“Shhhh-it!”: Idolator’s Super-Secret Music Interview Series Plays Some Games

Lucas Jensen | October 23, 2008 10:00 am

Every week in the “Shhhh-it!” AnonIMous Super-Secret Music-Biz Interview Series (S-I!AS-SM-BIS for, uh, short) we interview a grizzled music industry veteran via the stream-of-consciousness power of instant messaging. We talk about the person’s job, the state of the industry, and whatever else comes to mind. This week, we bring you music/rhythm game programmer GeorgeTardasin. Tardasin worked with a big-time music game developer on an iteration of a big-time music game (hint: you use plastic guitars to play it). Tardasin worked as a Gem Author, which is the name for the programmer who encodes the songs into the program, aligning the colored circles, or “gems,” that correspond with the buttons on the controller. In this interview, Tardasin discusses the challenges of transposing the songs, how long the process takes, and the joys of lighting and animations:

StumpyPete1975: you did the lights and the animations?GeorgeTardasin: yup.StumpyPete1975: that seems to me like it would be lots of funGeorgeTardasin: yeah… you get to choose what animation is going to show…so if you have like a really dramatic part of the song… there is an option to flare the lights out on the crowd.GeorgeTardasin: ha haGeorgeTardasin: Its kinda cheesy but in a really awesome way.GeorgeTardasin: and change the colors of the lights and make the characters do funny tricks while they are playing.

The whole thing after the jump!

