Project Button Masher: Reroute Kanal

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jan 15, 2015

Filed under: Music 51 comments

We’ve done synth sounds for the past couple of weeks. This time let’s try something more modern. We’ll take a shot at the Half-Life 2 soundtrack by Kelly Bailey.

Here are the distinguishing characteristics I came up with:

  1. Use orchestral instruments: I know you don’t exactly think “Fantasia” when you hear the HL2 soundtrack. The next item on this list will explain that. The point is, unlike the other games we’ve been looking at, this time we need to dump the 80’s synthesizer and get ourselves an orchestra. (A virtual one. We are both poor and lazy.)
  2. Take those fancy-pants instruments and crank them through a distortion filter.

    Distortion is what makes a regular electric guitar sound like a heavy metal guitar. Originally this was accomplished by forcing too much electricity through a guitar amplifier’s valves. The sound caught on, and eventually we started building devices specifically to achieve the effect. Then the whole world went digital. In the old days, you had to plug your guitar into an amp to make this happen, but with our fancy computers we can plug anything into a distortion amp. Distortion violin? Piano? Bassoon? Sure, go for it.

    Dang kids.

    Anyway, a lot of the HL2 soundtrack has common instruments that have been distorted until you can barely recognize them.

  3. Bass boost all that stuff. You usually end up with a lot of low-frequency sound when you’re using distortion. A lot of it is typically filtered out, but not this time. Let that stuff run wild. When stuff on your desk begins vibrating onto the floor, you have almost enough.

    Spoiler: I might have gone too far with this.

  4. Use really tinny drums. A lot of electronic music has that pumping low beat. And some HL2 tracks do have that. But several tracks avoid (or filter out) the low frequency percussion, leaving you with AM radio drums. I assume this is done because the distortion is taking up all the low frequencies.
  5. Add lots of industrial and atmospheric sounds. Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell where the in-game soundscape ends and the soundtrack begins.
  6. No need for looping. Unlike our track last week, this one is not designed to loop. The HL2 tracks are typically triggered by player movement, and end after playing through once. I don’t think there’s any music in the game designed to loop endlessly.
  7. Alternate chords with single notes. I discovered this by accident while working on today’s track. I hit a point where I hadn’t finished setting up one of the sequences. So instead of chord, chord, chord, it played a chord (say: E-G-B) followed by a single note (say: A) and I thought, “Wow, that really sounds Half-Lifey”. One note alone retains a lot of its musical flavor. But when you stack them together to make a chord, the overlapping distortion becomes really strong and it takes on a more industrial feel. Alternating between the two gives a nice texture and contrast.

Here is the track I came up with:

To give you an idea of what I was talking about with distortion: The “train” sound at 1:57 is just a long note played by orchestral strings. Right after that is a section with more industrial echos. Those are (or were) french horns. The track opens up with the “Alternate chords with single notes” thing I mentioned above.

I called the track “Reroute Kanal”, but looking back I think it’s musically more related to the stuff in the Highway 17 chapter. Route Kanal is more uptempo and Highway 17 is more atmospheric.

I don’t know how well this track works, but it was really great to break out of the synth rut I’ve been in and do something really new and different. It was also nice to just be able to pick instruments from a list and not have to reverse-engineer early 90’s sounds for hours before I could get started.

Edit: As requested, here is the track map for the curious:


The green stuff on the third row is sound effects. I’ve been avoiding the use of audio in these tracks so far (the whole point is to learn music, not audio mixing) but I think these were needed for the atmospheric sounds. They’re just simple sounds (reverse cymbal, big drum bit) that’ I’ve slowed way, way down to turn it into… whatever these sounds are now. You’ll hear them when you listen to the track.


From The Archives:

51 thoughts on “Project Button Masher: Reroute Kanal

  1. Nyctef says:

    This is nothing like the HL2 soundtrack I remember. It’s clearly missing all the brief musical stings interspersed with awkward half-hours of silence :P

    More seriously though, I think you did a great job capturing the atmosphere. That train sound in particular you pointed out sounded spot-on

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      That wasnt silence,those were all original David Cage compositions.

