Shockwave-Sound Blog and Articles
Ideas for Creating Unique Musical Colours

Ideas for Creating Unique Musical Colours

By: Kole Hicks

If you’re like me, than you probably love to write music. However, you may eventually (if you haven’t already) run into the following issue: “Normal” sounds are not accurately expressing your muse’s intention.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of a masterfully played grand piano or open chords strummed on an acoustic guitar, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. Perhaps you’re writing just for yourself, a commission, or a media project… either way, these 4 tips will help give you refreshing ideas for creating unique musical colours.

1. Write it Different

What exactly do I mean by this? Well it’s actually quite subjective (as most of this article will be) because I don’t know what “normal” is to you; I can only assume that there are a set of “rules” that we are all familiar with and tend to follow when writing (whether it be consciously or not). So, when I recommend writing differently than you’re use to it could mean any of the following.

  • A good composer should know what it is idiomatic on the instruments he is writing for, so I recommend consciously writing something that isn’t. For example, certain closed piano voicings are ridiculously difficult or almost impossible to play on guitar (quite obvious when you have 10 fingers available vs 4). However, you can change the tuning of the strings on the guitar so that you (or the performer) is now able to play these unique voicings.

  • Do you always tend to write huge thematic melodies that soar sky-high? How about switching the roles of the musical ranges and using the bass clef for most of your melody work? I just recently did this for a project (as I was developing a theme through multiple ranges) and was pleasantly surprised with the outcome. A simple change like this (even when keeping the melody/harmony exactly the same) can give you drastically different results and evoke dramatically different emotions from the listener.
  • Change your writing location/time! I just recently became aware of the fact that I write about 70% of the time around midnight or later right in my home studio. My whole studio has a unique “mood” to it and has seemed to permeate through everything I’ve created from there (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just not “appropriate” for certain projects). However, my home studio is not the ideal environment for a “Sunshiny-Bubbly-Happy-Time” type of piece. For that, I forced myself (as if it were difficult haha) to write while sitting outside under the shade of a tree. The results were quite different and I believe a large chunk of that is owed to the change in my physical location when writing.

2. Play it Different

A majority of us here are performers as well as composers and most likely play at least a few different instruments. So, I’d like to talk about a few different ways you can “play” your instrument differently or more accurately instruct your performers/session musicians to play the written notes in a unique way.

  • First and foremost, if you tend to write a lot of Arco/Pizz. string lines, then why not switch it up with some Col Legno or maybe even instruct them to play at the bridge (Sul Ponticello)? As a general “rule”, if you’re playing an instrument that has been around for centuries, then there have been quite a few composers before you that have gone through a ton of different experiments to find unique musical colours. So, use this to your advantage and do some quick review reading in your instrumentation books!
  • Use a different “attack” device. If you play guitar, who says you have to use a pick or just your nails? Why not use that pick for some heavy duty Pizz. Picking on a viola? Perhaps you could do some “ricochet” w/ the wood of a viola bow on your guitar while holding down chord shapes? The possibilities are endless, so use another instruments “attack” device or find something that wouldn’t normally be considered a musical device at all!
  • Approach the instrument differently. I have a few friends that prefer to play their guitar like a piano (using both hands as well). The unique colours (not to mention melody/harmony combinations) they create are phenomenal. Perhaps you can think of your piano more as a percussion instrument for a certain piece, rather than that which would usually play melody/harmony? I bet with that mindset, you could come up with some great new colours. In fact, HERE is a link to a song I composed using “slap” techniques on a guitar tuned to DADGAD.

 3. Record it Different

Just like everyone has a unique compositional voice, everyone seems to have a different opinion on recording. Many believe that there are set rules/guidelines that must be learned and followed a majority of the time to create great recordings. Then there are others who believe it can’t really be taught at all, but must be learned through experience and a majority of the “rules” are garbage. My opinion lies somewhat in the middle.

  • Use different mics. There are tons of mics out there which are “specialty” mics and are usually only used for recording vocals or only guitar, etc. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use those mics for anything different. Why can’t you use that high end vocal mic to record a cello? Who is to put a limit on how many or what mics you use if you end up liking the end result?
  • Use different mic positions. Have a huge basement or garage and want some more depth to your snare or other random percussion instruments? Setup a mic at the end, one in the middle and one up close. Do you like to hear the percussive attack of a guitar? Position a mic closer to the picking hand and fret board (if you like to hear the slides from chord changes) to hear more of the performer come through on the track.

4. Mix it Different

This can cover everything from effects & EQ to Reverb & even your system/method of mixing. First I’d like to talk about the more obvious and perhaps more easily changed options when mixing. Mixing (as pretty much everything else I’ve spoken about) is quite subjective, as I know many guitarists that would boost certain frequencies when EQing their lead guitar track and yet there are many others (just as “qualified”) that would scoff at their choice. So, I recommend becoming aware and keeping track of your tendencies when mixing.

