Tom Jensen - Composer

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an insight into my process

REKKR Phase 2

April, 2021

an image of REKKR's modern setting an image of REKKR's Ancient Egyptian setting

Steam Releaaaaase!

REKKR - the viking / norse total conversion for the original Doom was doing pretty damn well by this point - it had been released by Bethesda through their mod workshop, and we had all been given a cash bonus from the company who we had only dreamed of working with as kids (iD software). It was at this time that project lead Revae was looking at creating a proper 4th episode for REKKR, as the 4th episode in late 2020 was a collection of maps that didn't make the cut for the original 3 episodes. Revae and his mapping minions were on the job, however, and had come up with an entire fourth episode of new maps.

Revae had also been tinkering with an executable for REKKR (rather than running the .wad file with something like zdoom) and gearing up for a full steam release. While he didn't have the budget for a full musical score for this new 4th episode (named "Sunken Land"), he did commission me to write three new tracks for the episode. These would be for the maps E4M1 - Postern, E4M7 - Ill Ellii, and E4M8 - Gardien.

Tinkering with Time

The music for E4M1 was fairly straight forward, and the music for E4M8 was to be boss battle music, but the map E4M7 / Ill Ellii posed a bit of a problem: the map involved time travel to 4 quite disparate locations. Firstly the player was taken to Ancient Egypt, and later in the map would visit a science fiction moonbase, modern day city, and ancient Rome... So how would I handle writing music for this? Clearly I need to find a middle ground that would support all 4 areas without leaning too much into the setting of either.

I decided to try find a cool angle that fit the idea of time travel. Some people (ok mostly just Goethe) say "music is liquid architecture, architecture is frozen music" - so music already exists over a period of time, I can't just write music and say it makes use of time, but there is a way to tinker with time using music...

I decided to make use of a musical device that involved temporal shenanigans - something as old as time itself (well as old as the baroque period at least) - the canon cancrizans, or "Crab Canon".

Oh shit, I've got crabs

A Crab with arrows pointing back to itself as if a life cycle. The caption reads: The crab Cycle - there is only one step, and it is crab

Many moons ago (ok 1736), composers liked to play little musical games and puzzles, like "what If I played this piece upside down", or "what if we put this piece of music between us and played it reading from different directions?". Pieces like Bach's "The musical Offering" are full of these, and sometimes they'd expect the 'reader' to complete the puzzle in order to play the piece.

A picture of a number of crabs in a lifecycle. The caption reads: The crab Cycle - There's a frankly unreasonable number of steps, and they're all crab

So what's with the crabs? well, one of these musical puzzles was called a Crab Canon, which involved a melody that if played backwards, would accompany itself. So how does this work? well, counterpoint - counterpoint.

counterpoint is like, I have a melody, and now I want a second melody that sounds good when I play both melodies at the same time. If you do it right, it sounds great. If you do it badly, it sounds meh. Composers in ye olde days loved counterpoint, but nowadays people think it's a bit old fashioned. To be fair, most composers don't think it's old fashioned, and in fact use it all the time, just maybe not as extensively as they did back in the period from like 1500 - 1900

Anyway, history lesson aside, crab canons are cool, and you can do cool shit with them.

gif of hannibal from the Eric Andre Show, saying You're doing some cool ass shit, that's what you're doin

So I set out to write a crab canon, and use it as the spine of my track for this time travel map. Thanks to a little video from Adam Neely, I had some good resources on actually approaching the writing of a crab canon, as it's not something you can just kinda dive into.

And here's what I ended up coming up with - note this is MIDI data rendered by a default windows synthesizer, it aint gonna be pretty:

Picture of a DAW piano roll image of a crab canon score

Note the backwards looking treble clef on the right hand side of the image above? yeah that's the secret code old timey composers used to say "play this fucker backwards and see what happens my dude"

The final track opens with a blown bottle motif, and immediately launches into heavy drums and low synth pads. Solo harmonica – an instrument I began to associate with loss of sanity – enters the fray, often microtonally pitched to unnerve the listener. The whole track has an eerie feeling, which is emphasized by the slow crab canon starting at 0:35. Material in this section seems to move forwards and backwards, appearing from different directions, and sometimes moving in opposite directions at the same time. By 2:06 the crab canon concludes and a more direct action section takes place, intensifying into a harmonica solo at the end of the track:

To be fair, a crab canon is something that no one would even notice just by listening - its more of a fun personal joke for the composer. It just so happened that in this case the unnerving, odd feel of the crab canon suited the gameplay and setting-jumping of the map nicely.

An example of one of Bach's more famous crab canons:

Why do I hear Boss Music?

For the very last map of the game, involving a fight against the game's main antagonist, I had to write some BOSS MUSIC! The first draft for this track was quite high-energy:

Project lead Revae had the following feedback on this track:

“That might be a little too high energy for the parts where you're not fighting, after the boss. It sounds nice, but aggressive. Trying to think of a way to balance that. Like if it were more like a dance or something. Or sinister I guess. A sinister waltz”

So I started again, trying to hit the sinister waltz trope. I presented two options to the Revae, a slower and faster version. The faster version was chosen, and so I progressed and expanded on the track, keeping the fast 3/4 feel throughout.

