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Dear Readers,

It’s not particularly controversial, these days, to make a statement about video games as an art form. Video games went mainstream a long time ago. Even the debate on violence in video games making people more violent seems to have long been settled now. So when I say I love video games, I know that I need to tell you – I really love video games.

I’ve been playing games for my entire adult life. I got my first computer as a teen, in the 90s, and have been playing video games ever since. In school, we played Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe and at home, I played games like Myst, Might and Magic, or Duke Nukem 3d. (My memory of those years is fuzzy so I can’t tell you the order in which these games were played or the exact year they came out, only that I did play them.)

Years passed and I moved on, I played Counterstrike – back before Steam was a thing and they changed the whole game and all the weapons in it. I played console games too and have very fond memories of the Final Fantasy series. Like so many others, I was fascinated by these virtual worlds and the escapism of it. Being able to escape into a game like Final Fantasy, playing the hero that saves the world and gets the girl – well, at the time it was far better than life.

I graduated from all of that and went on to MMORPG which is short for something like Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game – and if you’re in a younger crowd, this will mean nothing to you because you’ve had games online for your whole life. It’s not a novel thing to login to a virtual world and be able to adventure with anyone around the country. It’s just… normal now. I played many MMOs – World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Final Fantasy 11, Age of Conan, Saga of Ryzom, and Final Fantasy 14. I know I’m missing some but that’s what comes to mind at the time of writing this post.

Just so we’re clear on this – I love many games but my time in massive multiplayers will always be a big part of my life. I still miss Final Fantasy 14 near daily. I have a tattoo of a chocobo (that I drew the design for) and then I went back and had a White Mage tattooed underneath that (also my drawing). Eventually, I want to go back and add more to fill it in – perhaps a Black Mage or some of the common monsters from the series. I don’t cosplay but, if I did, it would be a Final Fantasy character.

As I’ve aged and my life has changed, I’ve stopped playing these games. I target more casual games now – things I can pick up and play for a little bit at a time but when I walk away, it’s okay. The game is saved and ready for me to pick up whenever I have the time again. I like games, now, that let me have other hobbies – something that isn’t often true with MMOs.

Anyway, I tell you all of this to tell you that I do regard video game production as an art form. A good game has a well told story, a good visual aesthetic, and good music. If any one of these are off, the whole game can be ruined.

The music needs to be engaging enough to provoke a feeling or a mood but it also can’t be so overpowering to distract you from the level design or the creatures you are fighting. And honestly, without music, the game wouldn’t be the same.

Music, at least for me, is the single best way to convey emotion or action or a sequence change. You can hear it whenever you go from “peaceful meandering environment music” to “mega battle fighty fight music”. They may be similar in some ways but will typically have a different tempo, possibly a different key, and they’ll just set a different tone.

The music can tell you when you are nearing the end of a dungeon, when a boss fight is about to start, or tell you to beware of the area you are in. Music does all of this without words and often without the listener being actively aware.

Sadly, though, the music will just be a side note to everything else most of the time. There are some games out there where the music specifically gets called out and might even get a special soundtrack release, but mostly – it’s just a side note to the whole project. For example, I can’t name a single composer in video game music but I could name several music composers known for their work in movies.

Game developers, the visual artists, and musicians involved in making all those great games out there deserve our support for their art. And, yes, it is definitely a form of art.

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

September is here and that means Autumn is right around the corner. In my area, it should remain warm for another month or two but it will still be a marked change from the summer months. It’s time for things to cool off a little – just enough to make you think it’s time to get out winter attire. Then you’ll get it out and it’ll heat up again forcing you to find those summer clothes again.

On the upside: it’s not much of a problem for me since I don’t really have separate wardrobes but I do hear the complaints every year!

Autumn is the time of year when I put away my water shoes and find the hiking boots. It’s time for the mosquitoes to go away and that cool, crisp air to come in. The humidity finally fades and it no longer feels quite like walking through a think water blanket whenever I’m outside. (Admittedly, I like the humidity… until about mid-August. By that point, I’m ready to move on!)

This time of year, you’ll find me dragging my family to the nearest (and safest) mountain trails to go “hiking”. It’s less proper hiking and more a long walk with some trees around and periodically coming across other people out for the same thing. You can’t deny the views are beautiful, though, and combined with that crisp air – it’s a refreshing experience.

One thing that I like about experiencing the changing seasons… No, wait, one thing that I’ll miss the most when climate change takes away our seasons, is the change that comes with every season. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not fond of winter – the thought of it brings a bit of heaviness to my heart. The idea of being home bound because it’s too cold to do anything outside and, even if it were warmer, too dark.

I do like the change though. By the time I’m sick of the summer, it’s gone and I’m left with my happy feelings about all that warmth and sunshine – waiting for it to come back again. With autumn, there will be different activities and experiences coming just in time to save us from the activities we’ve been doing for months – and getting a little bored of doing.

