Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 1: A Game Composer’s Guide

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The art of arrangement.

This week, I’m beginning a three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games. I’ll be exploring the techniques of arrangement as they relate to interactive game music by discussing examples from the music I composed for video games from the blockbuster LittleBigPlanet franchise.

Arrangement for interactivity is a complex subject, so I thought we should begin by developing a basic understanding of what arrangement is, and then move on to the reasons why it’s especially important in interactive music.

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Simultaneous Genres for the Game Music Composer

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Since the Grammy nominating period is underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about my work on the popular LittleBigPlanet video game franchise.  I recently submitted a couple of tracks from the LittleBigPlanet 3 soundtrack for consideration (LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme and LittleBigPlanet 3 The Pod), which brought to mind some of the creative processes that went into structuring the interactive music for the LittleBigPlanet games. In my blog today I’d like to share with you a fun technique that’s actually one of my favorite aspects of composing music in this interactive system.  I’ve been a part of the music composition team for six LittleBigPlanet games, and over the course of those six projects, I’ve been asked to execute this particular technique a lot.  It’s a great musical trick that can only be pulled off when you’re composing in a Vertical Layering system.  Since the LittleBigPlanet music system is one of the most complex examples of Vertical Layering, it really makes for ideal conditions in which to execute this technique, which is…

Composing in Two Simultaneous Genres

We’ll recall that Vertical Layering is the process by which a single piece of music is recorded into separate yet simultaneous audio recordings that each embody a percentage of the whole composition.  This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled into different instrument combinations during gameplay.

Last year I produced an instructional video that goes into the process in more depth:

Vertical Layering gives us the chance to write one track in two simultaneous musical genres. In traditional music composition, if we want to combine two genres of music in one track we can attempt to pull together a creative fusion, in which the styles are mixed together to create a result that isn’t quite one genre, and isn’t quite the other. Fusions can be exciting and original, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The musical interactivity of Vertical Layering gives us the chance to keep the two genres distinct, and still incorporate them into the same piece of music.  The track can switch up which layers are playing, and it’ll be in one musical genre in one moment, and then become another genre at the drop of a hat. It’s very cool, and a lot of fun for a composer – although it can also be hard for us to wrap our heads around, especially at first.

Let’s take a look at three examples of this technique in action.  We’ll start with a couple of tracks from LittleBigPlanet 2, and then a more recent track from the latest game in the franchise – LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

In the “Victoria’s Lab” level from LittleBigPlanet 2, our world-famous hero, Sackboy, must do his best to navigate a perilous steampunk bakery, using cupcakes as weapons against evil robots made of teacups.  All these wacky elements come together to create the typically whimsical awesomeness that makes LittleBigPlanet the lovable franchise it is.  I composed the Victoria’s Lab music for LittleBigPlanet 2. Here’s a music video that includes the complete track, along with action from the Victoria’s Lab level of the game:

Victoria’s lab aptly demonstrates the “two simultaneous musical genres” approach.  For instance, Victoria’s lab can switch from a whimsical lollipop style to a gritty orchestral/rock hybrid at any time. Here’s the whimsical lollipop:

And here’s the orchestral/rock hybrid:

It’s like the music has a case of multiple personality, and the audio team can use this to add distinctive character to locations and situations within the level – some areas benefiting from the cuteness of the whimsical style, others from the toughness of the rock. In order to make this happen, as game composers we have to keep the two styles balanced in our minds – compose them both separately, test how they work together, adjust the instrumental performances and fundamental organization so that the two styles can coexist in a way that makes musical sense, test the layers some more in various configurations, until all the layers seem to work well – both when played together and when played alone.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Eve’s Asylum

EveNow, while the Victoria’s Lab example presents a fairly extreme contrast in music styles, the music from the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2 shows off this technique in an even more dramatic way. The Eve’s Asylum level is set inside a giant tree, where a lady with an apple for a head runs a a highly-spiritual insane asylum. The music for this level is structured around two very distinct musical genres that are assigned to specific tasks.