The final track takes us through this sinister waltz, with plenty of bending oboe solos, heavy drums, organ, harpsichord and choirs:

And so that's the story of the final phase of REKKR - it was released on Steam on 21st October 2021, to glowing reviews:

The Music of REKKR

July 12, 2018

Two years ago I was browsing a certain forum when I saw a screenshot of what would become REKKR. I immediately volunteered to write some music for the project, posted a MIDI file and emails were swapped. Now that REKKR has been released, I thought I'd write a little bit about my process for the soundtrack.

The Premise and Aesthetic

an image of REKKR episode 4

Going on the original screenshot, I figured REKKR was some kind of viking / fantasy style mod. It being a Vanilla TC, anything but MIDI was out of the question. I fired up my DAW and quickly selected some instruments I thought would be appropriate: Percussion, choir, strings, harp/lyre and bagpipes. I went with my gut instinct and wrote this:

The project lead Revae seemed happy with the direction I was going in so I wrote a few more gut-instinct tracks, trying out some more ideas and sounds. I ended up having free reign to write what I wanted in this score, except for some small timing things like getting the title track to end before demos start, so plenty of room to experiment.

Researching Scandinavian Music

Then I started thinking more critically about what I was doing - This was a Norse inspired setting, so I needed to research Norse instruments and tunings. I started looking for Scandinavian folk music and instruments, and came across some key pieces that would provide important elements of the score.

This video in particular had a striking effect on me:

What was this ethereal, natural sounding instrument? It was a Bukkehorn - a natural horn carved from the horn of a goat.

But there was something else going on in this piece, it wasn't just a beautiful sounding instrument, but the musical Scale was different to our regular western scales. This is due to the horn being made by drilling holes in it, often without too much precision (and certainly the natural shape of each horn would have an effect on the exact pitches it would produce).

And so I went about trying to recreate not only this sound, but the kind of natural scales that we hear in the piece above. I would make these scales using Microtones - a way of retuning notes so they sit in between the usual notes that we might play on a piano. I wouldn't retune all the notes, but just a few of them in a given scale. I would retune them enough to give the melodies a unique and unusual sound.

Listening to some more of these pieces, some were very 'sour' sounding - the pitches well outside our usual piano keyboard. This one for example:

You can hear some of the notes just sound 'off'. This was the kind of sound I wanted to make use of. It sounded ancient, perfectly natural, yet aeons away from our modern music.

Other Scandinavian folk music such as dances and instruments like the Tagelharpa were also noted and their styles put in the 'bank' of things I would make use of in this score. Tagelharpa:

Incorporating what I had learned

So I set about attempting to recreate these ancient Scandinavian sounds in my DAW. I even began naming the instruments after the ye olde ones.

I used solo violins or violas for Tagelharpa, and a soprano saxophone seemed to work well for a Bukkehorn (I'm still limited to MIDI sounds here - no going out at getting a high quality Bukkehorn library.... assuming one existed?)

I wrote this, my spin on a Bukkehorn melody:

And this, my take on a tagelharpa piece, with drone and folk percussion and in with a folk dance feel:

You can hear I'm trying to accentuate the roughness of real played instruments - there are bends in the strings as a player bends up to the note, also featuring are the microtonal scales I devised in order to give the melodies an ancient, natural sound.

The scale I used for the Bukkehorn piece (Hops Harvest) was as follows:

microtonal scale

A relatively straight forward E aeolian mode (also known as E natural minor), but with 2 notes altered. One altered downwards (flattening) by an amount of 25 cents. Cents you say? how many cents to a dollar? One of my first teachers asked me this at primary school and I replied: "How many *what* cents?" How many 10 cents? how many 20 cents? I couldn't understand that she meant "100 cents in total". I was thinking in blocks of 5, 10 or 20, rather than imagining a dollar being made up of 100 individual cents (I was like 6, give me a break).

How does this relate to altering notes and micorotonal tunings? well - in the same way I was thinking about cents in blocks, most people today think about musical notes in blocks too - the keys on a piano. Thats all the notes there are right? wrong. The distance between any 2 notes on a modern piano is measured as "100 cents". I don't know where the name 'cents' comes from, but that's just what they're called so we're going to run with it.

You could have 100 different notes between any 2 notes on a piano. They would be incredibly close together, and most people would not be able to tell them apart unless you played them all in sequence (you would hear a weirdly rising scale than never seems to actually get higher)

You can kind of hear this effect in this video:

That video is in quartertones - so 50 cents between each note. (lets not get into why they're called quartertones...)