Change is an important force in refreshing our creativity. It’s too easy to get stuck in routine, it’s too easy to get bored. Change can be forced on us from the outside or we can enforce the change ourselves. Whatever the case, though, the most important thing is to not be afraid of the change and embrace it for what it really is – a new opportunity.

I’m looking forward to the new season and starting a new project. I’m looking forward to closing out the project I’ve been working on for months. I’m looking forward to the change that is Autumn.

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

I think I’ve touched on this topic over previous posts but I don’t recall directly writing about burnout. While I imagine people experience burnout differently, it’s a fairly common problem that so many of us deal with. It’s also near and dear to my heart because I’ve often been on the edge of burnout.

My day job can be pretty high stress and demanding. The hardest part, especially working remote, is being able to turn it off at night. Before you know it, you’ve spent the day working and dragged those problems into the evening. You never truly decompress and suddenly it’s time for bed, but you can’t sleep, so you grab a nightcap and try to sleep. But your sleep is troubled and you wake up in the night thinking about those problems you were having all day – and how you’re going to solve them the next day.

Burnout is basically that over a long period of time. It’s allowing something to consume every aspect of your life until you become so tired and demotivated that you can’t even seem to do the things you used to enjoy. It’s like the kudzu vine slowly creeping and growing. At first, there’s not a lot and maybe it’s at the base of one tree. Let it go long enough and the forest is consumed and the vines have sucked all the life out of those trees… looking pretty on the outside but empty on the inside.

I’ve been there before.

That experience is why self-care is so important to me and why I’ve tried so hard to strike a balance between my life and my day job. I worry a lot about ending up on the other side again – a place where being creative isn’t an option because the joy is lost. That, of course, leads to a different problem: the worry of burning out.

I can’t really force creativity – I’m either up for it or I’m not. But whenever I’m not in a creative mood, I have a brief moment of worry that it’s the burnout creeping up on me. I have to constantly remind myself: “Hey, it’s okay to relax.” Worrying about it doesn’t help and it doesn’t make the situation better. I just have to recognize that there will be a natural ebb and flow to my creative endeavors. Some days will be far more productive than others.

Also, it’s okay because I’m still progressing and moving forward. Most importantly, I’m still enjoying the process and have the desire to produce more music. I shouldn’t have to worry about approaching burnout because I know myself. I know the difference in feeling between needing a creative break and not wanting to do anything at all.

And having a little self-check like this, reminding myself of what I have accomplished and how I’m feeling – that goes a long way towards keeping that kudzu under control.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Don’t underestimate the value of talking to someone if you’re feeling like you might be burned out. It will help.

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Dear Readers,

I was recently at a local outdoor music event, eating very interesting (also very good) Moroccan red quinoa tacos and listening to live music. After a while, I realized I wasn’t hearing the whole music anymore – instead, I was trying to find the song structure and the chord changes. Was that a 12-bar blues I heard? Was that a major turnaround? What was that drum pattern? So this is where I am at now – finding enjoyment in deconstructing other music to see what I’ve learned or what I can learn from it.

Song structure is important when you’re working with lyrics and vocals. The reading I’ve done on this seems to reinforce the idea as almost all the descriptions revolve around the lyrical portion of the song. All examples provided are lyrical songs – no instrumentals. It leaves me wondering how important having a formal song structure is to my own music.

I mean, in the strictest sense of the thing, any song I create will have structure. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be volume changes and instrument drones that fade in-and-out. There will be chord progressions and multiple instruments, but many of the songs I’m working on don’t follow standard structures (12-bar, ABABCB, verse-chorus, etc.). Does it matter?

Well, what I’ve found recently is that songs following a defined structure definitely stick around in my head longer. I’ll walk away from working on the piece and still be humming a catchy part of the song later in the day because there’s some repetition in the music and using a common structure leads to having certain expectations. It’s like watching a movie – once you’ve seen enough in a single genre, you know what’s coming next.

The music I’m creating that is free-flowing and doesn’t focus on structure? Mostly, I walk away from these songs with just a feeling. The melody is forgettable, nothing more than a snapshot in time from the day I originally played the part.

I call it forgettable but that’s not the most apt description. The goal of the music isn’t to have a melody that sticks out or be distracting in any way. It’s music that goes in the background. It fills the void of silence, but it doesn’t have to draw you in. When done right, you will enjoy the music enough to remember the artist name but forget all the song titles.

Hopefully, you’ll be left with a good feeling and forget all the rest.

