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Course welcome and Interview with Scott Donald

Dr Kenny McAlpine introduces his new short course on video game music and talks to Scott Donald about combining drumming and audio engines.
Hi, I’m Kenny McAlpine and I’m an academic in the UK Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. I’d like to welcome you to my short course here on FutureLearn, A Bit by Bit History of Video Game Music, one of a series of courses on game design and development from Abertay University. During the course, I’ll be using some terminology from computing and musicology as we discuss different hardware platforms, software, and soundtracks. I’ll include a glossary of terms for you in the supporting documentation. Do please have a read through if you’re not familiar with any of the terms that you come across.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll explore the music of video games and the hardware platforms that defined it. We’ll be looking at and playing some classic games, we’ll be listening to and analysing some wonderful game soundtracks, and we’ll be hearing from some of the people who helped define the video game sound. So let’s dive right in.
Hi, welcome back. With me is Scott Donald, who you’ve just seen putting this electronic kit through its paces. Now Scott, you’ve spent the last few years putting together this electronic masterpiece. Can you tell us a little bit about how it works? Sure. It’s erm… put together in Ableton Live. It’s basically a bunch of layers of single hit kits and loop based kind of samplers with chopped up loops, all arranged in Ableton Live, mixed together to respond from when I’m playing my electronic drums. There are a few different layers. This one here is Steven Slate Drums, that’s all, like, acoustic drum style sounds.
[DRUM BEATS] And then another one that’s got Stylus RMX, which has more of the kind of electronic sounds. [DRUM BEATS] All single hits. And then the more sort of crazy sounding ones as you’ve heard are the sample based ones, with Native Instruments Kontakt with lots and lots of chopped up samples. Those work slightly differently, rather than just being a single hit. It’s like a portion of a loop. So. [DRUM BEATS] So you can kind of join this together. [DRUM BEATS] And whenever you play it it’ll be slightly different. [DRUM BEATS] And so, a few of those, a few other single hits kits and two loop based samplers all working together.
So what you’ve really got then is a set of sensors that captures your performance and then maps that through to an intelligent sound engine that takes that performance gesture and converts that into real time manipulation of sound. Yeah. So, I guess it’s not quite the same thing, is it, but there’s a lot of similarity here with how a video game sound engine works. Yeah. I came across this kind of idea to really kind of tighten up my timing. You know? So, I wanted something that would actually respond to the rhythms that I’m playing.
So, the pads that I’m hitting are delivering MIDI notes to the module that go into Ableton, but in particular the kick and the snare and a couple of zones on this, those are triggering the loop based, the slices of loops that are chopped up. So, I guess when you play something different, if you’re just to play kick, snare, kick, snare, it would come out the same every time. But as you change the rhythm that you’re playing, the engine kind of keeps up with you and the loops will play back in a different order, depending on what you play on the drums. Yeah.
So this whole thing is really kind of augmenting and enhancing your already very high level of performance technique. Oh, yeah. I did make it with kind of timing in mind. You know, every loop that you chop up and trigger this way, it’s got sort of a different groove. Playing with a click track is fairly static, so I just wanted something as you’re playing you can play, you can listen to it, work on your timing. Really kind of like a kind of learning tool for tightening up your timing. I love the idea of incorporating play. I also love the idea of the performance being part man, part machine. I kind of got into looping, as well as the …
triggering samples and playing the break beats, changing them as they’re going. But with Ableton Live, it’s nice and easy just to be able to record the MIDI. And then certainly, with play, as it plays back I’ve mapped out the play back to several kind of effects controllers, like some of them built into Ableton Live, other third party plugins. So as the loop’s playing back you can then further manipulate it with post effects. And how easy is it to gig with all this kit? Easier if you take a kind of small pad out and lighten down the set. Obviously, it’s quite a bit of preparation in chopping up loops and kind of choosing which ones you’re going to use for it.
But, yeah, fairly easy. Monitoring the sound engineering side of things, making sure that you get the kind of right levels for front of house, all that has to be arranged previously. But yeah, you can gig with it. How do audiences respond to when they see you coming out on stage with pads rather than traditional drums? Usually, in this type of setting, you would go on just after a DJ would finish a set. So, yeah, there’s usually about a couple of songs in before they even notice to be honest. [LAUGHS] But, yeah. Good. It’s kind of eye catching, it’s very different. There’s no acoustic sound, I guess, if it’s coming through a large PA.
So you know, it sounds more like your conventional dance music sounds, you know, big samples, heavy samples. And it strikes me, as well, to get to that moment of performance, you’ve had to do an awful lot of preparation in the background to be able to perform the way that you do. Yeah. Can you give us a sense of what’s involved in getting to that point? OK. A kind of brief history of how this all came about. When I got my first electronic kit, which is kind of around 2000, they were good fun to play on, you know, easy to take MIDI out of, but the sounds were kind of plasticky.