        1. Wray92 says:

          I think the idea is that David Cage is like the John Cage of video games.

          1. Paul Spooner says:

            This ambiguity of superiority is begging for a cage match.

            1. Ah, then we’re talking about Johnny Cage.

              1. Bryan says:

                Or John Travolta. And Amnesia, plus a really, really, long-setup pun…

                1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                  Thats Nicolas Cage.And I think we are out of cages now.

  2. Sorites says:

    I figured out what’s thrown me off about these soundtrack posts: I struggle to divorce background music from foreground sound effects. To me, Half-Life doesn’t sound like Half-Life without background chatter and the Gravity Gun’s “wha-PUNG” noise.

    This must also be why I so enjoy those videos of people playing Mario music while making jump, coin, and pipe sound effects on their instruments.

  3. Zeta Kai says:

    I’ve never played HL2 (I know, I’m a heretic, I’m sorry), but I can definitely say that I really enjoyed this track. It hits an ambient nerve, & it reminds of driving down a lonely road at night (which I do far too often) while listening to Echoes with John Diliberto.

    Is there any chance that you could upload these to YouTube? I’d like to share them (especially this one) with my wife, but YouTube is by far the most convenient way to do so.

    1. ….you should play it and experience all of the ambient music.

      Seriously, there are some parts of the game (like highway 17) that nails a perfect vibe.

      Not to mention you should just play it because it’s half life. It’s almost along the lines of saying you have never seen starwars or jaws.

  4. Dev Null says:

    Random thoughts:

    I like the uhm… “track map” screenshots you usually include with these music posts. They’re mostly meaningless to me, but they give you sort of a big picture of the song.

    There are a couple of bits of this tune that have a sort of wall-of-static sound – a bit like ocean surf, really – that then fades… and abruptly stops. Maybe that was deliberate, but if it was meant to be a fade-to-nothing, I think it needed a little bit of a longer taper, if that makes any sense.

    I’m amused to note that, having started out describing music without all that music-nerd terminology, you seem to be developing (or learning?) some terminology of your own as you keep working with it. I’m also meta-amused to note that, even in trying to write this comment, I’m forced to invent some clumsy terminology of my own to describe things (like “taper” above.) Hopefully you understand what I’m talking about…

  5. Mogatrat says:

    While I wouldn’t say that it sounds like something straight out of the soundtrack, I’d say it might actually belong in a good HL2 mod — something single-player, maybe where you play as a Combine. It’s a bit more sinister and harsh than most of the tracks I remember the best, and feels more electronic (versus the heavy guitars I think of when I think HL2), so I feel that it would fit on the Combine side of things. The track doesn’t quite have the production quality of a professionally-produced soundtrack so it would go great with one of the cooler SP mods. Maybe Minerva.

    1. swenson says:

      Hmm, yes, I can definitely see where you’re coming from.

      It sounds “bouncier”? Than the HL2 tracks. But still kind of in the same family.

  6. CJ Kerr says:

    The “tinny drums” are rather too high in the mix – it’s a bit like putting the lead melody on a row of cowbells. It will cut straight through the mix no matter how much you turn it down.

    Also, because the “tinny drums” have very little bass, they should probably be panned off-centre. Drums are usually recorded in stereo, and stereo discrimination (i.e. our ability to localise the source) improves at higher pitches. At the pitch these drums are playing, a near-centre pan sounds wrong, like the cowbell is inside my head.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      The cowbell of the opera is there… inside your mind.

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Distortion violin? Piano? Bassoon? Sure, go for it.”

    But can you have a distortion cowbell?

    1. Shamus says:

      I should seriously investigate this.

      1. MadTinkerer says:

        Distortion Harpsichord, plz

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Distortion background residential noise is where it’s at.

    2. rayen says:

      Yes you can. Technically you don’t need an amp for any instrument. Cowbell is a percussive acoustic. Mic it, pump the sound through an amp, push up the distort, mute the direct feed. If you are in the same room you will hear the real sound but for the purposes of making music you can play with anything.

