Redesigning the Microbe Stage Soundtrack - A Tentative Guidebook

As per all of the new discussions happening around the sound team, especially with our recent additions, the consensus has been that it would be useful create a more structured approach to how we’d like to compose new tracks for the Microbe stage.
The main goal of this post will be:

  1. Set simple and suggested guidelines for what type and number of instruments each track should have.

  2. Clarify the intended mood and purpose of tracks

  3. Identify useful chords and progressions that lend themselves to the above point.

  4. Pick out a motif/leitmotifs that could be used across each track if possible. (In an ideal world leitmotifs could be matched to biomes but thats too complex right now)

  5. Establish a progression of tracks during game play and determine when/which tracks need to be looped.

  • Suggestion that “if you’re going into an editor, instead of fully pausing the music you can have certain instruments cut out so it’s just the base rhythm. Then when you unpause/go back into the game the full instrumentation could come back in” by AmpersandSoundworks
  1. Identify which songs from the previously established soundtrack can be transitioned over/remastered and kept in the game.

Again, all of this should be suggested and not be considered an absolute restriction on what can/can’t be used. People should be allowed to compose freely and bring their ideas to the table, but some of us do need a bit of structure to work off of. An added benefit is that this allows all the BGMs to have better flow between one another. Additionally SFX designers input is invaluable here too, as friction between the in game sounds and the BGM can lead to dissonant game play.

I will update each goal with suggested ideas from the comments/discord as I receive them, and based on discussions around them identify which ones the community leans towards

As a primer, I’ll include the following resources in addition to some of my own personal ideas (in the comment below), but I’d rather people develop their own thoughts before they refer to others’ ideas:
Microbe Audio (From the Thrive Wiki) - (imo feels slightly outdated)
Previous Music List Thread - (lots of old tracks)
Oliveriver’s recent comment on the Microbe Music discussion (links to our current soundtrack)

If you have an idea/suggestion it would be very useful to have an example track to illustrate your idea!

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Here are some ideas I’ve mentioned in the discord, especially regarding point Number 5: progression of tracks and what mood/genre of music to have.
There has been discussion around 3 types of ambient music for the microbe stage:

  • Orchestral Ambient Vibes (strings only)
  • Relaxing Sleep music (synths, low bpm, maybe strings)
  • High Tempo Bass Ambiance (higher bpm, bass line, high tension)

I feel that we’ve leaned towards the first two a lot in our current soundtrack, and with a lot of the tracks sounding bare/repetitive there is a lost of engagement happening by the player. A good track should keep the player engaged in each situation, and sometimes even be the impetus for a player’s actions.

Based on how I’d view a new players experience Id go something like

  • First track/Initial Gameplay: Light strings, relaxed, little base (player exploring still new to game etc…, low tension), but begin growing a light melody in the back
  • Second track/Starting to get involved: Strings, higher bpm, bass introduced midway (players more involved in the game, so bpm should reflect it as such, start melodic then fade)
  • Third track onwards/ Tension: higher bpm, bass, tense moments, not too complicated but still going strong (keep player from getting bored/tired and keep them on edge a bit. melody can be just small motifs that dont over power the depth of the bass)
  • Adjust for biome if needed/necessary/plausible with programming

That way we do get some of the strings/light mood that a lot of people are used to and like but we do get some of the more involved tracks in there without having to make a bad transition

Regarding Number 4: Motifs, I think the main theme motif isn’t how I’d approach the microbe soundtrack - it’s too grandiose so a smaller more compact melody that can be repeated easily would suffice. This way we can double the duration/halve the duration of each note in the motif easily into each track, allowing for .5x 1x and 2x versions of the motif to appear in songs based on what you need. (Imagine giving it to a deep bass line, or higher saw synth but as varied lengths.) But, the more I think about it the more difficult I think it would be to keep a common motif around each track without stifling composer’s creativity so my current opinion is to have none and rather focus on the other points.

That’s all I have to say for now but I look forward to some productive discussions.

