Gravity Ghost

Music Writing: Tech for the Creative Process

Here is esteemed music guy Ben Prunty talking about the creative process - and weirdly, he wrote it before he saw my post about Sustainable Inspiration. Some creepy telepathic shenanigans going on here.

Hello again! My last post was about as abstract as you could get on a development blog, so this week I'm going to try for something more useful to other musicians.

1) Listening to music and Evernote as a composing tool

I listen to lots of music. In lots of different genres. I have a premium subscription to Spotify and I run that into the ground. Whenever I hear something that stands out, for instance, an interesting rhythm and tempo combination, unusual chord progression, fun synth programming, or whatever small detail that catches my attention, I’ll mentally file it away. It's a kind of 'inspiration seed' to be pulled out later when I want some kind of springboard into a new track of my own.

Often this is literally filed as a short sentence in Evernote, like:

"5/4 time signature at around 180bpm, like in Floex's Casanova, makes for a good rolling, exciting rhythm."


"the chord movement in the third measure in the verse of Queen's All Dead, All Dead is really cool. Figure out how it works."

Sometimes I'll tag it with 'Gravity Ghost' so when I search for all my GG-related notes, it'll pop up as an appropriate seed. Using Evernote is almost exactly like having a giant spiral notebook with you at all times to scribble in, except you can organize everything by subject or tags and keep it in your pocket if you have an iPod touch like I do. I highly recommend using it. You can even draw in it with the right add-ons. Seriously, stop reading and just download Evernote right now (PC, Mac, iPhone/iPad). I can wait.

Here’s me using Evernote to collect images of paintings I like into a makeshift art gallery. I never stop finding new uses for the software.

2) Writing Chords and Melody

Usually the first thing I try to do is come up with the chord progression and some simple melody to make sure the chords can be tied together well. I'll sit at my sweet digital piano and bang on the keys like an angry monkey until something good emerges. A great tool to help with ideas is an iPad with the Polychord app. Bananas and fur help with the monkey part.

Give Polychord a key signature and it'll show you all the standard chords in that key, displayed as big buttons, plus all related chords as smaller buttons. When you tap a button, you hear the chord played. It's a wonderful (and dangerously, time-sappingly fun) way to experiment with new and unusual chord progressions that you wouldn't normally think of.

It also comes in black, but who would use that when you have these colors?

So I try to come up with two or three different chord progressions. Overall structure isn't too important to me at this stage. I'll come up with a simple melody or two as well. These will most likely change drastically or be discarded altogether during the production process, but it's good to have something to work with in the beginning. Hey, now I have all the building blocks with which to construct a cohesive piece of music!

3) The Gravity Ghost Instrumentation Suite

So with every project I work on, I build a small suite of instruments that will be the first things I grab when I start up a new track. I'll cull through the literally thousands of digital instruments that I have and pick out the ones that are the closest match to what I'm envisioning in my head for the feel of the soundtrack as a whole. Some of them will work and some won't. The first couple of tracks I produce will pretty much determine what goes into the suite. I'm not limited to those sounds alone, but they are a good starting point. This method does two things:

1. It helps keep a speedy and efficient production schedule. Instead of searching through all my instrumentation every single time I start a new track, I load up appropriate sounds from the suite right from the start.

2. It helps ensure that the soundtrack as a whole has a wonderfully cohesive sound.

Of course, each individual track has its own identity and needs, so I'll still be looking for new sounds all the time anyway. The best ones will get added to the suite and will most likely be used again in a future track.

A special mention must go out to Jeremiah Savage, the sound designer who developed the amazing Acoustic Refractions sound pack for Native Instruments. Acoustic Refractions has some of the most beautiful, quirky instruments, many of them built from the sounds of everyday objects. They're rich with detail and subtlety, and are infinitely customizable. Unfortunately, Acoustic Refractions was discontinued last fall with all the other Kore instruments. Regardless, when you hear the Gravity Ghost soundtrack, you'll hear much of Savage's work in my own.

In the next post I'll talk about the actual production. See you then!

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On Games, Music, and Inspiration

Today's post is brought to you by the awesome Ben Prunty, our music guy from practically day one. I recommend listening to track one on his website, especially the very first part. Note: I considered calling this post "Benjammin'", or "Space Jams" but then decided way against it.

Hey there,

My name is Ben Prunty. A while back I bugged Erin to let me make music for Gravity Ghost. Eventually she relented, so now I get to play with pretty colors and make sounds to match them. I've written a lot of music and sound for the production already, but unfortunately you can't hear it just yet. So let's listen to some other stuff instead!