You know, I thought I’ll buy an electronic kit and drum and bass and techno and all those house styles, we’ll have the exact sounds for them. And then, you kind of realise yeah, they’re kind of good sounds but the real sounds are certainly a lot louder. So I thought sample CDs and sample packs, you know, the same places where a lot of producers get their drum sounds to start to try and involve that. So, it took a while for the technology to come up to speed to be able to run all this at low enough latency that you can trigger it from drums without feeling any lag. And the thought process was first chopping up single hits from sample CDs.
Let’s check out a couple.
This one that we got loaded up. It’s from the sample Magic Tech Funk sample pack. I can just scrub through. [DRUMS BEATS] Auditioning single kick drums. [DRUM BEATS] Snare drums. Got a kind of glitch. [DRUM BEATS] You might notice this one responds to velocity. [DRUM BEATS] These were, like, sort of, glitch sounds. So, this was sort of stage one that I can make a kit on the fly just by dragging a bunch of samples in and auditioning and then just going with the right sounds for the job. And there’s been a few revisions. The first loop based kit I made was in Native Instruments Kontakt where it’s, like, velocity triggers the portion of the loop.
So if you hit it soft you might get a different portion of the loop from if you hit it hard. So, there’s 256 samples all chopped up, or 256 loops all chopped up in this, which took a while. I streamlined the process and made another one. It uses Ableton’s own built-in sampler plug-in. But yeah, it’s really been a work in progress for about the best part of maybe seven years. New versions of software come out. You know, you might get a new controller and map things a little bit differently. It’s kind of an ongoing trial and error, trial and improvement process. So, what’s next? What’s next?
Well the most recent thing– you may hear that those are just sort of chopped up breakbeats and sampled loops, working with whole songs, you know, chopping up whole songs to be able to do a remix of an existing tune. It’s a bit tricky how to get Ableton Live to map it out in quarter notes so you’re kind of manifesting the whole song in front of you just by playing the drums. You know, if you play in a different time signature or different rhythm, the result will be that the remix that you’re doing sounds very different from the original. And that, I guess, is sort of a dream for the future beyond my capabilities of what we’re doing here.
But maybe if an engine that could handle all the other instrumentation, that would maybe respond to how busy the drum patterns are and then add bass lines. There’s a lot of good plugins around that take things like chord progressions out of the equation, things like Xfer Records Cthulhu plug-in, where we have chords that all match just on chromatic keys of a keyboard. And the technology’s there. But yeah, my dream would be just being able to play and a whole bassline, synths, pads could all be materialised in a tune just based on what you’re playing and how intense it is. So an intelligent music system in the background composing on the fly while you set down the backbeat? That’s it. Yeah.
I mean, if you’re just riding out eighths on the right cymbal or hi hat, so it’d be like the start of a song. You know, as the drums get busier, the engine could bring in– I guess it’s kind of like somewhere along the lines of Guitar Hero, Band Hero, Dance, Dance, Revolution, which was part of the idea for me to create my Ableton set to work this way, as well. And just seeing people playing this just like Guitar Hero. It’s just the notes that play at the start and it’s a little bit on the end. You have to join them up together without – I’ve certainly mapped the way for them, creating this. But, yeah.
An intelligent engine that could do all the behind the scenes stuff for the other instruments, that would be cool. Thanks, Scott. That was fascinating. All right. Anytime.

Welcome to my new short course, A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll explore the music of video games and the hardware platforms that defined it. We’ll be looking at and playing some classic games, we’ll be listening to and analysing some wonderful game soundtracks, and we’ll be hearing from some of the people who helped define the video game sound.

During the course, I’ll be using some terminology from computing and musicology as we discuss different hardware platforms, software, and soundtracks. I’ve included a glossary of terms for you in the supporting documentation, which you can download below. Do please have a read through if you’re not familiar with any of the terms that you come across.

Once you’ve completed the course, you should have a good understanding of the development of video game soundtracks, from the very first generation of microcomputers and consoles through to the present day. You should be able to explain how the technical constraints of early game consoles and home computers shaped the qualities of the music that was written for them, and you should be able to discuss different approaches to writing and implementing interactive music for video games.

We’re going to begin by hearing from Scott Donald, a drummer from Dundee who performs all over the world with his technology-infused kit, and combines audio loops and layers with an intelligent sound engine to create music in real-time in response to his player input.

If that sounds similar to what happens with the soundtrack in a modern video game, you’d be absolutely right: Scott got the idea from games like Band Hero and wondered if he could use game audio technologies to help improve his rhythmic timing.

It’s an interesting application of game audio outside of video games, and it’s a great place to start…

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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