DarkEco

I need to know if this is normal...

21 posts in this topic

I'm studying game audio at university (3rd year). I've just come out of my final presentation for this semester, where my game team and I demonstrated our work so far on the project and our aims for the next semester. Our group was the 4th last to present and I was told that my audio presentation was stellar and the best they had seen this year. They had no complaints whatsoever.

I've never felt more undeserving of anything in my life.

I feel like everything I've created has been a complete fluke. All the ideas I somehow managed to fabricate couldn't be replicated if I tried my hardest. I have no recollection of how anything really happened apart from a bit of genre and instrumentation research in the first few weeks. I first started learning audio production in my spare time about 6 years ago. 6 fucking years. Yet I still feel like I can't truly write music, my mixes are substandard, and if I showed any work to an audio professional I would be laughed at. I'm objectively worse at writing music than about 80% of this community, i'm sure of it. I've felt the exact same at the end of every project. This isn't just for music composition, but also sound design. I've learned a fair bit of theory that I've been able to creep into my creation process when needed, but never actually been able to write something from theory if that makes sense.

I understand that plenty of great music is written with zero theory knowledge, but I need a structure, something that will make me know that i'm learning and not just generating happy accidents. I need certainty that if i'm given a brief, I will be able to write music for it. I feel like i'm working excessive hours to come up with something a professional composer could write in minutes. I just have no idea where to begin with this. Theory and composition feels so horizontal, rather than a vertical progression. I need a foolproof process that will make me a better composer. I want to be able to feel like compliments are deserved, instead of feeling like i'm somehow drowning.

 

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I feel you, man. My stuff is meandering, lazily thrown together ideas that are barely competently mixed. Every so often I make something amazing. And I'm surprised by it. Then I listen to my other stuff and feel I'll already peaked.

But I'm biased. It's the output that matters, not how confident I feel about my skills or how much time I spent on a track or what amazing techniques I used. Maybe all my good works are happy accidents. But that's okay too. With every track, the frequency (and happiness) of my accidents increases.That's what skill means. It doesn't mean you necessarily feel you know what you're doing. It means the output is good.

Practice makes pancakes. The more, the better. The better you get. And the more pancakes we get.

And if you want to grow, challenge yourself. Start making tracks that copy the structure of successful compositions. Make tracks following some specific logic, some specific structure or direction. And make more pancakes.

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2 hours ago, Rozovian said:

make more pancakes.

Damn, man. This is the closest I've ever been to getting a quote tattooed.

That was some helpful insight. My output is definitely improving every time, no question. It's just the instability of the process that gives me anxiety I guess.

 

12 minutes ago, timaeus222 said:

Maybe you could make a list of what you've learned, and brainstorm what you can work on. I did that back in the day. I kinda stopped doing it because I don't feel I've learned much new stuff lately, but here it is:

http://tproductions.comeze.com/educationallog.php

 

Y'know, that's actually a pretty solid idea. Even though they're not overly descriptive, just looking back at something like that when i'm feeling lost could be enough for me to go "Hey, I remember that thing!"

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2 hours ago, DarkEco said:

That was some helpful insight. My output is definitely improving every time, no question. It's just the instability of the process that gives me anxiety I guess.

Are you keeping yourself active with making music, or have there been long breaks where you haven't been able to do any music? Each day I try to do at least a little with something musical, whether it's sound design or actual composition, to keep my brain music-oriented. That might also help if there were times where you were forgetting some things you've learned before.

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1 hour ago, timaeus222 said:

Are you keeping yourself active with making music, or have there been long breaks where you haven't been able to do any music? Each day I try to do at least a little with something musical, whether it's sound design or actual composition, to keep my brain music-oriented. That might also help if there were times where you were forgetting some things you've learned before.

University is, between the essay writing. The approach I have right now is pretty much just starting a project and learning things along the way as the project requirements become more apparent. I'm completely incapable of sitting and saying "Today, i'm going to learn (x)", because I've no idea what I should be learning. "Get better at writing music" is pretty much all I can say to myself. It feels a bit easier with sound design. "Today, i'm going to learn how to make monsters/guns/room tones etc". Also i'll tend to start with a piece of footage for this, so it's obvious what sounds need to be made.

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17 hours ago, DarkEco said:

I understand that plenty of great music is written with zero theory knowledge

Not really, tbh. People just forgot about all the bad (VG)Music written by people who didn't know what they were doing at the time. I'd assume and hope they've improved since then, of course.

