July 28, 2005 | Case Study
In the first article of this series, Pajama Sam and the Case of the Live Drums, we discussed how live musicians lowered our cost, improved our product, and sped up production. It is one of the few examples of an instance where the saying "Good, fast, and cheap; you can have any two, but not three", doesn't hold up. In this article, we will introduce a variation of this technique. One in which a crew of live musicians help us deliver exceptional quality in massive quantities.
In the case of the Atari children's bestseller Backyard Baseball 2005, the challenge was different than in that of Pajama Sam. This game had over twice the music of PJ; well over an hour's worth, and nearly one-hundred and fifty songs. The compositions spanned countless genres, ranging from rock to reggae; classical to country, and nearly everything in between. In addition to the usual intro sequences, pads, and cut-scenes, we were responsible for creating musical themes accompanying a virtual fleet of characters in Atari's Backyard Sports franchise.
The themes needed to match each character's personality. Some were simple, as with the "custom kids" who were named after generic styles of music like "Disco", and "Electronica". Many of the characters drew upon pop-culture icons, like "Ronnie", who became our take on "Leave it to Beaver". Many themes were also abstract, such as "Dante", described as a little bouncy kid who "loves food", or "Dmitri", a chubby, Eastern-European genius who was "half Kraftwerk, half polka". We had twelve weeks to compose, record, produce, mix and deliver the songs.
Making this massive undertaking a reality required a fantastic team of musicians. Making up the core of this group was drummer John Bollinger, and guitarist Joe Pascerell who also played bass. There were also many others, including horns, banjo, strings, and more. The team was an efficient and musical solution for a demanding game. It also allowed us to expand, producing several other projects at the same time, all with the same no-compromise attitude and quality that we applied to Backyard Baseball. In fact, the benefits were so great that the model has become the benchmark for current and future productions.
Playing an enormous role in organizing and streamlining the project, was our design document. For this, we used an adaptation of Atari's own Backyard Kids design document, or as it was commonly called, "The Bible". The Bible contained detailed descriptions, measurements, pictures and statistics for each and every character. From this, we created and printed a new book. Each page including an image of the character, production notes, a song filename, and the current status of the composition.
Each week began with a production meeting: a phone conference with the game designer, the producer, and the audio lead at Atari. Pulling a stack of pages from the book, we discussed musical production and direction. The Atari team would describe what the pieces needed to do, and we would suggest how best to do it. Notes were carefully entered into the document and the week's recording sessions scheduled.
Now, with the band in the studio, we virtually papered the walls with pages of the document. We recorded fast, usually with no written music. We composed on the fly, pulling ideas from pages on the wall, from a little portable recorder, and often, out of thin air. Usually a rough draft comprised only of guitar and drums, was sufficient for Atari to review and approve our work, allowing us to move forward.
We used the client area of this site. as well as FTP, extensively. The songs were mixed and posted directly onto the server so the game designer and producer could give us nearly instant feedback.
The first round of recordings were mostly basic tracks. For these it was our goal to solidify the style and the feel of a piece. It was also our aim to capture a final drum track in this phase. We were usually able to keep a final guitar or bass tracks too, but nailing the drums right away gave us a lot more options along the way. While we concentrated mostly on rhythm tracks, we also made every effort to include as much melodic reference as we could. This made it easier for the game designers to comment on our work and gave us a head start as we began overdubbing additional instruments.
One tool which proved to be indispensable was amp modeling technology. Using plugins such as Amp Farm, and Amplitube, we were able to record the guitars uning no effects; the clean signal going directly into the Protools HD engine. Although the sound of a real guitar through a great amp can't be beat, the ability to change the amp, effects, and tone after recording was a real life saver when it came time to begin submitting revisions. There were plenty of times when the only change needed in a given song was to use a different electric guitar tone. Using amp modeling saved us having to waste valuable guitar tracking time on parts that already existed.
On days when the band wasn't in the studio, we would edit, overdub, and mix the tracks we had done that week. For electronic music and large orchestral parts, we did, in fact, use synthesizers, and samples such as the Vienna Symphonic Library, but we did so sparingly, and only when warranted. More frequently, we would schedule other musicians for these days, finishing up extra guitar parts, horn sections, fiddle, etc. In this way, by the time the weeks second conference rolled around, a large number of pieces were ready to be submitted as finals. Any remaining comments from this meeting were logged into the design document. These songs would be completed in the next round.
Soon, instead of a mountain of pages, we had only a short checklist from which to work. Despite the myriad of songs and characters, we scarcely needed the "Bible" at all anymore. The characters felt like old friends. We knew them inside and out.
As withPajama Sam, we saved time by not having to meticulously program and tweak in order to make things sound authentic. We simply played, focusing solely on the composition, the arrangement, and the production. Instead of having to program each track separately, first drums, then guitar, then piano, all the basic tracks were recorded at the same time. This cut the time by sixty-six percent, while at the same time, providing an important musical "glue". There is no substitute for musicians playing together, in the same space at the same time, and the results are apparent.
Having a band on staff has a myriad of other benefits. Despite our busy production schedule, we were able to take on projects we otherwise would have had to turn away. Now, instead of delivering a final draft in days or weeks, we frequently had finals in a matter of minutes. In the timespan that we produced the music for Backyard Baseball we completed at least two other projects, passing along the benefits musical team offerd to new clients. We produced the soundtrack for another Atari game (Backyard Skateboarding), a demo for a spec project, and actually began pre-production on a record. All were done quickly, inexpensively, and almost entirely live. Our clients shared the cost of the musicians and the studio time...and they reaped the rewards as well.
With musicians constantly coming in and out of the studio, for example, there were always people around to play parts. While waiting for feedback on a set of songs, an idle musician could easily be reassigned to a new project in another room. Taking advantage of these "down times" is one important way in which we were able to do so much so quickly. The busier we got, the more productive and efficient we became. What's more, the more the "band" played together, the faster, tighter, and better they got.
It is easy to see how keeping a team of musicians on staff has become the benchmark for the way in which we work. The quality, speed, and versatility it provides, make it a winning situation for everyone, not to mention a whole lot of fun.top