  • Do you tend to roll off the bass of all your violin tracks? Is there one reverb preset that you tend to use more than any other? Do you tend to use the same distortion/pedal effects for you guitar parts? Keep track of all of this (physically writing it down is recommended) and identify the things that are a part of your sound and which tendencies can be “manipulated” to help you reach the goal of creating unique musical colours.
  • There are of course many other factors that come into play when mixing, but the other major “event” in the process that I recommend changing, is your system of mixing. I know that when I mix, I like to have everything very organized in their unique groups (aka strings, brass, electric percussion, etc.). However, if my goal is to create something completely new and unique I may tweak (don’t need to necessarily overhaul the system) those groups. So, now instead of organizing the groups by instrument sections, I could perhaps organize them by their relevance or importance to the piece. Perhaps the first violins would be grouped with a sitar and thus my whole approach to the individual (and the entire) mix would be much different than if I had kept my previous system intact.

  • I’m sure that there are many more variables in each one of these topics that I have not addressed (Probably many more topics as well!). However, this should be a great starting point to help you create some unique musical colours and anything I have left out could perhaps be material for a later article ?. Until then, I wish you all the best and if you learn anything at all from this article, let it be this: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Take care and keep composing, fellow artists!

About the author: Kole Hicks is an Author, Instructor, and most prominently an Audio Designer with a focus in Games. He’s had the pleasure of scoring mobile hits like ‘Bag it!’, has provided audio for Indie PC titles like ‘Kenshi’ and ‘Jeklynn Heights’, and was nominated for a 2012 GANG award for an article written exclusively for titled, “Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative Music & Visceral Sound Effects… Kole Audio Solutions.

Producing MIDI music for mobile phones / cellphones Part 2

Producing MIDI music for mobile phones / cellphones Part 2

by Piotr PacynaGo back to part 1 of this article

6. Controllers

According to the most common opinion one should use only those controllers that are absolutely necessary. Well, it is true, but not quite the whole story. Yes, some old devices are unable to read anything other besides Patch Change and the Volume controller, but all those new ones give us more possibilities. So, what controllers do I use?

Well, the top my each MIDI track looks basically the same:

Program Change – Patch number
Controller 7 – Main Volume
Controller 10 – Panning
Controller 11 – Expression

The first two need no explanation. And when it comes to Panning… Well, I’m not even sure if this controller affects the sound in any way, but I always use it. Some years ago I had the opportunity to work for one of the biggest guys in ringtone business and one of the requirements was to pan all the instruments centrally (Pan = 64). I believe there must be some secret reason behind it, but they never revealed it to me.

And the next controller – Expression. Now, this is fun. Once I had a problem with some Motorola phones (e.g. E398) – no matter how high the Volume controller was set, the sound was quiet. Way too quiet. I had no idea how to fix it and started to fool around with the controllers and it turned out, surprise surprise, that unless you set the Expression to maximum value (127), you would have the abnormally quiet sound.

Pitchbend. Use it deliberely and only on better devices (see section 10. to find out what I exactly mean by that). The older ones either do not support it or start behaving in an uncontrolled way. Also – keep in mind that Pitchbend messages increase the file size and the size is something that definitely matters here.

A little tip. Remember to reset the Pitchbend right after each part. It’s important to tweak diligently, as you will use this in many parts of the song. Otherwise the track will be becoming gradually more and more detuned, especially if the song will be played in a loop.

Occasionally I play with CC 1 (Modulation) and 64 (Damper Pedal). This can lead to very interesting effects, but beware of overdoing it. Especially with the pedal effect, because it has an unrestrained appetite for polyphony. So make sure to reset it frequently thorough the song.

Recording from Sony Ericsson K300i. You’ll clearly hear the Pedal on the melody, but pay attention to the background pad – it’s one of those bugged sounds; it’s subtle, but adds a zest to a track.


7. Quantization, note lengths and looping

There is one funny thing about quantization on mobile devices. Everyone knows that they should quantize, but no one knows why. I didn’t know that either and my first songs were not quantized at all – why not giving the music more human feel, I thought to myself. And yeah, the level of emotion the clients expressed was indeed very human. They were pissed at me!

Unquantized notes tend to overlap each other and it causes troubles with the polyphony, increasing it to a ridiculously high value. Sometimes it occurs as a note stealing while sometimes the song slows down and then starts to speed up again until it reaches the original tempo. It’s horrible! That’s very much the case for some LG U-series and Sharp GX-series hand devices.

For this reason it’s good to shorten all the notes a bit after quantizing them. Shortening for 64th note is enough. The point is to prevent them from being “glued” together. I set all the drum notes to 32nd and if there are any fast parts with lots of short notes even to 64th.

And looping. “The song does not loop properly” – this is an example of another comment that I kept on hearing from clients almost as often as swear words!
To get a decent loop you should keep the outro of the song as simple as it’s only possible. Avoid any instruments with long release times, such as strings, pads or cymbals. The very simple endings with, for instance, kick drum and bass work best. The easiest and most effective way to check the track looping is to take just the last few bars of the song, set it as a ringtone and see how it works.

8. Chorus, reverb and delay.

Ofcourse I don’t mean the actual effects here, as unfortunately there is no DSP effects to enhance the inherently weak GM patches that are built-in in cell-phone synthesizers. You’ll need a sort of workaround to achieve reverb, chorus, or delay.

