A sound pitch: audio puzzler Sentris threatens to unleash your inner musician

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

 

This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down – but Sentris is out today, so I thought it would be nice to have this online *somewhere*.

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

The game consists of a set of concentric circles which are constantly rotating, looping any notes attached to them. The player has to play a rhythm puzzle game with notes of varied lengths from varied instruments being fitted to a core theme. Though the theme is set for each puzzle, the player can provide variety by choosing the instruments, sustain and whether to fill in the gaps in the tune structure.

“It’s a puzzle game about matching colors, yes,” says Kalman “but the puzzle pieces themselves are visual representations of musical structure. The puzzle element is stacking blocks, but each block is a musical note — literally a single building block of a song. The way you build up notes to solve the puzzle means your song unfolds organically, in a way that is truly unique to your play session. I’ve watched dozens of players play the prototype, and I’ve never heard the same song twice.”

“Sentris is a game first, and therefore has to be fun and challenging, even if the sound is muted. The variable musical system is there for players who want to pay attention to it. Part of my plan is to offer a freestyle mode, where the puzzle elements are replaced by an even greater level of musical control on the part of the player. I’m walking on a tight rope between a puzzle game and a musical instrument.”

Kalman’s personal history is interesting – before becoming a self-employed developer, she was the Director of QA at Unity. You’d think there couldn’t be anyone better placed to be making indie games and Kalman loved the place. “I had a really good, long run with Unity. I shipped Unity for iPhone and Unity for Windows which were huge milestones for the company. I made a lot of great friends, and enjoyed the experience of living in Denmark. I worked with a world-class team. The industry needs tools like Unity.”

Despite this background with Unity, Kalman is a self-taught programmer, designer and musician – all within the last few years. “What’s the saying? “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing”. I’ve learned a lot about creativity in the past few years. The overwhelming lesson I’ve learned is to just keep going. Try to do things that are exciting to you. Try to do things that you don’t know how to do and you will continue to grow and expand. This applies to any creative work, and it’s helped me keep moving forward with Sentris.”

Her touchstones – Rez, FreQuency, Um Jammer Lammy, Gitaroo Man, Soundodger – seem to point to possible directions for future development. But she’s wary of adding additional complexity to the game. “I love the simplicity of the current prototype. Abstract UIs take time for new players to explore and understand, and I’m very pleased by the pick-up-and-playability achieved so far. Going forward I’m exploring additional puzzle and play mechanics that enable even more musical variability in solutions.”

“I want players to be able to make multiple, different songs with every play session. I’m also experimenting with different attributes of the blocks themselves, and how to reinforce the musical relationship between notes & instruments within puzzle mechanics. I want to make sure that it’s fun for new players and for expert players, and that means making it fun to develop the ability to read the puzzle, and making it fun after a player is able to understand how to solve the puzzle at first glance. In short, there’s a lot I want to do to make it even better!”

Now, given the erstwhile hype and the current doldrums of crowdfunding, Kalman’s attempt to turn her admittedly-limited prototype into something more subtle and complex by Kickstarting it deserves to be called brave. But with ten days to go, she seems to be set to achieve her $50,000 goal. It must be a sound pitch.

Sentris is on Kickstarter. We’d moot a late 2014 / early 2015 release on Mac, PC and Linux.

That Song Meme – part 1.

There was a meme travelling my friend’s pages a couple of months ago, infecting time-rich and socially-starved brains as it went, and it was a music meme. I don’t have the musical erudition like Mister Gillen to write my life story into every song, but here’s a selection of my musical gems, shoehorned into this damn trope.

