Making of Mystery

July 17th, 2023


PowersWithin - Mystery Feat. Usachii (Kestra Pingree)
This is a song and animation I made about the friends we meet along the way.

TL;DR - I remade one of the first songs I've ever composed in 2006 because I was curious how my skills in music and art have grown.

Background story

This was one of the first songs I ever composed, back in 2006, when I was still a teen. It was originally inspired by Chinese pop songs (S.H.E, Michael Wong) that my friends at the time were into. It was kind of a gift to that group of friends back then, so it always had some sentimental value for me.

Original version (Summer 2006)

This was originally composed in some MIDI notation software where I literally drew notes on music staff. This was before I knew of FL Studio or much about composing. Chords, arrangements, mixing, song structures etc. were all things I haven't really looked into. I've played in the school band for many years by then (not well, by any means), so that knowledge was helpful in getting me started in composing. This is so scrappy but at least there weren't too many blatantly clashing notes. I also wrote horrible cheesy Chinese lyrics to this song that will never see the light of day again.

First attempt in FL Studio (Summer 2006)

A month after making the original, I was introduced to FL Studio, the music production software that I still use now. In learning how to use FL Studio and trying desperately to close my skill-taste gap on this song, I ported over the original MIDI. The concept of finding appropriate synths and mixing were obviously not familiar to me. Why did I use an EDM kick for this!? What is proper leveling of instruments?! Why is there so much reverb?! I cringe. Even back then I felt pretty meh about this iteration, but couldn't pinpoint why.

Second attempt in FL Studio (Fall 2007)

I attempted to remake Mystery again a year later. At this point, I knew the basics of FL Studio, but certainly still had zero ear for mixing. I don't actually quite remember what I changed in this version. The cringey and inappropriately used EDM kick was gone at least. I left the song like this for a long time, thinking this was probably as far as it was going to get. I also tried singing this myself but let me tell you, I cannot sing well even if my loved ones' lives depended on it. That version is something else that will never see the light of day.

Translating lyrics (Winter 2013)

On a whim I decided to make an English version of the lyrics. The English version is still rather cheesy but I wanted to stay true to the original. I think I had always hoped to properly produce this song at some point. I remember how badly I wanted to make this song sound decent, with actual singing, when I first composed it. At this point it's not even about the original purpose of dedicating a song to friends anymore, but rather getting to a point where I could fulfill my original vision in terms of execution.

Deciding to remake Mystery (Winter 2022)

I've barely composed full songs post-2013. However, I still watched the odd music production tutorial here and there. I also became more aware of my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to composing. I think my music skills still improved a bit over this period because although I didn't compose as much, I was more conscious of what I needed to work on. Certainly I can now hear the difference between a well-mixed versus a poorly-mixed song, which I couldn't before. Still, mixing is a weakness for me. Anyhow, I got to work on some songs for Unsolved Science (a very fun game btw!), which pulled me back into the world of composing. Wanting to make some new music for myself but also too lazy to start something completely new, I decided to rework some old songs. I went back to work on Mystery initially just to see how much I can improve it. Then it hit me, that I actually now have the resources to hire help for parts where my skills are lacking. With that in mind, I decided to finally get this song properly produced with vocals and all, with help from my good friend Usachii/Kestra Pingree.


Rearranging the song (Winter 2022)

I wanted to balance between staying true to the original while making something more reflective of my tastes today. I ditched the whole idea of the Chinese pop song vibe (which I don't think the original captured well anyway). I thought about going for something more electronic-sounding, but landed on somewhat of a rock ballad style instead. I looked at vocaloid songs for inspiration. Specifically, I referenced these songs:

I think the actual notes in the original composition, the melodies and all that, were mostly fine. I tweaked some of the chords, changed the song structure a bit, added some new layers, transposed it up for the vocals, but kept most of the lines from the original. I changed most of the instruments to make it sound more like a rock ballad.

Along with doing the vocals, Usachii also offered to mix the song for me. She's always been amazing at mixing, and has much more experience with that than me. As I mentioned before, mixing and mastering are some of my weakest areas in this process. So after I rearranged the song, I sent her the individual parts to be properly mixed by her magic! Now it sounds legit!!!

Vocals (Winter 2022)

I don't have much to say here since Usachii did all the hard work! I had created 2 harmony lines for the entire song for Usachii to reference however she saw fit. Other than that, the general instruction I gave was to add more vocal layers as the song goes on to reflect collecting friends along the way. Then she once again did her magical thing and finally gave this song proper beautiful vocals!!! It's always a pleasure collaborating with Usachii!

Animation (Winter 2022 - Summer 2023)

So... I had originally intended to just quickly whip up a few still images as visuals for this song. When I originally composed this song, I had some loose visions around certain scenes I wanted include (e.g., looking up at the sky with the milky way.)

The first draft scene I sketched out for this.

The initial idea of several still images turned into a storyboard with many scenes.... I didn't really have a plot or anything planned. When I was working on this, I had been hiking a lot. So the vibe I wanted to capture was the sense of wonder and awe when out exploring. I also wanted it to be a bit whimsical, so I suppose not really having a plot works out in this case.

I still wanted to capture the friendship aspect of this song as a nod to its origins. So, I used my friends' animal/alias avatars as the characters in the animation. Plus my cat Calico.

The characters and their creators.

The storyboard was very loose. Usually I do a more refined pass on the overall storyboard before doing the final visuals. In this case though, I went straight to doing the final visuals, scene by scene, from these chicken scratch storyboards.

This is as detailed as the storyboard got.
From storyboard to a rough sketch to get a sense of the atmosphere, then to the final assets. Some of the elements were left for After Effects
Final scene built in After Effects, and then adding the final adjustments.

It also went from "I will just do simple sketches" to "maybe I'll just do some simple tween animations" to "might as well put some effort into painting the backgrounds" to "Hmm some frame by frame animations would be nice too." Before I know it, the scope has creeped by a LOT! I never would've thought I'd do a 3.5-minute animation at this fidelity! It's not even that high-fidelity but it is WAY more than I had originally intended. Though, after hearing Usachii's final version of the song, I also felt compelled to make the visuals fancier to do justice to her amazing singing and mixing!!

A collection of random thoughts about the animation

  • I wanted to go for a storybook kind of aesthetic. I used the same adjustment layer throughout the entire animation to achieve this, and to make things look cohesive between scenes/color palettes.
  • I had to pull back from the storyboard quite a bit. It's easy to over-estimate how much you can fit in a scene. It's important to give scenes time to sit there and breathe.
  • I can keep tweaking and refining forever so I must just stop at some point.
  • This was a slow burn. I tried to approach it with curiosity instead of getting frustrated when something doesn't match my mental image. It helps me keep making progress instead of churning.
  • I made a point to only work on this when I felt like it, no matter how long it would take. Otherwise it wouldn't be enjoyable. There have been months-long breaks.
  • I cursed at myself for having water scenes whenever I had to do water-related animations.
  • I did not set the proper color space in After Effects when building this and it caused me a lot of pain when exporting.
  • I relied heavily on Pinterest for inspiration for environments and color palettes.
  • There are some Toronto/Ontario references in there.
  • There are many scientific inaccuracies, please suspend disbelief.
  • While working on this, I got distracted by things like Yakuza, Yakuzine, Elden Ring, and making Elden Ring fanart.
  • Ok this was enough animating for me for the next decade.