  8. Dan says:

    It might be fun to have the opportunity to hear the track without seeing the game it’s inspired by, and see if we can guess which soundtrack you’re trying to emulate; I don’t know if that would be possible?

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      A neat idea.Maybe Shamoose could post the track a day or two before making the post,to see if anyone could guess the influence.

  9. RCN says:

    This time you didn’t provide with a link to the original music you were trying to… mimic? Rip off? Tribute? What are we calling these anyway? How are we supposed to compare without that? Searching on Youtube ourselves like cavemen?

    These still show up on my tabs as “Project Butt…”. I still always do a double take when I see that among my browser tabs. And I’m still not entirely convinced Josh isn’t involved somehow.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Searching the youtube?Wait,you mean there are people that dont have half life soundtracks playing in their heads 25/8?

  10. Disc says:

    Comparing to this, it feels like your track could potentially use a lot more of that background “bass hum” or whatever you call it. The parts without any bass sound and feel (particularly from 1:05 and forward) kinda hollow in comparison to the ones that have it.

    Also, on a more random note, there’s something oddly 90ish about the instrument you use for the chords starting around the same time. For whatever reason, it reminded me of some old adventure games and this particular track.

  11. Museli says:

    Nice. As well has HL2, it brings to mind Frozen Synapse, but then the FS soundtrack is never far from the top of my mind.

  12. swenson says:

    I do like the “sound effects” that you mix in. They do indeed make it feel a lot more Half-Lifey.

    This isn’t really Half-Life, this is a Portal thing, but do you know the first time through, I legitimately didn’t realize that Portal had actual background music, as opposed to white noise with the occasional bit of fanfare? It’s incredibly low-key and subtle.

  13. silver Harloe says:

    7. Alternate chords with single notes

    I know less about music than Shamus, but I’ve also tried to learn (less successfully). When someone explained to me about how a song has a chord structure, they also explained that the way a ‘guitar solo’ sounds good is that it basically picks individual notes from the chords that would be playing at that time? I don’t know if that makes sense to myself or anyone else.

    1. Joe Informatico says:

      Mostly. E.g., in blues and a lot of rock and jazz that evolved from the blues, popular scales are the pentatonic, and certain variations of them called blues scales. If you have a typical three or four chord progression in a song, say the ubiquitous I-IV-V, you can play any note from those scales over any chord, and it will sound like it belongs. That makes these easy scales to improvise solos with. (Guitarists sometimes call these “blues boxes” because when you illustrate them in tablature, they can be depicted as rectangular shapes.)

      With other scales, you usually have to think about what chord you’re playing over. E.g., jazz soloists can end up playing over complex chord changes and often have to plan ahead what scales they’re going to improvise with. Like most things, once you get good at this it becomes almost instinctive. It just takes a lot more practice to get there in comparison to blues boxes, where almost anyone can start to sound good early on.

      In other genres of music that get into technically complicated solos, like progressive rock or some heavy metal subgenres, soloists don’t often improvise, and instead compose their solos like any other line of melody, looking at the chord progression and using scales that work for it. This also works for not-so complicated solos, e.g. most guitar solos in Nirvana songs are just Kurt Cobain restating the vocal melody on the guitar.

      (If you listen to a couple different live versions of a song, and the soloist always plays the solo more or less the same, they probably composed it. If it sounds pretty different each time, it’s improvised. Compare a couple live versions of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to live versions of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”. Randy Rhoads composed his iconic solo for “Crazy Train”, and he and every guitarist Ozzy’s had since always stick to its basic structure, with minor variations. Jimmy Page improvised his solo for “Black Dog”, like he did for most of his solos, and live versions often sound very different from each other.)

      Of course, music is an art form, and music theory is just a collection of accepted practices that have been found to result in music that’s pleasing to the ear 95ish% of the time. If you break the “rules” but the song still works, it’s perfectly cool.

  14. Jacob Albano says:

    Soundcloud tracks don’t embed for me, for whatever reason. Could you add a link to the track as well?

    Edit: I submitted the comment and there it was. Weird.

    Sounds great! I could see this playing during the intro to a new area where everything appears deserted.

