139th AES Convention for the Game Music Composer

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I’m happy to share that I’ll be a speaker again this year at the Audio Engineering Society’s annual convention!  Last year, the convention took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center – a familiar stomping ground from my many visits to the famous Electronic Entertainment Expo over the years.  However, this year will take me somewhere entirely new: the Jacob Javits Center in New York City!

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I imagine that most futuristic metropolitan buildings look best when the sky is purple.  Since it’s impossible to capture natural purple skies in the wild, I assume that someone helpfully photoshopped a purple firmament for this promo picture.  The convention center looks very impressive, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in person!

Attending last year’s AES in Los Angeles was a wonderful experience, and I was truly honored to have been chosen as a speaker for the event!  At last year’s AES, I gave an overview presentation about interactive music in video games – the talk was an expansion of the interactive music sections of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Here’s a video clip from my speech last year, entitled “Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content.”  The entire speech is available for download from Mobiltape.com.

At this year’s AES, I’ll be speaking more specifically about my role as a member of the music composition team for the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  It will be fun to share my experiences as part of that wonderful music team at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and I’m looking forward to exploring some of the interactive music techniques of the LittleBigPlanet franchise!

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This is a photo from the LittleBigPlanet 3 display in the Sony booth at E3 2014.  My presentation at the Jacob Javits Center will include lots of my music from the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and Sackboy will be making many appearances!

AES-MixBoardI’m also looking forward to seeing what’s new and hot in audio gear on the AES exhibit floor.  Last year’s show floor was crowded with humongous mixing desks like the one above, along with enough glittering gear to make a full-grown audio engineer cry tears of joy.  I’m looking forward to a similar spectacle this year.  In addition to the expo floor, the convention will include a comprehensive program of presentations, panels and workshops, and the popular Live Sound Expo will be returning this year to spread knowledge about audio solutions for live events.

On a more personal note – prior to attending my first AES, I read an article from the ONION (the world’s top news satire publication) which lead me to believe that, as an audio engineer attending such a convention, I would be able to gather with my fellow audio professionals and enjoy an in-depth discussion of our ponytails (warning: adult language).  I can report that this did not happen last year… which was a shame, because I made sure I wore a ponytail for the occasion.  😉

I submit the following photo as proof:

AES-AESDespite this minor disappointment, I had an awesome time at last year’s AES, and I’m very excited about this year’s event!  The convention will take place from Oct. 29th to Nov. 1st at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.  Hope to see you there!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Aleatoricism for the Game Music Composer

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I recently read a research paper about game music that I came across via Google Scholar (always an excellent resource if you’re looking for food for thought).  The paper was entitled “Game Scoring: Towards a Broader Theory,” written by Mack Enns of the University of Western Ontario towards his Master of Arts degree.  While the paper’s intention is to show how composing music for gaming is “distinct from other types of scoring,” the author repeatedly asserts that game music “remains always inherently ‘aleatoric.'”

This was the first I’d heard anyone put forward a theory such as this, and it’s definitely a bold statement.  Is all game music intrinsically aleatoric?  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss aleatoricism as “music in which some elements are left to chance.” (Chapter 2, pg. 30).  This means that some components of the music are left to the metaphorical roll of the dice.  Mack Enns further applies this concept to games by asserting that all game music “involves both chance operations and a degree of improvisation… the “performer” of a game score is not a musical performer but a “ludal” one, that is, a “gamer”…”

So, according to this, the gamer is essentially performing the music.  Well, let’s think about that a moment.  The gamer does perform actions which trigger musical reactions, so one might imagine the gamer operating as a sort of “conductor” for the musical score, indirectly cueing the music to begin, or determining which musical segments will be triggered at any given time by virtue of gameplay choices. But a performer and a conductor aren’t really the same thing… so the idea of the improvising “gamer” as the chance element in a game music composition may not hold up in all games.  But does it hold up in some?

Just to take a look at what the improvising performer brings to aleatoric music, I’ll first give you an example from one of the more famous aleatoric compositions by John Cage, after which we’ll take a look at some top video game examples.  In John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” a group of performers are instructed to use household objects as rhythmic instruments, but no instruction is given regarding the best objects to choose, or the desired tonal quality to be produced by the objects.  That’s left entirely to chance.  Here are two performances of “Living Room Music.”  The first, performed by the MET Orchestra Percussionists, uses a combination of fingertips and glasses.

As a contrast, the second version, performed by Square Peg Round Hole, uses a collection of cardboard boxes (music begins at the 1 minute mark).

You can see that the choices of the performers have a dramatic impact on the sound of the resulting composition.  Does a gamer have a similar awesome impact on the musical content of a game by virtue of the choices made during gameplay?  That’s a harder idea to mentally digest, but Mack Enns proposes that if we also include the game’s sound effects as a part of the musical score, then we can more easily perceive the gamer as an aleatoric musical performer.  “Game scoring,” Enns writes, “includes a recognition, accommodation and, even, an orchestration of sound effects which ordinarily
might also be considered “extramusical” to the untrained ear.”

