Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thoughts on Independent Music

Before I turned to graphic arts my studies and hobbies were in music composition. Like everyone else in the demomusic scene I released music for free and competed in contests like MC6 and 30 minute compos on #trax. I don't compose much anymore but I still have a great love of music and the people who have the craft to do it well.

I've been very passionate about independent music over the past couple of years since understanding more about the current state of the record industry. I'm not going to rant too much about this, and I don't think I need to because a lot of people would agree that the situation in the industry, for both artists and fans, is pretty abysmal. This doesn't have as much to do with the RIAA, it's about what artists under a record label have to go through; the record industry doesn't try to make music as much as they try to make celebrities.

This is why I've become so passionate about the independent music scene. I still consider myself part of it, even though I've been on sabbatical from it for 6 years, and I'm thrilled to see artists, especially those that where my peers from the demomusic scene like Andrew Sega (Necros) and Alexander Brandon (Siren), continue to create music and get paid for it. And as a side note, this is part of the reason why I loved the Unreal series so much; both of those artists created the soundtrack for it.

I love to see those artists succeed. I love it when artists have the copyright to their work and can be compensated fairly for it, or release songs for free or under a creative commons license. Like most geeks with my mindset about the entertainment industry, I buy most of the things I do purely out of principle because I want to support what it stands for.

The studio we are starting is built upon the philosophy of independence, so it's something all of us here really care about. We've seen too many good TV shows get canceled, franchises getting ruined by bad films/games/etc., ineffective distribution and draconian methods of enforcing copyright law. We have come to the conclusion that if we want to make the kind of entertainment that people genuinely want we have to remain independent. We believe that independent entertainment companies and individual artists are going to become very important and more mainstream, and we want to promote good independent work in all areas of the arts. That's why licensed music from our shows are going to be from independent artists.

Going back to the indie music scene, there are a couple of problems that I've had with it, one is finding great indie music and the other is how to create better indie music.

Finding Good Independent Music
It started with me trying to find new bands to listen to. Pandora was a great free resource because I could just input a song, band or genre and it would generate a custom channel that plays songs similar to it. But most of the songs that show up in my play list are top 40 songs or have been at some point, and it plays some dud songs which fortunately are skippable up to a certain number of skips per hour.

The good news is that I do occasionally come across new bands that I like, but they are not indie. Then there's Jamendo. It's all creative commons music that you can download or stream music completely for free, and if you like the band you can make a donation through the Jamendo web site. I found out about Jamendo through Rhythmbox, which can easily be installed with your favorite Linux distro. At first I made the mistake of browsing through the entire Jamendo playlist of songs, searching by genre, to find new music. After about an hour I came across one trance artist that actually had decent sounding music. It was good enough to download but it had the same production quality as some of the better demoscene music.

My recommendation with using Jamendo is to see what's featured on the front page of their website (not the random album reel at the bottom), and browse the database sorted by popularity. Even then it's still hit and miss, but you do come across albums with high production value and are well composed. Also, a lot of the songs are not in English, which is actually pretty cool.

Lastly there's CD Baby, which has provided me with the best indie music I've heard. Every album is reviewed and searching for top sellers always turns up great music. It's not free like Pandora or Jamendo, but the samples for each song are usually about a minute or more, and you can buy the albums as MP3 or have the CDs mailed to you in a timely manner. So far I've been more than happy to dish out the money for these CDs, and knowing that the artist receives 91% of what I payed for the album is great. So far I've found CD Baby to be the best way to not only find great indie music, but also support it.

How to Make the Independent Music Scene Better
The business model for indie music is fine for the state it's in right now. Thanks to digital distribution just about anything is possible now, and any number of people can get the music. Because the indie scene is more agile than large record labels, they'll jump on better business models way quicker. Getting the word out for these bands is the best thing we can do right now. By the way, Iris' newest album Wrath is awesome. It's a hybrid of electronica and rock, sounds awesome and is totally worth the money. Oh, and Celldweller is some of the best industrial metal music I've heard in a long time. There. I did my part for today.

The thing I'd like to see is a larger quantity of great indie music. From my past experience, I would have been better off if I had some training on mastering music for CDs. It wasn't until I read an article written for professionals where I started to pick up on things like what levels each frequency band should be at, compression (dynamic range, not data), hard limiting, and other things that you need to know about making a good master. Unfortunately, by that point I had already started college and didn't compose much. I was able to remaster my songs after I learned more about it (you can listen to the remastered versions of those songs on the music portion of my website), but since some of the mixes was bad to begin with there wasn't a whole lot I could do to fix it.