    1. ulrichomega says:

      The embedded song is only working intermittently for me. It wasn’t there the first time I loaded the page, but it was there on a refresh, and then it mysteriously disappeared again. It’s there now, though.

      1. Jacob Albano says:

        It might just be a Soundcloud thing then, rather than something wrong with my setup. Occasionally when I follow a link it’ll say the song is missing, but a refresh fixes it again. Very odd.

  15. Can’t wait until you discover the stereo field, shamus :)

    While your music is outside of what I normally listen to and do myself, I enjoyed this track. It could definitely pass as HL2-ish for my ears.

    Can’t wait for more of this. As a musician it’s always fun to see non-musicians discovering the topic for themselves. Although I have to resist the urge to point out misconceptions and telling you “how to do it right”.

    Speaking of which: Even though everyone naturally tends to think he knows what’s right, there’s one paradigm I took away from years of making music semi-professionally: “As long as it sounds right to your ears, you’ve done it right”.

    1. Well said. With music, writing, painting/drawing (all creative arts really) thee is no right or wrong way to do something, other than the obvious as in “you need paint on your brush to paint”.
      Beyond that, anything goes, people either like what is created or they don’t like it, and artists that follow that have my respect.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        “With music, writing, painting/drawing (all creative arts really) thee is no right or wrong way to do something”

        Of course there is.Pop music,twilight(and its clones),Michael Bay.Those are examples of doing it wrong.


      2. [snip]other than the obvious as in “you need paint on your brush to paint”[/snip]

        No, you don’t ;)

  16. rayen says:

    I’d like to say as starting audio technician I find these posts very interesting. Also apparently you and I like similar music so I like the stuff you’re producing. Keep it up.

  17. Shamus there is nothing wrong with using “sound effects” in your music. In fact what is classified as a sound effect or not is irrelevant, it is sound regardless of it’s label, and if it’s a sound it can also be used as an instrument to play music with.
    Even a appropriate pause (aka silence) could be considered an instrument if used appropriately.

  18. I found this latest creation very pleasing to listen to and something that would feel at home in my all day playlist here; if it wasn’t for the “clipping” distortion (the other distortion is fine) it probably would be in my playlist.

    *steps on soapbox*

    I automatically avoid any music that has clipping (for those unaware it’s this thin/harsh high frequency clicking or momentary almost static), a lot of overly compressed (dynamically speaking) music tend to have this.
    The peaks of music are simply squashed into static; almost sounding like a vinyl record covered in a cake of dust and grime (cracklecracklecrackle).

    The traditional analog distortion effect does not (analog does not truly clip the same way as digital does),
    I can’t recall if this is equivalent to soft clipping (simulating analog?) and hard clipping (digital clipping).

    Some distortion VSTs etc. may allow you to toggle between analog and digital distortion.
    Oh and when ya folks do distortion make sure you do not accidentally clip in addition, don’t be afraid to turn the volume down on stuff, after all the listener has a volume knob, let them worry about adjusting the listener volume.
    I constantly have to catch myself and make sure I turn stuff down, it’s way to easy to “max out” the volume when composing.

    The volume setting is in the lower 1/4th or 1/5th setting when listening to music, and that’s not because the soundcard/hardware is too powerful, but rather the music is overly compressed so it’s too loud, a target of -23 dBFS RMS is nice (and close to the EBU R128 TV/Radio/Broadcast standard).
    What does -23 dBFS RMS mean? it’s a loudness/energy measurement and means that you essentially have 23 dB of headroom for your peaks, and if you only use say 10 dB of that headroom then your peaks should not e at 0dBFS but rather for example at -13dBFS (just an example, 1 dB change in peak does not mean a 1 dB change in RMS or vice versa).

    If you use Winamp or Foobar or similar than I highly advise using ReplayGain, I’ve almost become fanatical in making sure everything has ReplayGain meta tags or that my stuff is -23 dBFS RMS (Sine) where possible.

    Take my 3 old albums for example, they where adjusted so they are at -20 dBFS RMS (Sine) if I recall correctly, this means that in some cases the peaks are way below 0dBFS, but that’s OK.

