Sunday, October 12, 2014

Making Music

In the past, I've often collaborated with musicians for my projects. I never had a great deal of experience with recording music, despite having some basic knowledge of writing music and playing it, and I was always trying to focus on doing all the other elements. This time, though, I wanted to see how easy it was to make simple, pleasant game music first hand. As detailed before, I'll be using Midi Maker.

When I was starting out, I had to choose between the MIDI format and the MOD format for music. Both are great formats which some of my favourite game soundtracks have been written in, such as John Broomhall's awesome MIDI soundtrack for Transport Tycoon, and my choice came down to two factors - AGS 2.3 doesn't support MOD music for AdLib sound cards, and I'm more familiar with the sounds I can make with standard MIDI files. MIDI it is, then.

The interesting thing about MIDI music is that it's not really a recording of music as such. Instead it's a set of instructions, which then requires a seperate piece of software to interpret those instructions and turn them into music. This means the format has three interesting features which are worth noting.

Firstly, the "songs" are extremely small - 3kb for 45 seconds of music - which is excellent considering I'm trying to squeeze a game onto a single floppy disk. Secondly, it means that a piece of music will sound quite different depending on the piece of software that is interpreting it. This is important to keep in mind, as it means once a piece is composed, it has to be checked in the target software to make sure it sounds right. Lastly, because it's not a recording, but a set of instructions, the music will always loop perfectly if one chooses to make a looping track. Lovely!

Midi Maker has a very simple, tracker based interface which means you can compose your music without the need for a MIDI controller (piano keyboard) - a mouse is enough. After selecting an instrument, it's merely a matter of placing the notes where you want them, and then moving on to the next instrument.

There are 8 channels to be used, and a channel can only have one note playing at a time. That means that if I want to make a chord, I need to use several channels to have all the notes play. For example, if I want to play an E major chord, I need to have one channel playing the root note (E), another playing the major third (G#), and another playing the fifth (B). If I want to also play the octave of the root (or any other note) then I require a 4th channel. This isn't too bad - it's a little like playing the piano with 8 fingers, but each finger can play a different instrument.

Something else interesting to note is that certain instruments don't really sound good outside of certain pitch ranges - either they're too quiet, or too loud, so the usable range for notes is somewhat limited. This means that to get certain chords to sound right, you have to try different inversions until one sounds good.

The benefit of having a different instrument per note in a chord is that I can stick with a dominant sounding one for the root of each chord, and therefore keep it quite strong even when the root isn't in the bass of the chord.

Music theory aside, once I finish making each track, I have to load it up in AGS. Windows' general midi driver has a very different sound to the way AGS sounds, and I've found that some instruments that sound quite subtle in general midi are overpowering in AGS. I can't change the volume level of each channel, so in certain cases I've had to completely cut a channel when it was too overpowering.

I've still a bunch of tracks to make for the game, but I've enjoyed learning to make MIDI music so far. Because using a tracker is so neat (errors are effectively impossible, and any misclicks are a 2 second fix), it's very quick to put together a track for the project.

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