Many of our readers began their musical careers in the early 90’s with tracker programs such as Noise- or ProTracker. They will probably smile with sympathy now, as we use basically the same old tricks. For instance, you can copy the melody track to a different channel and detune the two using Pitchbend to create a chorus effect. You’ll get a pretty neat chorus by tuning one of the tracks up some cents and the other down exact the same amount of cents. Expand those values a little bit if you want to have more intense chorus. Luckily you don’t have to bother with mono compatibility here (in contrary to real stereo sound), so you’re free to play around. Practically all patches, perhaps aside from acoustic pianos, can benefit from this technique.

If you want to have reverb you simply copy the melody line to a new channel, time-shift the second line by, say, a 32nd note and reduce the second channel’s volume to about quarter that of the original (remember to use CC#7 instead of velocity!). Experiment with 64th note for sort of short, room reverb. Repeat the whole process and increase the second channel volume for longer reverb time. Using a breathy patch like a flute or ocarina for the time-shifted channels can add the airiness typical of reverb tails. And remember the general rule, that also applies here. Reverb is best when you don’t notice it when it’s on, but you miss it when it’s off.

Delay can be created in quite a similar manner. Again, copy the original track to a blank channel. Then time-shift the second line by a quarter note, eighth note or triplets and reduce the second channel’s volume to taste. If you want to increase the “feedback” of the delay, simply repeat this process multiple times. You can use the same patch for all delayed copies, but it’s more interesting to take a different one and try to emulate Low Cut or High Cut filtering.


Recording from Nokia 6300.
00:00 – the melody with no effects,
00:17 – chorus effect,
00:34 – reverb and delays.

9. Useful tools.

There are many tools for mobile music producers. I will describe only my favorites, without which I can not imagine my work.

Beatnik (commercial)

I’ve already mentioned it in section 1 of this article, when I was writing about the realtime polyphony. I use it mostly for editing the SP-MIDI (Scalable Polyphony) information – I believe that anyone who even had a brush with ringtone production knows that format. The subject is vast, complicated and far beyond the scope of this article. But if there is a demand for it, I’ll consider writing another text devoted to that matter. With Beatnik we also have an access to LED and vibrator and we can use, for instance, kick drum or bass notes to control the vibrating motor of the device. You can easily make an illusion of bass that blows the pants off! One interesting tip. I always put the basic instruments on the same channels – bass on channel 2, melody on 4 and the main background on channel 3. When we know on what channels are the key instruments, we can set the SP-Midi priorities much faster.

ATS-MA2 (freeware)

Simple, very useful program to convert MIDI files to SMAF MA-2 (MMF extension).
Preparing a MIDI to convert and the nuances of the SMAF format itself is another broad topic that could be expanded in the future article.

ATS-SMAFPhraseL1 (freeware)

A small app to convert MIDI files to 4-channel SMAF Phrase (SPF extension). Making a 16- channel MIDI file to sound good with only 4-channel is a challenge… One might say what’s so complicated about it? Just scoop out the essential channels, right? Haha, no! And it’s like walking on a tightrope, really. Another subject that should be given more attention.

PSM Player (freeware)

Very nice tool that I use mainly for global volume changing. It saves a lot of time while making different volume versions that I’ve described in section 5. Thanks to PSM Player I don’t have to dabble with editing every channel of every MIDI file, but just go to Setting -> Volume -> Volume and set it for, say, 50%. And voila, that’s all!



XM 2 MIDI (commercial)

A great program to convert XM (Fasttracker) modules to MIDI. If making a tracker module from scratch is easier for you than making a MIDI file, this little tool is an absolute must! Of course you need to put some extra work into such a converted MIDI, but all in all it’s an amazing utility.
Alcatel Multimedia Conversion Studio (freeware)

This one has many options, but amongst others allows one to convert MIDI files to a very rare Alcatel format called SEQ (MSEQ extension). Although I produce SEQ files occasionally, I use AMCS on a regular basis. Why? Well, for me it plays a similar role as Avantone Mix Cubes do in the real music world; every little mistake gets magnified and amplified. The old Alcatel devices, for which AMCS was designed, offered an extremely limited selection of patches and poor polyphony. I believe that if something sounds good there, it will sound good everywhere. Even on washing machines.

10. Real hardware testing.

And the last point, which I believe is the most important of all. Testing the files on real devices is crucial and absolutely necessary, as emulators are far too often unreliable. Therefore, my suggestion is to get a list of currently popular phones and buy them – it will be an investment that quickly pays for itself. Of course you don’t need to have them all. I keep having just 10-15 of the most popular at the moment. Furthermore, all major companies employ QA Testers, who are checking every game on hundreds of devices with the patience of a Benedictine monks, and if there is a problem with the sound somewhere, they immediately get to you. They send you over a recording of problematic portion of the song and you have to figure out what’s wrong. Usually the things get fixed fairly quickly. But it happened once or twice that I couldn’t help, time was running out and we ended up having a game without the sound on this particular phone.