    And obviously there are always exceptions, like the 7 old MOD tracks I upped to youtube recently, they have the original MOD volume levels as I felt they where not too loud/quiet and I’d rather keep their original loudness (RMS levels/ReplayGain/EBU R128 did not really exist nor cross peoples minds way back then).

    For hose curious the RMS of those where -17, -20, -20, -24, -13, -11, and -22 dBFS which is surprisingly (at least to me, as I just checked their loudness right now) is not that bad, the majority is near -20 dBFS which is very acceptable, I’m not too keen on the -11 and -13 as those are a tad on the loud side and in retrospect I should have reduced the loudness by about 6 to 10 dB. (a 10 dB change is about the same as a halving or doubling of the perceived loudness)

    So what was I blabbing about?
    Oh yeah. Avoid clipping, make sure your distortion emulates analog distortion, watch your always and don’t be afraid of lots of headroom, volume knobs exists for a reason, listeners can always adjust the volume, but they can’t restore damages audio peaks.

    *steps down from soap box*

    1. Fringes says:

      As a consumer / listener, I just wish compression was something I could do on the fly. If I’m listening to music over earbuds in a crowded subway, I appreciate compression, but when I’m back in a quiet environment, I’d rather have higher sound quality and better range.

      It would probably be even more helpful when I’m watching movies at home. The difference in sound level between people speaking and loud music or explosions etc. is huge. If I turn the TV up loud enough that I can make out all the dialog well, the action scenes can be deafening. I’d prefer to be able to compress the sound and then turn the volume down, so that everything is at a more reasonable level.

      1. Peter H. Coffin says:

        Higher-end AV audio gear sometimes has that compression that you’re looking for, albeit under some really strange names. One receiver I had called it “Night Mode”.

      2. I’m nodding my head here in agreement.
        Even with my old lo-fi albums/tracks/modules it was a concern.
        Since I hate using compression “just to use it” I didn’t.

        But the thought also struck me on the listener choice.
        There is no way I’ll make day/night/car editions of my songs.
        I assume the end user/listener knowns their own listening environment.
        Peter mentions higher AV gear but you can find “Night” mode or such on lower end gear too.

        And drivers for PC soundcards or even some media software has such modes or allow plugins that provide this.
        Most playback systems have a EQ of sorts too turning down the highs and lows also acts as a form of compression.

        There are also software out there that can apply compression to tracks (might be a benefit if you got a portable player you use for jogging but it has no compression of it’s own.)

        I kind of wish that Car and Table radios would get cheap compressor chips as a standard, that way radio (digital Radio in particular) could send full frequency and uncompressed audio and would over time reverse some of the loudness race damage done.

        Some cars out there have the equivalent of high end HiFi’s in them, you don’t hear crap while driving, but once stopped (parked at the side of the road or overlooking an awesome vista) it’s like sitting inside a soundbooth listening to music, and you really want dynamic music then (same as when in a quiet room or when using headphones).

        I’d love to see a switch/knob or button(s) that let you toggle “Original/Quiet Room/Parked Car” “Noisy Room” “Moving Car” “Workplace” or similar on everything, and just let the listener (consumer) decide when to use witch mode.
        Heck in the case of a car, depending on the gear it might even be programmed to auto switch when parked/no parked etc (take notes Blaupunkt).

  19. Corsair says:

    I like this, but it needs SMG fire and that oh so satisfying flatline sound you get when you kill a CP.

  20. The Nick says:

    I liked the music.

    I especially liked how Firefox shortened the tabs, so when I came back to a bunch of opened tabs after a couple minutes, I ended up saying to myself, “Shamus is working on Project Butt? What is that!?”

  21. Nick Powell says:

    It reminds me of the Receiver soundtrack.

  22. Monggerel says:

    The beat is a bit too “funky soviet” for Half-Life but the train, well that train is goddamn brilliant.

  23. Not only is this my favorite track so far, it really hit the Half-Life 2 feel for me. Nicely done.

  24. Cuthalion says:

    I enjoyed this piece of coordinated sound.

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