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I have no qualifications regarding sound design. But I urge you to think this through thoroughly before completely changing the character of the microbe stage soundtrack.
The whole overarching idea behind the Thrive soundtrack is that a progression is taking place throughout the stages. Making the microbe soundtrack too complex and action-packed would alter and possibly disrupt this whole theme of progression that has been layed out for all the stages.
I‘m not saying there shouldn‘t be some more lively tracks in the microbe stage during certain moments when it fits (for example when a carnivorous cell is chasing you). But I feel like the bulk of the soundtrack should be of a similar pace and tension as it currently is.
And I especially would avoid any percussion whatsoever in the microbe stage. You can create tension and pace without percussion using mainly synths. Spore did so for example during the cell stage (if I remember correctly).
What do @Oliveriver and @tjwhale think of this?

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@MirrorMonkey2 We came to this conclusion after discussions involving oliver, and in our discord with many other new sound members. Again my post says in the title its ***tentative which means we’re not gonna change it for no reason but rather I think it would be very useful to kind of get the ball rolling on this topic. If you noticed on discord we already have people posting example tracks that contrast to our current music and if we plan on integrating these a more thorough discussion on music theory for the game needs to be done. The current guidelines for new composers are very vague, since most of the music was being produced by a select few people previously - now with more members these kinds of posts helps facilitate creative discussions.
I am aware of our previous soundtrack and even linked to large portions of the discussions already had about percussion etc…

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Hey. So for the track I threw together, I was simply thinking about building tension. I decided for this track to go entirely synth-based (my successive tracks will be in different styles). I wasn’t focusing on the key as I was just freely layering ideas (though the key is A-minor). At the start there is a simple alternation between octaves; this was meant to emulate an alarm sound signifying the start of some kind of conflict.
Perhaps this could be emulate the start of the transition between evolutionary phases.

Since I wasn’t really using the 3rd of the key ©, the track takes on a more major feel until there are the held notes make an appearance. There are a heavy number of effects on the synths such as reverb, delay, filters etc. giving the track a sense of vast space. The bass rhythm enters and creates a sense of urgency and now different melodies and pads make an appearance, like a large hostile force converging on a vulnerable base.

Though this is something I threw together just to bounce ideas, Ampersand Soundworks made a good point in that the energy would have to be brought back down when whatever “wave” (or however the phase change occurs) dies down.

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I think that revamping the music for the microbe stage is a great idea, but I also liked a lot about the original soundtrack for the stage. I like how the synths and ambient elements have it an alien sort of feel. I think when we are redesigning the soundtrack, we should definitely build on the aesthetic that the original one created.

Also, I definitely think that having a leitmotif that most or many of the tracks use, I think it can be one of the things that brings it together and it would be interesting hearing the melody in the different contexts

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Alright, thanks for the reply!

I think we have to be careful about trying too hard to be different for the sake of it. In particular…

100% agree. I think the two tracks from Discord were excellent but they didn’t fit what I view as the Microbe Stage aesthetic. A lot of that is because the percussion - and even percussive-like instruments with fast attacks - would break my personal immersion of being a simple organism swimming in a tiny, amoprhous, watery world.

I have changed my mind and now agree the stage’s soundtrack could do with some revisions, but that hasn’t changed the sonic atmosphere I think it should strive towards. People clearly disagree, but I’m putting this out there to state my position (since according to Discord I haven’t been consistent…sorry).

Here are some properties my idealised version of the Microbe Stage tracks would have:

  • Ambient. Synth-heavy. Lots of reverb and delay.
  • Low instrument clarity. It should be relatively difficult to pick out individual notes or layers, as if the whole thing has been stirred together in a microbial soup. Instead the ear should follow the shape of all the layers together and whatever emotion that creates.
  • Limited timbral complexity for individual instruments. Stick to thin-sounding synths wherever possible, perhaps with the occasional more complex instrument. Sine waves are your friend. But in general no real instruments (strings, guitars, drums).
  • No percussion, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, build tension with harmonic, textural and pan/width changes. Some less traditional percussion is ok, such as bells or glass.
  • Sub-aesthetics for each biome, e.g. low and menacing for hydrothermal vents, bright and wide for the surface.

