On Composing Part I

Though it pains me to admit it, Skrillex is a genius.

I’m not a fan of most dubstep, but I appreciate the skill in its creation. World-renowned producers sculpt throbbing synths and propulsive rhythms into earth-moving sonic forms with constant change and mind-boggling use of technology.

The rise of dubstep created a problem. Thousands of newcomers, inspired by Skrillex and others, (dub)stepped onto the production scene. With the ubiquity of home production technology, the internet exploded with amateur producers emulating their idols. Where are wë now? Thanks to its association with, among others, MLG parodies, dubstep is the perennial strawman argument against all electronic music.

Before you accuse me of being a killjoy envious of my peers’ success, I’d like to point out I’m not arguing against the influx of new musicians. If Pixar’s Ratatouille has taught us anything, it’s that, while not everyone can be a great artist, a great artist can come from anywhere. The internet gives more people the tools to achieve their potential.

The issue is one of self-awareness. New composers can publish their work to an audience of millions straight away, even at the start of their learning process. This can be useful – for instant feedback – but it also distorts someone’s perception of how good their work actually is.

How do I know? I went through that. I’m probably still going through it.

Hi, I’m Oliver Lugg (AKA Oliveriver). Somehow I became the lead composer for Thrive, likely because I was the only one daft enough to stay for something so impossible. People seem to think my work is alright, but that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve spent three years making music for Thrive and myself, and I’ve learnt a great deal.

So here I am, tasked with telling people why their music is or isn’t of a high enough standard to be part of the game. I don’t like thinking up reasons why a theme is sub-par when the truth is some people lack the experience or musical knowledge to intuitively understand what’s wrong. Hell, I probably still don’t. It baffles me that people accept my authority on the subject.

Instead of repeating the same criticisms, I’ve created this series of articles, where over several posts I’ll do my best to explain the mechanics of music creation, from equipment to theory to inspiration. Though there are countless similar tutorials on the internet, mine is aimed at prospective Thrive composers, and by extension composers of video game soundtracks. Even so, it might be useful for anyone at the beginning of their production career. Experienced composers can ignore everything I write. They’ll know it all anyway.

Bear in mind I still make mistakes, I have distorted ideas about the quality of my work, and I’m not actually Beethoven (despite what my avatar for Thrive would have you believe). My aim is to help others understand the same about themselves, and hopefully reduce how often I tell people their theme needs more variation.

Proceed at your peril.

Becoming Self-Aware

The golden rule of a musical mindset: everything you ever make will be Belgium.

It’s not actually true, but pretend it is.

Any creative activity is subject to Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything should be rejected on quality grounds. If you’re rejecting less, your standards are too low. I disagree with this philosophy. I prefer to see some inherent quality in everything (even pop music as I’ve previously argued), but the impersonal mass of the internet won’t feel the same way. With so much on offer, something needs consistently high quality to stand out.

In my position as Sound Team Lead, I have to keep this in mind. If Thrive ever wants to conquer the internet (we can dream), it must be high quality in every aspect. Often I’ll reject a theme even if it has some good qualities – flaws can never be perfectly erased, but the objective is to have as few as possible. It’s ruthless and I don’t enjoy it, but it’s necessary for Thrive to be a respectable product.

I’ve even abandoned some of my older themes. In my opinion, almost everything I composed before two years ago is unusable. I’m not fishing for reassurance, I genuinely believe they’re not good enough; at the time I didn’t fully understand what good meant.

If you’re a new composer/producer, you won’t know whether your work is good or not either. Usually it’s not. Keep this in mind so you won’t be disappointed when the world doesn’t immediately sing your praises. Think of your first few years as training; don’t assume everything you make will be golden straight away.

But surely we can all tell when music’s good? For others’ work yes, but perception can be skewed when assessing our own attempts. Professional producers can craft polyphonic electronic stereophonic marvels and you won’t bat an eye, but when you make something with a half-funky rhythm or a nice chord progression you’re bound to overestimate its appeal.