But nowadays most games have Hollywood-or-better level scores and in the 20th century, VGM offered arguably the best exercise in part-writing and counterpoint outside of neoclassical music. Good luck creating either of those style effectively without knowing your stuff. Theory being an all encompassing term for everything to do with the mechanics of music. 

Many of the successful VGM composers, new and old, that come to mind I know for a fact have master's degrees in composition and many of the ones who don't, still know all the relevant concepts that go into creating a good composition, arrangement and orchestration even if they don't know the technical terms.

The same is true in the pop world, but there it's more about how marketable the track and artist is, so a bad song can still get played a lot with the right connections and catering to the right demographic; internet has made a lot of careers in pop that previously probably wouldn't have existed so easily.

But many pop artists are, contrary to popular belief, expert composers. Behold, the composer of all of Britney and the Backstreet Boys, etc.'s 90s hits.

Max definitely knows his stuff, from funk to metal to barbershop quartets, and I doubt he'd have written so many hits (second-most in the world iirc) without theory chops.

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9 hours ago, DarkEco said:

University is, between the essay writing. The approach I have right now is pretty much just starting a project and learning things along the way as the project requirements become more apparent. I'm completely incapable of sitting and saying "Today, i'm going to learn (x)", because I've no idea what I should be learning. "Get better at writing music" is pretty much all I can say to myself. It feels a bit easier with sound design. "Today, i'm going to learn how to make monsters/guns/room tones etc". Also i'll tend to start with a piece of footage for this, so it's obvious what sounds need to be made.

That's fair. Yeah, I usually realize what I learned after-the-fact, and so, writing that down, or associating it with a particular piece of music (by reflecting on what I learned from writing that piece of music), helps me remember that technique. Even though I don't necessarily have a clear path on what I mean to learn, it tells me what my progress has been.

As for being able to write music with "zero theory knowledge", I know what you mean, but it's probably ambiguous wording there. Even though I have no advanced formal theory knowledge (I had basic theory knowledge from my piano teacher and 6 years of choir), I've actually learned in practice what I have never formally learned in advanced theory classes. In other words, I don't know enough advanced theory to express formally the most advanced things I intuitively construct in my head.

That's probably what you mean---I wouldn't be able to write what I can write now, if I had literally no theory knowledge in any way whatsoever, formal or intuitive.

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If you're having trouble focusing your learning process, I can relate - I have minimal formal theory training as well, and it can be especially hard to know where to start when you don't really know terms.  Here's the resource that's helped me the most lately: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeZLO2VgbZHeDcongKzzfOw/videos

If you're having issues with composition specifically, I'd particularly recommend any of his videos that talk about utilizing motifs.  There's a Dark Souls vid and a Zelda: Link's Awakening vid that talk about motif use and transformation pretty thoroughly, and it's really made a huge impact on my writing lately.

Aside from that, the best recommendation I have is to transcribe.  A lot.  Even from your own tracks.  If you find a chord progression you really like, throw down a dummy instrument (my go-to is a simple triangle wave), write it out and examine it isolated.  Or if you like the interplay the chords had with the melody, put down another dummy for the lead and look at the relationships between the two.  When you find something you like, even if it's from someone else's work, try emulating it.  Don't feel bad about borrowing elements from music that inspires you, especially when you're learning something new!  Adding techniques to your repertoire will make you a much more effective composer when it comes time to write to a client's specs, and I find that the more comfortable you get with a new trick/technique (even if it's "borrowed"), the easier it is to implement it into a track with your own spin to make it sound more unique.  It's not necessary to rediscover every composition technique for yourself, only that you can use it effectively.

The chord/lead dummies also translate into my own originals and arrangements, not just transcription.  Blocking out a new section can help you determine how well it flows with the preceding material, and it really helps me avoid wasting time fleshing out an entire section only to find it won't work structurally.

I also have to echo Timaeus that if it's possible, make at least a little time for music stuff almost every day, whether it's starting a new tune, transcribing one of your favorite game tunes, or making a new synth patch.  But don't beat yourself up if you miss a day and definitely take a day or two off if you need it.  The mind needs time away from conscious processing to recombine novel information and let what you've learned solidify.  It functions a lot like a muscle; overtraining is more detrimental than it might seem on the surface, so if you find that it's too stressful doing X number of days per week, back it off a bit and make sure to focus on enjoying the process.  Maybe even just pick a few days of the week to purposely be away from music, or schedule out what you want to work on for which days - it's the consistency that's most important rather than the sheer quantity of time you spend with music.