So, if we’re willing to accept the game’s sound effects as a part of its musical score, then the entire experience becomes an aleatoric performance… but that presupposes the idea that sound effects should be accepted as musical events.  If we don’t perceive the sound effects as musical, then are there still circumstances in which the gamer can be considered an aleatoric musical performer?  It seems to me that the role of the gamer as a musician would depend on the nature of the game being played… and there are certainly games in which the player fills the role of the performer in a composition governed by chance.  Let’s take a look at a few popular video game examples.

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Flow

In the game Flow, players become a small organism glowing in a watery universe.  In this game, the sound effects are musical.  When your organism eats a glowing mote in the water, a tone sounds. Progressing through the game, the tones create a musical latticework according to the player’s choices, essentially weaving the fabric of the game’s musical score as the gamer plays.  This seems like a good example of an aleatoric score in which the sound effects could rightly be considered musical, and the player can be identified as an aleatoric performer.

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Electroplankton

Electroplankton is the most overt example of a game that casts the player in the role of a musician.  The game consists of an assortment of minigames that allow the player to participate in music creation through many clever graphical interfaces and procedures.  For instance, in the “Beatnes” game, the player is introduced to the art of “Live Looping” by rhythmically tapping the screen to trigger sounds that thereafter loop repeatedly with the beat, allowing the player to create more complex repeating layers of sounds as the music progresses.

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Rez

Rez is a rail shooter in which the player navigates a virtual environment within a computer network, destroying viruses and firewalls in order to rescue an artificial intelligence named Eden.  There are no sound effects in Rez – every action of the player is punctuated with a musical tone or rhythmic effect that melds with the electronic soundtrack to create the overall musical score.  When players “shoot,” they’re essentially playing the music.

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Lumines

The gameplay of this popular puzzle game is less directly musical, but still has a very strong effect on the progress of the musical score.  Players of Lumines manipulate falling blocks (in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Tetris).  The music consists of looping segments, during which the overall composition seems to halt any forward progress and dwell on a short internal segment repeatedly until the player racks up enough points to trigger the music to move ahead.  Because the player’s actions influence the progress of the music rather than its content, it seems that this game casts the player in a role more similar to a conductor than a musician.

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Flower

In the Flower video game, the player collects flower petals, which emit bell-like tones as they fly up into the air.  These tones join with the game’s musical score with a delicate, “wind-chime” effect.  The player is able to sound these bells each time a new flower petal is collected, and these sounds serve to provide foreground interest for the music and a sense of shape and forward movement to the composition.

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So, after reading Mack Enn’s paper and considering his thesis, I think it’s certainly reasonable to identify certain games as having soundtracks structured in such a way as to allow the player to become an aleatoric musical performer.  I’m not sure I’d agree that all games are structured this way, and the idea of considering all sound effects as musical is a highly experimental concept.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider!  Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to post any other “aleatoric” game scores you’d like to share!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Game Music Middleware, Part 5: psai

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This is a continuation of my blog series on the top audio middleware options for game music composers, this time focusing on the psai Interactive Music Engine for games, developed by Periscope Studio, an audio/music production house. Initially developed as a proprietary middleware solution for use by Periscope’s in-house musicians, the software is now being made available commercially for use by game composers.  In this blog I’ll take a quick look at psai and provide some tutorial resources that will further explore the utility of this audio middleware.  If you’d like to read the first four blog entries in this series on middleware for the game composer, you can find them here:

Game Music Middleware, Part 1: Wwise

Game Music Middleware, Part 2: FMOD

Game Music Middleware, Part 3: Fabric

Game Music Middleware, Part 4: Elias

What is psai?

The name “psai” is an acronym for “Periscope Studio Audio Intelligence,” and its lowercase appearance is intentional.  Like the Elias middleware (explored in a previous installment of this blog series), the psai application attempts to provide a specialized environment specifically tailored to best suit the needs of game composers.  The developers at Periscope Studio claim that psai’s “ease of use is unrivaled,” primarily because the middleware was “designed by videogame composers, who found that the approaches of conventional game audio middleware to interactive music were too complicated and not flexible enough.”  The psai music engine was originally released for PC games, with a version of the software for the popular Unity engine released in January 2015.

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psai graphical user interface

Both Elias and psai offer intuitive graphical user interfaces designed to ease the workflow of a game composer. However, unlike Elias, which focused exclusively on a vertical layering approach to musical interactivity, the psai middleware is structured entirely around horizontal re-sequencing, with no support for vertical layering.  As I described in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, “the fundamental idea behind horizontal re-sequencing is that when composed carefully and according to certain rules, the sequence of a musical composition can be rearranged.” (Chapter 11, page 188).