Erin sent me several pieces of music, in the form of YouTube links, to give me an idea of what she was imagining for the soundtrack. It was a mix of folksy stuff and very eccentric post-post-post-pop. Or something. Have a listen:

Or how about this?

Okay, let's try something more conventional:

This stuff is awesome, and it's only a portion of the music Erin sent me. But how do I translate this into a whimsical/melancholy cartoony game about a ghost girl hurtling through space? When Erin envisioned her world, this was the music that accompanied that vision. And I'm tasked with extracting the essence not necessarily from the music itself, but from the feel of the music. Then taking that essence and cramming it into something original and new that fits the world and the game of Gravity Ghost. Did I manage to get my music to sound like the samples she sent me?

Spoiler Alert: my music doesn't sound like any of those. Or maybe it sounds like all of them. I don't know. I'm a bit of a Buddhist, so I say confusing things like that sometimes.

Let's look at some of my own inspirations, and then perhaps when you finally hear the soundtrack, you'll see bits and pieces of both Erin's inspirations and my own all woven expertly into the music. Or it'll sound like I just threw a bunch of stuff in a blender and hit 'liquefy' without the cover on. I'll take either one, really.

Have you ever heard the soundtrack to the old Super NES game Secret of Evermore? Jeremy Soule wrote it when he was 18. Eighteen! You know what I was doing at 18? Writing terrible, terrible music. In 1994-ish, at age eight-freaking-teen, Jeremy was busy writing what would become one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time. No game, before or since, has had a more distinct, emotive and unique thumbprint of a score.

In Secret of Evermore, a boy travels to a fantasy world. However, instead of being a fantastical fairy-land full of rainbow cakes and bunnies, the setting is a dangerous, dying world that knows it shouldn't exist. It's a very sad place, even though it's full of dinosaurs and pyramids and steampunk flying machines. How much of this information is conveyed by the story and how much is conveyed by the music? I don't really remember, but it's fascinating to me that I even have to ask that question. Enough of my talk, listen for yourself.

Wonder and sadness, seamlessly merged into one grand, haunting soundtrack.

You know what other game has a great soundtrack? EarthBound. EarthBound is the reigning king of all cult games. EarthBound is Einstein in a purple-and-orange pinstripe suit: brilliant, eccentric and bizarrely stylish. Also like our besuited Einstein: never seen. Which is too bad, because the soundtrack is all over the place and awesome. It's an absolutely insane mix of hip-hop, electronic, 1950's rock n' roll, ambient, jazz, overt Beatles references, and some creepy-as-hell sampling. Also, monkey sounds.

There's a part in the game when you travel inside a man who turned himself into a dungeon (his life aspiration; technically he's a Dungeon Man now). Once you work your way through his body, he congratulates you, spits you out and decides to join you.

So this massive 5-story man-dungeon-thing joins your party, and you actually see his huge body stomping along behind all the other characters as you go, taking up most of the screen. Within five seconds he gets stuck in some trees and can't go any further and decides that maybe staying put is better after all. Then you leave him there. Forever.

I wish I could be making that up.

The developers saw that five second bit of the game and said "Screw it, let's make some music for that part, because what the hell?" And here it is:

If you crank that, it'll seriously thump your speakers. It's some badass stuff. Keiichi Suzuki did not mess around. He ran that SNES sound chip like Henry Ford ran his employees. And like Ford, he got results.

In another section of the game, we shift perspective from main characters Ness and Paula to another hero, Jeff, in a boarding school in the snowy north (because Ness and Paula crashed their UFO into a crypt and are trapped there, naturally). Jeff wanders the halls of his cozy little school, stealing cookies from his friends and preparing for his journey to rescue the other heroes, eventually sneaking out of the building, to which he never returns.

For this 20-minute sequence, a lesser developer would've just slapped the same generic 'town' music they had lying around and called it a day. Not Nintendo. Not Keiichi. He wrote an entire separate piece just for that area, and you only hear it once. And you know what? It's brilliant:

It's catchy, evokes a snowy setting while still being cozy and inviting, and reiterates to the player that this is a new and different area of the game. EarthBound is full of brilliant touches like this. There are something like 120 tracks of music in that game. It's ludicrous.

If this all sounds like I'm rambling, it's because I am. But more importantly, I'm also showing you what I want to do for Gravity Ghost's soundtrack. I want GG to be musically deep. This will add context, texture and emotion to each area and hopefully, if we're really lucky, make Gravity Ghost a slightly more meaningful experience for the player.

I'm pointing to these games and telling you "this is the kind of detail, feeling and craziness I'm trying to bring to Gravity Ghost". It's more dramatic if you picture me standing on a cliff as I say that. And I guess the games I'm pointing to are giant, majestic cartridges floating in space.

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