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Beware the Bongo Line of Doom!

September 4, 2009

Whenever you record music in a recording studio, there’s a persistent stress factor that you have to contend with – the clock.  Studio time is expensive.  As such, you have two choices when you’re going to go into the studio and recording live musicians:

– Either you write something that you know will be easy enough to record a perfect take of quickly

– Or you hire insanely talented musicians who can perform anything you put in front of them

You also, incidentally, can fail at both.

The first option can make you feel like you’re watering down your creativity for the sake of a budget and it can feel disappointing.  The second option can cost a lot of money.  So, in reality, you tend to do some of 1, some of 2, and then shoot for a midpoint on other pieces and hope it all works out in the end.

With The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, however, I didn’t have the luxury of writing the music myself.  I was working from Michael Land, Barney Jones, Andy Newell, and Patrick Mundy’s original score from 1990.  For the most part, recording the instrumentalists went well.  There were instances where melody lines went outside the range of the real playable instruments or phrases that were awkward and needed to be spliced together from a couple of takes, but these were easy to tackle.The Bline Lookout

There was, however, one track of one instrument that flummoxed every musician I threw at it – the bongos for the opening credit sequence.  The credit sequence track is tricky.  For the musicians out there, it frequently flips back and forth between bars of 3 4 and 4 4, with a couple of 2 4s in there for good measure.  For the non-musicians, it’s hard to dance to.

The first up on the bongos was The Workshop’s own Jedi Mudkip who’s a very nice guy and a percussionist to boot, but the bongo line of doom did him in.  Next up, a drummer who had been playing in prog rock bands for years.  I was sure he’d be able to handle the changes.  No dice.  Next up, a percussionist who specialized in ethnic percussion and particularly the complex rhythms of the Indian tabla.  And yet, still no groove.  Our last shot was a guy on staff here with an uncanny knack for being able to pick up any instrument.


In the end, the bongo line of doom did in more drummer’s than Spinal Tap and I had to use samples.  Not ideal, but it’s the only track that ended up stumping me with bongos for the whole score.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 8:23 pm

    This post would be better with matching video.

    Short of digging the Performa out of the closet, I can’t hear the music, but in my head.

    I guess this means I should buy the iPhone version.

  2. September 5, 2009 2:21 am

    So who did it in the end?

  3. September 5, 2009 8:35 am

    Fascinating. Shame it didn’t have a happy ending 😦

  4. September 6, 2009 5:03 pm

    Interesting! It was great to hear the soundtrack revived, a job well done sir!

    Last time I was in a similar situation, the way I got through it was to slow the track down a bit and play the part in with it’s intended dynamic changes etc. Each hit can then be lined up to the normal-speed guide with some editing, and because they were played in slower, there’s no ugly stretching needed and it’ll still sound natural if the edits are clean. Placing every percussive hit of a long track can be a pain in ze butt though, and of course the felt dynamics and rhythm of a live musician is usually preferable. A close-to-natural edited track is usually nicer than straight samples though.

    • Jesse permalink
      September 6, 2009 8:49 pm

      Thanks, Ed! I did actually try a different approach that is somewhat similar to your suggestion. With each of the percussionists, not only did I have them simply try to play the part as written, but I also had each of them play to a click track and simply said “Give me a 4 4 groove.” After I had some solid 4 4, I asked for 3 4 and then 2 4. Once I had each of those, I tried to just edit the various grooves together into one cohesive part. But it didn’t work. It took a lot of time and in the end didn’t feel natural.

      • September 7, 2009 3:07 am

        Cool idea, worth a try even if it didn’t pan out. I don’t think the end result suffered anyway, sounds great.

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