Hope that's helpful :)

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1 hour ago, Phonetic Hero said:

*wall of text*

Hope that's helpful :)

That was a great comment, man! Thanks so much for that! It's made me feel more human and less broken. I always feel guilty if i'm not working on something, and i always assume that it's because i'm lacking passion/it's not for me. But there are just some days where i really don't want to sit in my box room for hours. That YT channel looks like something that could be very helpful too, so i'll be sure to check it out.

What you said about adding a dummy wave to test things in your projects, that's something i'm going to really have to wrap my head around. See, i've being studying in more of a sound design focused field, so i've always put the sound itself over the composition. I find it hard to imagine how a musical passage could eventually sound if i was to make it enitrely out of pianos or simple waveforms. Is a triangle wave enough to let you know that it will sound good no matter what suitable instrumentation or synth patch is used in the end?

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49 minutes ago, DarkEco said:

What you said about adding a dummy wave to test things in your projects, that's something i'm going to really have to wrap my head around. See, i've being studying in more of a sound design focused field, so i've always put the sound itself over the composition. I find it hard to imagine how a musical passage could eventually sound if i was to make it enitrely out of pianos or simple waveforms. Is a triangle wave enough to let you know that it will sound good no matter what suitable instrumentation or synth patch is used in the end?

In general, yes.  The idea with the dummy instruments is laying down the harmonic foundation and figuring out how the track will progress on a larger scale.  I'm not looking to find the perfect instruments at that point, just figuring out what chords I want to use and probably chunking out some melodies to be molded as I go (it's almost never perfect the first time, so iterate!).  It can be easy to get overwhelmed by feeling like you have to make all the right choices right off the bat.  So don't!  Don't worry about it until you've put down the basic notes you want.  Instrumentation/orchestration and voice leading can come later.

If this is still difficult, I recommend simplifying even further.  Try writing chiptunes and imposing most, if not all, of the limitations of the hardware on yourself.  If you can't/don't want to emulate things exactly, that's fine!  Remember, the goal is to get more comfortable with laying down notes and get a feel for structuring a track, not to write a perfect chiptune.  By purposely limiting your options for production and instrumentation, you'll have a much clearer focus on the composition and an easier time learning about harmonic relationships.

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I can only second that approach. I love arranging, and when I'm in that mode, I really want to focus on notes and general flow rather than specifics of sound. Sure, I have a general idea in my head with what kind of sounds I would use - which is handy, because it helps you figure out what to write - but during this phase my instruments are rather ballpark sounds that I will adjust or replace later, and I even don't bother with EQ or compression or other such things. That's all for later, first order of business is getting the notes down.

The chiptune trick is great, because it helps you focus. If all you have is 3-6 instrument channels and perhaps a noise/drum channel, you will loose a lot of distraction from all the production gizmos - especially if you have to stick to a limited number of preset sounds. 

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It sounds like your problem may not be that your music sucks, but that you suffer from Imposter Syndrome.  I have struggled with this a lot in my life, and the way you describe your feelings in the OP are exactly the thoughts I have had.  By all means try to improve your songwriting skills but that's probably not the underlying issue here.

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11 hours ago, DarkEco said:

What you said about adding a dummy wave to test things in your projects, that's something i'm going to really have to wrap my head around. See, i've being studying in more of a sound design focused field, so i've always put the sound itself over the composition. I find it hard to imagine how a musical passage could eventually sound if i was to make it enitrely out of pianos or simple waveforms. Is a triangle wave enough to let you know that it will sound good no matter what suitable instrumentation or synth patch is used in the end?

I would say mostly yes; although I am also very much a sound design guy, these days I am OK with using placeholder sounds that are almost what I hear in my head, and I'll just, for instance, leave a note to myself in the DAW to polish the sound further later on. The more important thing is to get the idea down as much as possible, in such a way that you can visualize what you meant to write, in terms of (mainly) composition and (in part) the feel of the soundscape. Generally, being able to visualize the final result is easier when you have more of the actual composition done than if you have more of the sound design parts done.

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One day all of your efforts will be payed off, so stop blaming yourself and do what you should do

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No disrespect whatsoever to @timaeus222 but the opposite is true for me - when I am not feeling "inspired" about an arrangement or a composition, I put it down.  That being said, I've heard that Chuck Close is credited with saying "Inspiration is for amateurs," which I disagree with especially because I think his stuff is (on the surface) the same thing over and over again.  I recently finished 10 or so tracks for an indie game, and I flat out DIDN'T meet deadlines because I wasn't feeling inspired about some of the tracks.  They weren't saying what I wanted them to say!