StumpyPete1975: Let’s get the foundational stuff out of the wayGeorgeTardasin: sure.StumpyPete1975: you worked in the video game industryGeorgeTardasin: yes.StumpyPete1975: you worked for one of the major music game development companies, correct?GeorgeTardasin: yup.StumpyPete1975: and you worked on a major rhythm/music game release that everybody knowsGeorgeTardasin: yes.StumpyPete1975: coolStumpyPete1975: you were a Gem Master?StumpyPete1975: Gemologist?GeorgeTardasin: Gem AuthorStumpyPete1975: okayStumpyPete1975: what in the heck is that?GeorgeTardasin: The “gems” in the video game are the colored dots that you needed to hit rhythmically with your controller in time with their appearance on the television screen.GeorgeTardasin: you needed to hit the corresponding color on your controller.GeorgeTardasin: So, I would listen to the music and transpose the rhythm and the scale (approximately) to midiGeorgeTardasin: but everything had to be condensed to five “notes” or “gems” for the player to try and hit with the corresponding five control keysStumpyPete1975: why are they called gems?GeorgeTardasin: I do not know.GeorgeTardasin: Because they look like gems on the screen?StumpyPete1975: do they?StumpyPete1975: I guess so…GeorgeTardasin: a little bit.StumpyPete1975: maybe it’s just better sounding than programmerStumpyPete1975: gem author is mysteriousGeorgeTardasin: heh.GeorgeTardasin: I also would write all the rhythms for the bass, drums, lights, and the hand movements of the characters.StumpyPete1975: omgStumpyPete1975: I had no idea you did all of that!GeorgeTardasin: yup.GeorgeTardasin: It was a pretty awesome.StumpyPete1975: I betStumpyPete1975: it sounds pretty awesomeStumpyPete1975: let’s break down the typical progression of a song being added to the programGeorgeTardasin: okay.StumpyPete1975: what’s the first thing that happens?GeorgeTardasin: The song would be rerecorded to a click track.StumpyPete1975: so you worked with cover versions?StumpyPete1975: one of the earlier gamesGeorgeTardasin: yeah.GeorgeTardasin: so I would know the exact bpmStumpyPete1975: okayGeorgeTardasin: or I would get the song with the bpmStumpyPete1975: I always thought the fake Sting was goodStumpyPete1975: but the fake Cobain was terribleGeorgeTardasin: ha ME TOO.StumpyPete1975: Sting’s hard to doGeorgeTardasin: to sing?StumpyPete1975: yeah, to singGeorgeTardasin: His basslines seem pretty easy.GeorgeTardasin: but maybe that was the song I worked on.StumpyPete1975: oh yeahGeorgeTardasin: so then I would listen over and over againGeorgeTardasin: and write the rhythm down in the midi program I had uploaded the song into.GeorgeTardasin: Add a midi track to the audio program with the correct bpm.GeorgeTardasin: then it was a matter of just writing it all down.GeorgeTardasin: For the guitar and bass lines, I would actually transpose it note for note first and then I would condense it into five keys trying to keep the same relative patterns that were actually played by the artist.GeorgeTardasin: mostly its about patternsStumpyPete1975: ahaGeorgeTardasin: creating patterns with the five keys – gems that correspond somewhat to what is being played.StumpyPete1975: the songs without patterns are definitely tougherGeorgeTardasin: but some things you do with guitar don’t directly transpose into midi, like bending strings and such.GeorgeTardasin: so there is a little fudging.StumpyPete1975: did you ever find a song where you had to make compromises or sacrifices?GeorgeTardasin: or slides.StumpyPete1975: where you never felt like you got it right?GeorgeTardasin: well there is a lot of wiggle room and it is kinda an artform. the way I would transpose it would be different sometimes than what others would transpose it.GeorgeTardasin: yup.StumpyPete1975: what’s the hardest part about taking the 12 note scale and making it 5 notes?GeorgeTardasin: gosh.GeorgeTardasin: The sacrifices.GeorgeTardasin: you have to choose between making a good pattern and staying as close to the original , I guess “score”?GeorgeTardasin: Usually I’d go for pattern, since that is the most fun to play. at least in my opinion.StumpyPete1975: pattern vs. what?StumpyPete1975: what’s the other option?GeorgeTardasin: hmmm.GeorgeTardasin: trying to keep as close to the actual notes being playedGeorgeTardasin: everything scrunches down, compressesGeorgeTardasin: or you try and then if it goes up to a note in another octave, you’re screwed.StumpyPete1975: wowStumpyPete1975: so complicatedGeorgeTardasin: Well, its both auditory and visual in a way..GeorgeTardasin: At least that’s how I worked. Everyone does it differently.GeorgeTardasin: I would transpose it into midiGeorgeTardasin: and then you have a visual representationGeorgeTardasin: of the notesStumpyPete1975: ahaGeorgeTardasin: and then I would look for common patterns or phrases and try to make them into a 3, 4, 5 note scale.GeorgeTardasin: the easy level 3…you kinda just lose it altogether…ha haGeorgeTardasin: keep in mind that I was the first person to touch the midi filesGeorgeTardasin: I would put together the “gems”, the controls for the lights and all the animationsGeorgeTardasin: but there were other people whose jobs were just to play the games all day long.StumpyPete1975: okGeorgeTardasin: They made a ton of adjustments to what I created.StumpyPete1975: so you had editors, basicallyGeorgeTardasin: my boss, who had been doing it for yearsGeorgeTardasin: and then the qa peopleStumpyPete1975: so by the time you are ready to present it to them, how many times have you listened to the song?GeorgeTardasin: 