To the tune of: That Song Meme

day 01 – your favorite song
Ewan MacColl – Dirty Old Town
I heard it covered on the Pogues guts-sodden album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Ewan MacColl wasn’t his real name, and there’s a suprising amount of self-creation and revanchism in folk music in general, pulling lost traditions out of your arse, but, whatever my feelings about the autochthonous nation-creating nonsense of demagoguic politicians from the 19th century onwards, I can’t deny that Ewan MacColl got me riled up about English folk music in a way that one else ever managed. This is a great, simple, romantic song about a man’s love for his girl and his city. You can tell he was Mancunian.
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Music, Yesterday.

day 02 – your least favorite song
John Cale – Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend
Because I love Cale’s misanthrophic solipism, and I love this song until that bit where he throws his toys out of the pram, the pram down the stairs, through the front door, knocking a Queen-mum-reminiscent granny and her Imipolex twinset into oncoming traffic.
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day 03 – a song that makes you happy
Elvis Costello – The Big Light – Album Version/Live In Studio
It just reminds of that glorious stiff-legged feeling you get in a comfortable soft bed when you know the hangover hasn’t hit yet, and won’t until Dawn rosily fingers the outside of your eyelids. I used to wake up to this every day at university.
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day 04 – a song that makes you sad
Aimee Mann – One
Hell, it’s just a grim little song about loneliness and mortality, bound up with Aimee Mann’s lovely voice.
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day 05 – a song that reminds you of someone
Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – I’m The Urban Spaceman
Sex to the tune of the Bonzo’s is the funniest thing ever. Check out The Big Shot, The Intro & The Outro, and Trouser Press to sample a variety of their styles. Brilliant, quintessentially English (belying my words about the hypocrisy of nationhood earlier) and amazing live performers.
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day 06 – a song that reminds of you of somewhere
Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain
When I was a lad, I got confused due to a lack of literature, and travelled the wrong way along the Pilgrim’s Way, walking the North Downs then the South Downs, from Canterbury to Winchester. It was hugely lonely, and it confirmed to me that recognising my misanthropy and wanting to change it wasn’t enough – I just wasn’t going to ever be approachable and sociable, and I couldn’t force myself into that mould. The soundtrack to my idyllic 250 mile month-long solitude was Miles Davis and Gil Evans orchestral jazz album Sketches of Spain, which just burns vistas of golden countryside and endless tree-lined footpaths into my unfocussed eyes whenever I hear it.
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Please go and see the Bonzos live, before they're dead.
day 07 – a song that reminds you of a certain event
Green Day – Basket Case
Sitting in the back of the school bus, with the cool kids, who were surprised I knew all the words to Basket Case. Acceptance was temporary, but they were friendly afterwards – I’d turned from an object to be ignored, if never bullied, into an amusing if very strange person.
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day 08 – a song that you know all the words to
Monty Python – Accountancy Shanty (Monty Python Sings)
My brother and I, for reasons unknown, loved these songs and memorized all of them, having copied them from a library tape (apart from the naughty ones about venereal diseases that my mum surreptitiously wiped.)
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day 09 – a song that you can dance to
Mikis Theodorakis – Horos Tou Zorba (I) / Zorba’s Dance
Everyone can dance to this. You just stick your arms out, and bounce your hips and shoulders in time to the music. Then Kazatzky!  Now you’re Greek, Jewish, etc…
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day 10 – a song that makes you fall asleep
The Smiths – Asleep
“Sing Me To Sleep” sings the song that sings me to sleep.

Come On Nietzsche


Come on Nature by the Proclaimers.

Why did I assume they were saying “Come On Nietzsche”? Would they walk five thousand miles to see some shadows cast on a cave wall? Would they send a letter to America declaring the death of god? The only link between them and the ubermensch is twin studies…

This site is excellent: The Nietzsche Family Circus.

Apologies, I’ve been in the office too long. Rambling, dangerous rambling again. Home, Dan.

Islington F**k Club

The panelling was quite obviously laid by Jackson Pollock, seemingly randomly accreted in different corners and heights around the oddly columned room that some aspiring architect with a sledgehammer has carved out above the Horseshoe pub in Farringdon. The people were odder still, a collection of people who look like they’d fought tramps for their clothing and lost. (In a nice way. Folk people do everything nicely). The manner that some seemingly random person in the crowd would be called up onto stage, to then sing an amazing song, even gave the place a missionary air.