Back on Topic

Anyway, back to my scale

microtonal scale

I altered 2 notes, one downwards by 25 cents, and one upwards by 25 cents. This is enough of a change that the human ear can easily recognize that something aint right, but small enough (only 2 notes out of a 7 note scale), that I could still write regular melodies and have the tunes work and for the regular western person to be able to relate to them. Some areas such as India and the middle east use much smaller intervals (the distance between 2 notes), and so could easily write in much more complicated microtonal scales and even sing them, but for me the 25 cent alterations were enough to give the music an ancient feeling.

This effect seemed to work most of the time when I used it in the score, the melodies sound relatively normal, but sometimes the effect is quite pronounced, which could well be a shock to some western listeners (a recent twitch playthrough of REKKR commented that this track was "awful" and laughed at how bad it was.) This was the 'sour' microtones hard at work, sounding like someone was torturing a cat 2000 years ago:

And looking back I think I did go a bit far on this track. I could have removed the alterations and the track would be much nicer to listen to. But hey - I think one nice thing about REKKR is it's uncompromising - the maps are hard, so imo the music should be hard to listen to at times. Only the first section of this track uses the microtonal scale, the rest is relatively straight forward (so I give the listener a 'rest' from the sour notes...)

More Microtonal scales:

Its not all Vikings and Camp Fires

So that covers the main unusual aspects of the project - researching and utilizing natural scales and instrument types. But REKKR isn't all Norse strongmen living in huts - there is much more to the setting. As I started seeing some of the city maps come around, I figured it was time to introduce a more refined, ""cultured"" element to the music. So I drew on my favorite musical inspiration: Baroque and Renaissance period classical music. I introduced the Organ, more structured polyphony (many melodies interweaving), and more refined harp parts.

I spent quite a few tracks trying to really nail the most "crunchy" organ sound possible - I wanted really dense chords and clear but overwhelming harmonies.

I think I finally nailed it in this track, which I believe was unused until I mentioned that it was, and it then became the intermission track (a great choice by Revae):

Russian Girls on a Train

Inspiration came from sources other than just Scandinavian folk music and baroque fugues and counterpoint, traditional songs - especially vocal-only songs (known as acapella)  were a good source of the kind of music that could be made even without any instruments - perhaps by a bunch of viking woman on a boat, or some Russian girls on a train, as shown in this song:

The track above and vocal songs like it provided the inspiration for some of my own:

As an aside, if you want a few really great female vocal pieces, look no further: These 2 tracks also feature quite microtonal vocal parts - making them sound partially middle eastern or indian.

The human voice is truly something powerful.

REKKR, But different

As the mod went on, more styles and variety were required, I wrote a more standard metal / rock track for a dungeon map, and even managed to sneak in some Black Metal for the claustrophobia map in the 3rd episode. There were synths used, especially in the first map of E3, coinciding with the change of scene in the 3rd episode (bright purple + smooth futuristic looking walls). Some other styles and genres cropped up, a swamp map, a map for a city (heavily inspired by Edgar & Sabin's Theme from FF VI), boss music, episode end screen music, and a final "credits music" (taking the shape of a bittersweet waltz), and HELL maps. I had a great time writing in this variety of styles, while trying to keep a rough harmonic language consistent throughout. I've loved working with MIDI since I was a teenager, so its always fun to work within those limitations.

More metal dungeon track:

Regal city music:

Then a request came through that made me go ooooooooo: (slight spoilers ahead)

A mash up of all the starting areas of doom, doom2, hexen, heretic, strife and a few others. It was a secret map, and I got straight to work. I took the 1st map music from all these games, and re-envisioned them using my REKKR instruments and sensibilities, harps replaced electric guitar in the Heretic E1M1 music, bagpipe solos ripped over the Strife polyrhythms, and things just kinda came together. Combined with the visuals of that map, and all the familiar areas, I hope it makes for a fun easter egg.

Special Effects

I used a few small things to help make the MIDI a bit more lively, namely layering solo instruments with a very slight staggering in the parts, to make it sound like they were playing in a reverberating hall. So I would have 3 bagpipes all playing the same notes, but one slightly after the other, and the other slightly after that.

There are also plenty of seashore sounds used, lots of pitch bending, and very careful attention to volumes and fading in / out. Sometimes I would put so much automation (programming how the volume / pitch / etc. will change over time) that the file sizes bloated above 100kb (preventing them from playing in chocolate doom), so I had to go back and 'simplify' automation, which had very little effect on the quality of the sound. The difference between a volume curve with 500 points and a volume curve with 10 points is minimal when you have other instruments playing. This was purely something I've been used to from writing non-doom music: being able to draw smooth curves and never have to answer for those extra kb.

END GAME - RIP REKKR_3

And so that's the story of the music of REKKR, I haven't uploaded all of the tracks to my youtube yet, I will do a bit of a rearrange now that I know what has been used and what hasn't, and include some of the more recent tracks (such as the metal tracks, the swamp track, end titles and a few others).

For now I will leave you with the end game title music (the bittersweet waltz). This track pushed my available voices to the absolute limit:

So that's the story of the music of REKKR - I hope this has been of interest!