I’m often asked for the secret to breaking into the business of composing music for games. I dedicated a chapter of my book to that topic, so I’ve definitely given the issue a good deal of thought, but I’ll admit that it’s a complicated and difficult road for every newcomer to traverse. The toughest aspect of the journey is at the very beginning, when those initial efforts to secure work don’t immediately pay off. Patience and faith are both important virtues, but they don’t offer a lot of comfort at the beginning of an aspiring game composer’s career. While in my book I tried to supply as much useful information on the topic as I could glean from my own career and my experience in the business, I know that everyone has a different path to tread, each with its own unique challenges. So I’m going to dedicate this blog to a list of thirteen articles and community discussions about how to break into the business of composing music for games, written by a lot of smart folks with experiences to share and hard-won advice to impart. In the ensuing heap of game industry wisdom to be gathered from these articles, I hope that a few newcomers will find some helpful guidance, and a modicum of comfort as well.How to be a video game music composer – Tips from the pros by Sophia Tong, GamesRadar.com Music in the Gaming Industry – Getting a Job as a Game Composer by Nelson Everhart, Kingsisle Blog I want to be a game composer GameDev.net community discussion Getting Started as a Video Game Composer by Bobby Prince, BPmusic.com Where does an amateur composer find job, or is he heard? Northern Sounds community discussion How to Get Music in Video Games by Kris Giampa and Erik Pettersson, Beatport.com How to be a Video Game Composer by Kevin Kelly, G4TV 2013 Guide for Aspiring Video Game Composers by TheCurrentVibe.com Pursuing a Career in Game Audio by Nathan Madsen, GameAudio101 How to Wrangle a Job Writing Music for Computer Games by Lance Hayes, Andertons Music Co. Game Developers and Music Composers – How do you network? TIGForums community discussion GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers by Laura Shigihara, SuperShigi.com Advice for Breaking Into a Career in Composing Music for Videogames by Lisa Horan, Mix Magazine
This fall is going to be a busy one for me! In addition to the release of one of my projects – a very big video game that I’m quite excited about (more info coming soon) – I’ll also be doing three speaking engagements. I thought I’d share info about those here, in case any of you might be attending. It would be great to see you there, and if you bring along a copy of my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), I’d be happy to sign it for you!
GameSoundCon 2014October 7th & 8th Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles
It’s my pleasure to speak at GameSoundCon again this year! Last year was tremendous fun, and I’m looking forward to giving another lecture to the wonderfully creative and enthusiastic game audio folks who attend GameSoundCon! My presentation, entitled “Advanced Composition Techniques for Adaptive Systems,” will take place on October 8th. Here are a couple of photos from my presentation last year.
Audio Engineering Society Convention (AES 137), 2014Thursday, October 9th – Sunday, October 12th Los Angeles Convention Center
I’m looking forward to speaking at this year’s AES convention. My presentation, entitled “Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content,” will take place on October 9th. I’ll also be speaking on October 10th as a part of a panel entitled “Game Biz 101: How to Jump Start Your Career.” The panelists also include Guy Whitmore (Studio Audio Director at PopCap Games), Stephan Schütze (Audio Director of the Sound Librarian), Richard Warp (Audio Lead at Leapfrog Enterprises), and our moderator Steve Horowitz (Audio Director, Nickelodeon Digital).
Montreal International Games Summit, 2014Monday, November 10th – Tuesday, November 11th PALAIS DES CONGRÈS DE MONTRÉAL
It will be a tremendous pleasure to speak again at the Montreal International Games Summit. Last year was a fantastic experience, and I’m looking forward to returning to Montreal! My presentation will be entitled “Music, the Brain, and the Three Levels of Immersion.” Here’s a video of my presentation at last year’s Montreal International Games Summit.
In a blog article for Gamasutra, game designer Rodain Joubert explores the role of music in games, particularly those in which the music is a central part of a puzzle-solving mechanic (such as the gameplay in Auditorium, FRACT OSC, and Circuits). He also brings up an idea which arrested my attention, and which will be the subject of this blog:
What is the relationship between Musical Feel and Mechanical Integrity?
Joubert defines Musical Feel as the emotional payoff that is delivered by the game’s score, which depends on the quality of the compositions and their ability to deliver a good experience to the player. Mechanical Integrity, on the other hand, is the ability of the gameplay to exist apart from the music and still be enjoyable — the implication being that music can either provide a crutch for weak gameplay or interfere and distract from strong game mechanics. While Joubert concentrates on music games, I found myself thinking about the broader implications of such a tug-of-war scenario as the one he’d described.