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

It’s been a little while since “City Dreams” came out and I thought I should tell you that, yes, I have been busy working on new material! Here’s a small sample:

Untitled Work in Progress

For this work, I’ve been focused on making a clean ambient sound. This should be the kind of music that can sit in the background while you study, sleep, or meditate. And, so far, I’m pretty happy with the results. That said, I’m still very much in the initial creation and mixing phase of my workflow – so I don’t yet have a target release time or any more details about the album.

My main focus, in creating the cleaner sound, has been in improving my mixing. I’ve largely focused on doing better with equalizers and, in some cases, attempted to apply a more standard song structure. My plan is to avoid drums in this release or, if they are added, having a minimal amount of them. What I want is to have a mostly free-flowing piano lead with a variety of ambient drones and strings in the background to invoke a nice sense of calm.

As for other techniques, I’m using a limited amount of compression, a variety of delay and reverb techniques, and a whole lot of shimmer. (See: https://valhalladsp.com/shop/reverb/valhalla-shimmer/). I don’t have too many third-party plugins but that one is definitely one of my favorites!

Anyway, I wanted to share some updates because I’m excited about this future release!

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

In art, there’s a term “negative space” which refers to all the space in and around your actual subject. So if you were drawing a picture on paper, the ink or pencil defines your subject and all that blank space around it? That’s the negative space.

Negative space is important because it’s through this space that you guide your viewer to the thing that matters. It’s in this space that your viewer gets to take a break – their mind gets to relax from processing the visual and the overall picture becomes easier to look at.

In music, there is still a negative space. There’s a time to stop playing, to take a rest, to skip a beat. Sometimes, the melody stops. Others, the harmony might cut out. In the most extreme, everything will stop for a moment but this is all done for the effect of guiding the listener on a journey.

There are lots of stylistic options that contribute to the negative space in a song but the most comparable for me is the bridge of your song because it’s a construct specifically designed to wake up the listener and prepare them for a final hurrah before the song ends.

In common song formats, you generally have a structure where the verse sort of sets up a story and the chorus is the climactic, super-catchy part that you are humming all day. It’s the part that repeats in all those songs that you sing along with but if all you do is the verse-chorus parts, you’re missing out on a lot of your story. Where’s the intro? Outro? The transition between all the parts? There’s just so much more.

When the music is repetitive, it’s easy to tune out, so we have to have a way to guide the listener and wake up those senses. If we think of the verse-chorus as our artistic subject, we can’t just add blank space around it and have a complete picture. Something needs to go in that void and that’s where you end up with the turnaround, the bridge, and some other things. These seemingly minor parts transition the listener between the major parts or wake the listener up to let them know another section is coming soon.

So what’s the point? Those minor parts are important – those parts are filling the gaps to make the major parts memorable. No matter your choice of art form, the subject is only one part of the overall composition. Spend time working on the minor parts too because, honestly, the chorus is only catchy when there’s a bunch of stuff around it that you enjoyed too!

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. I like making connections between different art forms because it makes it easier for me to retain the information. I’ve been drawing a lot longer than I’ve been making music and anytime I can connect the two, well, that’s a win in my book.

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Dear Readers,

Artists are a quirky bunch with odd mannerisms and whatnot, so I guess I’m not too far removed when I wonder how many of us have a favorite key to play in. I suspect everyone making music probably has a favorite chord progression or beat pattern, but what about a favorite key? Or a favorite time signature?

You may be wondering why I would even be curious about such a minor thing. That’s fair.

There’s two things really: the first being that I have my own favorites. There are time signatures that draw my attention – I love 3/4 or 6/8 time – and there are keys that I prefer to play in. While I try to branch out a bit, most of what I work in is C major (because it’s the easiest), F major (because it adds interest while still being easy to play), and C minor (because it’s more complex but easy to shift chord progressions from C major).

My favorite is F major. I can also name my favorite chord progressions:

  • 6 -> 4 -> 2 -> 1 : Just sounds nice to me
  • 2 -> 5 -> 1 : For resolution

Not that you needed to know!

These have become my favorites over time because they work, proven by other musicians, or maybe they’re just easy. They’ve become familiar, comfortable. That, though, brings about a different problem: repetition in work. That is my second reason for wondering about people’s favorites. Do we know our own favorites because we need to avoid them?

An important part of growth, as an artist – or really, as a human – is expanding your horizons and trying new things. Not being fluid, always doing the same thing on repeat because it’s comfortable…? Well, that works for a while but if you never grow beyond that, the art never improves because there’s always more out there. There’s always something new to learn, something new to try, or just a different perspective available to you if you seek it out.

So while I’ll still use my favorites, I’ll shake it up and try new things from time-to-time because who knows? Maybe I’ll land on an even better favorite.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. One thing that I feel is fundamentally true is that an artist’s vision can be improved by having life experience and perspective. Getting involved with your community, traveling outside your home town, being around other cultures – these things give perspective that can inform your work or give you inspiration. Most importantly, it just makes us better humans to have that understanding.

