Making Sound for The Shining When You Don’t Know Anything About Sounds

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I guess this is intended to be a “process post” about making the sounds and music in Let’s Play: The Shining, but it has the special(?) quality of being about a subject I know very, very little about. So really it’s about muddling through the sounds needed for a game like this, and how I managed despite my deficiencies. I can still imagine it being helpful, though, to those of you who are similarly at sea with sounds/music yet are simultaneously determined to do it themselves. So.

The easiest sounds were in the category of “anything I can make in bfxr“, because that’s a truly great piece of software for you if the kinds of sounds it makes fit in with your game aesthetic. If you haven’t used bfxr before, you’re missing out – frankly, even if you don’t make games it’s a lot of fun to click around in. It has some pre-established categories (like “laser” or “hurt”) that put together a “kind” of sound, and then you can tweak an impressive array of buttons and sliders to fit it to what you want. I generally find myself doing a lot of tweaking, but I suspect it’s at least half because I want to feel like I exerted creative agency, more than that I’m improving the sound. Most importantly, it’s a tool that gives you a “draft” sound more or less instantly, which is always the hardest bit. The tweaking is then like a little game of itself as you search for the “right sound” of whatever you’re doing (a baseball bat swinging, a head being hit, a ball being caught).

The hardest sound effect for me was the sound of Danny’s tricycle when it’s on a non-carpeted floor. The sound of the tricycle is an iconic part of the movie, so it had to sound at least evocative of that. To make that sound (which let me say up front I don’t think worked perfectly at all) I used Audacity, because I wanted something that would loop. So began an appalling process of combining different generated tones to try to make something approximating the tricycle on hard flooring (that is, something that would sound like that would sound in a game, so a kind of second order thing). As I said, I don’t think I got it right, but it was kind of fun playing with different frequencies of saw waves and square waves and sine waves overlaid. I found something, but then got feedback that it sounded too low, so started from scratch and made something a bit higher but with a lower tone in the background. All in all it was a great insight into how freaky-smart sound/music people must actually be, given their ability to construct these sorts of sounds with some confidence and naturalness.

Finally there’s the music. In a sense this was “easy” because the music already exists. I spent a fair while trying to piece together the opening theme on the keyboard in Garage Band and got close, but managed to have it in the wrong key (I’m not a pianist). Then I realised that this is the kind of thing you can look up online and found the notes nicely written down. The closing song (Midnight, the Stars, and You by Al Bowlly) was a bit harder because it proved difficult to find the melody written down anywhere (I did find guitar chords). Eventually I solved this when I found someone playing the tune on YouTube with a top-down view of their fingers on the piano and transcribed the notes manually. With the notes established I used Terry Cavanagh’s excellent little music tool Bosca Ceoil to actually sequence it. This did involve a slight “misuse” of Terry’s program, which isn’t designed for melodies of this kind (it’s more for looping music, which it’s great at), but it was fine to break the melody into chunks that fit into Bosca Ceoil’s “patterns”.

Then it was just a matter of choosing an instrument. I started off being a purist about only using classic waveforms (saw, sine, square), but actually ended up using “Triangle Lo-Fi”, which has a warmer sound to it, for the closing theme, and then decided to just use that for the opening as well. Part of “being able” to use that instrument (which sounds ‘nicer’) was all tied up in that same struggle to establish within myself that I wasn’t making an authentically Atari-style game and could thus afford go more for things that felt right for the game/movie rather than for the imagined platform. Weird problem to have, but it’s a real one.

Anyway, that’s how the game sounds the way it does. Hopefully it’s vaguely novel to see how someone a bit inept struggles through and gets (what I think is) a pretty okay result!

18 April 2015
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