I’d told my friends I was going to see Martin Carthy, at the Islington Folk Club, but my mumbling had rendered it as the F**k Club, confusing them somewhat about my proclivities; just to emphasise, yes, I like sex, but I’m not the King of the Swingers. Sorry, yes, I was there to see Martin Carthy, father of the British folk scene (though he’s getting into grandfather territory these days) and expected him to come on soon after the 7.30 start, but there are no rules about Folk Club. That was evinced by the opening.

First, the Angel Band warmed up. They’re a good group of mainly squeezebox players (they had a hurdy-gurdy, which I’d never seen before!) So far, so NFF (Normal For Folk). Then some thin guy at the front started ranting in rhyme, and all the people behind me started singing a kind of slave chorus alongside with him, which was disturbing to say the least. It turned out the madman was the compère, as evinced by him next shouting “and, as always, the Singing Doorman” at which point the oddly dressed buttoned-up psychopath type by the door starts singing with the voice of an angel and the filthy, florid mind of a Vaudevillian.

Then it turns into a church meeting, with the thin madman ruffling the crisp monochrome of his floral silk shirt with every James Brown expostulation, calling on all and sundry to come up, a woman called Rosie, a webmaster who sang a sweet song about a wife running away with the hairies and the hippies (which I reproduce below), lonely cowboy Stanford Stan (or summat), another woman called Rosie, and, only after nearly everybody else in the room had sung, Martin Carthy stopped his supping and started playing – great as always, though he stumbled over his fingers a little.

What always amazes me about traditional folk music, as recovered and recorded by Mr Carthy, is how bleak it is. It’s full of murder, death, suicide and incest, an endless angry roar against the injustice of the world. Tonight I heard that King Willy found his mum had bewitched his lady love, so she was nearly dead and unable to give birth, poachers were deported to the colonies for 14 years hard labour, and father-of-six Georgy got sentenced to death for an unnamed crime. The only positive bit is where the impoverished and undertrodden rise up and murder some authority, an aristo or landowner, or buck some law, as in The Devil and The Feathered Wife, where the devil is foiled in his plot to claim the soul of a henpecked farmer by a wise wife who rolls in cowshit and feathers to fool him into thinking she’s some fabulous animal. Dumb Devil, but the rural heroes buck authority to keep living in squalor. Woo.

Oh, yes, I came back and found Toby still playing Guitar Hero II at fantastic speeds on expert and was only released from my rabbit-like hypnosis by Vicky staggering in AMAZINGLY DRUNK. I can’t believe she was upright. She was like one of those drunks you see in movies or comedy shows, where the brain is completely gone but they’re still upright and teetering. Anyway, here’s the lyrics to the hippies and the hairies, taken from here. It’s not quite what the feller sang tonight (he swapped freezer-o with stere-o) but it gives you the gist of modern folk, ye naysayers, ye harlots of the guitar and the drum.

HIPPIES AND THE HAIRIES

It was late one night Mr. Jones came home
On the nine forty-seven from Euston O
He was big, he was fat and he wore a bowler hat
And he hated the hippies and the hairies O

As he stopped before his mock Tudor door
He called to his wife I am home dear O
The train was delayed, I’m late I’m afraid
Must have been the hippies and the hairies O

As he stepped inside a note he espied
The au-pair came to greet him O
Saying Madam is not here she has gone I fear
She has gone with the hippies and the hairies O

Go prepare for me the MGB GT
The Roller’s not so speedy O
And I shall drive ’till I find her alive
Or dead with the hippies and the hairies O

So he rode North and he rode South
‘Till he came to a field near Knebworth O
And there she did stand with a joint in her hand
Getting into Harper with the hairies O

What makes you leave your house and car
Your Habitat kitchen and your freezer O
And the children three, not to mention me
And go with the hippies and the hairies O

Oh what care I for my house and car
My Habitat kitchen and my freezer O
A fuse I’ve primed and the whole thing’s timed
To explode in the middle of the Jimmy Young show

So now I’m free of the Bourgeoisie
And the cosmic twits at the golf club O
So Chorleywood you can stuff for good
I’m spaced with the hippies and the hairies O