In Depth: Disasters for Piano

'Disasters for Piano', by David Peacock. Artwork by Nicolas Menard.

'Disasters for Piano' is a collection of my works arranged (for piano) by David Peacock.

Links: Album, Sheet Music Book, Free PDF

One day, I saw an Instagram video of someone performing a short snippet of 'Forgotten' from FEZ on piano.

I was really taken by David's style, watched all of his clips and reached out to complement him and see if he might want to work on a piano arrangement. What followed was a long and fruitful collaboration - an open invitation for David to explore my catalogue and tackle what he liked, and a whole lot of back and forth as we refined and honed in on an eclectic set of piano arrangements.

Track Descriptions


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This piece was heavily inspired by the music from the game Super Mario RPG. I set out to create a closing track for my album Level, and knew I wanted something that was optimistic, and kind of frenetic in its energy.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

With Win, it was important to capture the gradual build. Also wanted to focus on mixing groups of 2 over groups of 3 in different ways, much like the original did. A couple of times, I would select a piece to arrange based on the original—with no consideration for how it might translate to piano, and because of that this piece may have taken the longest to complete!

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

Because computer generated music is metronomically precise, I wanted to humanize it by breathing more "life" into the piece; taking subtle liberties with time, while always respecting the constant underlying rhythmic pulse.

Spaceman the Vulnerable

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This level music from the game Cat Astro Phi tries to evoke the innocence of its protagonist, who frequently succumbs to kitten mischief, and the increasing danger of his pursuits, exploring derelict space bunkers.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

Spaceman was the first piece I arranged for this project, and I think that helped in conveying Spaceman’s vulnerability. I also played through Cat Astro Phi before I got started. :3

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

I wanted to set the tone of the piece by creating long phrases, while at the same time embracing the silence between. It helped to elicit not only the vastness of space, but also the dark loneliness it can bring.

Somewhere, our limbs lost in the distance.

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

The original score for the film Somewhere used the twinkle effects from the animation to come up with the rhythm of its thematic melody. Working on music and sound simultaneously has a certain cathartic, all-devouring effect on me - there are some nifty integrations of the two - one example is the bedroom clock creating a 5/8 polyrhythm against the music. Musically speaking this has kind of a small, indie vibe to it a la The Postal Service that grows more impressionistic and grandiose as the story unfolds.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This film left a lasting impression on me, and the score is such a prominent part of that. I wanted to cover the entire score chronological to the plot. The approach we took was to preserve much of the original while adding more pianistic tendencies where it felt right.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

One of my favorite pieces written by Rich, and David did a wonderful job with this arrangement. You really get a sense of the story arch from the original film and score. Special attention should be given in the opening 5/8 to not add accents as if playing in compound (3/8+2/8) meter.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This was going to be the theme for Groggnar, a big lovable monster from the game Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, but I found it worked pretty well for that game’s protagonist and his whole core group of monster friends. The backbeat chords kinda gave the original a quirky quasi-reggae vibe.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This arrangement is what I’d imagine a mixture of Art Tatum, Bill Evans, and a bit of Duke Ellington might have done with it. This was one of the games I enjoyed completing while experiencing the music as “research”.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

As a classically trained pianist, this piece was a lot of fun to play because I rarely get a chance to channel some of history's greatest jazz pianists. It’s important to have a rhythmically solid LH so that the RH can have a natural loose/free melody.

Scent of Betrayal

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This song from Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake originally came out of a jam with my friend Neuman back in the fall of 2011. We briefly formed a band for the sole purpose of playing one show. We practiced for a few weeks, played the show, and then permanently disbanded. It was fun!

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

Continuing with the jazz-influence, this one has a more somber and lethargic feeling to it’s original. Lots of jazz harmony used here.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

The lilting jazz-like feeling throughout the piece made it pleasurable to record. Remember to tune your ear to always be aware of all the inner voices. Thinking like a small chamber ensemble (ie. string quartet) helps.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

You encounter a mysterious force and the journey begins. This piece was initially an attempt to update The Solar Prime Elite (see my album, Deorbit) for inclusion on the album Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar. It proved difficult but ultimately worked out as the prologue for the album, albeit in an abridged format.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

Translating this one was a challenge. Finding a way to interpret arpeggiated synth chords into something one person can play on piano was a great exercise in creatively approaching the material.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

Performing this piece reminded me very much of Impressionistic composers like Debussy or Ravel, especially when playing the "water-like" arpeggiated figures. Well articulated fingers coupled with a refined use of pedal help to create these glossy sounds.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

I originally came up with this melody on my Aunt's upright piano during a Christmas break. Then I recreated it with basic chord accompaniment using the keys on my laptop, while on a bus, headed from Boston to Hartford. I definitely tried to tap into the 80s horror mystique a little with the arrangement. Subsequently, this piece was used in the temp score for It Follows and ultimately became a big inspiration for that score.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

Death was approached from a modern take on the romantic era. We chose to have the piece start minimally and gradually build to a romantic and drama-filled climactic moment.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

I found it important to remember that there can be drama, even when it's pianissimo; it only makes the climax at the end that much more exciting.

