Techniques: Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake

I’d like to talk about some of the techniques I explored in creating the soundtrack for Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake. I have used some of these techniques before, but others represent a new approach, and I’m excited to talk about them.

With each new project, I try to reinvent myself in some capacity. This time around, I devised a plan early on that would take me in a new aesthetic direction. Games like Yoshi’s Island and Wind Waker inspired the developers, and I found it fitting to pursue a similar path.

Hocketing

The song ‘Alone in Kyoto’ by Air inspired me to use this technique. It took me years to realize that around 1:20, there is a three-note figure that sounds in three sequential instruments.

In 'Yumberries,’ there is a three and sometimes five-note figure that hockets between two instruments. One is in the left channel and the other in the right. The right-panned instrument has a bit of a pitch drop as it ends, and the other has a plucked, string-like attack. The instrument on the right side always plays the third note in the figure. See if you can hear it! The two timbres are similar, so it’s a subtle effect.

Genre Tropes

Melding the styles of different genres is part of the charm of games like Super Mario 64, Animal Crossing, and Earthbound. I tried to follow that pedigree while pulling from my external influences. There are backbeat chords (Reggae), claves (Afro-Cuban), and shuffles, to name a few.

Repurposing Old Material

I saw this project as an excellent opportunity to tap into my long back catalogue of ideas. I was able to repurpose more than 20 ideas that have collected dust on my hard drive. Some date back as far as 2004, the year I first started writing. I’ve included them with the download of the soundtrack from Bandcamp.

To keep the experience cohesive, I listened to hundreds of sketches, always with the intent to find a particular usage. Sometimes during the process of updating a sketch, I would decide it was no longer appropriate for the placement I had intended. When this shift occurred, I would set it aside, and wait for the proper placement to arise. In most cases, this worked, but there were a few sketches that turned out not to fit.

Using Delay to Create Interesting Patterns

Delay is a formidable tool for creating new parts. In ‘Land of the Blue Muckwic,’ I shifted a part that was once doubled back a 16th note. I also reharmonized the part to create a distinct counterpart to its original. ‘Sleep Tight, Little Buddies’ uses a similar technique. It takes a single part and turns it into two discrete elements.

Mixing Up the Loops

I found the notion of a 42-track album of looping loops scary and set out to vary the structure of songs when it was beneficial. Many songs have endings unique to the soundtrack (i.e., ‘Scent of Betrayal,’ ‘Yumberries’). Some have removed or reordered sections on the repeat to mix it up (‘You Got My Rollerskates,’ ‘Ruins of the Firefather’). Others make use of new combinations of parts to strengthen the variety on display (‘Ducky vs. Candy Quarterback,’ ‘Poot of Gricklesmudge’). I took care to go beyond having a soundtrack of simple loops. I am a strong believer that a soundtrack and a score are not the same, and I did my best to treat them as such.

Pitch Bending

This technique isn’t surprising or new, but I find that a well-placed pitch bend can add interest to a part that might need it. Eirik Suhrke is the composer for the game Spelunky, and we came up together in music. We ran a chiptune netlabel together from 2007 to 2012, and his work has left a lasting impression on my own. His creative use of pitch bending is one such effect that’s rubbed off on me. I can sense myself channeling his style in certain spots on this soundtrack.

Groove Shifting

'Yumberries’ moves between straight and shuffled beats. The shuffle gets stronger over the course of the song, and then subsides to help create a smooth looping experience.

Performance Beat Mapping

I discovered a method that allows me to play in segments that have a fluctuating tempo. I can then beat map the remaining song elements to that performance. This song along with a few others on the soundtrack have live performed ritardando endings.

Staggered Note Releases

I’m not sure exactly where I’ve heard this technique before, but it produces a pleasing sound. On the final chord of a few songs, the notes die out in a staggered fashion, often from the highest pitch to lowest. For lack of a better description, this sound is something akin to water sucked down a drain.

Reharmonization

This trick often pays dividends. I took the upbeat Nogport Meadows music and reharmonized it as an evil sounding piece for The Deadlands. In a tight spot, this can be a justified way of cutting corners.

Developing a Sound Library

  • • Create a cohesive aesthetic
  • • Get production out of the way in the beginning, to help get ideas out faster
  • • Clean sounds, FM, SNES Samples, Staccato, Drum Machine Samples
  • • SNES echo emulation (choosing delay over reverb, every time)

I set out from the beginning to assemble a large library of sounds that I could reuse throughout the soundtrack. On previous projects, I stuck to an aesthetic by reusing sounds from memory, and discovering new ones. Having a directory of sounds to work from and build up, helped get production out of the way early and often. This approach allowed me to focus more on writing.

I looked to games like Yoshi’s Island to help frame my aesthetic decisions. To capture a 90’s tone, I gravitated towards clean, short sounds. The palette is a blend of synths, SNES soundfonts, drum machines, & beatbox samples. I also used hi-fidelity sample libraries, repurposed to seem simple and cheap. I went into the guts of many of these sounds to shorten their volume envelopes, often to a drastic degree. This method proved to be an effective way to mimic the character of one-off samples often used in SNES and N64 soundtracks.

Traditional reverb was almost never the right choice. Instead, SNES-style echo proved to be an effective way to add depth to some of the pieces. I attained something that approximates this with a short delay time and a high feedback setting. I also took into account the limitations of the SNES sound when useful. The sampling rate of the S-SMP (SNES sound chip) is 32kHz, so at times I would low pass samples down to 16kHz for a muted character.

Doing More Than Expected or ‘Necessary’

Read the postmortem to see how the soundtrack went from fifteen minutes to an hour.

Kondoisms

There are a lot of elements scattered throughout the score that pay direct tribute to Koji Kondo.

'Scent of Betrayal’ This song has an upper structure triad on the last chord, which you can also hear in the game over music from Super Mario World.

'Tolerable Levels of Trespassing’ The occasional flute trills in this song are a knowing nod to the Forest of Illusion map music from Super Mario World. The interior house music from Wind Waker inspired the musical style.

'A Trail of Crumbs’ This track started as an aesthetic study of the Wind Waker theme song and evolved into something else. The opening strums by a zither-like instrument remain.

Yoshi Drums Koji Kondo makes great use of Latin percussion in many of his scores. The most notable example is the “Yoshi Drums” in Super Mario World, where percussion appears when Mario sits on Yoshi. I tried to capture some of that charm.

Hidden Live Elements

'Terror, Esquire’ is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The seed of this song started as a sketch recording of an electric guitar. In most cases, I built on sketch ideas; I reperformed them or imported their MIDI data when appropriate. This track is the exception to the rule; it’s the only song that features a live instrument. I used a few tricks to help glue the parts together. In continuing with the theme of clean staccato sounds, I used a transient shaper to reduce the sustain in the signal. I also beatmapped the song and its elements to the guitar performance, instead of quantizing the guitar. I believe this gives the song a unique groove and allows it to stand out as a highlight of the score.