I deliver each polyphonic composition in the following formats:


It is most important, the most extensive format designed for the best phones. This is where I allow myself to go a little bit crazy with reverb and delay, use additional percussion instruments or go low with the bass. In short – here I do everything that I’ve described as “used only on better phones.”

Alcatel + LG + Sagem

Prepared for the oldest, weakest mobile phones and also used in case of memory problems on all others. Features:

  • Files are significantly smaller in size than SP-Midi,
  • Less than 16 voices polyphony
  • Only the absolute basic instruments
  • Only the most necessary controllers
  • Drum part is simplified right down to its essentials, less instruments compared to SP-MIDI
  • Chorus, reverb and delay are absolute no-no’s
  • A tempo rate rounded to the nearest value and no tempo changes during the song
  • No patch changes on the track – only one instrument on each channel.
  • Sony Ericsson

Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite mobile phone sound-wise. I’m not sure. But if I was pushed into a corner I guess I would have to say it’s Sony Ericsson. Sometimes I get carried away by its sound. MIDI files need some tweaking before they will sound good on these phones, though.


MIDI files designed for best possible playback on Siemens phones. They are sort of beast to bridle…


SMAF MA-2 files.


4-voice SMAF Phrase files.


Monophonic (1-voice) files for the old Nokia series 30 phones. This article deals only with the polyphonic music, so I’ve decided not to get into 1-channel music production. Especially that it’s almost as complicated as polyphony stuff!

Closing words

Rob Hubbard, the famous C64 composer, once said, that music programming in assembler code was like writing music with boxer gloves on, with two hands tight behind your back, trying to use your big toe. I think something similar can be said about making music on the cell phones. In both cases there are plenty of restrictions and we have no choice but to be creative. But hey, being creative is always a joy!

I hope this article will help you to save some time and will be a starting point for making your own discoveries. Because there’s still a lot to discover. And I absolutely do not consider myself an all-knowing expert on the subject; phones surprise me all the time and I constantly learn something new. Besides that, remember there are still new models being released and it means exciting new opportunities on the one hand and the problems and bugs on the other. Watch this space!

About the author: Piotr “JazzCat” Pacyna is a
Poland based producer, who specializes in video game sound effects and
music. He has scored a number of Java games for mobile phones and, most
recently, iPhone/iPad platforms. You can license some of his tracks here.

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

By Piotr Koczewski

< Back to Part 1

Hardware continued

Selection of monitors (video) – First of all, you have to pay attention to the same contrast of a monitor, when purchasing a few HD monitors. Once I worked at two different monitors of the same company and I had to set contrast manually, which didn’t solve the problem in 100% and I had to get used to two different colours of the same workspace. The larger the screen resolution on a monitor, the more tracks are visible, and the more time can be spent on composing and listening, not on scrolling windows. In 2011 Spectrasonics released one of the first music applications Omni TR for an iPad. Although the application is used only to control the creation of Dubstep sounds, it can be used instead of modulation controller in steering keyboards. If you have problems with delays during your work on music for a video, you can use the method from the 90s, i.e. playing the video on a separate TV, laptop of smartphone screen. As far as the best multi-screen display division is concerned, the correct order is as follows: the first screen is the main display; the second is for piano roll, the third for VST, the fourth for a mixer, the fifth for a video (it can be also substituted with a projector or a TV). If we have more than 3 screens, we can make one big display instead of 4 separate ones; however, to do so, we will need screen outriggers (a trick, which will enhance the visibility of the screen, is auto-hiding the taskbar). Probably the only disadvantage of working on many screens is moving the cursor using a mouse – it is both very tiring and time consuming. The solution to this problem is purchasing a tablet, commonly used by many kinds of graphic artists. The next opportunity is LCD touch screens, which can turn into music paper or even a mixer thanks to a pointing device (a special pen). If we have an ordinary LCD screen and an LCD touch screen, we can clone the image of the main screen, and we can place or lay the touch screen close to us in order to correct notes with a pen.

Choosing a steering keyboard – It is best to choose a keyboard with 88 fully weighted keys, with a mini mixer and CC (Continuous Controller) keys and pans. Cutting a long story short, we can assign CC controllers for changing the instrument key switches without searching and hitting the keyboard notes, turning the effects on and off, and many more. Keyboards differ from steering keys with the number of inbuilt sounds (there are certain external versions of some of the keyboards, e.g. sound banks, such as Yamaha Motif and Korg Triton). In addition you can purchase steering pedals (expression and sustain) to the keyboard, which simulate playing on a real piano. In contrary to most of the steering keys, keyboards give an opportunity to choose the midi channel without using a mouse, which proves helpful when you are behind the schedule. A keyboard with a small number of keys, but with an octave switch is helpful when you work on a laptop.

Now time has come for some curiosities. If we need a larger mixer, than the one on a steering keyboard, then the External Mixer has to be MIDI USB compatible (optionally we may need a phantom power amplifier or a microphone input, if we record sound apart from music). USB mixers can be combined into one mixer, if we don’t have enough cash for a large mixer. If our loudspeakers don’t have any knobs, then we may need a loudspeaker amplifier with a remote control (instead of an amplifier, we can use special keys on a wireless keyboard). A wireless mouse, wireless keyboard and trackball can facilitate the creation of music as well.

