This Is What I Know About Music

I am not a musician presently.

When I was in middle school, I was given a choice. Students at the school I attended in sixth grade could either devote their entire year’s worth of elective class blocks to band or they could instead take physical education, computer science, and health class. Yeah, it was weird. Anyway, the band teacher was not a nice person and my parents didn’t seem keen on spending $300 on an instrument so I chose to have more variety in my schedule. The next year, this school was shut down for remodelling and I was sent to another middle school with far more choices. So many choices in fact that band didn’t have a shot in hell at making my schedule. High school had even more elective options, few of them requiring the financial investment of band or orchestra, so I chose otherwise.

Basically, I had a very diverse and well-rounded education, but it didn’t include learning to read or compose music.

Music, however, is going to be something I need to know something about, even if I end up hiring someone else to do it.

I started teaching myself to play the recorder. Recorders are cheap as hell, and if elementary school children can learn to play them then so can I. Fortunately, I also have Simon, who plays trumpet, to help me out with whatever instruction doesn’t make sense from the book alone. I’ve also been playing with a few different digital tools to help bridge the gap in my knowledge. I haven’t done anything yet but get acquainted with these programs, but I’ve been using Stagelight to put together little repeater tracks and ScoreCloud, which records sounds and then outputs notation, so I can hum little ditties into it and then play these notes on the keyboard in Stagelight.

So I’ve been laying some groundwork for music, even though that part’s still a long way off.

But actually? Music may not be as crucial an element as I originally thought.

I mean, don’t gt me wrong. Simon Viklund’s tracks are part of what makes PAYDAY what it is. But my recent experiments have shown me that my game could probably live without background music if I wanted it to.

See, what happened was this.

PAYDAY 2 recently added two new jobs to tie in with John Wick 2. The second job, on the yacht, has this jazzy-ass background track called “White Collar Crime“. Now, if you listen to that track, or even better if you play the level, you will note that there’s a lot of white space, so to speak, in it. It’s a track made for a solely stealth job, so it needs to be able to repeat. What I found deeply !!! though was that there would appear to be several chunks of song set at the same tempo that can be played randomly until you reach the next objective, at which point another higher tempo set of longer chunks (possibly with more instrumental accompaniment) is played instead. Basically, the music picks up and gets more elaborate the further you go along, until near the final tasks, you’ve got some seriously antsy trumpet doing some “Flight of the Bumblebee” shit in your ear.

And looking at this, I was like, fuck, man, that sounds way easier and more modular than trying to do something like, say, Hitman, where the music is built out of two or three different tracks and they’re programmed to respond to changes in game state and crossfade at specific rates and points in the tracks. ‘Cause the subject of not only learning to make music, but also make it adaptive for gameplay? Not gonna lie, it was pretty daunting. There’s not a lot of resources on how it’s done.

And yeah, this whole modular tinkling doodly shit might be fine for stealth, where you probably want more quiet than not, but what about loud? That’s when Viklund’s beat-heavy tracks really get their airtime so I needed to think about that too. I considered – again – Left 4 Dead and how it handles music. Which is that it doesn’t for a large amount of the game.

Zambies just doesn’t have music playing most of the time. It’s part of why HLDJ is such a thing for Team Pank there, because there’s not much background music that it has to compete with. Which is not to give you the impression that Left 4 Dead has no music or that it’s neglected. L4D actually has a very complex musical composition (especially in L4D2), and the wikia article is a good read if you’re interested in that. But for right now, just know that music is used sparingly in that game and there’s a lot of white space too, even though there’s not really a change in game state the way there is in clowntown. With some special exception for things like the “Dark Carnival” finale, full-blown music really only cues up during actual gameplay in four situations: horde attacks, when there’s a Tank, when a Special Infected has you and you need to be rescued by teammates, and if you’re within proximity to a Witch.

So that got me thinking, what would clowntown be like without background music? And it turns out, it’s not that different at all. Maybe even a little clearer for the thinking.

Simon and I played through “Brooklyn 10-10” with the music slider turned all the way down and it really wasn’t missing much. The only actual gameplay purpose it seems to serve is letting you know when the wave is about to end, but Bain informs you of that too so it’s redundant. The only other difference is that without the music, I felt a lot more spatially aware because I could hear every sound effect much more clearly.

And that’s kinda the difference between music in zambies and music in clowntown. Zambies music serves a gameplay purpose. And if there’s not a purpose for it to be serving, there is none.

One other thing that I wanted to look at with regard to music is the concept of Special stings, or Bacteria as they’re called in L4D. It’s a thing I’ve heard of people asking for in clowns, that they want something like Left 4 Dead where each Special unit has, in addition to their particular sound effects, a music sting that warns of their approach. In zambies, you will often hear a piano or string jingle of a few notes to indicate when, what, and how far away (piano for close, strings for far) a Special Infected has spawned. I love this feature, but I think it wouldn’t work as well in PAYDAY because of the background music. It works in L4D because there’s usually no music except the sting.

So yeah, maybe more minimalist with the music is the way to go here.

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