The Outlaw

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

Part of a split electronic EP called West, this piece started with a Spaghetti-Western inspired guitar lick, which became the central motif of the song. Hearing it translated to piano was a bit odd at first, but I think it projects a fresh perspective on a similar idea.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

Instead of a guitarist loosely playing through this theme, we have a pianist. The arpeggiated harp-like runs came about when I was enjoying the chord progression, and became a recurring motif in the arrangement.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

The opening was quite a challenge because it was originally written for an improvised guitar. It was not about trying to recreate the sound of the original instrumentation, but to make it sound like it was meant to be written for solo piano.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

The Title track from It Follows, this was directly inspired by Death from FEZ, and Ennio Morricone. Morricone scored many Westerns and Horror films - what if he scored a Horror Western ?

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This piece was an exciting addition that existed only after I’d see the film It Follows. It was exciting to be arranging a piece that was relatively new to everyone at the time.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

Knowing this is from a thriller, I couldn't take a straightforward approach to interpreting this piece. The challenge was to create multiple "false climaxes" and immediately release the tension to give the listener relief — just like watching any scary movie.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This song was written to match the 90-second gameplay loop of the mobile game ZONR, has an accelerating tempo and lots of harmonic twists and turns to make it feel adventurous and increasingly frenetic. Fun Fact: ZONR’s developer went on to help develop Crossy Road.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This one is short and simple, and ends up being ninety seconds long like the original. I had this one sort of mirror the original by gradually slowing down and getting softer instead of speeding up and getting more stressful.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

This was a fun one to record because the performance had to last 90 seconds. It almost felt like playing the game during the recording session. I wish I had a secret to how we achieved this. My only suggestions is try it out a couple times with a stop watch and learn where you need to either speed up or take time. Most of all, have fun with it!


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

In the game FEZ, the musical elements from this track take on a different form depending on where you are and what time of day it is. The original soundtrack version is edited down to incorporate portions of each - a lower register for the day, and a higher register for the night. Certain scale notes are altered slightly to give each time of a day a subtly different vibe.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This arrangement goes between sparse sections and brief moments of motion. I wanted some sections to really mimic the original with the long pads; allowing the piano strings to reverberate a bit. There is a shorter 15-second version of this floating around social media from before this project existed.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

Much like the other pieces from FEZ, this is about creating space and tones that sound organic and otherworldly. When playing slowly, the challenge of a pianist is that we are limited to the length of which a note/chord can be sustained. Always listen and think about where a chord is coming from or going to and match the tone accordingly.

The Thief

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

I wanted to take the typical Thief archetype from games and change it a little, by portraying the character as more of a romantic, who longs for a loved one and has a greater purpose beyond the dungeon walls of the game FAMAZE.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This arrangement proved to be a challenge to retain the romantic sadness The Thief carries, and needed multiple revisions to uncover the right feeling. I think we landed on it, in the end, it just took a while to get there.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

You really get the sense of loneliness and sadness in this piece. I wanted to respect that, while not coming across as overly sentimental. It’s helpful to think of this piece in longer phrases so it can maintain its “flow” throughout.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

This song was written using a single synth sound, so it proved to be a nice piece for translation to the piano. Because the game FEZ leans heavily on its night cycle, this piece features two distinct sections. During the day, critters scurry here and there, going about their business. But come nightfall, they come out to dance. The first section is a bunch of overdubbed improvisations, a tempo.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

The introduction to this arrangement was created by mimicking and improvising over the original improvised opening. I played around with using the fibonacci series to guide the length of sections. This arrangement formed in the shortest amount of time, with the fewest revisions, I think. I really enjoy Augustine’s performance of the ‘musical bug’ ornamental phrases at the end.

Augustine Gonzales, on the Performance

If I had to pick a favorite of the album, this would be it. The overall effect of this piece always leaves me calm and relaxed. Remember to keep your hands soft and let the melody “play itself”.