Another thing is SSD external hard drives with installed VST, which can be used as means of quick access to data or as a backup. However, before instrument files reach RAM, they have to be entered and uploaded from a drive, which takes some time, depending on their number. However, when we work on something important, every minute matters.

If we don’t have a powerful computer, it gets overloaded when we check the real time panorama using an iZotope Ozone plug. We can save this problem by checking the panorama during breaks, using e.g. the Wavelab program, after saving the work in progress version as mp3.

Plugins for MAC’s

Recent studies have revealed that the more efficient employees work on Macintosh computers. It is nothing new, because Apple has always been producing the least fallible computers in the world.

However, as far as the cooperation of a few Apple computers is concerned, they operate on the basis of the Midi Network Setup. In order to connect a few computers, they should be joined with Firewire cables (which transmit CPU clock and audio) and ethernet cables (which transmit Midi). It works in the same way as FX Teleport, and the only difference is that you need more cables. In addition Teleport programme could be useful, which is used to control the mouse and keyboard when working on a few Macs simultaneously.

The Native Instruments Kontakt Memory Server is an opposite of the FX Teleport program. The former was issued only for MAC computers and is built in the Kontact Player. The Kontakt Memory Server loads instruments to RAM memory for a longer time and enables to ‘freeze’ the free memory resources to an unused instrument. A similar method is purge samples, but it is more time-consuming and requires switching instruments off manually. Purge samples acts in the same way as mono function on every instrument, except for the fact that it switches off sounds from memory for good, releasing its resources (it doesn’t mean that we cannot upload data back quickly in the same way). We can do it in a state of emergency, when we know that these elements are ready in the current project and we won’t have to correct them.

Working on a laptop could be an option for people creating Dance or Dubstep music, because they do not need a very “powerful” working station. Working on a laptop is advantageous in all kinds of ways.

Don’t fear the Windows system

Virtual memory acts in the same way as ‘freezing’ notes in .wav files, but it is not so perfect. A disadvantage of using virtual memory is the fact that we have to have a plugged-in hard drive, where we arranged some capacity for virtual memory. We also have to take into consideration the fact that our computer will work slower, because virtual memory is not as fast as RAM (with the exception of SSD hard drives, where virtual memory was set up).

The program for Windows system – FX Teleport – which I wrote about in the previous part is divided into a few versions serving one host computer and one, two, three, four or even more servers. It is worth remembering that you have to install such virtual instruments on the server computer, not to put the load on the host computer. In my opinion, it is worth investing in this program and a few computers, in order to develop your own scheme for quick work, even, if you work on an antique equipment. In addition, the Giga Teleport program works similarly, but only for the Giga Sampler plugin.

The only errors I encountered when working with Windows 7 operating system were related to the music software, such as Kontakt (in order to avoid the errors, you should purchase Kontakt sampler update from time to time) and notifications about the graphic card overload due to keeping the computer in a locked cabinet without ventilation. It is worth remembering that a graphic card which is plug into many displays consumes more electric energy and hence heats to a higher extent. Hans Zimmer was the one who implemented the idea for “cooling” the equipment a long time ago, but it was Brian Tyler who was the first composer to speak about it during an interview in a studio.

Below you will find a summary of all computer working stations.

Hardware Summary



  • Main Boards with 16 AMD Processor and Up to 130 GB of RAM
  • Subassemblies development price


  • Only 6-core processor on Intel Main Boards
  • Potential problems with the system



  • 12-core processor
  • The least fallible operating system in history


  • Only 32 GB of RAM the maximum
  • Computer development is not cheap
  • In case of a breakdown, the whole computer is taken to the service (refers to the iMac)




  • You can create music anywhere and anytime.
  • Easy and quick configuration


  • No possibility to change sub assemblies (may not refer to RAM in certain models)
  • Only RAM memory may be developed but not very much.Very hard to repair or roll back

Hardware Summary Addendum

My IT knowledge gained during computer studies combined with musical knowledge allowed me to save time by not searching for answers about errors on software manufacturers’ websites and not spending too much money on employing helpdesk to choose equipment and install software.

Such things, as cold solders and equipment failures are symptoms of workstation overheating, since a computer works on its top capacity, when it records a file with several dozen layers and saves to .mp3 or .wav formats. Therefore it is extremely important to cool the computer and keep it in a cupboard (if possible, a glass one, since it gives heat away the quickest) and placing two fans inside of it – one for letting hot air out and the other for blowing cold air in. The equipment has to be cooled down in order to function longer; it doesn’t matter, whether it is cooled using liquid nitrogen, mineral oil or cooled air. The more screens are plugged to an internal graphic card, the faster it will heat up. Some graphic cards are equipped with temperature indicator, which is very helpful. Many devices, e.g. hard drives, can switch off due to a feeder’s low power supply. Therefore, before we purchase a few drives and a triple head graphic card, we have to remember about choosing the right feeder to our computer.

There are times when notes are playing in our heads and we have to make use of a piece of paper, which is however more and more often substituted with Garage Band software on an iPhone.