As composers, we typically strive to create a score that has a very strong musical feel. Elements such as melodic composition, complex harmonic progression, thematic development and sophisticated instrumental arrangement can all combine to give our tracks that strong musical feel. But what if the development team would rather we strip away these elements?
Sometimes, a development team may choose to assign the musical score a set of very simple tasks, such as setting the pace with the use of a basic rhythmic momentum, or establishing an atmosphere by using synthetic pads and ambient textures. These choices may serve the mechanical integrity of the game, by creating a musical undercurrent that supports the gameplay without interfering with it. But such tactics can also go too far, when the music becomes so simplified that it is perceived as uninteresting by players. The score loses its musical feel.
Personally, I think that these two objectives would need to be well balanced. As long as both musical feel and mechanical integrity are given appropriate weight and consequence, we can be confident that our game music will be both entertaining for players and supportive to the mechanics of the game.
In a cool article for Ask Audio Magazine, G. W. Childs IV suggested 5 Unusual Things Every Sound Designer Should Try. These tactics were designed to shake the cobwebs off the creative process of sound designers, opening minds to new possibilities (including binaural recording techniques, plug-ins for randomizing audio content, adding reverb to dry audio sources by playing back the recordings in actual reverberant spaces, etc.)
In the spirit of that article, I’m going to offer 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try. If you’re a game composer, you can play with some of these techniques. I’m not going to say that you should, but if it sounds like fun, then go for it.
Use Sound Design Musically
One of the most energizing ways to get inspired is to use the actual aural building blocks of your game’s environment in a musical way. For instance, in the Speed Racer video game I incorporated lots of sound effects associated with the sport of racing into the music, including doppler effects that were worked into musical transitions, tire screeches mapped to the keyboard to accentuate their natural pitches so that they could be used harmonically, and crowd cheers worked into the rhythm section. These elements helped my music feel more connected to the game, and kept me invigorated as I worked.
Get Sneaky with your Genres
Lately, the genre mashup has become very popular, in which two disparate musical styles are layered together in order to produce a novel effect. Mashups can help keep a composer inspired, but even better — why not sneak that second genre into your track? There’s no reason for us to be overt about it, and hiding a second genre within the first can give a composer a sense of wicked enjoyment. For instance, while creating music for such bright and airy projects as Shrek the Third and SimAnimals, I worked in subtle avante garde orchestral approaches that included unusual meters and dissonance. The influences weren’t particularly overt, but they kept the composition process fresh and interesting for me and helped the music feel more unique.
Turn Tracks on their Heads
Some years back, I was involved in a project (which I will not name) that required me to take a large portion of music I had previously composed in one style and completely rework it into another style altogether. This was a thoroughly drastic change, from a light-hearted approach to a dour and heavy-handed instrumental treatment. The essential core elements of the track (meter, melody, tempo) had to remain the same, however. It was a challenging puzzle to solve, but it also opened me up to creative possibilities I wouldn’t have conceived any other way. In that spirit, if at any time we’re feeling creatively blocked while working on a track, maybe it might be fun to turn the track on its head — change its essential personality — while maintaining its skeletal structure.
Don’t Forget Your Old Gear
As our careers progress, we’re likely to build up a large assortment of high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art software tools. After a while, we become accustomed to our workflow with these tools, and there ceases to be any novelty to the creative process. At these times, it can be fun to drag out the old gear and put it to use. Not only can the vintage stuff add some needed retro zest to our sound palettes, but it can also reignite those creative juices by reminding us of the days when we were starting out and filled with starry-eyed yearning.
So that’s it — 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try. If any of it sounds like it might be helpful, then please give it a whirl! And let me know in the comments if you have any other unusual strategies for getting the creative juices flowing.
I recently read a great article by Bernard Rodrigue of Audiokinetic in Develop Magazine, heralding the return of MIDI to the field of video game music. It was a very well-written article, filled with hopeful optimism about the capability of MIDI to add new musical capabilities to interactive video game scores, particularly in light of the memory and CPU resources of modern games consoles.
It also reminded me strongly of another article I read, from 2010.
Four years ago, Microsoft Sound Supervisor West Latta wrote for Shockwave-Sound.com that “we may see a sort of return to a hybrid approach to composing, using samples and some form of MIDI-like control data… the next Xbox or Playstation could, in fact, yield enough RAM and CPU power to load a robust (and highly compressed) orchestral sample library.”