So @DarkEco to your original question, I would advise you to first master your primary instrument, and I mean strive for professional level playing. Most of the composers I have played have had a big impact on me and my arranging. We are all of us product of our influences. Cement to yourself who you want to emulate, because everyone emulates someone. Bach got his hands on some of Vivaldi's orchestral scores and came up with the Brandenburg Concerti because he took apart Vivaldi's introductory phrase structure and reconfigured it like legos into something he loved even more. He walked many many miles round trip so he could go listen to Buxtehude play organ, which impacted the rest of his fugal composition. If your influences are your contemporaries, that's perfectly fine too! Rush cites Led Zeppelin as a HUGE influence, and they were playing/touring at the same time. I think Neil Peart said in an interview that for a couple years in Rush's early performing, they sounded like a Led Zep ripoff band.  They found their own voice eventually, of course.  Led Zep, their biggest influence was blues form!

If you aren't a formally trained musician, that's perfectly fine. Just cover the music that you love - don't play the same stuff all the time, and internalize the components that you love. Have no fear in incorporating your influences into your compositions. It creates meaning. Jazzers are advised and taught to transcribe solos from the greats on their instruments (and NOT their instruments).

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I haven't been motivated to work on music for over a year because of Imposter Syndrome and related issues. The constant criticism mixed with a small audience and poor stress control make it much less rewarding than it should be. Logically I know that I should just make things because I want to, should just make things that I like to listen to, and to accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and someone not liking my work shouldn't be taken personally.... but I don't often think with my logic brain. 

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You will always be your hardest critic. I don't think that's a bad thing though - critiquing your own work helps you get better. However, don't let your thoughts on your work become self-destructive. No piece of music (or sound design) is perfect, and sometimes you have to accept it for what it is. Even the greatest composers or sound designers aren't perfect, and they never will be. This is the nature of our work.

As someone who has Imposter Syndrome, I feel like a faker all the time. But remember, just because you feel a certain way, does not mean that is what you are. :) Be proud of what you have accomplished so far, and strive to be even better in the future.

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I can't really help you but I seriously hope you can figure out how to get past those feelings. There's so much talent in this community and it's always so cool when someone from here goes past remixing for OCR and composes for a game or a TV show, or starts a successful business creating and selling sample libraries, or ends up performing at Video Games Live or MAGFest. All of these things! I really hope that'll be you, too.

I'm not a composer like most of these people. I couldn't create anything original to save my life. All I could ever do was make silly remixes and I don't even do that anymore. The only thing I've done in several years is finally finish a remix I started a long time ago. And I really wish I hadn't. It honestly feels like I've actually made the world worse for putting my "music" out there. Just calling it "my music" makes me cringe. There's a voice in my head that says "your music? Please. Just who do you think you are? Come back down to Earth." I just started my first solo album but I'll probably never finish it. Can't seem to make it past "this is really dumb and nobody's going to like this." So pretty much all I do now is contribute things to other people's music. Guitar parts and things like that. Over the years, I've amassed a large collection of all kinds of samples. Particularly drums! So I offer to help people with things like that too. It helps me stay at least a little relevant to this community, which is all I really want. 

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2 hours ago, HankTheSpankTankJankerson said:

No disrespect whatsoever to @timaeus222 but the opposite is true for me - when I am not feeling "inspired" about an arrangement or a composition, I put it down.  That being said, I've heard that Chuck Close@DarkEco is credited with saying "Inspiration is for amateurs," which I disagree with especially because I think his stuff is (on the surface) the same thing over and over again.  I recently finished 10 or so tracks for an indie game, and I flat out DIDN'T meet deadlines because I wasn't feeling inspired about some of the tracks.  They weren't saying what I wanted them to say!

 

No problem; actually, that's what has been giving me trouble too for most of when I've been writing music. I write linearly from beginning to end. Sometimes I would have months of breaks between writing a particular remix because I just wait for the inspiration to continue it (but that's just because those didn't have deadlines). Nowadays---and this is an ongoing effort---if I am, say, 90% there on the sound design, I put on hold the hunt for the perfect sounds and just write, knowing that my future self will be able to polish the sounds further later on. The composition, however, is not something I trust my future self to be able to remember, so that's why I would want to get as much of it written out in one session.

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