What’s funny, we still use the old, small, high-tone Genius loudspeakers from the 90s, which have a ‘3D sound’ button; when I press it, I don’t need headphones to ‘discover’ all high-tone sounds.

Another curiosity is a parody of the song ‘I’m on a boat’, entitled ‘I’m on a Mac’, sung by comedians Pantless Knights. They show in a satirical way the differences between PC and Mac computer. The funny thing is that after the release of Windows 7, jokes about the Windows system started to be meaningless.

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website
Music License confusion – Non-PRO vs PRO tracks

Music License confusion – Non-PRO vs PRO tracks

We recently got this question from a confused customer who didn’t quite understand the role of performing rights organizations / royalty collection societies, and how it applies to stock music / royalty-free music. I ended up writing a lengthy answer to her, which I felt could be of use or interest to other customers too, so I turned it into this blog article.

This particular customer is in Italy, so her local collection society is SIAE, but the same applies in other countries. For example, if you’re in the UK, the performing rights society is PRS and if you’re in Germany, they are GEMA. But pretty much, the same principles apply.

Many of you will have noticed that whilst you search or browse for music on our site, you always have the option to “Display PRO and Non-PRO Tracks”, or “Display Non-PRO Tracks only”. But what really is the difference, and when / how / why does it matter?

PRO in this case does not stand for “Professional” as you may first think. It stands for Performing Rights Organization. PRO tracks are composed by composers who are members of Performing Rights Organizations. For those composers, neither we, nor any other stock music site, can legally sell the Performing Rights to their tracks. Non-PRO tracks are composed by composers who are not members of a Performing Rights Organization, and as such, we at or other stock music sites can in fact sell you the Performing Rights to their music.

In a music track there are three “rights”, three different parts of the copyright:

  1. Sync rights = The rights to use the music and put it into a media project, such as a film or a video game.
  2. Mechanical rights = The rights to produce CD’s, DVD’s or other physical objects that contain the music.
  3. Performing rights = The rights to broadcast the music on TV or radio,
    or to play it in a public place (such as a restaurant, cinema, etc.)

Depending on what you are going to use the music for, you may need
only one of these rights, or you may need two of these rights, or you
may need all three. If you are only going to make a film and put it on
YouTube, you really only need the Sync rights. You don’t need the
performing rights, because YouTube is the broadcaster and they already have performing rights.

Or maybe you are going to make a film about your local city and make
1,000 DVD’s of that film. And you want to use our music in your film. Then
you need the Sync- rights (to put our music in your film) and you need
the Mechanical rights (to manufacture DVD’s that contain the film that
contains our music). But you don’t need the Performing rights, because
you have no plans to broadcast this music on TV or Radio, or to play the
film in a public place such as a restaurant etc.

Broadcasters such as NBC, BBC etc
already have performing licenses, so
you don’t need one.

Remember also that existing broadcasters, such as TV stations, radio stations, cinemas, YouTube, etc. already have a Performing right license. So, if you are going to make a film which may possibly be broadcast on national Italian television later, you don’t need the Performing rights. It’s the TV station that needs the performing license. They are the broadcaster, not you. And they already have that license. All “real” broadcasting companies, TV stations, radio stations etc. already have performing licenses from the PRO in their country, which they pay for as one big payment each year. So for them, it doesn’t matter if the music is PRO or Non-PRO. They have already paid their large, annual sum for their performing license, so they already have the Performing rights covered. Which again means that you don’t need to buy the performing rights from us.

So… you see, whether or not you need Non-PRO Tracks, or just any tracks from our site, depends on how you are going to use the music. If you are going to play the music in public, or on your website, then you need the Performing rights. But if you are not going to play the music in public, or on a website, then you don’t need the Performing rights. And if you don’t need the performing rights, then you can use any tracks from our site.

If you need the Performing Rights to a track, and that track is “Non-PRO”, then simply buy the track from our site. With the Non-PRO tracks you are buying all three rights from us.

If you need the Performing Rights to a track and that track is “PRO”, then you have to buy that right from the performing rights society in your country. From our site you can buy only the two other rights; the Sync rights and the Mechanical rights.

As it turns out, the vast majority of our customers do not need the performing rights. They only need the Sync- and or Mechanical rights. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter if you choose “PRO” or “Non-PRO” tracks. Many royalty-free music websites don’t even tell you which tracks are PRO and which are Non-PRO, because they figure it is so unlikely that you actually need the Performing Rights, that they don’t want to confuse you with PRO vs Non-PRO music.

On our website you can choose to browse only Non-PRO tracks if you like. As you Search or Browse for music tracks on our website, take a note of the options: “Display PRO and Non-PRO Tracks” / “Display Non-PRO Tracks only” options on top of the list of tracks.

I hope this has been helpful.

