume levels of the instruments, adding final effects and equalizations and, of course, doing some of my own secret tricks to pull it all together.
And that's about it. It might seem like a lot of analysis and thought to be put into two minutes worth of music, but it doesn't take a trained ear to tell the difference between a piece that has been thought about, and a piece that has not.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post. I hope you got something from it and, if not, then I hope you enjoy the music! Iím looking forward to doing more in the future, so stay tuned!
Also, Iím very interested in progressing video-game music as an entity in itself. If you are an aspiring composer and looking for some help getting started, shoot me an email at Danielkobylarz@gmail.com
Champions of Vallenheim (Embers of Caerus MMORPG) by Daniel Kobylarz