Jack Menhorn

Sound Designer

Jack Menhorn is Sound Designer for video games. Also Editor in Chief at DesigningSound.org and a panelist on Game Audio Hour

The Cosmic Soundscape of Nova-111

Nova-111 is a "sci-fi turn-based adventure game with an innovative twist of real-time action."

I did the music and sound effects for it over the course of roughly three years and I am super proud of what has been accomplished during that time. The game started as a side project for everyone involved and slowly morphed into an award winning title that is out for almost every current console as well as PC/Mac.

The soundtrack album is now available on streaming services as well as iTunesAmazonGoogle, Steam, and Loudr.  So I thought I'd chat about the sound of Nova-111!

Before Nova-111 was started I had already worked on a few small projects with Funktronic Lab's founder Eddie Lee. We met through TIGForums when he was looking for a "go to audio guy" for a small side project he was working on. I didnt pay much attention to his credentials when I fired off a "sure ill help you out" email. Little did I know he was working at Q-Games on Pixeljunk 4AM at the time! We made funktronic 3000 together and then went on to make Kyoto which certainly opened up a lot of doors for me.

So a little while later (or before, hard to remember specifics!) we started on Nova-111 as just a fun little rogue-like.

Eddie showed me some sketches and screenshots with some cool art from Michael Hussinger and with some reference tunes in mind; I started working on Nova-111 which I would then continue working on and off for the next ~3 years.

MUSIC

Making music for Nova-111 has been the easiest project I have ever composed for. The feedback I typically have gotten from Eddie and Kalin has been: "oh that would sound cool for this world" or "I dont know about that but lets try it!". It has been an incredibly frictionless process which is a real treat.

Tools - Music

Given the long process of working on this project, my tools and in fact my entire career-focus has changed since when I began. When I started I was exclusively using Logic X for both music and sound design. At the time I had only made sound effects for a few projects and was transitioning as a composer to more of a composer/sound designer, (whereas now I see myself as 95% sound designer who does 5% composing when it fits my limited interests and capabilities).

I have been making sound for games for almost 9 years now and in the beginning Logic 8/9/X was a wonderful and stable tool. But as I progressed in my career I found myself gravitating to Ableton Live for music creation not just because of the great toolset but also how my own taste in music composing shifted from rock/orchestral to interactive ambient electronic. 

A big reason for the transition to Live is because of my need to compose interactive music. The clip view in Ableton (when paired with a grid controller like a Push or Launchpad) allows for quick and easy auditioning of different clips in real-time as though the music is being controlled by gameplay. If you want to have a bed of drums and bass with piano coming in sporadically based on game events you can test that in Live very quickly, by triggering these cells/clips as one-off events synced to the beat. Whereas in a traditional linear DAW you have to copy/paste regions in for a less than ideal faking of the situation. This approach in Live of setting up small clips and playing back how they "could" sound in the game led to how they eventually would.  

Clip of a Nova-111 track in Ableton Live

Clip of a Nova-111 track in Ableton Live

Design - Music

Nova-111 uses a simple 3-layer dynamic music system based on how many enemies on are close by. If there are 0 enemies close then only the Base Layer 0 plays. This is usually some bass and pads with possibly some melodies played every once and a while. If there is 1 enemy close by then the Tension Layer 1 fades in over top of Base Layer 0  with some light percussion and maybe another harmony element. If things are getting real and there are 2+ enemies on the screen then Tension Layer 2 fades in over top of the other two layers with some heavier percussion (usually Euclidean based) and more harmony elements. In some cases the Tension Layer 2 will fade out Layers 0 and parts of 1 but that is on a per track basis and can be heard more in World 3 where the music is a bit "stranger" and there is bigger contrast between Layers 0 and 2.

All in all the music for Nova-111 is made of of small simple loops that gain movement and interest from the dynamics of gameplay. If the player sitting around not moving or near enemies, the music will stay pretty chill and hopefully unobtrusive. If the player is moving around a lot the music should have nice ups and downs like any normal track while at the same time hinting and influencing the players behaviour by letting them know enemies are near. It may be a little bit "video game-y" to have the music fade in and out based on enemies being close but I really really don't care because this is a video game. I intentionally wanted Nova-111 to sound like a video game, which is something I will discuss more when we get to sound effects.