25StumpyPete1975: does that drive you crazy?GeorgeTardasin: Not in the leastStumpyPete1975: that’s not tooooo manyGeorgeTardasin: each time I was concentrating on a different instrumentStumpyPete1975: ahaStumpyPete1975: I’ve heard that from studio engineers beforeGeorgeTardasin: I can see that.StumpyPete1975: that you listen for something different each timeGeorgeTardasin: exactlyStumpyPete1975: so it doesn’t get too monotonousGeorgeTardasin: did y’all ever have disagreements about the gems?GeorgeTardasin: Final tweaks on a deadline maybeStumpyPete1975: sounds like a congenial workplace!GeorgeTardasin: but I have to sayGeorgeTardasin: the funnest partGeorgeTardasin: was being able to actually play the game after having written all the midiStumpyPete1975: I bet!GeorgeTardasin: You imagine in your head how things are going to look and how the game is going to playGeorgeTardasin: but you write (or at least I did) on a keyboardGeorgeTardasin: it has a different feel when you are holding the guitar controller.StumpyPete1975: I bet it’s pretty excitingGeorgeTardasin: typically the way I wrote it was a LOT harder than it should be.StumpyPete1975: hahahaGeorgeTardasin: you were one of those!GeorgeTardasin: what do you mean?GeorgeTardasin: ha haStumpyPete1975: nothing badStumpyPete1975: just one of the hard programmersStumpyPete1975: some songs seem harder than othersStumpyPete1975: on the same difficultyStumpyPete1975: and not just because of the songsStumpyPete1975: I’ve long wondered about thatGeorgeTardasin: totally!GeorgeTardasin: Well people are making what you are playing…GeorgeTardasin: so that doesn’t surprise me.StumpyPete1975: I can see there being finesseStumpyPete1975: I’d imagine doing gems for easy might be harder than expert because you have to distill itStumpyPete1975: am I crazy in thinking that?GeorgeTardasin: nope you are totally totally rightGeorgeTardasin: you have to choose what to take out.GeorgeTardasin: and everybody makes different decisions with that.GeorgeTardasin: You want to keep the essence of the song…StumpyPete1975: does musical training help?StumpyPete1975: I mean, music experience?StumpyPete1975: or do you think anybody slightly musical could do it?GeorgeTardasin: I think it would be really really difficult to transposeGeorgeTardasin: if you weren’t very familiar with music.StumpyPete1975: yeah, I would suspect so.StumpyPete1975: another questionGeorgeTardasin: uh ohStumpyPete1975: you did the lights and the animations?GeorgeTardasin: yup.StumpyPete1975: that seems to me like it would be lots of funGeorgeTardasin: yeah… you get to choose what animation is going to show…so if you have like a really dramatic part of the song… there is an option to flare the lights out on the crowd.GeorgeTardasin: ha haGeorgeTardasin: Its kinda cheesy but in a really awesome way.GeorgeTardasin: and change the colors of the lights and make the characters do funny tricks while they are playing.GeorgeTardasin: but again, difficult to completely visualize until you see the midi integrated with the engine into video.StumpyPete1975: that sounds greatStumpyPete1975: I’d like to engage in a bit of conjectureGeorgeTardasin: okay!StumpyPete1975: obviously, I think that most bandsStumpyPete1975: would love to be able to have their songs in guitar hero or rock bandGeorgeTardasin: totallyStumpyPete1975: how hard would it be to open this up to people?GeorgeTardasin: wow.StumpyPete1975: to include it in gamesGeorgeTardasin: It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it I guess.GeorgeTardasin: You might want to suggest that to the audio director..ha haGeorgeTardasin: or whoever is in charge.StumpyPete1975: well, think about itStumpyPete1975: you load your songs inGeorgeTardasin: I think its a great ideaGeorgeTardasin: Kinda like the simpsonizer!StumpyPete1975: and you animate everythingGeorgeTardasin: but for a video game!StumpyPete1975: yeah, sureStumpyPete1975: so you think it’s possible, if not necessarily easyGeorgeTardasin: exactlyGeorgeTardasin: I was slow but it took like a day at first to complete a song.GeorgeTardasin: Its not immediately gratifyingStumpyPete1975: a day seems not so bad to meStumpyPete1975: was that on one difficulty level?GeorgeTardasin: nope threeStumpyPete1975: wowStumpyPete1975: coolStumpyPete1975: that’s a lot better than I expectedGeorgeTardasin: actually I’m lyingGeorgeTardasin: it took me two to three days per songGeorgeTardasin: but at the end I was doing about one a dayGeorgeTardasin: and other people were way faster.StumpyPete1975: okay…why the lie?GeorgeTardasin: I forgotStumpyPete1975: haha…liar!GeorgeTardasin: That’s me!StumpyPete1975: so they can crank these things outStumpyPete1975: after the gem authors get into the rhythmGeorgeTardasin: yeahStumpyPete1975: do you think that the advent of master tracks has changed anything?StumpyPete1975: they don’t use covers anymoreGeorgeTardasin: yeah..they were still using covers when I worked there.GeorgeTardasin: probably not? as long as the rhythm is steadyStumpyPete1975: yeah some of those old tracks are questionableGeorgeTardasin: I”m sure it presents a challengeGeorgeTardasin: since midi is quantized and exactStumpyPete1975: they can probably subtly manipulate the tracksStumpyPete1975: do you guys ever fight over songs NOT to do?GeorgeTardasin: Well, I was on the bottom of the totem pole… so I didn’t really have much choiceGeorgeTardasin: ha ha.GeorgeTardasin: Since you really got familiar with so many different artists. It’s pretty intimate.GeorgeTardasin: I wanted to do everything!GeorgeTardasin: Everything