Get to the Choppa! Composing the Mobicopter Theme

MobiCopter
Judging from the overwhelming volume of positive tweets about our new site, one of the most heralded features is our Mobicopter.

The Mobicopter system allows you to control an onscreen helicopter, in real-time, from your mobile device.

I was extremely excited to design the mobile user interface for the system.  But, as exciting as the concept is, I wanted to give the user interaction just a little push beyond the ordinary, to take the experience to the next level.

After a bit of thought, I realized I had to create the Mobicopter Theme Song to end all Mobicopter Theme songs – to take users on a journey down the proverbial highway into the zone of danger.

But Why? How?

As an Art Director I spend most of my days pushing pixels & sketching out ideas for new UI’s – a job that I’ve found more & more to be my passion in life.  However, I have a strong belief that all creatives, no matter the discipline, can learn from each other’s formative process. I’m a photographer & musician in addition to designer. I’ve found that those disciplines have helped to feed new structure, discipline, and thought into my daily work.

I’ve played the guitar since I was 13.  I actually began my college years with the intention of becoming a jazz musician, before entering the digital design world.  So, the opportunity to stretch some musical muscle was particularly exciting for me.

Creating the Mobicopter Theme

As a child of the 80’s, the word “helicopter” is inextricably linked to the TV show, Airwolf.

The Mobicopter Theme is a thinly veiled homage to Airwolf’s main theme. I made sure to keep the intervals & key different than the original, and I threw in a turnaround to mix it up a bit.

Logic Pro

I use Apple’s Logic Studio as my workhorse for ideation, recording, mixing, and finishing touches on a song.  All guitar processing is handled by Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig 2. Logic is a great piece of software that I’ve come to think of as my sonic Photoshop. It can handle light sketches of musical ideas, while still allowing me to develop those same ideas into fleshed out and processed compositions.

Ideation + Recording Guitar Parts

Logic Pro2

When sitting down to record something, I dial in the initial guitar tone, find the tempo that feels comfortable, and set up kicks on quarter notes as a base groove. Logic allows you to set up a desired interval to loop and then record different takes within that loop seamlessly.

Recording different takes is extremely important to my workflow. Concentrating on the nuances of phrasing, the different takes allow me to pepper subtle variance throughout the performance. It also enables me to come up with entirely new parts while improvising ideas.  When you stumble across the perfect take, you want to make sure it’s laid down to a track.

Guitar Synth – Main Theme

Drum Track Sequencing

From there, I started work on the drum track using two different drum loops. I hardened the base loops by doubling them with one of Logic’s Hip Hop drum kits. As a guitarist, creating a natural sounding drum was definitely the trickiest part.

With a little practice and a ton of massaging, this drum part ended up being one of my best so far.

Drum – Main Theme

Synth Parts: Melody and Bass

Another aspect of this retro homage was the inclusion of synth parts. This isn’t something I normally do, but feel it really added an extra bit of polish to the song. This pushed a bit of my knowledge on an unfamiliar instrument, but also was very gratifying at the same time.

There are two main synth parts, one being very high in the register and the other serving as the bass for the song. Both parts are actually played on the same synth pad setting, but have very different feels. The bass part feels fat, filling out the bottom end, while the high part adds a light counterbalance to the heaviness of the composition.

Synth – High Part

Polish, Processing, & Mixing

The polish on a project always adds that extra bit to make it special, whether it’s a website, film, or song. Below are a few tips I’ve found useful when putting those final touches on a composition.

Stereo Spread – Almost each piece in this track has a stereo spread added to the track. This effect spreads certain frequencies of a normally flat audio track left and right, creating a more enveloping sound. While this effect is subtle, its effect adds a little something that most people notice.

Doubling Guitar PartsI frequently copy the same guitar part over to a new track and then balance each of those slightly left and then right. I also usually change the EQ on one track, or change up the amp model, to help create a richer sound.  The trick is to ensure that both tracks sound subtly different so it sounds like two guitars are playing.  Having different takes is also very handy here.

Left and Right Balance – A really easy way to keep some of the parts fresh is creating some motion in the piece by playing with balance. I’ve found that playing with the stereo placement of tracks really helps to keep things fresh, introducing a playful element.

Below is an extended version of the helicopter theme available for you to download:

Helicopter Theme [Extended Mix]

Download the Helicopter Theme

In Summary

I really enjoyed both the process and the end results of making this song.

But my favorite part is watching someone take control of the Mobicopter.  Suddenly, the theme from an 80’s action feature blares across their speakers…  I can see them imagining themselves rappelling down a building, engulfed in a halo of shattered glass — and they smile.