Space Age: The Music

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When I was 15, I used my Amiga and a copy of SoundTracker to write the music for a local educational video produced by the Port of Portland (“Captain Duke’s ImPORTant Adventure!”). I attended the premiere of the video in a conference room at Portland International Airport and it was pretty thrilling. My music used a bunch of drum samples I took from the mod file from the Bitmap Brothers game Gods. The Oregonian living section actually wrote an article about this, which of course teenage-me was mortified about, titled “Self-taught musician ingenious composer”. (Warning: cool guy alert.)

“Sasser is seriously thinking about following in the footsteps of the movie and video game composers he admires”, the article concluded.

22 years later:

The Space Age Soundtrack

Yes, Space Age (Original Game Soundtrack) is now available on iTunes. 65 tracks of original music, mostly from each of the game’s unique cutscenes but also all the necessary bits: title screen, pause music, and some surprises.

It’s also available on BandCamp where you can name-your-own-price.

Here, have a listen:

 

About The Music

A number of years ago I wrote the music to The Incident, Neven Mrgan and Matt Comi’s last iOS game. When Neven started to tell me about their next game, Space Age — which comes out this Thursday and is going to be amazing — I think I wanted to do more. The game would still have a retro pixel-art vibe, but I wanted the music to feel more cinematic, to play against the limited graphics. I wanted to try to take the elaborate music that’s always in my head and attempt to actually make it real.

I got to work. Don’t get me wrong — I’m an amateur, and this is amateur work. But I was ready.

What’s it sound like? Modern film score meets 70’s synths meets 50’s sci-fi cheese meets Lucasarts PC CD-ROM meets EPCOT center, kind-of?

The first half of the album is basically me getting my musical footing. About half way through I started to give each chapter a distinct personality and melody and character. By the end of the album a lot of different things have happened and it should be enjoyable.

Most importantly: it’s all about melody for me. It’s all about being memorable. It’s all about feeling things while you listen to these tracks and remember your thrilling space adventure.

The Tools

Put simply, I use:

  • GarageBand
  • All of the extra GarageBand instruments, and I mean all of them (I install these instruments from within Logic Pro X)
  • A 88-key M-Audio Keystation USB MIDI Controller
  • A sustain pedal
  • An Apogee One to drive my headphones and monitor speakers
  • My dining room table

A couple tracks used some bonus instruments — an incredible Teenage Engineering OP-1 for one spooky synth sound, some old and incredible Optigan organ loops for a certain sequence, and Matt played a little live banjo on one track!

(Why GarageBand? Frankly, it does everything I need. It’s exactly Logic Pro X these days but with a set of advanced features removed, and none of those features were important to what I do. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how to define arpeggios, so I just played them all by hand.)

Some more production notes: the album was mastered by Timothy Stollenwerk at Stereophonic Mastering. He did an incredible job making my tracks album-ready. I used TuneCore to upload the album to all the digital services — it’s not the best, and I wanted to use Distrokid, but their “number of tracks” pop-up had a maximum of 50!? (Support suggested I split the album into two volumes?!)

So basically, this was my life:

work

Put simply, I’d create a blank file in GarageBand, do File > Movie > Open Movie… and load in a MP4 video of a cutscene that Matt provided. GarageBand handles movies really well, and as you scrub through your music the movie also scrubs in sync. The biggest problem with this approach is where to put the floating movie window on screen, because it is always in the way.

I’d scroll to the beginning of the movie, drop in a piano track, and hit Record.

Then I’d just play whatever my mind created as I watched.

Then I would do it again, and a couple more times. Then I would add a few more instruments based on what I heard. Then I would edit out a section. Then I would add more instruments. And eventually I’d be done and move on to the next one.

The biggest challenge by far: I have a day job that uses up about 99% of my brain power, and a great family at home that I want to spend time with, and it was really hard to find time to actually do this. It was a lot more than I expected. My wife exhibited superhuman amounts of patience with me.

For a brief period of time I moved my music setup into the office and stayed late every day…

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…but ultimately I fell into a great groove: I’d work in the morning after dropping Joby off at school, and I’d work at night after the family went to bed.

Thank you family. Thank you wife. 

I’m really proud of how it all turned out. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever created personally that doesn’t make me cringe.

And Then, The Rocketship X-T

There’s one track on the album that’s a little bit… different.

(We are entering SPOILER country. Don’t read this section if you intend to finish Space Age!)

In The Incident, I wrote a goofy surprise vocal track that was designed to throw the player off of their “oh this is just NES music” comfort zone.

For Space Age, I wanted to write another goofy surprise vocal track. I thought maybe we could do something after the credits, something reminiscent of my favorite NES games where the credits felt like a happy tour through your journey. I thought it’d be fun to write a faux “propaganda song”, like a jolly, rousing musical number from a wartime film. Something to get the boys and girls at home fired up about America. But except for America, a rocketship.

So I sent this to Neven and Matt:

It was fun, and funny, and we started to plug it into the game and talk about what to do visually.

But… I wanted more.

In my head this needed to be jazzy and swingy and really blow the doors off the whole game. It needed to end with a bang and some horns. Again, I could hear it in my head. But how could I make it real…

A few weeks later, I sent the following video to Neven and Matt, totally out of the blue:

Surprise! iMessage reaction was swift:

ichatNow we’re cookin’.

The song felt “real”.

How did this super-special recording come to be? Deep breath: years ago when Panic was working on a thing for Disney I was looking for local Big Bands and found the Bureau of Standards. Nicole and I went to their show (it was awesome) and I met James M Gregg, their affable and talented bandleader. That project didn’t work out but I knew our paths would cross in the future. Once I wrote the Propaganda demo and felt it was pretty good I e-mailed him and he jumped on the project with gusto. He suggested we get Bo Ayars, who also lives in Portland, to do the band arrangement. Bo, just so you know, spent 13 years as Liberace’s musical director. Yes, sold, amazing. I used GarageBand’s automatic notation feature to create (bad) sheet music of the demo. Bo’s turned the full arrangement around in lightning time and produced all the sheet music for each player. James in turn brought in a team of crack musicians, including Kat Cogswell to do the lead vocals — that’s James and myself singing the counterpoint — and he booked a studio (Dead Aunt Thelma’s), and we all met up on a Sunday and laid this thing down, track by track, musician after musician, amazement by amazement.

It was my first time in a recording studio. It was my first time having musicians play music and lyrics I had written. It was… exhilarating.

How did it all turn out? You’ll have to play the game or get the soundtrack and find out! ugh

Thank You For Listening

I really appreciate Neven and Matt giving me this opportunity to push myself. When I finished, I realized this is the culmination of a life’s dream. I had forgotten about the Oregonian article when I was 15 until the album first showed up in iTunes and I lost my mind.

It’s real. I got there. It took me a while, but I finally got there.

I hope you enjoy it!

(Space Age Original Game Soundtrack is now available on iTunes. Or, if you don’t use iTunes, it’s also available on BandCamp.)

One thought on “Space Age: The Music

  1. Thanks for the juicy behind-the-scenes! Have many fond memories of studying others’ MOD files and tracking my own (badly).

    Is there any chance you’d be into maybe releasing one of your GarageBand files as well? I teach the app in a middle school lab, and it would be awesome to demo the work of a professional for once (and I think they’d really dig this style).

    We’ve got all the JamPacks, but I guess if there are custom hardware synth sounds in all the tracks, then maybe that wouldn’t translate at all. But just thought I’d check.🙂

    cheers,
    john

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