The Last General

Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

I originally wrote something else for the West region’s boss fight in Hyper Light Drifter, but it wasn't working. The creative director guided me a bit with this, showing me a boss fight from Dark Souls with a giant wolf that had a large, melancholy quality to it. I used that as inspiration to write something that attempted to evoke a 'fallen hero' quality.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

This arrangement came about because I was playing Hyper Light Drifter and could not get past the West boss. I nearly ruined my controller in frustration, so I decided pause the game and channel that energy into playing the boss' theme on piano. I did eventually beat him.


Rich Vreeland, on the Composition

I came up with a sequence of ideas at the piano and recorded them in a somewhat lo-fi manner, with a field recorder. The general structure and ideas were there, but the specifics were always a bit blurry, and that allowed me to tinker with the form and the details of the performance over the course of a 10 - 15-minute jam. Afterward, I edited this down into a more listenable form, a six-minute track and the closer for Hyper Light Drifter.

David Peacock, on the Arrangement

We worked back and forth to make this transcription the most accurate, without becoming too distracting or complicated. The choice to remove bar lines was to help facilitate the free-flowing performance style. Because of the expressive nature of the performance, I wrote this out by hand entirely before being engraved digitally.

Round-Up: Discussions

From a Piece by Kilian Eng.

Podcasts & Video Interviews


Steven Melin.
We discuss the major projects I've turned down, including Stranger Things. We also chat about how to discover your style as a composer and how to navigate career direction in a world of endless possibilities.

Composer's Concepts
We talked about everything from my music influences growing up to working on games such as Fez, Hyper Light Drifter and films with David Robert Mitchell.

Ashton Gleckman
We discuss film scoring specifically, and the work on It Follows, Under the Silver Lake, and Triple Frontier.


From and Inspired By
We talk in detail about Under the Silver Lake.

Humans Who Make Games
We discuss the chiptune scene, history of music in games, compositional process for video games, the changing internet culture...

Rock n' Roll Beer Guy
We drink beer and talk about my youth, career history, philosophy from project to project, software, and other stuff !


The Game Music Podcast
We talk about the early years of my career, procedural music in Mini Metro and Beasts of Balance, techniques used in Fez and Hyper Light Drifter, among other things.


Lost Beat 6.
We talk about creative process, philosophy, career experiences, and peership.

Game Dev Loadout.
We talk about authenticity, building meaningful relationships, maintaining consistency over long periods and not focusing on too many different projects.

We talk about creative processes, procedural audio systems, chiptunes, my evergreen love of Ice Hockey games, being exposed to Zelda in utero, Cave Story and my early musical steps creating entrance music for electronic wrestlers.

Indie Insider.
We speak about my background, FEZ, Hyper Light Drifter, the art of seizing an opportunity, maintaining motivation and inspiration in your work over time, and negotiating pay as a contractor/freelancer.

Super Marcato Bros Podcast.
I spoke with the Marcato Bros. about my career, and more specifically about my sound, and the specifics of projects like FEZ, Hyper Light Drifter, It Follows, Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, Gunhouse, and Mini Metro.


Biya Byte.
We talk about Hyper Light Drifter and It Follows, and work process. We also talk about VR.

Butterfly Effect.
I spoke with Tristan Ettleman about the draw of chiptunes, the doors Fez opened, and writing the score to It Follows in three weeks.

Composer Quest.
I spoke with composer Charlie McCarron about the early stages of Under the Silver Lake (most of which ended up changing), the musical succession from FEZ to Hyper Light Drifter, and the cross-pollenation that happened between Hyper Light Drifter and It Follows. (Note: Charlie asked me about 'The Water Shelf', and I thought he was talking about 'Acropolis Falls'). We also (try) to improvise a Beach Boys style ditty, but whether we succeeded or not is up to you to decide.

The Collective Podcast. (currently down)
Ash and I talk about breaking into the music industry, the business side of making music, the importance of inspiration and collaboration, and where things are headed in the future.

Dear Air.
I speak with Gamespot's horror podcast about my career, ewrestling, Rescue the Beagles and horror, naturally.

How Was Work? (currently down)
I talk with my friend Randy about moving to Los Angeles, workspace tinkering, and Beasts of Balance.

Sonic Academy.
I join Chris chatting about how I got my break scoring games, producing over 40 albums, and why I turned down the chance to score Netflix's hit 'Stranger Things'



Pop Disciple
We talk upbringing, process, FEZ, It Follows, Triple Frontier, Under the Silver Lake.

