Stagehand: The Music

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Buckle up, friends, because we’re gonna go on a “deep dive” for a three minute piece of music!

For the third time, I’ve just had the extreme privilege of collaborating with co-worker and pal Neven Mrgan, and Australian and pal Matt Comi, who make really fun iOS games via Big Bucket.

First I made some NES chip tune good stuff for The Incident, which you can listen to over here! Then I made some quasi-orchestral-retro-dramatic music for Space Age, which you can read about here!

Now Matt and Neven are back with a new game, Stagehand, a kind-of reverse platformer!

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Now available on the App Store!

The Idea

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Eventually an idea showed up — a funky 70’s Muppets-Meets-Mario vibe, Koji Kondo via Paul Williams, something to recapture the spirit of playing a cheery colorful platformer but also the specific feeling I had when I bought the “Super Mario World” CD in 1991 and discovered my first real-instruments game music arrangements. There’s something really unique about “actual band plays chip tune song” and it was totally revolutionary to me at the time. You get the best of both worlds: a hummable strong melody but great instrumentation and live players. It was clear that I was going to have to write both a chip tune, and, for the first time, bring in real musicians to make this main theme.

Here’s when the Stagehand melody appeared in my brain during a walk (June 28th 2016):

Later that same day, I had a little more fleshed out. Thank you for not laughing too much at my singing-memo style:

And then as soon as I got home, I had the bridge figured out and played out a more complete sketch:

One absolutely critical vibe test remained… how did it hold up as a ragtime piano piece?


Ok! The idea was solid! Time to make the demonuts.

The Demo

The next step was to sit down in Logic (which is an incredible app that Apple doesn’t get enough credit for, same for Music Memos!) and try to capture the spirit of what I was hearing in my head.

Here’s what came out:

I used Famitracker for the opening NES bit. But since Stagehand was way more of a 16-bit game than an 8-bit game, I also took two cracks at alternate beginnings.

Here’s an opening that should sound like Sega Genesis:

And here’s one where I tried a SNES intro:

What I decided with both of these is that you lose the “wow” factor of transitioning from chip tune to arrangement. When the instruments sound better, that leap sounds weaker. So, NES-style it was!

The Arrangement

Now here’s where things get interesting (to me).

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

But after a brief period of feeling hopeless, I decided to ask for help from the first man who came to mind: Christopher Willis. I’m a fan, you see. Chris is, I think, is one of the best composers in the business today — his musical mastery truly shines in the new Mickey Mouse shorts.

Chris, to his incredible credit, actually responded to an out-of-the-blue e-mail from an amateur mega-rando such as myself. And although Chris was extremely busy — he also currently scores Veep, The Lion Guard, and more — he was kind enough to pass along the name of someone he thought could do the job: Joe Sanders.

IMG_0403.JPGAnd boy howdy, Joe made it happen. Joe is an up-and-coming composer in L.A. and was enthusiastic and excited about this job. He didn’t hesitate to jump in, and better still, he could do it all — from arranging the song to scheduling the recording. I sent him my demo, explained what I was going for and the structure of the song, and Joe took it from there.

Here’s what Joe came back with!

I had a few notes, but overall I think Joe really understood the spirit of the song and put together a phenomenal arrangement. (There’s a good chance Matt may still actually prefer this version of the song!)

The Recording

This is where my head splits open because it was so incredible. I’ll let these two tweets do the talking:

It was just incredible. Despite never seeing this song before, these musicians played the piece perfectly on their first take, which I realize is standard professional behavior but never fails to blow me away. We’d get a second or third take just to have bits to choose from. It was amazing to watch it happen.

The least I can do is thank them all. Here’s who played on Stagehand:

Violins
Lauren Estevez
Korina Davis
Emma McAllister
Hannah Yim
Madeline Falcone
Horns
Matt Mattera (Trumpet)
Garett Dahl (Tenor Sax)
Patrick Lenertz (Trombone)
Rhythm
Emilio Tello (Banjo)
Emilio Tello (Guitar)
Nick Ornelas (Bass)
Eric Hagstrom (Drums)

Recording by Peter Guinta and Seth Wiese at Sanctus Sound Recording in Long Beach, CA. And arranged, of course, by Joe Sanders at http://www.joesandersmusic.com!

The Finished Song

And so, the Stagehand song is now complete!

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I hope this song keeps you going and bobbing your head as you navigate those tricky-ass platforms. And it’s OK if you get sick of it after a while, it is only three minutes long.

It’s now available on the iTunes Store for only $0.99, which will help fund my future music goofs, and allowing you to keep listening when the Apple Music servers finally shut down on October 2037!

It’s also on your favorite streaming services, I’m pretty sure — Apple Music, Spotify, etc.

I hope you enjoy it. Thank you so much for listening and reading. Until the next project!