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VGM Review #8: ‘FTL: Faster Than Light’ OST

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FTL_Title

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or irl) know that I have been playing a ton of FTL lately. I just bought it during the Steam Summer Sale for something absurd like $2.50 (<3) and it has maliciously taken over much of whatever free time I have to burn.

For those that don’t know, FTL is a real-time strategy game by Subset Games that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter to a release last fall (2012). While it is very fun and comes highly recommended – and not just by me, evidenced by its Metascore of 84 –, it is extremely unforgiving and has done nothing but pain me at great lengths. Still, I will on, determined to beat it someday…

But my excruciating experiences with the game are not why I write today. I come to speak of the soundtrack, of course—a soundtrack that has received high praise from a variety of sources. The accolades that composer Ben Prunty has listed on the front of his website are as follows:

  • IGN: Best Overall Music and Best PC Sound of 2012 (nominee)
  • Kotaku: Best Video Game Music of 2012
  • The Game Scouts: Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2012
  • Complex: Top 25 Best Video Game Soundtracks on Bandcamp
  • NeoGAF: Official Game Soundtracks of the Year 2012

That’s pretty great. Based on his webpage, Prunty has only composed for a few projects so far, so kudos to him for getting that kind of recognition so early on in his career


I will start out by saying that I was instantly attracted to Prunty’s music. The title theme, “Space Cruise” is easy to like. The beginning certainly screams “OUTER SPACE,” from the tone choice, to the chord that bends and fades, to the seemingly eternal amount of space between that first chord and the second. Hearing those elements from the very beginning immediately puts the gamer in the mood to play a space-themed game.

Another great thing about the open beginning is that it sets up the next section, which one can still consider spacey, but in a different, more light-hearted and fun way. Prunty introduces more electronic instruments with different tone colors that fill in the voids that are left between the first two chords. What you hear is a pretty typical layered build-up that is meant to lead into a climax at 0:57.

This climax features a swifter pace that comes about by way of new, swirling rhythmic sounds and notes with shorter durations. It doesn’t last too long, though, as it hits a breakdown at 1:16 that signals the beginning of a devolution back to the more open feel of the beginning. Essentially, the other two-and-half minutes are filled by a variety of melodies and rehashing of ideas from the beginning of the tune in that open feel.

While I enjoy the piece, I do have some criticism for it More

Sabba4 (Draft 1.0) & Eliminating Emptiness

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The works below are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License and ©2013 Gregory Weaver.

space colony

When I’m feeling a little down about new stuff that I’m making on a certain day, sometimes I tell myself to go work on a jazz-influenced piece since that’s the music that I have the most experience performing and listening to.  Sometimes forcing myself to work on a jazz piece produces the beginnings of a new tune that I like and sometimes it doesn’t; but when the results are positive, I end up with tunes like “Mr. A.C. (Keep Your Cool)” and my latest, the tentatively titled “Sabba4” (short for Sabbatical Tune #4, but I’ve also come to like it as a title ‘cause it sounds all space sector-y).

Here’s what I have so far for the first part of it:

Sabba4″ on SoundCloud

I pretty much got the first 30 seconds over and done with one day and then moved on to do the next bit a day or two later.  Using Finale I wrote the vibes melody first and then created the harmony, etc., and when I put it in Logic I noticed something: there was a distinct emptiness in the second part that wasn’t in the first (or so my ears told me—you may disagree).  Take a listen to the parts I’m talking about back-to-back:

OLD CUT: 

NEW CUT: 

Do you hear what I hear?  There is a significant energy to the piece that seems to drop out starting at :10, and it’s not because of the lack of a piano as a whole.  I chalked it up to the bass duplicating the vibes too much, the open feel of the drums, and the downward harmonic movement of the guitar chords leading into the open sound of the line after it (i.e., everything).

The question of whether it sounds fine as a piece of music wasn’t what was bothering me because yeah, I think that the old cut sounds good.  However, I think there is just too much space and the energy suffers due to it.

Writing for a game, that’s a problem.  Or, at the very least, writing a piece like this without a particular situation in mind from the beginning, it’s a problem.  Music for a game needs to continuously add to whatever the player is experiencing because it is tied to and thus affects that experience directly.  If the music somehow shifts the mood to an odd gear in the middle of a situation, it most certainly has the ability to detract from the situation and make it less believable or authentic. More

Review: “Nate’s Theme” (‘Uncharted’ OST), Part II

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In case you missed it, here’s Part I of the review!