Music for the psai middleware is composed in what Periscope describes as a “snippets” format, in which short chunks of music are arranged into groups that can then be triggered semi-randomly by the middleware.  The overall musical composition is called a “theme,” and the snippets represent short sections of that theme.  The snippets are assigned numbers that best represent degrees of emotional intensity (from most intense to most relaxed), and these intensity numbers help determine which of the snippets will be triggered at any given time.  Other property assignments include whether a snippet is designated as an introductory or ending segment, or whether the snippet is bundled into a “middle” group with a particular intensity designation.  Periscope cautions, “The more Middle Segments you provide, the more diversified your Theme will be. The more Middle Segments you provide for a Theme, the less repetition will occur. For a highly dynamic soundtrack make sure to provide a proper number of Segments across different levels of intensity.”

Here’s an introductory tutorial video produced by Periscope for the psai Interactive Music Engine for videogames:

Because psai only supports horizontal re-sequencing, it’s not as flexible as the more famous tools such as Wwise or FMOD, which can support projects that alternate between horizontal and vertical interactivity models.  However, psai’s ease of use may prove alluring for composers who had already planned to implement a horizontal re-sequencing structure for musical interactivity.  The utility of the psai middleware also seems to depend on snippets that are quite short, as is demonstrated by the above tutorial video produced by Periscope Studio.  There could be some negative effects of this structure on a composer’s ability to develop melodic content (as is sometimes the case in a horizontal re-sequencing model).  It would be helpful if Periscope could demonstrate psai using longer snippets that might give us a better sense of how musical ideas might be developed within the confines of their dynamic music system.  One can imagine an awesome potential for creativity with this system, if the structure can be adapted to allow for more development of musical ideas over time.

The psai middleware has been used successfully in a handful of game projects, including Black Mirror III, Lost Chronicles of Zerzura, Legends of Pegasus, Mount & Blade II – Bannerlord, and The Devil’s Men.  Here’s some gameplay video that demonstrates the music system of Legends of Pegasus:

And here is some gameplay video that demonstrates the music system of Mount & Blade II – Bannerlord:

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music wins the Nonfiction Book Award!

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I’m excited to share some awesome news!  My book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, has been selected as a Gold winner of the Nonfiction Book Awards!

The Nonfiction Authors Association presents Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards in its Nonfiction Book Awards competition to honor the best book-length publications in an array of nonfiction genres.  A Composer’s Guide to Game Music was recognized with a Gold award (the top honor presented by the awards competition) in the “Arts, Music, and Photography” category.

Here’s how A Composer’s Guide to Game Music was described by Stephane Chandler, the founder of the Nonfiction Authors Association:

Winifred Phillips presents music composition for a specific genre and audience in an easy-to-understand way, whether for seasoned composers or self-taught music enthusiasts looking to create a beautifully composed work for the video game market. Phillips goes above and beyond, guiding her reader through not only the composition process, but everything else tied to producing music for video games, including but not limited to working with teams and how to understand key audience demographics.

My most sincere appreciation goes out to the judging panel of the Nonfiction Book Awards for this honor!

This is the fourth award presented to A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press).  To date, the book has also won a National Indie Excellence Book Award, a Global Music Award for an exceptional book in the field of music, and an Annual Game Music Award from the popular site Game Music Online in the category of “Best Publication.”

A Composer's Guide to Game Music won a National Indie Excellence Book Award in the genre of Performing Arts (Film, Theater, Dance & Music).

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music won a National Indie Excellence Book Award in the genre of Performing Arts (Film, Theater, Dance & Music).

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The Global Music Awards presented a Gold Medal Award of Excellence as a GMA Book Award to A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, which was judged as exceptional in the field of music.

 

The staff of accomplished music journalists of Game Music Online has presented awards in many categories that acknowledge the diversity and range of the video game music genre.

The staff of accomplished music journalists of Game Music Online presented a “Best Publication” award to A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, acknowledging its “accessible yet deep insight into the process of making game music.”

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning game music composer with more than 11 years of experience in the video game industry.  Her projects include such famous games as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and many others.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Game Music for the 4th of July

Happy Independence Day to all my fellow Americans!  This is a day to celebrate all the best, most awesome things we enjoy about being Americans – and that includes our love of video games!  So to celebrate, I’ve gathered together some of the top patriotic songs of the USA as they appeared in popular game soundtracks.  Enjoy!

Guitar Hero 5 –  My Country, Tis of Thee

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Civilization V – America the Beautiful

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Fallout 3 – Yankee Doodle

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Civil War 2: Generals – When Johnny Comes Marching Home

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BioShock Infinite – You’re A Grand Old Flag

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Fallout 3 – Hail Columbia

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Civil War 2: Generals – Battle Hymn of the Republic

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Civilization IV – Marines’ Hymn (The United States Marine Corps)

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning game music composer with more than 11 years of experience in the video game industry.  Her projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and many others.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.