Also, the tools to create good music are way too expensive. When I started composing music in High School I talked to several professional composers to learn as much as I could about the craft. Their home studios amazed me, they had so much more equipment compared to my studio at home (as shown in the introductory image for this article). I was told by one of these composers that buying gear is a monetary black hole; you can put an infinite amount of money into buying synths and samples discs but you'll never quench your thirst for new sounds. You'll always feel that you don't have enough. This is probably why I stuck with techno music because with Buzz Tracker and software synthesis I can make any sound in my head so long as it's electronic.

The only gear I had was an Alesis QS6, a MIDI controller (which I only used for live performances), Impulse Tracker and later Buzz Tracker which gave me the software synthesis. It wasn't until my first week of college where I actually bought Cool Edit Pro 2 (now known as Adobe Audition) for $300, which I still use today for all my audio work. Simply adding a great multi-track audio editor to my arsenal significantly improved the quality of my music, first in the mastering stage and now during the whole process where all of the musical parts are assembled, mixed, and mastered with Cool Edit (the CMC Ad soundtrack was done using this method). Buzz tracker and my QS6 was great and I made some pretty good stuff with it, but what I really needed was a good sound editor.

I haven't used Buzz Tracker in a while because it's outdated, had to be hacked to get it to work in Windows XP, and I haven't found a good replacement for Buzz yet. There are a bunch of Buzz clones out there but they are all in very different stages of development and activity. If I wanted a Buzz replacement, Propellerhead's Reason would be the way to go except that it's US$500. Now for finding a free multi-track editing program, Audacity is underpowered, and Ardour is--well, I haven't actually figured it out yet. Linux audio is a huge pain to set up so it's not Ardour's fault, which is a shame because Jack is such a great idea. Installing Ubuntu Studio should help, assuming that all that audio stuff is set up properly.

To my knowledge there's no completely free or at least low-cost way for making studio-quality music, unless you are creating electronica. Then all you need is Buzz Tracker and a few good drum samples which are available for free. If you don't want to do electronica and step up to the new age genre you'll need a Roland, Korg, or some other comparable synth and a few world music sample discs (about US$60-100 each). If you want to record anything acoustic you'll need to get good instruments to play on, a soundcard with a good signal-to-noise ratio for recording, dynamic and/or condensers mics depending on what you're recording, and a room with good acoustics to boot. After getting whatever recording and editing software of your choice, free or not, you've already spent a lot of money just to be able to record music that can be played from a stereo system and not sound like garbage, or at least so that only audiophiles will think it's garbage. To top it off you need the knowledge to do all of this correctly and make sure you're not spending money on gear you don't need. If you don't, then your songs will sound like recordings of music played in a bedroom with a tape recorder. And there's a lot of that kind of music on Jamendo, which is a shame because some of those musicians are great composers and performers, and I probably would have probably paid for their music if the recording quality was better.

You'll still be surprised by the quality of music you can actually produce with very little money--some people just don't know how to create good stuff with what they have. The problem is that the cost of entry for creating good music, or even creating passable techno and new age albums, seem to be the highest for music than any other creative hobby that I can think of.

Think about it. If a writer wants to publish their work, all they need is a word processor and a web site. Word processors are free (OpenOffice.org) and a web sites are cheap, not to mention there are places to submit your work like Orson Scott Card's e-magazine InterGalactic Medicine Show. For illustration all you need is pencil, paper, a $30 scanner, a $60 tablet, The Gimp, and then post your work on deviantART. For programming the GCC compiler is free and your project can be hosted on Source Forge. Even photography is pretty cheap to get into with digital cameras and sites like PhotoBucket and Google's Picasa. Even 3D animation and film are cheap to get into and share with people with things like Blender, Kino, and sites like YouTube.

I don't know what can be done to make music production cheaper, aside from better open source or "free as in beer" software. Good training resources would have helped me a lot in the beginning, and would still help me now if I threw myself back into music composition. Sequencing, soft synths, mastering, and recording are pretty complicated and have taken me years to understand even on my level. I've been working with a few sites such as the Blender Foundation, ShowMeDo, and a new site called Guerrilla CG that focuses on giving quality free training for 3D animation which is a very complex subject. I don't see why something like that can't be done for sequencing and sound engineering as well.

Something that would also be nice is to have affordable studios that you can rent. Self-service studios possibly? Software and hardware is getting cheaper, so smaller studios that can be used by independent musicians that would only cost $65 a day instead of $65 or more an hour.

A lot of things are going to change over the next decade in the music industry. I'm confident that a lot of the struggles that people have with creating music independently are going to be resolved during that time. That is unless the conspiracy theories about the music industry shutting down guitar tab sites are true, which is that they want to keep people from learning how to play guitar so that making music takes on the mystique of a black art that only the established music industry can create.