 

Getting right into it, “Nate’s Theme 2.0” sounds completely different from its predecessor right off the bat, and it’s not due to bitrate or quality of the audio file (trust me, I went and listened to a handful of files to make absolutely sure).


 

The first big reason for this difference is that, unless my ears are failing me, the theme in Drake’s Fortune is recorded using electronic samples while the one in Among Thieves is done so by recording actual live instrumentalists (it could be that Edmonson simply uses much higher-quality samples, too, though—sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish between the two).  The second reason, which ties into the first, is that everything is just crisper.  From the deadened reverb to the sharper articulations around all the instruments, each note played comes out very cleanly.

The difference in the effect of the newfound crispness is especially striking in the brass.  Every entrance by those instruments is very clear and commanding; every line pushes that feel of excitement and adventure just a bit more.  It’s not just the articulations and production that adds to it either—listen to how much more, for a lack of a better word, “brassy” the section sounds.  Instead of the timbre of the section being straight and clean, Edmonson made sure that the brass got a little dirty this time around.

One will notice the percussion a bit more, as well.  Along with the reasons in the first paragraph, its place in the audio mix is much nicer.  One would not likely doubt its importance in “1.0” – it does, as you have read and heard, set the table for the rest of the tune –, but in “2.0” it makes its presence known from beginning to end and continues to replicate that energy felt in the first phrase.  Listen to the difference from 0:29 to 0:33 and how the entrance of the suspended cymbal rings so much more clearly than before.  That’s the stuff.

Speaking of the drive of the percussion, there is a new element in the mix of “2.0” that you might have noticed.  Through 0:40, there is a hit on beat 2 of every measure—it sounds like it might be a ride cymbal.  The hits just reinforce the percussion in the beginning, but then, whether you noticed it or not, when 1:09 kicks the tune back into gear, the cymbal creates even more energy by hitting on both beats 2 and 4.  As it was for me at first, you may have only just felt the effect subconsciously for the first few listens; however, the effect is very much alive if you’re listening.  While it might not sound like a huge difference on paper, Edmonson’s writing of the part in this manner was completely deliberate, and it’s as I always like to say: the Art lies in the details.

Let’s quickly check out some other places that Edmonson made minor tweaks that were not tweaked again in the third version of the tune:

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VGM Review #7: “Nate’s Theme” (‘Uncharted’ OST), Part I

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Last December (erhm, not quite a year yet!) I had my first media encounter with composer Greg Edmonson via GamesRadar’s SoundRadar podcast.  Edmonson was a fantastic interviewee, offering a lot of valuable insight to his approach to writing music for the Uncharted series.  His attitude and ideas had made me want to check his stuff out and subsequently blog about him.

Flash forward to two days ago, when I finally started to write down a list of topics that I need to blog about.  Edmonson was a no-brainer for the list: I enjoyed his interview, I’ve liked what I heard from him, and he’s a modern composer of a critically acclaimed game soundtrack.  He was such a no-brainer, in fact, that I immediately chose to review some of his work, namely the Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception OST.

It was upon beginning my listening that I came across “Nate’s Theme” (naturally, as it is the main theme of the game itself).  The interesting thing about this tune is that there are three iterations of it—Edmonson composed the theme originally for the first game and has revisited it each time he has worked on a new Uncharted title.  I love this concept.

I think that, as a composer, one can almost always find places where more can be tweaked, which is why I talk about having simply to close the door on projects.  As there are infinite possibilities in regards to tweaking in a tune, one can drive him or herself mad trying to revise and revise to make a perfect product—that is why one has to know when to say, “okay, I’m finished and am moving on.”  However, that doesn’t mean that one cannot or should not go back and critically listen to a composition after spending time away from it.  Sometimes taking a step back gives one the most objective viewpoint.  The Uncharted titles were released in two-year intervals, and somewhere within those two-year gaps Edmonson found the time to take that step back and revamp his work.

The good news: his labor was well worth it.