The music was also made in short, simple loops for pragmatic reasons. As an indie game that was potentially going to be (and is going to be) on a handheld console; performance and memory was an issue. So instead of writing 5+ minute long looping tracks that would take up precious memory; I felt we could take advantage of our audio engine FMOD Studio and have the engine take these fragments and turn them into the song much like Ableton Live had when I first composed the tracks. Additionally: given the relative inexperience of all of us devs involved; I did not want to make a complex music system that would bite the project down the road due to design, memory, size, or performance reasons. I feel like we made the right choice, although now I know we would have been able to handle a system much more complex even if the game didn't warrant it.

Due to the fiscal realities of an indie studio porting the game to multiple consoles; FMOD Studio is only used for the PC/Mac versions. PC/Mac were the ones I had direct involvement in and am looking forward to hearing how great of an admittedly difficult job Funktronic Labs and porting developer Curve Studios did moving the audio over to consoles.

SFX

The sound design in Nova-111 was also a real treat because again; I had free reign to make whatever I wanted (with some light direction and revision suggestions of course).

Design - SFX

Like I alluded to before; I wanted the sound effects to sound like a video game. By this I don't mean annoyingly repetitive, lo-fi, of "bleepy". I wanted the sounds to be clear, enjoyable, iconic, and read well. I am a big fan of Japanese sound design in Mega Man X, Final Fantasy, and Mario games and I have an interest in sound design in anime. In all those cases the sound design is simple, with few (if any) variation, and an emphasis on sounding cool and reading clearly. 

With Nova I focused on having just 1 cool sound for each action and either: breaking it into pieces and adding independent pitch variation on each part, or just pitch/volume variation on the single asset. Some sounds that will get heard a bunch like rock explosions, impacts, fire explosions, and damage glitches there is a lot more asset variation. But I always wanted a chomper enemy to sound like a chomper enemy so the player has a clear read on what is happening. Additionally; time, space, and performance were factors in deciding which elements should get more variations vs others. But ultimately it came down to if the game would feel better with more or less of the varied sounds and I think variation does not always equal a better experience.

At the beginning of the project I also focused on the ship; the Nova-111 having mechanical non-organic sounds and all the enemies having organic sounds. Most enemies are made up of fruit squishes, my voice, bubbles, and other non-metal sounds. Whereas the Nova-111 and its abilities are all metallic, synthetic, or in some way "not squishy". This philosophy shifted slightly when we added some more robotic/inorganic obstacles/enemies but even in these cases there are some organic elements to those creatures.

Some of my favorite sounds are also some of the simplest. When the ship bumps into walls is the sound of me hitting an old dishwasher with a sledgehammer (with a decent amount of compression and limiting). I don't really know how it made a "boo-WUP" sound but it is there and I feel like it is the more iconic sounds of Nova-111. 

There are quite a few sounds in the game that came from my toilet. Or specifically bubbles from my toilet.  Sometimes when my washing machine was running it would make bubbles come up out of my toilet that were really nice and clear with not a lot of unnecessary coloring of the sound. These"terlet bubbles" were used as an element in a good bit of sounds including the Nova-111's shield, enemy wobbles, text popups, and other UI elements.

For my source I tried as much as possible to get my own sounds rather than rely on my libraries. Since the audio was my "baby" I wanted it to sound unique to me. This wasn't always the case as I dont have access to explosions so I had to use libraries and I dont have a horse or do a good horse impression so the horse scientist is a horse sample. 

Most of the other animals are me, my girlfriend Vanessa, or an actual animal recording of my dog, my cat, or a noisy parrot at the zoo I was at and happened to have my recorder with me (the best recorder is the one you have with you!). I couldnt find a good gorilla recording and didn't want to do a silly gorilla imitation so when you rescue a gorilla scientist you are greeted by a fart sound.

That said: "library sound" isn't a dirty term to me. Use what works, not what strokes your recordist ego. Many sounds in Nova-111 come from a library and might even be recognizable to a sharp ear, but it doesn't matter if the sound works. Except for the wilhelm scream, that sound never works and should never ever be used. Seriously. Stop it.