Headphone Commute
We primarily talk shop, about studio setup, gear, process, and things of that nature.


People I Think Are Cool.
I talk about It Follows, FEZ, creative freedom and expectations, live performances, switching format/medium, Wikipedia, musical cross-pollination, horror, Fantastic Fest, interviews, blogging, social media, patronage, streaming, income, work history, reading, Jodorowsky, Adventure Time, Mini Metro, GTA, Katamari, Keita Takahashi and my minimalistic philosophy and how it seeps into everything I do.

The Damn Fine Podcast. (currently down)
We talk a lot about vinyl and soundtracks.

Train Station at 8.
We talk about video game music, live performance, listening habits, Doom, LA Noire, Tom Francis, Zan-zan-zawa-veia, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Floor is Jelly, domain names, Hearthstone, Peter McConnell, tone, soundtrack lengths, retro music facsimiles, The Hero’s Journey, Hideki Naganuma, Jake Kaufman (virt), Kirby, April Fools, Shnabubula, brain training, Jeff Bridges Sleeping Tapes, music in dreams, Mini Metro, etc…

Waveform City. (curreently down)
Dropped by the local synthesizer museum to talk synths, naturally!


Composer Quest.
I talk about January, generative music, music theory, programming, The Floor is Jelly, postmortem, Monkey Island, iMUSE, time management, FEZ, Chopin, FZ, remix albums, hair, Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar, my solo piano project, songwriting, lyrics, advice for composers, etc…

Inside Video Game Music. (currently down)
I talk about my musical background, music rights, contract terms, NEUTRALITE, collaborative process, time management, FEZ, synthesis, “Adventure”, musical analysis, note entry, quantization, tempo, looping, soundtrack variations, Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, mastering, leveling, Leq, January, programming, my solo piano project, It Follows, temp love, name origins, using an alias, identity consolidation, listening habits, favorite games, games with great music, Jukio Kallio, Eirik Suhrke, etc.

Shutup Songwriters.
Kyle and I talk about style & genre, entrepreneurship, expectations, creative process & the role of technology, instrumentation, process, old ideas, FEZ, “The Greatest Video Game Music, Vol. 2”, the internet, musical background, chiptunes, limitations/constraints, bitcrushing, tape emulation, sketching, switching from design to music, Berklee College of Music, going to school for music, navigating being an artist and a business, identity, etc.

Top Score.
I talk about FEZ, musical narrative, “Fear”, “Glitch”, “Sync”, “Puzzle”, soundtrack variations, “Continuum”, Chopin, name origins, January, my solo piano project, etc.

Bleeps n' Bloops.](
Group discussion about games and such at Fantastic Arcade 2014.


Bandcamp did an episode about video game music and spoke to me and a lot of other independent game composers like Danny Baranowksy, Austin Wintory, Jim Guthrie, Laura Shigihara, Ben Prunty, and Jimmy Hinson.

Sup, Holmes?
We talk about coming up, Fez, Shoot Many Robots, KRUNCH, Bit.Trip Runner 2 and many other games.


We talk about FEZ.

In-Depth: 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.


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.


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.


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.

Postmortem : Doing More Than is Expected

This project took a circuitous route to completion. I made contact with the developer in January of 2013 and created a few sketches for the Kickstarter in February. We didn’t start writing music for the game in earnest until January of 2014, a full year later.

Ideality vs. Reality

In an ideal world, I would be able to focus on one project at a time, and embed myself in the development process from the beginning. This would allow the music to evolve with the game, and inform early decision making in other disciplines such as art and design. The unfortunate reality is that the creative and financial economics don’t always add up. Devoting myself to a single project for long periods is often unsustainable. It’s been my experience that I can only give a project my full attention for a few months before I burn out and need a change. As a result, it has benefitted me to jump onto projects later in the process, and to change my focus from time to time.

This project follows that trend. I created most of the material for the game in two spurts. As you might expect, the first spurt happened before the game came out. This spurt covered most of the basic music (map, title, village, levels, etc.). There was ~15 minutes of music in the game at release, and I found this unsatisfactory. In most cases, there was a single 60 to 90 second loop in use for 15 - 20 levels on its own. Also, I never found the time to match the amplitude readings of the various tracks. While most of the early reviews seem unfettered by the quantity of music in the game, there were comments about the volume levels.