Either way, the independent music scene has a huge drive to create and release their music to as many people as possible, and I can't wait to see what the scene will come up with next.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Leaving the Moo Moo Farm

Bryan and I just finished playing through Diablo II: Lord of Destruction yesterday. We even went to The Secret Cow Level.


This was the first time I played any of the Diablo games. I'll have to admit that I was never interested in playing Diablo until recently. Over the past few weeks I've been undergoing a sort of game education regime. We are planning on creating a strategy game in the near future (hilarious, simple, and hopefully commercially successful), and since I'm not a strategy game buff I needed to do some research, which of course means playing games. Recently I've been playing all kinds of strategy games, in particular Supreme Commander which has become our favored subject in honing the strategy/micro-managing portion of my brain.

During this time we've been simultaneously working on creating a rendering engine for the OLPC, and since most of our good game ideas would require some kind of 3D graphics or advanced 2D graphics rendering techniques, we turned to past games and demoscene demos to see what was capable a decade ago. The OLPC has a slow processor, no 3D acceleration and a lot of system overhead, so seeing what was still possible on old hardware is advantageous. We pulled out MindCandy and looked at 3D games like Quake and Quake 2 that used software rendering. During this time we had the thought of playing through Diablo II. It's not a strategy game but it was in the era of games that we were looking for in technical achievements. To top it off it was the only Blizzard game I haven't played, and from what I've heard very influential and a good game to boot.

I was actually quite impressed with the 3D-ish mode of the game. Diablo has an isometric viewpoint where all of the graphics are 2D images (sprites), but in Diablo II they also added an extra 3D mode that provided subtle perspective to the viewport. It was subtle enough to not look completely fake, but being able to see trees and architecture move past in parallax made the game fell 3D without the inconveniences of developing the real thing. It also kept the visual style of the game unified, even though the visual style was rather stale (both the characters and scenery where rendered with those lousy black shadows). But compared to games like Ragnarok Online that also mixed 2D with 3D, I feel that Diablo II, a much older game, did a better job. All of the art assets in Diablo where 2D, created and rendered the same way. Ragnarok had real time 3D rendered environments but the 2D characters were sprites drawn in the anime style. I had it's charm but it wasn't seamless. When I played the beta I couldn't help but think about the two independent sprites (head and body) that represented my character in an obviously 3D rendered world. If the world was also built of sprites, painted in the same style as the characters, and add that little bit of 3D perspective, it would have looked more unified, be just as playable and probably wouldn't have taken any more time to create, maybe even less.

The other thing I noticed about Diablo is how much World of Warcraft is like it. It was all there: the spell lists, the quest items, the inventory, the recipes, the one-click combat, the grinding--it even felt like playing WoW. Diablo II was meant to be played online, so it's not too far of a stretch to understand how the Diablo concept went MMO. And it did, but Warcraft was a better franchise to use than Diablo.

What I did like about Diablo, aside from that 3D trick, is that you can play the entire game with your friends using a LAN and have the entire game separate from all those 15 year-old Alliance r-tards. I really hope that more class-based questing games would let you play on your own private or LAN server, independent of the internet elite/degenerate, and just enjoy the game.

I guess we should get working on that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Audiosurf: First Impressions

I came across this little gem of a game called Audiosurf a couple of weeks ago. It's a finalist at this year's Independent Games Festival. Today I participated in the beta weekend so I was able to play it for the first time.

The thing that drew me to Audiosurf, aside from it being an independent title, is that it's a puzzle game where each stage is generated from music files on your computer, and the same songs become the soundtrack for the stage. The speed and difficulty change with the intensity of the music you provided, and the blocks appear to the beat of the music. This works really well when you play songs that have a strong beat and lots of dynamics.

The way the puzzle works is you have to run over a block to put in on the board. The block falls in the corresponding lane (column) on the grid. To remove blocks and to get points you need 3 blocks of the same color touching each other in any configuration. Red blocks are worth the most points while the cooler-colored blocks (orange, yellow, all the way down to violet) are worth less. So picking and choosing is an important part of the game. If you don't want to put a block down you have to dodge it while you race down the track. There are special blocks as well that can do some interesting things like paint your board all one color or rearrange them. This is the Pointman mode (shown above) and seems to be the root of all the other game modes in Audiosurf.

The Mono mode (shown to the left), is very simple. It plays more like a very shallow arcade-style racer than a puzzler, because with no other block colors placement doesn't matter; you just have to dodge the bad gray blocks. Then you have modes like Pusher, which gives you the option to push the blocks either left or right as you run over them while holding down the left or right mouse button respectively, making the mechanic of running over blocks to drop them on the board much more interesting. There are other modes, like Eraser, Vegas, Ninja and Double Vision (co-op) that I unfortunately wasn't able to play during the beta.

