Apps, Loop

loop: recording an original, acoustic soundtrack

Developing my new puzzle game, loop, was much more intricate than any of my other apps. The coding, as it turned out, was much easier; there were much fewer algorithms, iCloud document shuffling strategies, or gnarly PDF functions to work with. Rather, I soon realized that the challenge facing me was an artistic one. I had to create an audiovisual experience unique to my game—while working within the bounds of what one person can do over the course of one summer. I guess that would be something like, say, trying to build a piece of furniture by yourself. You could be perfectly good at designing, sawing, and painting, and still come out with a table that screams “I made this myself.”

And one of the attitudes I had to challenge when developing Loop was precisely that: at first I was limiting myself to things I could only do solo. For most game soundtracks, you could probably do it by yourself if you were writing electronic music. Just buy Logic or some comparable DAW and synthesize away. (Not that it doesn’t take talent and effort, but it’s possible.)

On the other hand, from the beginning of Loop’s life in development I knew that I wanted its soundtrack to be acoustic. I wanted to use my years of learning piano to produce something that would touch the ears of hundreds, hopefully thousands of people. I had a Samson Q2U microphone at home, and I thought, Why don’t I get my friend Patrick to play the violin, and record the whole soundtrack at my house?

There are several reasons why that approach doesn’t work, and as soon as I started the real recording I knew why:

  1. The Samson Q2U microphone is not at all geared toward piano recording, and one microphone cannot possibly be enough for both a piano and a violin.
  2. Home acoustics are really bad.
  3. I wouldn’t be able to manage a DAW and record myself and Patrick simultaneously.
  4. The cost of buying Logic would be comparable to hiring an audio engineer.

All of these reasons added up in such a way that the logical way to approach this soundtrack would be to get a professional audio engineer to set up and manage the recording. And wow, what a difference it made. Check out the (improvised) soundtrack for Loop’s main menu

We had seven mics trained on us while we recorded this soundtrack. (To think that I would have gone ahead with one on the cheap…) The piano was the hardest to get right; we ended up putting two cardioid mics under its belly and two pointing into the strings from a few inches outside. The underside mics give the sound warmth, and the upper ones lend it clarity… Of course, the fact that we used a 7-foot Steinway in the recital hall at Capital University doesn’t hurt the sound quality either.

After all the recording was finished, I went back and added strings from the Sonatina Symphony Orchestra sample library, as well as a few soundscape synths to add noise in the background. (You can hear those strings in the app preview video I released last week.) For this, GarageBand was perfectly sufficient. Once you have good recordings, GarageBand is surprisingly effective at the nitty-gritty of putting them together.

So I can’t say it’s a fully acoustic soundtrack, but with the help of Patrick McBride and Chad Loughrige, the awesome recording engineer at Capital, I was able to create a sound to which most iOS games can’t come close. It’s the sound of real people playing real instruments, and that creates a vibe that simply can’t be substituted.

Loop is coming soon to the App Store! I’d love to hear your comments and experiences about video game soundtracks.

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