Making Musical Horror
Updated: Nov 29, 2018
For the project I'm currently working I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to compose music for it. The project is to create sound designs for a game level environment and a video trailer that walks through this environment. To make the sound design process easier for me would would be implementing these sounds into the video first then the game as to get a better understanding of how everything is going to fit together. This process really helped with the composition of the music track I will be discussing.
As per the track teardown I did a couple of blogs ago which you can view here if you haven't already https://www.ryanvaneerde.com/blog/track-teardown-amnesia-the-dark-descent, my main reference and influence for the sound design aspects is a game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game perfectly encapsulates the aesthetics that I want produce with my music track for this project, below I have a couple of soundtracks from the game that show aspects of the music I wanted to reproduce myself.
This track has a menacing and dissonant sound which is something really wanted to try and recreate in my track.
This track focuses more on low end ambience which is what I wanted as the main base sound of my track.
I have never composed an atmospheric horror track like this before or composed a track purely with synths so having these references assisted a lot throughout my process.
The basic workflow that I used was very free form meaning that I didn't use a specific key, tempo, and meter everything that I composed was done by what sounded good to me and how it fitted to the video. I used the synth Xpand!2 for all of the instruments in this track because it has a wide variety of preset synth sounds that allow me to get stuck into the composition of the track without having to spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to create synth sounds myself. These presets can also be blended together to produce more interesting sounds producing a more dynamic and fuller tone overall, it's also native to Pro Tools which means I don't have to purchase other synths.
Below is an image of Xpand!2.
Like other synths it has envelope controls and pitch tuning options but with the added bonus of FX as well. For people like me who just want to get on with making music this synth is really user friendly with its number of presets and its few controllable options. There isn't much opportunity though to do things like subtractive synthesis in this software to produce sounds that are more unique and creative to yourself, there are basic sine, saw, square, and triangle waves but because of its limit options its not as good at doing those tasks as other dedicated subtractive synths.
In total I only used 5 tracks to produce the song but like in the image above with the choir sound all of the tracks have multiple patches to form the thick and eerie sound I wanted for the project.
Below is and image of the midi programming I for the 5 instrument tracks.
As you can see most of the notes I have used are really long and drawn out I did this because I didn't want the track to have a discernible pace or sections to follow along too as to make the listener not know and anticipate whats coming next. This is all done to make it sound as disorientating as possible to further enhance the horror aspects of the video.
The first thing I started with was the Bass Synth as it was going to be the foundation of the whole piece. To really get that horror vibe that I liked some much in the Amnesia reference tracks I used the Big Soft Strings preset in Xpand2 which produces a sad and mellow sound, I then pitched it done an octave which gave me the low end feel I was looking for. It was still missing something though so I experimented with blending in a couple of other patches until I found one that rounded out the sound more to my liking and make it more menacing, which was achieved by a soft pad sound that I also pitched down an octave.
After I got the sound of the Bass Synth right I composed a basic progression to act as the underlying tonality for the track providing me with a direction in which to construct and compose the other instruments.
The next 3 tracks in my session, Choir, Ring Synth, and Eerie Echo Synth, acted as the melody for the song. I tried to compose these tracks roughly at the same time as to make them work together better to produce dissonant harmonies around the different sections of the video. My main goal was for each of the tracks to have their own presence and character that adds to the horror atmosphere produced by the Bass Synth.
I wanted the Choir track to have a haunting sound making it feel very unsettling. To do this I layered 4 different choir patches and fine tuned the pitch of the last 3 to make them slightly out of tune with each other. This again makes the whole track more dissonant increasing the horror vibe.
The synth has a number of different choir sounds and tonalities such as Aah's, Ooh's, and Eeh's, but I found the Aah's to be the creepiest thus being the best for my project. I also panned the last 2 patches left and right to produce a more interesting stereo presence.
The Eerie Echo Synth was purposely made to complement the Choir track with stringed instrument sounds. I wanted the track to have a similar tonality to the Choirs but a different enough character with as to still be distinguishable form one another. I got 2 stringed pad patches as the main sounds for the track, panned them slightly left and right from each other and fine tuned them out of pitch (this process was working for me so far so I kept with it). To add some more atmosphere to this track I added an ambience FX patch which basically sounds like an eerie echo, why because I want the whole thing to sound as eerie as possible.
The Ring Synth track was created to be an ambient FX sound that acts more like background noise to sonically fill up the soundtrack. The main patch used has a very metallic sound that modulates in volume and pitch slightly producing somewhat of a ringing sound (hence why I called it Ring Synth). What I like about this patch is it works well to break up the monotony of the other instruments and provides a little bit of movement in the track, its also tonally very different from the other instruments because it has this more synthetic metallic sound. Though this patch serves a good purpose by itself there's always room to make it even better, to do this I mixed in a soft sounding lead synth and panpipes. Again these 2 patches are tuned slightly out of pitch from each other as to make the whole track more dissonant and they are not mixed in with the main patch too high as not to make the track sound overly cluttered.
The very last instrument track is a low tuned timpani drum that I use sporadically in certain areas to make the song a little more interesting and add some dynamics to and low end punch. The main artistic goal was to make it sound large and very low end heavy that sounds almost like a heart beat. I got this idea from when I did the Amnesia track teardown where the composer used drums to a similar effect. To create this sound I used the deepest sounding percussion instrument in Xpand2, pitch shifted it down as low as I could, low passed filtered and boosted the low end, chucked on a limiter to make it louder then mixed in a bit of reverb.
So that's all of the different elements and sounds that have gone into making my first horror music track. I believe I did a good job as I have never done something like this before, it fits the purpose I set out to achieve with it which is to enhance the horror feel/tone of the video and game environment. I know that it works in the video so all I have to do now is get it into the game and hope it produces the same effect, otherwise this process would not have been as useful as expected.