Someone posted a remix of Vigeo, the Main Theme for Thrive, on the community forums. It was a remix in the loosest definition. This person (who I really don’t want to be harsh to, but it’s something I need to get off my chest) had run the music through a program to slow the waveform, creating a distorted, hazy atmosphere. It had two issues: one, it’s difficult to imagine a more lazy approach, and two, it sounded pretty terrible. Slowed sounds can sound good on occasion, but it takes a trained musical ear to know, something I suspect this person doesn’t possess.

The first hurdle a new composer needs to leap is gaining awareness of the quality of their work, and the uncertainty in their assessment of it. Don’t let it discourage you – that’s the last thing I want – but it’s a necessary step towards further musical knowledge.

The four stages of competence are relevant. Clearly nobody could reach the fourth stage in something so involved as composition, but most first time composers fit the first stage. For me to give detailed criticism, someone must at least be in the second, otherwise they won’t appreciate what’s wrong. These articles are my attempt to move as many as possible to the second and third stages.

At any rate, know that your work may have problems you can’t yet understand. As long as you don’t assume you’re a genius and don’t expect your work to be judged on the same level as experienced musicians, you’re good.

Eventually, your work might not be Belgium.

Even here, there will be some flaw, some comparison to a better example. This is the unfortunate truth of life: there’ll always be someone better than you. I get caught up in that mindset anytime I listen to an astonishing song or a piece of achingly eloquent writing, forced to confront my own inadequacy.

I’ll never be Beethoven, but (I hope) that doesn’t mean my work is undeserving of engagement. I like this cake analogy: as long as two pieces of music are above a certain quality, the audience will be happy to listen to either.

So, the second golden rule: everything you ever make will be cake.

The Right Equipment

A musician’s toolset is as important as their skillset.

Several composers have submitted music for Thrive created with poor software, and like the composition/production element itself, often they won’t know why that’s wrong.

Some free tools have merit. Often they’ll be a better choice as they don’t have the high entry costs of proper tools. My first forays into composing were only possible thanks to LitteBigPlanet 2’s music sequencer. Given its context as an in-game production system it was impressive, but it’s not proper music software. Later I moved onto Musescore, which I highly recommend for beginning composers. Neither is this proper production software – it’s a score-writing program. The audio quality is terrible and there’s no sound manipulation, but it’s a great way to understand track structures, instrumentation and theory.

With the explosion in browser-based applications, free production alternatives started to appear, including Audiosauna and Online Sequencer. Neither of these are up to scratch for anything other than learning and practice either.

If you’re serious about production, you need a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Cheap and free alternatives have their perks, but no one will take your music seriously without a DAW.

This view is justified: DAWs allow unparalleled ability to compose with high-quality samples and detailed sound editing features. Most radio-worthy songs from 1990 onwards were built with some kind of DAW, though for professionals nothing but the highest end will do. Until the 2000s, the technology was exclusive to studio technicians, but today it’s available for everyone.

A common question is which DAW is best. The answer: whichever you decide. There are plenty of DAWs and any of them will do. Some say it’s a matter of workflow preference, but the truth is your workflow will grow to suit the DAW, not the other way round.

I use Steinberg’s Cubase and have experience with Logic. Both are powerful sequencing programs with every audio editing ability you can think of, despite steep learning curves. In my opinion, their relative merits cancel out, making them effectively equal.

Tthere are plenty more of course: FL Studio, REAPER, Reason…the list goes on. Look online for comparisons.

By now you’ll have noticed a problem – all are frighteningly expensive, often hundreds of. That’s too big an investment for the casual producer looking to get into the industry (and, if they’re young, their parents). What now? Are you doomed to make music on terrible equipment?

Most of the options above have trial or stripped-down versions. They’re nothing compared to the full experience, but I recommend using them when starting out. Most sounds and functionality will be missing, but that won’t be a limiting factor until you’ve scaled the second stage of competence. Until September last year I was hopping between various incomplete versions of Cubase, but my output was well-received nonetheless.

