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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,

Whenever I have a release on the horizon, it’s a lengthy process to get across the finish line. First, there’s the initial listening process to make sure mixing/mastering went well enough. Then I have to upload the music – typically to Apple Music / iTunes so it will sync to my devices and I can listen wherever. When I’m satisfied, I move to the naming process.

I find that the process of naming music can be difficult. When you’ve spent months upon months creating the music, listening to it over and over, it kind of loses meaning at some point. I mostly file it into three categories: 1) Good, 2) Could be good, or 3) Needs to go to the trash bin. The main issue, really, is that through this process I have to set aside my feelings about the music and approach it in a more analytical approach.

There’s a problem though. All of this happens before the song gets named or before a theme becomes clear. By setting aside those feelings about the music, I kind of lose the ability to envision the story being told by the music. So enter the naming party!

The naming party is essentially a set amount of time where I get to force my loving partner into listening to the music and then leech out her creative force. It can be a collaborative process but mostly, I have to rely on her initial reactions and emotions to set the theme for the music. The theme leads to song naming and song order. She also largely decides on the naming of the songs based on those feelings and reactions.

It’s definitely one of the more important parts of creating an album and I can’t do it alone. If it had been left to me alone, most of my albums would consist of songs like: “House Music – C Major – Song 1” or “Ambient Piano – G Minor – Song 3”. Possible album titles: “Album 1”, “Album 2”, and so on.

The released album is made better thanks to this collaboration and it’s an important part of my whole process. A piece of the process I couldn’t do without a trusted partner.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. In case you were worried that it’s a one-sided arrangement, I am occasionally involved in story ideas/editing/proof-reading for her… which I do with minimal complaint…

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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,

The seasonal change means something different to everyone. Some people love spring because it brings new life and a sort of reawakening after a long winter. Others love autumn because of the changing colors and the cooler weather. And, crazy people love winter. I love summer.

I love getting tan and being on the water. I love how running become less of a chore and more about just being outside or how yoga moves outside with the fresh air and sunshine. If we’re being totally honest with each other, I just love walking out my door and immediately breaking out in a sweat because it’s hot and humid!

This time of year is my favorite but it happens to be my least productive, creatively.

As the weather warms, I fill my time with as much outdoor activity as I can stand, and there are more chores to get done: the grass needs to be cut, plants need to be watered, and so on. It all adds up and next thing you know, it’s time to go to bed and I haven’t gotten anything done. This isn’t to say that I’m not hard at work on new music – I am!

For the most part, I fit in work while I drink a cup of coffee before I have the motivation to get out the door for some activity or another. I might do a little at night before bed when I have a few minutes of quiet to myself. I’ll work more when it’s stormy and being outside isn’t much of an option. I just fit it in wherever I can knowing that, sure, I’m not getting a lot done at this moment but the nice weather doesn’t last forever.

So when I’m out on the water, I don’t let myself feel bad that I didn’t spend that time on my creative pursuits wishing that I were back home instead. Not at all. I’m enjoying the nice weather with full awareness that in a few short months, it’ll be too cold for me to be out and I’ll have plenty of time to fill making more music. Most importantly, I’ll have lots of happy memories to draw from to make that music better.

My message to you is this: whatever your seasonal preference, take the time to enjoy being alive. Your enjoyment and happiness will shine through in your work.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Other things I love about summer aside from being on the water: walking with my family to get ice cream in the evening, having windows open when driving, longer days, laying in a hammock, and finally not being cold.

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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!

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Dear Readers,

Music production, based on school-age band class, should be as simple as picking up an instrument and recording playing said instrument. Or in the case of a band, recording all the different people playing at the same time. This is, of course, not the case at all. Playing the instrument is only but a tiny piece of the puzzle. My adventure into music has involved a lot more research than I’d like to remember and I’ve come across various opinions on music theory in particular… and, well, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Most of the tutorials I’ve read or watched seem to say, “You don’t need music theory… until you do.”. Of course, some places have articles that tell you don’t need music theory but then they’ll have “top chord progressions every producer should know”. If you’re going to learn chord progressions, you’re going to need to know some basics in music theory. I mean, if you don’t get into some basics, how are you supposed to understand all that nonsense about chord progression anyways?

What is my short answer on whether or not you need music theory? It’s situational. I would argue that if you are doing any sort of traditional composition, you absolutely need to take the time to learn the basics. On the other hand, if you focusing on experimental music or work exclusively through samples – this endeavor may be a waste of your time. Sometimes, just using your ear and listening to the music is the best way of knowing if it works for you.

More importantly, spending a lot of time on music theory may lock you into a box that impacts your experimentation. So if that’s your target, perhaps skip the lessons because I feel this is one area where things are more science and less art.

In an art course, you will most definitely be told that you need to know the rules so you know how to break them. Music theory? Maybe that applies but it feels harder. Breaking the rules produces sounds that you now know are wrong whereas before, you may have found them interesting. And in so many cases, it’s not that you broke a rule: you just invoked a rule that you didn’t know existed.

Like now, I know better when to throw in borrowed chords from a parallel scale or how to switch from a major scale to its relative minor for added interest. Before? I just got lucky.

As with anything else in life, you’ll get what you put into this study. If you want to be a faster composer and spend less time experimenting or less effort on guessing why things sound good or bad together – spend time to learn music theory. Power through it, you can do it! But on the other hand, if you’re happy with the sound of your music and don’t want to learn music theory? Don’t feel bad about that choice because it’s totally fine.

Also, you should accept that if you want to learn music theory, you’re not going to get it done quickly. I don’t care how many of those videos you watch where the tag line is “learn music theory in 5 minutes!”, it’s not enough. Even now, as I write this article, I spent some refresher time and came across concepts I had completely forgotten and other concepts that were totally new. I have stacks of notes, books that I bought, and tons of bookmarks on the subject… because there’s a lot of information on it.

Point is: no one becomes an expert of anything over night so don’t sweat it. Just do what’s right for you and keep making your art!

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. I don’t know if I said it adequately enough above but learning music theory can help speed up your music making process by giving you more tools with which to assess your music… but it’s only one part of the puzzle. If you have to choose between this and some other skill – say, how to mix your music – do the thing that’ll give you the most return for your time now and come back to the other thing later. Don’t fret because you aren’t 100% knowledgable in all things right now. It takes time to learn a skill.