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Nerd vs. Geek: The Development of a Theme

How it All Started

In November 2012 I was approached by Matt Conant and Stephanie Yuhas of Cinevore Studios, who asked if I would be interested in writing the main theme music for their upcoming comedy series, “Nerd vs. Geek”. Already knowing their success with the wildly popular Over-Analyzers web series and many short films, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

My Directives

Their objectives to me were simple: Make a catchy, foot-tapping, happy, memorable, modern-sounding chiptune that will appeal to geeks and nerds.

My Virus-TI synth formed the foundation of the NvG theme.

At the time I had just wrapped up work on my 3 Percent film score and had nothing but beautiful orchestra and ominous ethnic music swimming around in my head. I spent a day playing with my Access Virus TI synthesizer and re-acquainted myself with synth programming. After a few hours I had a handful of sounds that I knew would both fit the desired mood, and inspire me to compose.

 

Getting Started

Now that I had some basic sounds and clearer concept of my “sonic space”, I needed to address the “catchy” element. (In traditional composition terms: I had determined my orchestration, weights, and colors before composing a melody. More like Debussey than Mozart.)

When it comes to simple, catchy, commercial melodies, few devices are more effective than the pentatonic scale. If you’re unaware of the raw power of the pentatonic scale, I recommend you watch this YouTube video featuring Bobby McFerrin. The NvG melody is a G pentatonic scale, starting on E… that would be the fifth mode of an G pentatonic scale, or, more correctly, an E-minor pentatonic.

► This is the main melody:

NvG-Melody

NvG Main Melody

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Piano-2.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek Melody”]

A music major with a keen eye should notice a few “wrong” notes in there. First, the F-natural in the second measure is a bit out of place in an E-minor pentatonic. In fact, the mere addition of a sixth pitch transforms this scale into some type of phrygian hexatonic scale. One could make that claim and technically be correct. However, outside the confines of academia, it is more concise to simple identify the F-natural as an added tension note. A suspended flat-2, if you will. When the melody slides up a half-step from E-natural to F-natural in the second measure, a marked sense of tension if felt before the resolution. (Translation into English: I added a foreign note to the melody because it sounds cooler that way.) That brings us to the next point…

Notice the altered B-flat on the last note of the melody. I decided to alter that pitch, again, to merely add a quirky color on the final note. Without that alteration the melody ends on a predictable B-natural. The final note is held for an entire measure. Thus, the predictability adversely effects the energy level during the entire last half of the melody.

 

Compare

► Listen to the same melody with an unaltered B-natural for the last pitch instead.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Piano-1.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek Melody: Unaltered Pitch”]

► Compare that to the real melody with the B-flat. Listen how the melodic tension keeps the energy buzzing through the end of the phrase even without accompaniment parts or harmonies.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Piano-2.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek Melody”]

 

Putting it Together

Initial Demos

By the 2nd day I sent my first demo to the producers. It was a very rough mix. A proof-of-concept, actually. Despite

Draft animatic of the NvG main title sequence.

Draft animatic of the NvG main title sequence.

the shortcomings of the recording and the immaturity of the composition at this point, their comments were all positive. I was lucky to be working with creative people who can see possibilities over problems.

► Here is the original demo-1, as submitted:

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Demo1.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Demo 1″]

I received their initial approval and their comments were mostly about the song being too dark and ominous. The subject matter of the series is light, geeky comedy. They weren’t sure that the tone of the music fit that. I knew I had nailed the melody, so I did not want to change that. Instead, I changed the harmony and the “space” around the melody to cast it in a slightly brighter light. I started by reprogramming my synths and developing some happier arpeggiating synth sounds.

At this point I had a rough animation of the title sequence. I began trying to line up musical hits and mood changes with the video.

► Here is demo-1.5 with new synth tracks and no melody:

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Demo-1.5.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Demo 1.5″]

 

Going in Unexpected Directions

PaperMusic1

Working out close voicings for the NvG melody on paper.

After the initial demos, the producers went on a nearly month-long vacation. I was on my own to wrap this up with the comments I had already gotten. Anyone should know that a month is way too long to leave a composer to his own devices. I went a little crazy.

One of my ideas was very bad. I added an acoustic guitar track. The guitar part was neat, but it most certainly did not fit with the Nerd vs. Geek theme. That idea was scratched almost immediately. However, another strange idea actually stuck. I wrote a jazz big band backing track and reharmonized the melody as a saxophone sectional with big fat brass hits.

I quickly realized that a harmonized jazz sax section had similar qualities to triangle waveform, which were commonly used by 8-bit composers in the early days of gaming. Therefore, the saxes evoked the same nostalgic sound with a modern twist. I was representing a representation of the actual thing. 

► You can hear both the acoustic guitar part and the beginnings of the jazz section in demo-2:

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Demo2.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Demo 2″]

 

Cubase

Close jazz harmonies programmed in the sequencer, Cubase.

Matt and Stephanie confirmed that the guitar was awful but they were willing to hear some more development of the jazz idea.  That’s all I needed to hear to know I had to make my case. I was determined to make the jazz section work… somehow! I polished up the harmonies and added some rhythm section hits to give it a more jazz-fusion sound, reminiscent of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band.

Apparently my straying from the norm also inspired new ideas from the producers. Matt suggested that if I’m willing to change instrumentation, why not change it even more so the sound matches the different characters in the video. His exact suggestion was:

…if you were thinking of shifting lead instruments throughout, maybe keep the beat consistent throughout, but each measure, change the “lead instrument” carrying the melody to match the image displayed.

Maybe something like:
  1. Atom – Synth (current)
  2. D20 – Flute/Ocarina/Pan Flute
  3. Bishop – Harpsichord
  4. Superhero – Brass
  5. Venus Flytrap – Piano/Jazz Band sound (think Little Shop of Horrors)
  6. Zombie – Organ
  7. T-Rex – Tympani
  8. Flying Saucer – Theramin
    Matt Conant, producer

Translation: If you’re willing to do a little bit of work, why do just do A LOT of work?!

Actually, I was excited to hear this suggestion. Composers are always cautiously tip-toeing near the line of writing simple music to appeal to the masses, versus composing artsy complex music to show off  demonstrate their technical prowess  add their unique voice to the music. This was my permission to step over that line a little bit.

 

► Here is the penultimate version, demo-3. You can hear the different instrumentation starting to take shape. Including a harpsichord sound that I custom-programmed on my Virus TI synth.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Demo3.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Demo 3″]

 

Jazz Harmonies, a closer listen

► In this clip, you can hear the main melody harmonized with saxes, one flute, and one trumpet with harmon mute in isolation from the rest of the song.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Saxes.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Sax Melody”]

► Here, the accompanying rhythm section track is isolated from the rest of the mix.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-JazzRhythm.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Jazz Rhythm Section”]

► …And now both together.

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-JazzSection.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek: Jazz Rhythm Section”]

 

Finished scene from the NvG title sequence.

Final Approval!

Matt and Stephanie loved demo-3, so I moved into polish and production mode. After adding some more interesting drum and rhythm section tracks, fine-tuning the synths, and further expanding the jazz section, stems of the theme music were sent to my colleague Chris Potako for Mixing. After a few revisions of the final mix, the theme music is finally ready for prime-time!

 

 

 

I am pleased to present the final version of the Nerd vs. Geek Theme Music:

[haiku url=”http://www.kevinstahlmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NvG-Theme-Mixdown3.mp3″ title=”Nerd vs. Geek”]

…and that is how you develop a main theme.

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