The tough challenge

Damn. I once said to a good friend of mine it takes big balls to maintain a blog. I’ve always hated someone just filling the space by babbling, but unfortunately I haven’t done even that. Even though there’s something happening with the projects I’ve involved with, there’s not much to say – other than: Yes, everything’s under construction. I’m just one frigging lazy piece of shit. Oh well.

Back the other day I calculated the amount of music needed for a certain Remedy Entertainment game (AW) and practically froze: The sheer scale of the emotions inside the product is just, well, huge, to put it plainly. From absolute horror to despair to intimation – whatever and everything in between – demands a few good night’s sleep before even thinking about booting Logic. The music has to be alive, it has to breathe, it must take the player into the world he’s seeing in his eyes. The music must function as pylons of a bridge created by gameplay, a bridge between the real world and the fake one. That demands quality, quality demands time and concentration, which in turn demands peace of mind – and the ability to emphatise. It may sound damn tragic for a person of my age, but I’ve cried many, many times during the sessions: because of the scale of the environment, of the characters’ emotions, of the air you can see (hell, you can see the temperature as well, not from a thermometer, but just looking at the air and the colour of the light, just like in the real world). I honestly don’t know whether I’ve managed to interprete the feelings involved, but it’s a good start. To feel. To feel something from a mute rendered picture, that is. People at Remedy are very skillful in delivering the finesses, I must say.

Which leads me to a problem that virtually every composer has encountered. The UI finesses of orchestra libraries. Or lack of them, actually. I own some of the Vienna stuff and two licences of EastWest’s Symphonic Orchestra Platinum ProXPwhatthehellitscalled plus some more esoteric stuff and a huge 80+ gigabyte library built during the last… wait a minute… twenty years or so. I still today use some of the Huge Drums library I built with Emax and Akai S-1000 in the early nineties. Even though they were originally recorded in 44.1 kHz and 16 bits, they were recorded to my best knowledge by then and they contain some of the meanest lows and rudest transients ever encountered. They will cut through.

Anyway, back to the lack of UI: before mastering any of the library engines, a serious amount of practising is required, just like becoming a virtuoso instrumentalist. The required time spent with libraries is not that long, of course, but requires similar attitude: you have to accept you’re producing plain shit in the beginning. You shouldn’t practice whilst working, instead, you must spend enough time to be able to deliver things in time when needed. One can do decent stuff after fifteen minutes, yes, stuff that fools people for 10 seconds. But it doesn’t breathe, it’s a mere polaroid of a living thing: an orchestra. Every time I hear a sample orchestra I visualize someone throwing Polaroid pictures in the air, instead of someone running around, lustfully painting on a huge canvas with lively, real, colours, using brave movements of hand and body – which is how I picture a real orchestral entity: a group of skillful musicians all controlled by the brains; a conductor, that is. All the usual UI stuff: legato patches, portamento, switching keygroups, whatnot, it just doesn’t work. You just switch the Polaroids, that’s all. Human brain is a wonderful thing: it recognizes patterns, no matter how dense the mayhem. The first 10 seconds are fine, then your brain kicks in: “Ah, THAT attack”, “I must’ve heard that vibrato before”, “Funny that those strings are bowing in a constant speed even though it’s tempo rubato”. Even though the listener’s not a specialist, his/her brain figures out there is repetition.

I tried using a solo cello patch from EastWest’s Play edition of EWQLSO, and was so deeply frustrated I could hardly bear myself. Of course I kept on practicing, trying to master the software, but it didn’t produce anything even remotely decent (yes, a living cellist would’ve done it in a single take). Turned out their engine had some serious issues (serious for me, not for EW, because they had put the library out without finalizing the patches). I contacted their tech support, which took a few days to investigate the problem, then sent me a corrected solo cello patch for the piece I was working with. That did the trick and I could finish the track in time. However, their patch of a patch saved only the Solo Cello I was using, not other Solo Portamento instruments I was planning to use. And the other solo instruments were detuning themselves pretty badly as well, a bit like yours truly playing a viola (which I cannot do at all), so I had to give up. Portamento engine malfunctioning or something. Now I’m waiting for a total update. Hope it arrives in time.

I haven’t given up yet. I do believe it’s possible to create a decent string orchestra that can be played with a keyboard and doesn’t sound repetitive or synthetic. It’s just a matter of choosing the right controllers to do the right stuff. Vienna is pretty close with their speed-of-playing-switching -thing. Unfortunately, their Player plugin (or application, actually) is somewhat flaky for a person that has used AU plugins for… too long, I suppose. And unfortunately it’s not possible to do crossfading. Or if it is, my Vienna player is definitely malfunctioning as I’ve yet to come across with a suitable solution. Yep, I’ve read the manual pdf. Many times. I even printed it on paper and studied it thoroughly everywhere I could. One thing is sure, though: keyboard velocity as we know it is not for me, at least not in a normal 1-127 scale. I prefer to scale it down to 30-100, sometimes even 45-90, and connect the expression pedal to partially control the velocities in Logic. Which is hell, by the way. 🙂 Logic’s buggy, you know.

So if we multiply the bugginess of the mother app with plugin issues and scripting issues, we’ll confront something the size of the huge robot beast that’s tearing down the Giza pyramid in Transformers 2. Add that to the fact that you’re actually trying to do emotional stuff, to compose, to emphatise and move people, to create original stuff without cloning the same theme all over again… you’ll face quite a few challenges, that’s sure. And all of a sudden your deadline is no longer a tiny thing in a distance.

The best thing: I can build on these feelings. The anticipation, the fear, the nightmares, the frustration, the anger. Everything becomes one, it’s all going to be tiny bits of Alan Wake score. The destroyed mother keyboards (two gone already), trashed mouses (two), angry emails (literally dozens). I could say software bugs are creating part of the score, whether I wanted or not.

Do I have to share my credits as well or did I acquire a licence for them as well when I bought the libraries? 😉