Composing for Z-Day

Written by zdayadmin on . Posted in News

One of the most expressive of the arts, music can have a huge emotional impact on the listener, and plays a critical role in any production. Today, I thought I would share some of the efforts that go into producing a piece of music for the anticipated video game, “Z-Day”. From scoring the music, to mixing and mastering the final product, let’s take a look at how the main theme music was created for “Z-Day”.

When it comes to producing a piece of music, everyone has a different workflow and procedure. Personally, I like to start with a short theme, or motif that the piece can grow from. For the main theme, I knew I wanted to go with something that would convey a lot of tension; leaning more towards the eerie side of things. I chose to start the piece off with a cello slowly playing a legato passage in the mode of C Locrian. Though the piece definitely has harmonies and melodies in this mode, I did not stay strictly confined to Locrian, and much of the music tends towards C Phrygian as well. I chose to write in these two modes because the melodic and harmonic possibilities were in line with what I wanted to convey. Besides, anything in Phrygian just automatically sounds awesome!

So here is a snapshot of our Locrian cello line in the very beginning of the piece. I scored this piece out using Sibelius 5, which I find to be an amazing tool for composers. I highly recommend checking it out for any readers that do any scoring themselves! For scoring purposes, I also have Sibelius triggering my Vienna Symphonic Libraries so I can easily review my work in progress.

At this point, I usually begin filling out the harmonic ideas for my melody, and work on creating something that is rhythmically interesting underneath. I then work to develop the rest of the piece, often using returning themes or melodies. In the main menu music, I would often have some of these motifs return throughout the piece. Being a main theme, this was also going to be playing as menu music….And as menu music, I wanted to write something that would be able to “breathe” musically, or ebb and flow with different ideas that were distinct, yet related; so as not to elicit boredom. Another way I sought to keep the listeners on their toes was the quite liberal use of dissonance, especially with the syncopated, mono-rhythmic hits.

Here is a snippet from the very end of the score, showing some of the contrapuntal melodies weaving together, capping off with a nice GØ9 chord…..In first inversion.

So, that’s a quick tour of my compositional process for the main theme/menu music. Of course, we now need to translate these notes into actual audio. It is possible to bounce all of this music directly out of Sibelius, taking advantage of VSL. However, this does not provide for very much creative control; at least, not all too efficiently. Sibelius does have the ability to manipulate MIDI data (Musical Instrument Digital Interface; basically digital information that can be used to trigger another application or machine)…..But I find it much more effective to do this portion in a dedicated DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).


To get this data into another program for some fine tuning of the performance, I can export the current MIDI data from my individual instrument tracks. Once this is done, I can import them into my DAW. For this particular piece, I chose to work with Logic Pro 8.


Once I have a session created, I will set up a number of MIDI tracks, coinciding with my instrument selection. After I have individual MIDI tracks for every instrument, I may import my MIDI performances to their respective tracks.

Given the fact that it is an amazing sounding sample library, I had my MIDI tracks triggering VSL again to render my audio. Here you can see a couple pictures of the “Vienna Ensemble” program, which is basically a conduit for VSL that enables the library to be multi-timbral. That way, I don’t waste computer resources, and significantly simplify the selection and manipulation of several software instruments at once.

Once I have my MIDI tracks triggering VSL, I am ready to begin molding my virtual musicians to my liking. I can adjust the velocity of any given note, change the length, pitch, or timing of a performance, and access different instruments and/or patches; all by manipulating MIDI data. Because the export out of Sibelius is inherently “perfect”, it is at this time that I work towards giving my performances a little bit of character. I try to accomplish this by tinkering with velocities, timing, and accessing different effects or patches with the modulation control in order to give my music a more human feel. Here you can see an example of editing MIDI data. The blocks are notes, the colors represent velocity, and the editor at the bottom allows me to adjust the velocity of any note.

Once I have my performances tweaked to taste, I am ready to actually record my results into audio tracks. After this is done, if I still have a few additional tweaks or changes that need to be made, I can easily edit the audio track.

Following the recording of my scored instruments via MIDI , it is time to lay down some drum tracks, auxiliary music and effects. This is the point at which I will add some of the eerie voices, choirs, ambience, and SFX into the music. For these elements that I do not score ahead of time, I use a MIDI controller to play the instruments over my existing music. Here is a showing of East West’s Storm Drum 2, which I used for all of the drums in the piece.

After everything is recorded, at long last I can begin to mix the project! Here is where I will make any automation adjustments to my volume or panning, add some reverb, any other effects to tracks, compression, EQ, and so on. The goal is to form everything into one cohesive experience.

Once I am happy with my mix, I will bounce out the entire session into a stereo two track .wav file. At this point, it’s time to master the track, which is effectively the icing on the cake. Again, I chose to use Logic for my mastering, as it actually has a pretty nice little mastering suite as far as included plugins go. Here I will do some additional equalization, compression, harmonic processing, and such, but to the track as a whole.

One of my favorite tools that I use throughout this process is the BBE Sonic Maximizer plugin. The best $100 one can spend on a plugin-it really does help everything pop out a bit more and really adds to the harmonic content of whatever one runs through it.

Once that is done, well, that’s pretty much it. After that, I’ll bounce out the final master into a .wav file, and convert it to an appropriate format for use in the game; ready to add it’s own emotional contribution to the game!

Hope you enjoyed my first attempt at a blog…

- Derrick Bozkurt.


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