Tools - SFX

When I started on Nova-111 I had also recently started using Reaper for sound design. Earlier projects with Eddie/Funktronic I had still been using Logic X for sound effects. But by the time of Nova, I had seen the light of track parenting and moved onto Reaper.

For Nova-111 all of my sound design is actually in just 2 Reaper projects with ~500+ tracks each. While a bit scary to have all the data for a project in 2 potentially corruptible files (don't worry, Time Machine, cloned drives, and cloud backup have me covered), and its also a beast to load but it is very useful and quick to have all the sounds related to an object, or enemy, in the same place to compare and draw from. Also it is useful to compare very different sounds and make sure they feel correct in the same world and tweak one or both quickly.

Reaper itself shaped a lot of sound in the game just due to one little feature: pitch envelopes. Quickly being able to draw a sound going up and down in pitch (while retaining the same timing rather than slowing down or speeding up) has very useful in getting many of the synthetic sounds in Nova-111. Usually this feature wouldn't be very useful for "natural" sounds as pitching them up 24 semitones over the course of half a second sounds very unnatural. But for many of the cartoony bumps and swipe-type actions it proved to give just the right effect.

I wont get too deep into what I used for plugins as its boring to 90% of the people reading this but Alloy 2, Soundtoys, and grudgingly some Waves were all the main components of the design. In many cases however my chains where small and concise. 14 plugins each on 14 tracks might look cool but it probably doesn't sound cool. Good source comes first (see above).

OST

The soundtrack release for Nova-111 has been a bit of an odd experience.  While I have released other soundtracks before; I have never had to recompose such interactive tracks into a linear format. Most tracks only exist completely assembled in FMOD Studio and the Ableton Live sessions look more like a cursing bomb went off (I may or may not use swears for track names). So recently with what little time I have outside of working at Boss Key Productions; I have been trying to find a good balance between what the track sounds like in the game, and what will make sense in 3-5 minutes.

My goal with the soundtrack was not to represent each track with its "perfect" version but to give an example of how the track might sound over the course of a few minutes of gameplay. In some cases I have rearranged the track to have more of a song format, but on the whole I have simply tried to capture the "chill" feel of the music.

Because of my hectic work schedule and my intense desire to not do it myself: I have had my good friend and Canadian Viking: Matthew Marteinsson mix the album. Matt has been (at the time of writing) an absolute darling and trooper in helping me work in this soundtrack while I have been doing some of the good 'ol crunch.

My hope is the soundtrack will be well received and if there is enough interest I can call upon some talented people to make a remix album that I may also include some further reimagining of these tracks.

OK, lets wrap this up

This game is also my first shipped title on a Nintendo console. As someone born the year the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in North America; Nintendo has been ever-present and to me synonymous with video games as well as my childhood in general. Having a game on a Nintendo console is a career achievement!

So that is my way too long article about making sounds for Nova-111.  You can find out more about the game here.

The album is available on streaming services as well as iTunesAmazonGoogleSteam, and Loudr. Feel free to buy it more than once, I won't mind.

With that I will leave you with the last track that you will hear during a playthrough in Nova-111. "End", which is actually the first track I composed for the game, and helped set the style for all the 14+ tracks to come after it:

For those not aware I also help out on DesigningSound.org which is a website of news, reviews, interviews, and other sorts of articles about sound design in film, tv, games, and beyond. Check it out if thats your thing.

Also peep out my employer Boss Key Productions.  We are cooking up some rad stuff you might have heard about recently.

Mid 2015 Update

Side-effect of working at Boss Key Productions is my incapability to keep this updated.  Having a blast tho.

Things that happened:

Lemma came out. I did some sound design and music for it. Game is here and soundtrack is here.



I did the music/most sfx for MicRogue which finally came out.

Robots Need Love Too (which I did music/sfx for) is now totally free.

 

 

I got a tattoo of a shamrock in memory of my brother. It was designed by my girlfriend Vanessa Y Nichols and inked by my old friend Justin Pope


also:


Nova-111 is coming out soonish. HOLD ONTO YOUR BUTTS.


Robots.