So, it seems that the game audio sector has been anticipating a return to MIDI for awhile now (I wrote at length about the history and possible future of MIDI in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music). The question is – has the current generation of video game consoles evolved to the point that a quality orchestral sample library could be loaded and used by MIDI within a modern video game? So far, I haven’t come across an answer to this question, and it’s a very intriguing mystery.
Certainly, the availability of an orchestral sample library in a MIDI-based interactive video game score would depend on factors that are not all hinged to the technical specs of the hardware. Would the development teams be willing to devote that amount of memory to a quality orchestral sample library? As games continue to participate in a visual arms race, development teams devote available hardware horsepower to pixels and polygons… so, would the music team be able to get a big enough slice of that pie to make a high-quality orchestral MIDI score possible?
I’m keeping my eyes open for developments in this area. Certainly, the return of MIDI could be a game changer for composers of interactive music, but only if the musical standards remain high, both in terms of the music compositions and the quality of the instruments used within them. Let me know in the comments if you’ve heard any news about the great MIDI comeback!
The Designing Sound blog recently devoted a series of articles to the topic of silence, including an elaborately philosophical article on the nature of silence as a Zen state of altered consciousness (Silence is the Sound of Listening, by Miguel Isaza).
My main impression from the article was an emphasis on sound as the state of calm in which we (as listeners) become receptive to the world of aural phenomena constantly surrounding us.
The article brought to mind a few ideas that I thought I would share about the role of silence in the creative output of a game composer.
Sometimes when we as game composers receive creative guidance in regards to the musical style of a project, we’ll be instructed to do the following:
Let the music breathe.
The idea of “breathing music” can be interpreted in several ways. It can mean that the music should dwindle intermittently into absolute silence so that the game’s soundscape can essentially “take over” for a few moments, before the music resumes. It can also mean that the music should be written with sparse instrumentation and lots of unoccupied space in the frequency spectrum, resulting in the impression of lots of brief silent pauses that allow the sound design environment to filter through the lattice of musical elements. Finally, it can mean that the music is composed of a series of crescendos and diminuendos, whereby the musical score swells dramatically and then recedes into a near-silent state on a regular basis.
All of these approaches share one aspect in common: the music is structured to allow the sound design to move regularly into the foreground, pushing the music further into the background of the player’s conscious awareness. With this in mind, should we interpret this instruction to “let the music breathe” as a desire to deemphasize the music in favor of other aspects of the game’s aural design?
On page 52 of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss an interesting study conducted by Stanford University, which casts a very different light on the effect of silence on the experience of listening to music. The study revealed that when listening to a piece of music, our minds become most attentive and filled with the most anticipatory focus when the music becomes silent for a moment. For instance, in the short pauses between the movements of a symphony, the listener’s attention to the music peaks.
So, when we’re asked to let the music “breathe,” perhaps we can interpret this to mean that we should include those brief pauses that cause the player to pay more attention to our music than they had before. As Miguel Isaza wrote in his article for Designing Sound, the act of becoming silent awakens our consciousness to the world of sound around us. Perhaps by using silence as a tool in our game music, we can awaken gamers to the world of music we have created.
When the circumstances of a gameplay scenario create a sense of anticipation, this is usually engineered for a good reason. The developers want the gamer to be tensely expectant of the monster attack, or the sniper ambush, or any other enemy-type that might leap out and yell “boo!” In the article, “The Story in Surround – Game narrative and sound,” author Cormac Donnelly of Designing Sound makes a case for the role that audio can play in creating that sense of expectation.
The theory hinges on the idea of “mental modeling,” in which we develop expectations about the outcome of future events based on our past experiences. Donnelly suggests that by initiating specific sound design elements in advance of certain in-game events, we can train the player to associate the sound with the impending event. This can then be used to manipulate the emotions and even the subsequent actions of players who will respond to the sounds with immediate reactions based on their “mental model.”
It’s an interesting concept that we, as game composers, can also apply to our own work. In cooperation with the audio teams, we can plan music systems that include music precursors to significant events. These anticipatory musical elements can then become built into the players’ “mental model” concerning the event in question. This music becomes one more way in which the game can sculpt the emotional dynamic of gamers and nudge them in specific directions.
The article by Cormac Donnelly, “The Story in Surround – Game narrative and sound,” appeared on the Designing Sound web site – it can be found here.