I’m going to talk about what sets each version of “Nate’s Theme” apart from the others, but before I get into those specifics (which will come in a post in the next few days), I’d like to talk a little about the tune in general.  Here’s version 1.0:

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‘Suikoden II’ OST Review, Part 2

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(continued from Part I of the review)

After hearing the opening, I again found myself shaking my head at being so out of touch with such works.  Just listening to the Suikoden II OST places it extremely high on my preferred VGM list—I only wish that I could play the actual game without spending ridiculous amounts of money (one day…!).  Regardless, however, there is, as I’ve said before, something to be said about loving a game OST without having played the game itself.   Higashino’s work on Suikoden II is so involved and so perfect for a game that I am pretty content just imagining what would be happening on-screen during a particular tune and determining how that fits in the greater context of the musical body of work.

And what a body of work it is!  I listened to the OST via a YouTube channel by a user that just uploads full video game soundtracksSuikoden II has 105 tracks in its playlist; if one looks at the list of games the number of tracks each one has, s/he will find that there are few (out of this relatively small sample size) that even come close to 105.  Regardless of length of the tracks, that’s 105 different ideas for a single game.  Including length, if one roughly calculates that the average track is two minutes long, that’s about three and a half hours of music alone.  I don’t care if the second half of most of the tracks is a loop – because, let’s face it, making something that is enjoyable to listen to after five loops is worth giving the gimmie – this is a lot of music.

Thinking about the quantity of music leads me to think about Suikoden II versus modern OSTs.  Journey, for instance, has 18 tracks that total an hour.  The difference is, Journey is an hour of non-looping music and has an average track length of 3:25; therefore, one may say that Journey has more ideas within a particular track – meaning that composer Austin Wintory took an idea and developed it over a large span of time coinciding with other ideas – while Suikoden II has an impressively robust number of raw ideas.  That’s just interesting to consider, looking at classic versus modern soundtracks and thinking about approaching composing for games.

What’s even more impressive about the soundtrack having so many raw ideas is that Higashino’s approach to Suikoden II was clearly not a linear one.  There’s such a variety in the soundtrack that the listener will be surprised from one track to the next due simply to the fact that s/he won’t be able to anticipate what kind of sound the next tune will have.  Some soundtracks might be able to be categorized into an everyday genre (i.e., electronic, rock, ambient), but this one is one of those that fall strictly under the blanket of “VGM.”  The listener will find that she wrote everything from orchestral music to Mitsuda-like folk songs and jigs to more traditional “classical” pieces to ambient abstractions.  One of the best things about it is, though, that Higashino makes her own mark and creates an OST that is distinct among its peers.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements and themes that one will find within the OST:

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VGM Review #6: ‘Suikoden II’ OST, Part 1

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The other week I had posted a link to a great interview with VGM composer Miki Higashino, the mastermind behind the soundtracks to such titles as Gradius and Suikoden I and II.  When I stumbled across the interview I put it on the backburner; I hadn’t heard of Higashino before and just saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself to a composer after I had finished whatever else I was doing.  After reading it months later, I started to expedite that listening in my to-do list, and then fellow VGM blogger Steve Lakawicz of Classical Gaming’s comment about Suikoden II pushed it to the top.  Turns out that I started with Steve’s link to the opening video of said game and have since listened to the OST cover-to-cover twice (with some tunes getting quite a few extra replays).  Take a listen to the track that threw me into the fray:

*Note: I refer to both the visuals and the music in this review, but if you want to listen to a better quality version of the audio, go here

There is so much to love about this opening (and I’m a sucker for awesome opening FMVs).

For the first minute of the piece we get a powerful choral number that sets up the visuals of a burning village, armies, and a mad knight standing atop a mound of dead bodies.  What I like about Higashino’s work here is that she doesn’t give the listener a run-of-the-mill “ominous choral piece,” which is so common in pretty much every form of visual media in need of a soundtrack today.  If you’re like me, you roll your eyes at the overabundance and flatness of this what-now-is-a stereotypical device.  The last one I can remember being affected by is John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace soundtrack, which – aside from being awesome because of the scene and because of Darth Maul – is great because of the integration of both strong choral and instrumental writing.

