Dude, Where’s My Comb?

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Good news everyone! Your friendly neighbourhood blogger has been awarded Best Game Sound for my composition Slurpentine Comb. The award was for taking part in the 40 Hour Make A Thinghosted by Steve Halliwell at SAE-QANTM Brisbane, taking place from the 2nd to the 6th of February, 2105. My faithful companions and I were responsible for the dungeon crawler game called Coffee Crawler, with Jess Larcombe (our fearless leader) and David Whitehouse designing and programming and yours-truly being the ‘Sound Guy’. The theme this year was Coffee, Comb and Crescendo, the three words serving as inspiration for us to ‘make a thing’.

I joined the team on thursday the 5th of February and to the delight of the programmers came up with a track that not many were expecting (I even surprised myself!). I used a Comb. 100% HAIR COMB! (Head lice not included).  The response was amazing, with all involved in the event having a good laugh, scratching their heads (not from lice!) and saying how did you do that? Well, it’s magic! Shazam!

Lets take a look at how Slurpentine Comb was created and the magic of Battery 4, the program used to bring vision to reality.

I need to order a new instrument please. Wide tooth, black plastic...
I need to order a new instrument please. Wide tooth, black plastic and 12 bristles…

Sample That Comb

The first step was to sample my hair comb with the concept of creating a tonal, playable instrument. For this step I recorded the comb with a Rode Broadcaster mic (1″ gold-plated diaphragm condenser) into pro-tools. I recorded four basic comb sounds:

  1. Scratch (Bloing)
  2. High Pluck (Dung)
  3. Strike Base (Boing)
  4. Low Pluck (Plop)

For the Scratch, the comb was strummed with a guitar pic 5-10cm from the mic.

For the High Pluck, the comb was played about 5-10cm from the mic, much like how you would play an Mbira.

For the Strike, I held the comb 5-10cm from the mic, by the bristles and struck the base of it, which was surprisingly musical and already had a definable pitch.

For the Low Pluck the comb was held against the body of the microphone itself, and then plucked.

With the basic sounds recorded, I selected the best sounding snippets and bounced them down into .wav files (stereo, 16 bit, 41k).

Now it was time make a playable instrument.

Building the Instrument

Taking the snippets of audio, I imported them into a program called Battery 4, a sampler from Native Instruments that works as an insert on an instrument track in Pro-Tools.

Battery 4 in Pro-Tools
Battery 4 in Pro-Tools

As you can see in the above photo, there is a grid numbered 1-12 horizontally and lettered A, B, C and D vertically. The numbers 1-12 represent notes on a MIDI keyboard, 1 being middle C, 2 is C#, 3 is D, 4 is D# and so on. The letters represent what octave your playing on the keyboard, e.g. B is one octave higher than A etc. Basically the grid is just a map for your MIDI keyboard or controller.

After inserting the snippets into Battery 4, the next step was to alter the pitch to make an octave of musical information. The Low Pluck snippet was inserted to A-5 and the tune function was used to raise and lower the pitch on either side, resulting in 12 playable notes on the MIDI keyboard.

Tune function in Battery 4
Tune function in Battery 4

This process was repeated for all the samples except the Sratches (Bloing – see photo of Battery 4), these had individual samples that were different speeds and tones of scratching.

Make a Tune!

With the snippets now mapped out and ready to use we get to the fun bit…Making up a tune! After playing around with my new sampler for a while I had come up with a simple but effective piece that looped after 2 minutes (keep it simple stupid!). I entered the MIDI editor in Pro-tools and sequenced it.

MIDI sequence of Slurpentine Comb
MIDI sequence of Slurpentine Comb

You’ll notice at the end of the piece a raise in velocity, which produces a crescendo, this was to adhere to the guidelines of the challenge (Coffee, Comb, Crescendo). A few of you may point out the fact that there is an absence of coffee sounds in the music, to which I applaud your powers of observation and kindly point out the fact that I had sampled myself slurping on a coffee (supplied by Andrew in the sups office), then used these slurping sounds as in-game sound effects for when the character comes across the caffeinated beverage.

So there you have it, after 10 coffees and a crescendo the humble hair-comb has taken an honourable mention in the 40 Hour Make Something challenge. Hats off!


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