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My audacious adventures of music and sound effects

My highs and lows as I try and make my own music and sound effects for the first time.
So far, each week of indie game development has been filled with challenges unlike any I've ever encountered before, each one just as exciting, complicated and puzzling as the last. How much new information can I cram into my brain? So far it seems to be coping, although I've begun to worry that I'll forget how to do the thing I've just learnt if I dare move onto something else.
 
Saying this, I shifted my focus from Inkscape and Gimp this week (I'm a little closer, but still a way off from being novice-level in either) to Audacity, a free, open-source audio editing programme, that I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with. If you're not and want to make your own sound-effects and music, I definitely would recommend it to start you off. It's pretty easy to get your head around and you can turn something that sounds like it's been recorded in your spare room by someone balancing a variety of glasses on a chair to something that sounds passably professional. 
 
My task: to create music and sound effects to make Cavian come alive, connecting the player with the environment and character. Currently, it feels like the game is in a vacuum and you're walking around in a disembodied state. Music and sound-effects are vital in driving the story and its emotions. It's critical that everything sounds just right. Getting it just right proved to be a lot harder than expected. 
 
I set up the spare room like I meant business. Up until this point I'd been using a couple of chairs to balance the laptop and myself, with the microphone sandwiched in the middle, but since I would be spending hours at a time in here this wasn't ideal. So we took the table from downstairs (making it look even more like we haven't moved into our house) and set up James' laptop in the corner of the room. Then I set about collecting items to make sound-effects. I became obsessed with tapping glasses, crumpling rubbish and making little screeching noises. The spare room soon became full of random items, most of it actual rubbish. Half empty bags of cat litter, tea towels, vases and empty chocolate wrappers lined the floor and it was feeling a little claustrophobic. I was ready to start recording. But where to begin? How do you make sound-effects sound realistic? I watched videos about Foley artists (really funny and worth checking out on YouTube) and realised that these people had dedicated their life to this art. I looked sheepishly at my crisp wrappers and forks. How would I compare? 
 
First I wrote a list of all the possible effects Cavian would need. I started with character-related sounds like walking, chirping, flapping, landing and taking-off. Then there were trickier concepts; the ambient sound of the cave environment and melodies to accompany important in-game moments. My imagination ran wild but I soon found out I was limited by the capabilities of the equipment, space and objects I had to work with. Much as we'd love to, we don't have the funds to hire an orchestra. I read several articles on creating sound-effects. Some of them were not entirely practical. Simply recording the noise of the car radiator would be all well and good if we owned a car and a portable microphone. We just couldn't afford to purchase all the dustbins, chains and tile cutters the articles talked of. We'd just have to make do what we had. And that was mainly rubbish. 
 
Walking was the first effect I tried. What sound does a bird make when walking in a cave? I wasn't sure there'd be too many YouTube examples available. I opted for a bit of improvisation. First I tried tapping out a two-beat rhythm on a drum, which proved far too hollow and really loud. Hmmm. Next I tried tapping a pencil on a chair. Too clicky. It would've been good if the main character was a type-writer. How about scraping my hand around the bottom of a bag of cat litter? I now had a perfect impression of a goat eating. This was far harder than I expected. Every sound I recorded was also accompanied by a large amount of ambient noise which meant that the noise removal effect became my most essential tool. It worked to a certain extent, but also removed a portion of the desired sound too, making it sound slightly different to the original. Altering pitch and amplitude worked to some degree. I became infuriatingly obsessed with the effects menu, altering the recording by a tiny increment each time. It was such a meticulous process and it drove me mad. I soon moved on from walking as I wasn't getting anywhere; the best I came up with sounded just like a wood-pecker. I needed to hear some actual birds walking. I began to wonder if birds actually walked. 
 
I quickly moved on to ambient sounds. These proved to be much more fun. I discovered (through the incessant eating of chocolate) that 'popping candy' makes a good crackling noise which could be used for fire or water bubbling. I discovered a kettle boiling sounds like a cement mixer (not that useful, but still amusing). Perhaps it's our speakers or mic, but It seems that things don't sound the same once recorded and played in Audacity. I thought about the sort of ambient sounds which would suit the environment. Up until now we've been using a sinister placeholder, full of crackles and howling wind which makes the whole experience feel really eerie. Wanting something more magical, I looked to images of fantasy caves for inspiration. I collected an odd assortment of vases, mini ceramic jugs, wine glasses and tumblers, which I filled with water. We'd observed that dripping water is the most common ambient cave sound. First of all I created drips by splashing my hand at intervals into a vase. Once recorded, I put some reverb and echo into the mix (these fast became my favourite effects and since we're working with caves, it worked out pretty well). The drips were good, but the sound still needed more depth. I hit record and tried tapping the assortment of glasses and ceramics with a pencil. Hmmm, that sounded like an impending tornado. I imagined a ferocious wind making chimes collide violently. I spaced out the ceramic and glass chimes, making the sound sparser and selected reverb again. That sounded more like it. A little more magical, at least. I started experimenting with other sounds. I looked at the ukelele. Maybe that would work over the top? I couldn't play well, if at all, but thought I'd just wing it and managed to come up with a simple but intriguing picking sequence. I placed it over the top of the ambient chimes and drips. Now that sounded really nice! Next, I improvised some singing over the top and worked out a few simple harmonies. Good, but not perfect. It just needed some echo and reverb... I was really happy with the final result. It's only 38 seconds but it's a start. At least it doesn't sound like a cement mixer!
 
It's an ongoing process, full of steps in all sorts of directions and I'll be writing more about our progress soon. Until then, I wish you luck in all your sound-effect and music creation adventures! 

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