Producing MIDI music for mobile phones / cellphones, Part 1

Producing MIDI music for mobile phones / cellphones, Part 1

By Piotr Pacyna

I’ve produced game soundtracks for mobile phones for over 9 years now. When I was starting out I thought that all I had to do was simply to make a MIDI file. A piece of cake! But I was so wrong…

The feedback that I was receiving from the clients showed me how much. They were often saying that the music was sounding good on the computer, whilst on the mobile device it sounded terrible or even wasn’t playing at all. And I’m not sure what is worst. So I became forced to experiment – I was laboriously trying every single instrument, controller and effect combined with trial and error problem solving. Why does a certain effect work, while the other doesn’t, why some devices refuse to play some instrument, while on the other ones it works fine etc. Years of work. Of course I didn’t learn everything from my own research only. Looking back I am so happy that I was given the opportunity to meet people who taught me many things and shared their experience with me (thanks to all of them!).

After several years, through a focused effort, I managed to develop a system that apparently works, as requests for adjustments are rare now. I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some tips and knowledge that I have picked up along the way.

Just a little word of caution. It is impossible to prepare the MIDI file that plays perfectly on all phones, albeit some time ago I thought it was possible. Now I know it’s an utopia. There are plenty of models and differences relating not only to the GM patches, but also to the speaker. It is possible to avoid most common mistakes and make the MIDI sound acceptable on most phones, however.

And one last thing. The text requires the basic knowledge of the MIDI format and sequencers. It’s by no means a guide for beginners who want to just start their mobile career, it’s rather for those who are already familiar with the topic and have some experience.

1. Polyphony

It would seem that these days, when majority of mobile phones are capable of playing a truly large number of MIDI voices at the same time you’re allowed to go a little bit crazy and don’t have to care for polyphony at all. Well, nothing more wrong.

Bear in mind that you are working with typically small speakers that have limited bandwidth, and if the arrangement is too busy you‘ll hear nothing but one big noise. At the beginning of my career… I’m not a careerist person, so I’m hesitant to call it a career, but, say, in my past I had a tendency to make rather complex arrangements – piano, organs and guitars, trumpet and synth lines, not to mention sweeping pads in the background. I was proud and kept playing such a MIDI track on the computer, enjoying a massive wall of sound and imagining an overwhelming enthusiasm of the game players! But the very next morning the producers were saying that my track is so great that after 10 seconds everyone wants to turn off the sound immediately. Oh, how I hated them then! But hey, they were damn right.

I had to face the painful truth that on the cell phones the tracks with a simple, three-element arrangements work best. These elements are: 1) rhythm, 2) background, 3) melody, where each instrument occupies its own frequency range. You can of course have many instruments in the background, but do not use the same octaves as the bass and melody are using. And do not let all of them play at the same time.

So – what polyphony value is safe, how many voices can a MIDI track have to sound decent on the cell phones? Well, there are no strict rules. In any case, I try to limit the realtime polyphony to 16 voices. What is realtime polyphony and how to check it? This needs a brief explanation. There are different tools for these purposes – such as the Nokia Suite, but the problem is that most of them do not show the actual polyphony, they simply show maximum voice usage per channel, in other words – they count how many notes are triggered at exact same time. So – if we have a part with very fast and short notes of, for example, String Ensemble 1 (Program Change 49) we’ll get the information, that there has been used only 1
voice. And that’s not right. All the string notes release and eat up much, much more voices.

That’s why we need a secret superweapon. It is Beatnik Mobile Sound Builder.

1 – Here we see maximum voice usage per channel determined via file analysis (this is the “fake” polyphony described above).

2 – And here we have a realtime display of voices used by the renderer per channel during audition (and this is the realtime polyphony, yikes!)

3 – This is another extremely handy feature – it shows the maximum value of the realtime voice usage per channel. And then, at the bottom, you see a cumulative polyphony value.

4 – In this row you can define the maximum voice usage.

5 – And here we have the values used to create an SP-Midi information.

Do I have to say that I love Beatnik?

Unfortunately, the program is no longer evaluated and the developer’s website does not exist anymore, so you have to ask Google nicely for help in getting it.

2. Choice of instruments.

As we all know, the General MIDI bank has 128 instruments + a set of percussion samples, but how many of them can we actually use? Through years of experiments and mistakes I have found that many phones, especially the older ones, have a very limited set of sounds and some instruments are being replaced by different, similar ones. I’ve also discovered there is a group of patches, that sound too quiet, too loud, or just poor on most devices. But in order:


When it comes to drums and the channel 10 – above all, remember to use only Standard Kit.

Other kits such as Power Kit or Electronic Kit sometimes do not play at all. As for the sounds I suggest to stick with the basic ones, such as: (C1) Bass Drum, (C#1) Side Stick, (D1) Acoustic Snare, (D#) Hand Clap, (E1) Electric Snare, (F#1) Closed Hi Hat, (A#) Open Hi- Hat, (C#2) Crash Cymbal 1. Toms is something that I use rarely. Just every now and then. Not that they sound bad or something, it’s just because I don’t want to waste the precious polyphony for something that appears once or twice in the whole song. I also suggest to be careful with Tambourine (F # 2) – on certain LG models it tends to sound too loud and aggressive, no matter how low the velocity is. The same goes to hand percussion like congas and bongos. On few Samsung hand phones there is a strange, long and bassy reverb tail attached to them. Very unpleasant. And it’s better not to touch other percussion instruments. Yeah, they may sound fine on the newer devices, but the older ones won’t play them or, in the worst scenario, we get a piercing screech instead.