Returning to Higashino, though, one of my favorite parts of the whole opening exists right at the beginning.  Above the chorus shrieks this very, might I say, exotic ethnic voice whose timbre is so stark in contrast with the voices behind it that it’s almost alarming.  It reminds me of when I saw the Republic of Korea Traditional Army Band at the Virginia International Tattoo in 2010, before I worked solely for the show.  I remember thinking how terrified I’d be if I were in an army who went up against a Korean one that played the instruments that they did (namely the taepyeongso) due to how, to my uncultured American ears, unnatural and almost demonic they sounded in that context (read: awesome).  The contrast between Korean traditional instruments and European ones is comparable to the sound of that voice as compared to the smoother European-style chorus.  Its timbre combined with its melody and foreign rhythmic “hiccups” makes it razor sharp, especially when the part sounds like it splits via multiphonics at 0:21 (note that there are two voices, but their combined timbre makes me hears them in a way that’s comparable to saxophone multiphonics).  Simply the idea to include that kind of voice was great, but its place rhythmically and harmonically amongst the more traditional Western chorus furthers its effect on the listener.

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VGM Review #5: “Journey” OST

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Starting today you can purchase the Journey OST on iTunes or on the Playstation Network!  *Spoiler alert for the review*: Do it. 

 
I had my first experience with the music from Journey back in early January, reading composer Austin Wintory’s own words regarding the creation of the music (check out the post).  It was from that that I had the chance to listen to his “Woven Variations,” an “extrapolation” and development of the music found in the game.  I was immediately captivated by both the ideas behind his approach to the music and by the music itself.  Thus began a long two and a half months of waiting to listen to all of the music that Wintory had been composing for the last three years for this game.  Journey was finally released on the PSN to the non-Playstation Plus masses on March 13th 

The first thing I did after the game installed was just scroll to the game’s icon on the XMB.  The theme, represented by Tina Guo’s powerful solo cello, emerged from my speakers and I simply basked in the beauty that flowed from start to finish.  Please, allow yourself to listen to it below.  The track is entitled “Nascence,” and it is fittingly the first track on the OST.  Shut your doors, set your phone to OFF (not silent—a vibrating object on your thigh is just as bad as your “Safety Dance” ringtone), press play, and close your eyes.  Wait—throw your phone out your window.  Okay, now press play and close your eyes…

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Everything is right about this piece both as a stand-alone and an in-game work.  Guo absolutely kills the theme in rubato and thus sets the precedent for the rest of the soundtrack.

The bass flute, as played by Amy Tatum, acts as perfect follow-up to Guo both sonically and emotionally.  The robust sound of Guo’s interpretation is brought to a much more mellow state with the entrance of the harp (as played by Charissa Barger), triangle, and Tatum’s flute, but despite the vibe “mellowing,” Tatum easily continues the flow of strong emotion through her part, melodiously melding her rhythmic vibratos with the natural breathy voice of her instrument.

My favorite instance in the song starts at :58, where Guo ever-so-delicately re-enters the mix atop the resolution of the bass flute and harp.  The dynamics of her playing are absolutely spot-on, complementing the features of the previous instruments while at the same time putting a sense of power into the sweetness of her tone.  This power is what leads the other strings of the orchestra in from 1:01 to 1:04.

Austin then shows off an ability of his that I admired from listening to his work from flOw: his willingness to lead the listener to that which is unexpected in a subtle manner.  At 1:16 the strings sound an intense sensual sweep behind Wirtz, and instead of having the cellos follow the lead of the violins by decrescendoing little by little, the cellos sound as if they just drop out at 1:20.  The decrease of their volume coupled with the brightness of the violins’ upper register blanks the lower instruments, allowing them to creep back in, providing the support necessary to push towards a beautiful resolution.

One of my favorite quotes from Wintory about this music from the article I had read in January – the quote that got me most excited and wanting more than just “Woven Variations” – applies directly to the prior paragraph.  Here it is again:

And yet for how ‘high-tech’ we were, this music is utterly unconcerned with technology. It is all about emotional meaning. This is part of what makes Journey itself so special. The game has no fluff, no filler. I think of it like a poem.”

The only way that I believe that Wintory could have accomplished what he aimed to do was to do exactly what he did: record live musicians.  To create something that is “all about emotional meaning” and that is “like a poem” in the most optimal sense, one cannot rely on electronic samples.  Guo, Tatum, and Barger deliver that message right from the beginning—their performance is unabashedly human, lifting Wintory’s score as far away from being technological as an instrumentalist lifts a piece away from being mere notes on a page.

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As for the soundtrack as a whole, I’ve had three totally different experiences listening to this music: one from my first play-through, another from listening to the actual OST, and the last from a second play-through.  I beseech the reader to bear with me until s/he reads about my final experience and understanding.

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