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The Doghouse NYC

Case Study in Composition

July 25, 2005 | Case Study

Live Music in Game Production Part I:
Pajama Sam and the Case of the Live Drummer

"Good. Fast. Cheap. You can pick any two, but you can't have all three." Have you ever heard this axiom? It is a useful mantra in the world of music production.

In a perfect world, live instruments would be used for the lion's share of music recording. Synthesized instruments being reserved for what they do best: sounds not occurring in nature. But producers must often substitute samples for live instruments in order to save time and overhead.

Surprisingly, there are some methods whereby live instruments actually lower cost and speed up production. This short series demonstrates a few techniques that may allow you to have your cake and eat it too.

A Quirky Soundtrack

Humongous Entertainment's Pajama Sam: Life is Rough when you Loose Your Stuff is an award-winning children's adventure game. It is also an example of how judicious use of live rhythm tracks energized and inspired an entire soundtrack while simultaneously saving time and money. The biggest hurdle for Pajama Samwas the budget. Despite extremely limited funds, Atari required over 45 minutes of background pads, cut-scenes, and even a Broadway musical-style production song, complete with lyrics and a reprise (not to mention a pair of dancing socks). The game's music style was a quirky mix of dreamy, sleepwalking tones and Esquivell-ian "kitsch." This music would accompany Pajama Sam, our child hero, through a fantastic adventure, steeped in lush midnight tones and painted in deep purples and blues.

For the soundtrack, we decided to rely upon Latin rhythms: bossanova, merengue, montuno, rumba, cha-cha, and so on. While our first sketches employed some sampled drums and an occasional loop, it soon become apparent that the quality of the game music would hinge upon the quality of the rhythm tracks. It was equally apparent that the programming and editing of the complex and widely varied Latin based ornamentations was going to be time consuming and might ultimately sound artificial. Costly, time-consuming, and inferior: not a good combination.

To complicate things further, the volume of sketches, drafts, and finals required meant that we would need to compose directly against pre-existing beats. There would be no time to compose and record separately.

An obvious solution would have been to purchase a library of Latin drumloops. But not only is such a thing difficult to find (there are a few), there was nothing that matched the whimsical tone of Pajama Sam's world. For the drum tracks, we were going to have to look elsewhere.

To the Rescue

The solution lay in drummer John Bollinger. We brought John in for one all-day session of Latin rhythm. Meticulously documenting takes and tempos from the control room was Second-Engineer Emre Balik. In the tracking room, conducting from the piano, singing, dancing, waving my arms, and whistling was yours truly.

Starting with a piano groove, a standard, a vocal idea, or anything we could think of, we embarked upon the process of "finding" beats that felt like Pajama Sam. Emre would signal us, indicating when he had matched the "song" to a tempo, and generated a matching "click" on the sequencer. John would start again, this time recording with the click in his earphones, which would make future editing easier. For each beat, John played three or four variations, including a beginning, a fill, a flourish, a break, and an ending.

Clean Up

At the end of a long day, we had over sixty different rhythms in a multitude of tempos. A second day of editing transformed the jumble of performances into manageably-sized clips, each with meaningful filenames (thanks Emre). In the end, we had effectively made our own custom drumloop library! But unlike something you could buy in a store, it was perfectly tailored to Pajama Sam's needs. What's more, because we had recorded it ourselves, we had complete control of the multitrack sessions, allowing us to edit individual tracks, speed things up, and remix at will.

Downhill from Here

Our new "library" laid a foundation as we moved forward; rapidly composing and submitting drafts. Starting a new song was as simple as choosing from one of our wonderful rhythms and building upon it. Each rhythm felt alive, as if there was a song inside just waiting to come out. First drafts were almost immediately accepted by a delighted client who wondered how we had managed to do it all so fast and so well.

For the cost of a couple days of recording and one top-shelf drummer, we had a livelier and more authentic base for the soundtrack than anything we might ever have programmed. And what's more, we produced it in half the time. As we wrapped up the project, we even had enough budget leftover to hire saxophonist Tom Glusac to come in and sweeten a handful of songs!

Our approach to this game gave it an authentic and organic feel, despite the fact that most of the compositions were sequenced. Best of all, we were able to deliver it on time and under budget.

In part II of this series in we describe how employing a staff of musicians allowed us to take this technique to the next level. Read about it HERE.

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