Because of that, it's hard to say if the puzzle aspect of the game is going to last longer than the novelty of how music is used. The public beta ended soon after I got to take these screenshots, so I wasn't able to capture any gameplay footage either (the beta requires confirmation with their server, so it's not playable now). Judging by the limited nature of the beta, you'll probably have to pay for the game because I can't think of any other reason for them to handle it that way. The game is scheduled to be released next month. I'll probably buy it out of principle because it's a great idea for a game and it's independently produced. In fact it's one of the best indie games I've seen in a while, and I'd like to see more of this kind of work. Vote with your dollars, right?

Speaking of which, if you are interested in other indie games, you should consider checking out Aquaria, and Armadillo Run. Both are great games.

Anyway, here's some video footage from the game courtesy of YouTube. For a perfect example of how the music works with the game, fast forward to 6:22 and watch what happens when the music gets wild.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Architecture Sketch 0001: Test Background

Bryan and I are working on making games for the OLPC, the $200 laptop that's being sent to developing countries to get technology into children's hands. The display on the laptop is really clever. I'm not going to take the time to explain it, so you'll have to visit the Wikipedia entry for the OLPC XO-1 to read about the display. But in short, we are rendering our sprite graphics at 400x300, a third of the vertical and horizontal resolution of the display so there's no color distortion for each pixel in color mode.

Since we have just started working on the sprite engine for the game, Bryan asked me for a 400x300 test image so we have a colored backdrop to test the transparency of the sprites. I went a little overboard and spent about an hour and a half working on this. But it was fun and I got to try some architecture, which I really want to do more of.

So here it is, the first image in my Sketchbook Series. I'll post sketches that I've finished here. Of course I can't post all of my sketches, just the ones I do for fun. However, when a project is finished I'll likely start posting sketches for those as well.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Unreal Tournament 3 Disappointing

I've been a long-time fan of the Unreal series by Epic Games since its debut in 1998. I can recall countless LAN parties where we played the original Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2003 and Unreal Tournament 2004. I can even attribute the Audigy2 ZS that's in my computer right now from playing UT2004 competitively. Let's just say that I'm a fan.

When I first saw the screenshots for Unreal Tournament 3 back in August 2005 I was really excited, not to mention worried that I wouldn't have a computer beefy enough to play it when the time came. Over the years I actually lost interest in UT3 and Epic Games because of their new direction to gaming that became vividly apparent at E3 2006. In the meantime Nintendo and Valve caught my interest, and I had all but forgotten about UT3 until the demo was announced a few months ago.

UT3 is out now, and as a UT fan I hate to say that I actually feel let down by the game.

There's a few reasons for this. First, the game hasn't changed much since UT2004 and has almost the exact same weapons and vehicles (with the addition of Necris set of vehicles). Epic combined the Assault and Onslaught game modes and left out Invasion, Mutant, Bombing Run, Last Man Standing, Domination and Double Domination. The art direction is explosively-ornate (which I'll write more about soon in my critique of the visual style of this and other games), and to top it off, the story mode for the single player campaign is ridiculous.

Previously you played a character competing in the Liandri Tournaments. This made the game mechanics and diverse environments make perfect sense, and gave Unreal Tournament a unique style that wasn't common at the time.

In UT3 however, instead of the player competing in a tournament, you are actually at war with the Necris. And that's where it immediately gets odd because the format is the same: you have Deathmatch and Capture the Flag games with respawning and everything. They clumsily explained why there are respawners and Capture the FLaG (Field Lattice Generators) matches in a serious sci-fi war in an attempt to tie in a paper-thin revenge plot into what's supposed to be the single player campaign for a multiplayer game.

I'm not sure why they decided to do that. The whole point of a single player campaign for a game like Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 Arena is to train people how to play it online. Maybe they wanted to somehow ride their success of Gears of War and add a macho storyline to Unreal Tournament, or to try something new as opposed to a succession of knockout tournaments.

Whatever their reasoning was, the single player campaign was disappointing and embarrassing, like the way Malcom was depicted and the FLaG gag to name a few. I can't help but wonder if they really cared about the franchise at all when they did that. I still can't get over it--capture the flag, and this is supposed to be a serious war? If they really wanted to bring in a great story into Unreal Tournament, they should have at least took some cues from other sports movies like Rocky or even The Karate Kid that made the stakes of winning the tournament higher than just the title.

In all honesty though, after keeping an eye on Epic for all these years, what they did with UT3 actually didn't surprise me at all.

Is the game bad? No. UT3 multiplayer plays almost the same as UT2004 with a new engine. But that's really all it is to me, and I've already played UT2004 to death. UT3 came to me long after I started looking for something new, which in the intermeaning time included Counter-Strike: Source and Freespace 2. But if you still like to play UT2004, you should get its sequel.