I do recognise that’s hard to mesh with also wanting each track to have a unique character and definite progression, but it’s far from impossible.

The gold standard for the type of thing I’m thinking of would be this album.

Vast ambient soundscapes. Emotions centred around loneliness and melancholy, with variations into menace or comfort. A cohesive whole with nonetheless distinct tracks. It can be done.

So that’s my position here. The existing soundtrack can be improved but I think the same vision stands. How does everyone else feel about that?

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I’m not a sound guy, but I like that the soundtrack has a planned overall theme. Maybe I’m used to hearing about the progression (starting with no real instruments and then adding them in once the player species is advanced enough), but I think it really fits in the game, and makes the Thrive soundtrack more unique.

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@Oliveriver
I like your ideas with creating percussion with synths: easy to do and effective, though I think that at certain points during the gameplay (even within the Microbe stage), there can be some percussive elements, just to highlight key moments. Here is why I think that.

So as per the game balancing notes, I saw that the amount of time for completing the microbe stage was an estimated maximum of three hours on a first playthrough.

I think a good way to determine the style of music and where it’s placed should be dependent on a few things:

  1. The time spent in each stage
  2. The classification of each stage
  3. The important transitional moments within the stages

I was playing the game right now and since I’m not entirely sure how it works yet, I was simply floating around collecting resources. I then went into the editor (first track was nice, in fact I think this would be a good transitional track) and I saw that there were a number of paths one could take.

So I have a couple of questions because I couldn’t figure out from the game itself what exactly was the best evolutionary patch (or if one has to go in order):

  1. Does collecting the resources and moving to a patch force a transition?
  2. If the stages are to be at least a few hours long, won’t this get monotonous?

PsychoChef mentioned that there is a “…loss of engagement happening by the player. A good track should keep the player engaged in each situation, and sometimes even be the impetus for a player’s actions.” That’s one of the reasons I want to know how the transitional elements of the game work because then we can use utilize these percussive pieces for those moments that call for it.

I feel though that if these stages are to be more than a few hours long, being a little different will help signal evolutionary changes and give the player a more defined sense of purpose and keep them engaged. Don’t get me wrong, your music is great and really fits the aesthetic, but as with any struggle I find that music with a little percussion and faster rhythm really helps highlight those moments and really propels the players’ need to evolve.

So to sum up, I feel that the vision can be adhered to but there should be some moments of disruption within using whatever elements can best convey said disruption.

I really like that track you posted from that album, but at around 3:50 I was like this deserves a beat, ha.

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I’m not entirely sure what you mean here. If you’re asking whether it’s a major transitional moment in gameplay, then probably not. We expect the player to be entering and exiting the editor many times over the course of just this one stage. Moving to a new biome might count though - if you mean musical transition, i.e. change to a different track or series of tracks, then this could be one.

The idea is that the player will choose some evolutionary path to go down. They may prefer sedentary, relaxing gameplay as a photosynthesizing drifter, or they could become a fast predator. Or anything in between. As they make their cell more sophisticated, gameplay will become more interesting as they gain new abilities or improve existing ones.

I don’t think the Microbe Stage as it’s planned really has the kind of “moments of disruption” you’re thinking about. At least, not how I imagine it.

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@Oliveriver Thanks for responding.

So then it’s probably me not understanding how the gameplay works in the larger scope of things.

I see. Hmmm. Can one become a fast predator in the Microbe Stage…or is this best left for successive stages? Should the music be tied to the stage or the evolutionary actions of the player?

I think by getting a better handle on how the Microbe Stage fits into the grand scheme of the game or how the Microbe Stage full develops, I’ll have a better sense of an aural direction. Is there a fully-developed plan for the game as a whole?