Normally when I put together sound effects for my games, I start with samples. I'll either record these myself, dig through some collected sample libraries, or head over to freesound.org, soundsnap.com, pond5.com, etc, and spend gobs of time searching for what I need.
For this game, I thought I'd try something a little different and make synthesized sound effects from scratch. That feels like a better match for both the theme and the hardware.
I very briefly considered running the synthesis at runtime but that's just one bridge too far. Instead, I'm using this as an excuse to play around with Bitwig and its included node-based synth engine called "Poly Grid".
Poly Grid is extremely flexible and a lot of fun. I learned the basics of subtractive synthesis a while ago with the Roland V-Synth and really loved it. Bitwig has let me dip back into that, with a lot of modern conveniences.
Poly Grid layout for a motorized marquee closing sound effect
Poly Grid has a bunch of node types that can be routed together. In this example I have oscillators, mixers, filters, envelopes, an LFO, and some delays all wired up to make the whirrr, click of a closing marquee. The resulting instrument is triggered by a single note in the Bitwig sequencer. To use it in the game, I bounce the track to a .wav file that gets picked up by the build tools for conversion into a game asset.
I put together a short walkthrough of a few synthesized sounds with their in-game action and Poly Grid layout here:
If the game has 8-bittish synth sound effects then it makes sense to also have 8-bittish synth music.
In the past I've used hardware workstation keyboards or standard computer apps like Logic or Cubase to write music. These can support synth-based tracks just fine but hey this is another chance to learn something new instead of repeating myself.
In this case that means composing the music using a tracker. I spent a lot of my youth listening to tracker-made songs but had never tried actually using one myself.
FastTracker II (<3 Elwood)
There are lots of great choices for trackers. I toyed around with a few software options but apparently there's been something of a renaissance here and there are now tracker-oriented hardware devices available. Working with hardware gives me a chance to step away from the computer for a bit so that seemed like a good way to get started. These are pretty niche instruments and can be hard to get ahold of but I got lucky and snagged an M8, a handheld gameboy-like device with built-in synthesis, sampling, and sequencing.
M8 hardware tracker
The tracker mentality has taken some serious getting-used-to for me. I'm perfectly comfortable never seeing my recorded notes or working with a piano roll, but something about the vertically-oriented spreadsheet interface of a tracker really screws with my musical sense.
Helpfully, the M8 is an incredible device. First, it sounds amazing. There's a ton of high-quality, easy-to-use synthesis algorithms, a near-perfect limiter on each channel, great chorus/reverb/delay, etc. I have trouble making the thing sound bad. Second, the interface, with just a few buttons, is very quick to navigate once learned, and surprisingly fun to zip around in.
Composition-wise I find that I have to work out melodies on a piano or keyboard first, then transfer those to the M8. This is a little less immediate than, say, a workstation where I can compose and record on the same device. Still, I'm enjoying the process and expect to eventually get more comfortable with composing directly on the device.
The game's theme song, adapted from one of my older pieces and remade on M8:
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I'm always amazed by devs who work on every aspect of their games, I've been wanting to make music for my upcoming games so bad! Your devlogs, have once again, given me much needed inspiration. Might look into Bitwig too!
woaaa that theme songs get my scene-music-senses all tingling.
That music sounds great. Would be cool to have the lights change on the beat!
Thanks, I love this kind of deep-dive into the nitty-gritty details!
Very cool to see a dev diving deep into synthesis, I consider myself a synth/sound person mostly but am trying to make a playdate game of sorts.. plan on sequencing my music with my M8 also and my sound effects on the waldorf M and Syntrx.
Really interesting reading! Maybe I should also consider using more synth for sound-design. I already use musical instruments for making "abstract" sound effects, but this might be a way to go even further.
Also I must now resist to the envy to buy myself a tracker! ^^' I have the same issue of always working in front of a computer screen, no matter what I do. It looks like a pretty cool (and fun) solution.
I try to work in drawing on paper/ipad and plinking around on a synth/piano to get some productive time away from the desk. Recommended.
Very inspiring again! For Atlantic ‘41 I’m considering using hardware synths and sequencer for the music, instead of trackers and sample based sounds like I’ve always done. Like you I love trying new methods . But the M8 IS incredible indeed. They just released version 3 with a new 12 oscillator engine and the ability to send midi data and bring back the audio in the M8 for mixing, like a Syntakt would do.
I’ve been thinking about using the synth engine for sound effects but the work seems daunting, and I wonder if there would be significant performance gain compared to samples?
Super fun to see all this fast progress in your game lately.
Thanks Stephan! Any runtime synth would just be generating a sample buffer in the end so I'd be surprised if straight .wav playback wasn't faster.
Ah yes I didn’t know that but it makes sense. Thanks for the tip. I look forward to cleaning up after your Martians!