Freelance Scheduling

Having a year and a half and still being unable to deliver the proper amount of content in time for the game’s release is a result of a few things. As a freelancer, I often sign onto projects well in advance of when I expect to start working. This tactic is in part due to how long some of these projects are in development, and also a scheduling tactic on my part. In recent years, I’ve tried to focus on one project at a time for as long as possible before switching. I’ve found this reduces stress and makes my work more cohesive. I will often wait for the best time to begin, based on my availability, the progress of the team, and whether there are playable builds. There are times when more than one project sets its due date around the same time. When projects coincide, I must figure out how to work on them at the same time while still meeting all their deadlines. This conundrum is why Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake only shipped with 15 minutes of music.

Unsatisfied with the amount of work on display, I went back and played through the game quite a bit. I took notes and tried to figure out all the places that required new music. I spent the next month or so writing, and by the time of the first big update, the soundtrack length had quadrupled.

Music Coverage

In an attempt to create a musical balance, I developed a technique to approximate how often each track plays. Without the actual numbers to figure that out, I settled for the number of levels assigned to each track. Here are two pie (or should I say cake?) charts, to show the music usage. These cakes only account for interactive levels, not cutscenes or map screens:

Music, On Release
Music, After Update

After the update, I was able to reduce the burden on each piece quite a bit. Track 01 and 02 of each zone trade off in code, so that you’ll never hear either twice in a row. The rest of the tracks belong to special levels. Special levels include those that introduce new monsters, side paths, unique encounters, etc.

More Music for Cutscenes

I applied this same approach to cutscenes as well. On release day, most of the cutscenes used the same music. As of the update, every cutscene has a unique blend of tracks.

Dark Realms

I also introduced music for the “Dark Realms”. This gameplay mode occurs when the player enters a ground tear. The screen loses its color, and you have access to a different version of the level. The tracks in these sections are variations of the original music, but with a few differences. They are frequency shifted, pitch modulated, and lower in volume. These changes add to the variety even more.

Map Screen Variations

Another addition was musical progression for the map screens. Each zone has a map screen where you access the levels, and as you unlock new levels, new versions of the music unlock as well. The map music changes altogether when you unlock the next zone. Here is a breakdown:

Map Music, On Release
Five tracks, five assets. One track per zone and one for the world map. No variations.

Map Music, After Update
Nine tracks, twenty-four assets. Two tracks per zone and one for the world map. Four progress-based variations per zone.

Moving Assets Around

Before the game’s release, a black screen intro provided backstory, and I wrote a piece of music for it. I thought it worked quite well, but we removed it to allow the player to jump into the game quicker. Instead of letting the track go, I managed to find an interesting place to use it. There are bottles scattered throughout the game that contain messages. When you discover one of these bottles and read the note inside, the background music dies out and a short piece of music plays in its place. The idea was to characterize Niko (the protagonist) as becoming immersed in the reading of the message. It is a somewhat unorthodox usage of music (reminds me of the game ‘Ōkami’), but I believe it adds a little extra immersion to the game.

Volume Leveling

I have given some thought to having in-game assets mastered over the last few years. That said, when the time came to make a decision, I decided to forgo the option. I tweaked assets often, and until the last moment. I find the concept and workflow of mastering, at least in the traditional sense, to be somewhat incompatible. I searched for an alternative that would get me at least some of the way there, and I found Leq. Leq is the Sound Pressure Level in decibels, equal to the total sound energy over a given period. While not a silver bullet by any means, Leq allowed me to bring the assets close together in perceived volume, in most cases. I chose to use A-weighting, which uses a response curve that favors higher frequencies, much like our ears. I also found it matched up well with the response of mobile devices, which tend to be poor at reproducing lower frequency sounds. This was a factor because the game is available on iOS and Android. To calculate Leq, I used a tool called AudioLeak, which will output a single dBFS value. I used these values to attenuate the signals of the files to desired levels.

An Idea That Didn’t Make the Cut

There is one idea that didn’t make the grade. I wanted to have the music change depending on which monsters were at your disposal. In levels, music would crossfade between different versions as you switched between monsters. We also toyed with the idea of changing the map music in the same way, depending on which monsters were available. The levels concept would have worked well, but I decided to dismiss it and focus on quantity instead. I also planned to write a jingle for each monster that would play if you beat a level with them, but never got around to it. Some ideas, while good, are not important enough to use.

Consensus: A-OK

All in all, I am pleased that I took the time to beef up the music in this game. I can look back at it and be proud, instead of having reservations and wondering how it could have turned out better. I’ll always have some of those what ifs, but by giving the music the extra love, I am far more content with the result.