And what about the bass? We have quite a nice selection of bass patches in General Midi bank, but the one that works best on mobile phones is Synth Bass 2 (Program Change 40) – unlike the rest bass patches it’s perfectly audible on all devices which I had the opportunity to check. However, it is relatively rough, dominant sound. Therefore, if we need a delicate, more subtle bass, we can experiment with Acoustic Bass (PCH 33).


As for the piano, the most safe patch is Acoustic Grand Piano (PCH 1). Especially on old phones (see section 10). With other patches there is always a risk, For example, the Rhodes Piano sounds way too faint on some Siemens devices.

Organ sounds. Well, sometimes they play okay, while some other time they stand out from the tune because of their volume and their distinct timbre. (I would point out here the old Samsung phones and especially the SMAF format mentioned later in the article).

Acoustic Guitar. Again – the most safe is Acoustic Guitar Steel (PCH 26).

Rhythm guitar – Electric Guitar Clean (PCH 28). Distortion Guitar (PCH 31) is better for riff playing than Overdrive (PCH 30). Sometimes I use 2 layers of both patches and blend them to taste – when it works well, it’s a nice complex sound that adds depth and thickness.

Strings and pads. I have not noticed any major problems here. One thing that you should keep in mind is that you can’t use any EQ or reverb to move the instruments intro the background, all you can do is to play with the volume. But not quite. Older Sony Ericssons (such as K300 or K700) had an interesting bug – some instruments, for example orchestral strings, are blurred in strange way, as if they were filtered. Of course, it’s impossible to make an orchestral tune to sound good with these strings and you had to look for alternative patches, but with some creativity, you can make a good use of that bug. The bugged instruments sound
like they were EQ’ed fairly brutally with lowpass filter and drowned in long Hall type reverb. So you can combine a dry melody with them to create an illusion of depth. It sounds pretty neat. See section 6 for a suitable audio clip.

Unfortunately, the bug has been removed from newer models.

3. Octaves

There is one general rule here. Avoid the sounds that are too low and too high pitched. The threshold of security for bass is the C1 note – lower tones may be (but don’t have to) inaudible. The upper limit is around C6 – the high notes have the tendency to sound really fatiguing on cell phones, even at low volume and velocity settings. So it’s better just to avoid them.

One important thing for SONAR users. It starts counting with MIDI Note 0 as C0. You can change the “Base Octave For Pitches” on the Options -> Global. I have mine at -2 to match Cubase, where Middle C is C3 (and what is the most common value, by the way).

4. Time-shifting the notes

I once made an embarrassing discovery. On some phones (e.g. Samsung E700) one can hear a loud crack at the beginning of the MIDI file. Short, yet very annoying. What’s that? Well, on top of every MDI channel there are controllers (see section 6) with the Control Change # 7 (volume) being the most important in this case. The problem is that the controllers demand a bit of time to take effect, so you need to time-shift a little all the notes from the top of the track. Shifting by a 64th note will be fine. This way we give the controllers the necessary time to kick on and the crack disappears.

(Recording from Samsung E700. You will be able to hear the click at the beginning quite brilliantly.)


5. Velocity and Volume.

Another extremely important issue.


A general advice – it’s much better to set the channel volume using the controller (CC # 7) instead of velocity. First off – some phones (e.g. the old Sagem models) simply ignore the velocity value. Second off – when the velocity is low, some other devices tend to play so quiet, that you can barely hear anything. And third off, and that’s even more important than anything mentioned above, you often need to change the volume of the whole MIDI song and it’s much easier and faster to do with the controller.

I always set the velocity to maximum value (127, that is) on practically everything. The exceptions are some elements of a drum kit – cymbals, crash, which I set to 50-75, otherwise they are way too loud and cover all the other instruments (like on Siemens phones). Sometimes I play with the velocity to achieve a sort of an echo effect, although more often I use the controller # 7 for this purpose.


There was a time, when the most frequently asked customer request were: “please make the MIDI file lower in volume by 50%” and “please make it louder by 50%”. When it became a plague I came to the conclusion that I had to do something with it. It turned out that some cell phones were simply louder than the “standard” was, while the other for a change, a lot quieter. So at some point I came up with the idea of providing each MIDI file in 3 volume versions: standard (100%), quieter by half (50%) and louder about half (150%).

Usually I set the volume controller to 85 for the melody and drums, for bass to 70, and to 50-70 for background instruments. In version 50% it is respectively: 42, 35, 25-35, and in the 150% version – 127, 105, 75-105. Of course, these values may slightly change when testing the file on the real phone (see section 10).

Anyway, ever since I started to prepare the 3 volume version, all the volume requests have gone out. As if by magic!

Continue to Part 2 of this article >

About the author: Piotr “JazzCat” Pacyna is a Poland based producer, who specializes in video game sound effects and music. He has scored a number of Java games for mobile phones and, most recently, iPhone/iPad platforms. You can license some of his tracks here.