If you discover a hidden talent and gain some traction in the process, that’s the point you upgrade to the full version.

You may see talk of VSTs (Virtual Studio Technologies) around the web. These are third party instruments or effects which can be imported into almost any DAW. The best known providers are Native Instruments and 8dio. Most professional VST plugins can cost as much or more than a DAW, but there are countless free alternatives. Search around and you’ll find interesting sounds aplenty.

Don’t get hung up if you don’t have the best VSTs. I salivate over Native Instruments plugins I can’t afford all the time, but don’t let the marketing convince you they’re essential to be a good producer. Other than the default Cubase plugins I’ve so far used exclusively free VSTs.

Now, the part where proper musicians disown me: I also use Audacity.

Make no mistake, Audacity is utterly useless for creating from scratch. 98% of my work on a theme takes place inside Cubase. Audacity could never match a proper DAW for power and flexibility, but for post-mix editing of sound files I’m quite partial to it.

In my ambient phase, every microbe-related theme was pushed through Audacity, where I added phasers and wah-wah (more on these in a later instalment) to the entire mix. It was bad practice, but it led to some surprisingly good work. I once added Paulstretch (via Audacity’s Paulstretch plugin) to an underwhelming theme and was flabbergasted at the result.

So yes, use Audacity in conjunction with a DAW if you want. Just don’t tell anyone.


How often should you practice? There’s no definite rule, and nor should there be. If you’re serious about improving you can work it out for yourself. Treat it like a hobby, because as I’ll discuss in a later guide, successful internet-based producers are scarce.

For a couple of years, I published several themes or compositions per month. Nowadays it’s less frequent for a number of reasons.

Though less free time is a factor, I’ve become far more discerning about what I release – I must be working on at least ten partially completed tracks right now, and odds are most won’t find their way to anyone’s ears but mine. Some excite me at first, but after working with them for a while the honeymoon romance fades. Others take years, through multiple revisions, to get the right sound.

Self-criticism is important in this field but don’t let it stifle you. If you keep at it, in a couple of years every one of your old tracks will be embarrassingly bad in your renewed understanding of musicality. All your early work will serve as a learning opportunity. Criticism from others is another matter, which I’ll take a detailed look at in future.

Composers’ block is another issue. Sometimes, no matter what you do, something will never sound right. My advice here is to start something completely different or face a loss of confidence in your abilities. If that doesn’t work, try again.

Basically, don’t give up.

Everything is Belgium, everything is cake, everything is awesome.

And Now, Homework

Next time: the wonderful world of music theory! I can feel you shuddering at the thought.

Coming to a screen near you some time in the indeterminate future because I can’t guarantee a publishing schedule. Follow me on Twitter to be notified of the next article.

I have a vague plan for these posts, but I’m happy to take suggestions on what to cover. Let me know in the comments or elsewhere if there’s something you’d like me to explain.

In the meantime, you have homework. Before you all run away, it’s optional and involves little more than listening to music. To demonstrate the principles I’ll be explaining in later posts I’m intended to use a few pieces as examples. It’s possible I scrap the idea, but it’s good to get everyone listening to as many genres as possible anyway.

Without further ado, here are the relevant tracks. Listen to them to enjoy them, but also listen analytically.

An unparalleled display of emotion through precise application of music theory. Pay attention to the melodies and transitions.


Quite simply the most breathtaking use of music technology I’ve ever heard. Floex is a god-tier producer. Listen in particular to the sample and percussion manipulation.


But this track comes close to taking the production crown. It’s also a valuable example of skilful track variation and progression.


Not exactly in the same league, but this song taught me everything I know about texture. Notice the interplay of melodies in the final section.


Again, interesting use of texture, but also a perfect example of integrating seemingly disparate musical elements.


Not a Game of Thrones reference, but a great song with useful lessons on developing motifs.


There’s some clever stuff going on with rhythm here. Try tapping your foot in different sections of the song. What do you notice?


John Williams, the greatest film composer of all time, masterfully commands melody and rhythm in every piece of music he ever touches.