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Dear Readers,

I won’t lie to you, the most unappealing part of being an independent artist is watching all the other artists work so hard. Specifically, it’s watching just how hard they work to gain an audience. They are putting out music constantly, promoting themselves daily, and just constantly grinding away at trying to build out some sort of fanbase – all of which I have to assume nets them some sales, right?

That constant release cycle, though, seems unsustainable to me. What happens when you miss one of your scheduled releases? What happens if you run out of ideas? Assume that you put out something new every month for a year. You build up a following during that and have people that like your music and look forward to the monthly release – but you hit a wall. Everything you create sounds just like what you created before or some new sound you were trying to nail doesn’t work out right.

You’ve set an expectation, at this point, to have frequent releases and suddenly you’re not meeting the same quota and maybe you start losing the interest of some of those new fans. That’s a lot of pressure to be under for seemingly very little gain. Those followers aren’t subscribers or buying your work. Most of them are probably in the same boat as you – struggling to get a start on their music careers.

I get it, I’m in a similar hamster wheel. I spend my free time writing up these blogs, trying to stick to a schedule in order to appear consistent and active. When I’m not writing this, I’m spending mornings and evenings playing music, recording it, mixing it, and trying to get new releases out there… Because, it feels like it’s the only way to grab someone’s short attention span.

Maybe it’s less about the fans’ short attention spans and more about our own. It doesn’t take long, before I get tired of the grind that is music promotion for a new release. I figure if I promote for a month and get little traction, six more months isn’t going to help with that. More importantly, I just don’t have the time and patience – if I spend six months on promotion, I won’t be able to make more music and I’d rather be making music!

While I can’t offer any advice on breaking the cycle, I will say that if you are feeling that pressure, it’s okay to take a break. Walk away for a minute, push back that next release, focus on the love of the craft. Your real fans will stick by you through that and the ones that leave? Well, I doubt they were supporting you financially anyways. Really, the most important thing is to take care of yourself. If you feel good about your work, others will too… it just might take some time for that day to come.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Did I mention I have a new release coming out? May 28th is the magical day and I’m excited!

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Dear Readers,

Why do you make music? It’s a question I see sometimes in the Twitter-verse and the answers, I think, are exactly what you might expect. My favorites are the “Why not?” responses. Because, really, why not make music? Why not put that art into the world?

As to why I make music, I’ve got a bunch of reasons that I’ve partially written about before, but maybe the more important question is who am I making this music for? Sure, it’s for me, but it’s also for my kids. Maybe, anyways, I’m still figuring it out.

It can be incredibly soul-crushing to work in a job where there is no tangible output. By that I mean, when you finish your day of work, there’s nothing to point out saying, “I helped build that,” or, “That’s my design.” There’s just nothing that comes out of it and leaves you a feeling of satisfaction like a job well done.

In some ways, it reminds me of the movie Office Space. At the end of the movie when (spoiler alert!) Peter decides to work on the road crew instead of going back to software development? I totally sympathize. He’s outside doing a hard job that leaves him feeling satisfied in a way that fulfills his life which development never could. Stressful? Sure. Underpaid? Probably. Honest work that’s making him happy? 100%.

I don’t want to get into a massive debate over it. Satisfaction in any activity will vary for each person or personality. Someone working hard labor might see a cushy office job as their ideal future while I look at someone building a house and think – that’s satisfying. It probably also varies based on age. I used to derive a lot of satisfaction in my work but as I’ve gotten older, I just feel like I’ve done nothing to leave my mark on the world and that means more to me right now.

Anyway, back to the arts. The paintings I have on my wall, the drawings I post online, the music I produce – these are all tangible things that I can see, hear, touch, or whatever. When I get into the car and put on a song I’ve created and the kids like it, “Your dad made that.” Or when I make little drawings for their birthdays or special occasions, it’s a little memory they can hold. Selfishly, it’s great that I don’t have to spend time trying to explain why the thing is important or good – they can just look at it or hear it and make their own decision.

Why does it matter? Honestly, it’s just something I think about every now and again. What will I leave behind for my children when I’m gone? What will they remember about me? I want them to remember more about me than I remember about my childhood but beyond that, I just want them to have something they can hold on to. They can listen to the music and maybe remember the person that I am in this moment. They can listen to the music and wonder what I was thinking about when I made it or what I was feeling in that melody. They can listen to the music and be with the person I am today, even after this time has passed.

It’s important because we all grow over time and things change. We change. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. And in twenty years time, I expect to be a different person with a different outlook. Creating something that will live on for the decades to come is basically my version of a time capsule that we can unwrap someday and relive the feelings of today.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. On reading through this, I could see the nicer audience out there thinking that I need a pep talk but I assure you that’s not the case! My life is pretty great and I’ve still got a lot of life left!