The sparkling, surreal New Age music style works to enhance gameplay during relaxed exploration, and it also highlights the natural beauty of the giant tree. Here’s a taste of that:

On the flip side of the coin, the Boogie-Woogie style pays tribute to the Andrew Sisters and the age of swing, and the high-energy rhythms provide support for combat and perilous situations. Let’s listen to a little of that:

Okay, now here’s what it sounds like when the Vertical Layering music system transitions from one musical genre to the other in the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2:

What’s great about this technique is that it allows the music to morph into something completely different in a perfectly seamless way, without ever making the player overtly conscious of the transition, and without creating any artificial sense of demarcation where one style ends and another begins. The music is simply interacting with the gameplay, changing in a logical way as the player’s circumstances change. Now, let’s look at one more example of this technique, this time from LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

SackBrosIn the Ziggurat level, Sackboy explores a gigantic sanctuary that’s full of both grandly spiritual architecture and playfully eccentric machines. As a setting that already had a built-in duality, it seemed clear that the music should also have a similar sense of division – so I composed this Vertical Layering composition in two musical styles. The first was a traditionally designed Baroque-style fugue – a multi-voiced counterpoint composition built around the repetition and development of a single melodic theme. Here’s a snippet of that Baroque-style fugue:

The second style was a quirky World Fusion in which log drums, upright bass and assorted percussion instruments worked together to have some fun with African, Latin, Polynesian and Jazz rhythms. Here’s an excerpt of those groovy world beats:

So, the music is essentially coming from the opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – a very strict and refined musical form on one side, and a very groovy and uninhibited style on the other. Now, watch how the music system added layers during this gameplay sequence in the Ziggurat level of LittleBigPlanet 3:

Vertical Layering is a tremendously flexible composition technique that allows a game composer to incorporate two simultaneous musical genres into a single track. We can use the two distinctly-different genres separately, and then combine them to create dramatically different musical effects.  It’s a fun technique, and I hope that you’ll give it a try in your own work.  Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever tried to combine two musical genres using Vertical Layering, or if you’re planning to try it in the future!

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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.

Power to the Players: Music for User-Created Levels

This week, I’d like to touch upon an aspect of the LittleBigPlanet music system that sets it apart from most other games – and that is the way in which the game gives players the power to directly manipulate the music content.

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Every piece of music in a LittleBigPlanet game is also a collectible prize that players can obtain and then use in levels that they build themselves using the game’s creation tools. For this reason, when composing for a LittleBigPlanet game, the members of the music composition team have to keep in mind that there’s no way to predict how the user community will use the music. Certainly, the players will be sharing their user-created levels across the entire community – there are over 9 million levels so far – and that knowledge tends to puts everything in a whole new light.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the music of the LittleBigPlanet franchise for consoles is structured using a Vertical Layering system comprised of six layers – six simultaneous audio recordings that play in synch with each other and each represent a percentage of the whole composition. This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled by the game engine according to what’s happening during the course of play.  That means that each music composition is fragmented into six parts.  So, I have to ask myself – when players are using one of the interactive tracks I’ve composed for a LittleBigPlanet game, will users play only one layer out of the six? That thought tends to make me scrutinize every layer pretty intently.

On the other hand, will players just set every layer as active, at full volume, all the time? Again, that’s a thought that puts me on high alert, leading me to turn a hyper critical eye on each composition before I make that final submission to the developers.

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When we create interactive music for most projects, we can trust that the audio team at the development studio will work to implement the music in the most advantageous way, with the most satisfying musical results – but players tend to make their decisions based on what seems like fun at the time.

Even so, I’m always excited to hear how players have implemented my music into their games.  Here are some of the best examples of ingenuity and artistry from a few of the top LittleBigPlanet level creators:

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

In the Ziggurat level, Sackboy wanders through an impressive sanctuary characterized by imposing architecture and lots of glittering glass, with outdoor sections blanketed by softly falling snow.  I was asked to create music for this area, which was structured as a central hub from which Sackboy could embark on adventures and accept missions.  The music I composed included six layers – Choir, Harp, Bells, Bass, Jazz Drums and Percussion.  Here is a short 12 second excerpt taken from each of the six layers at the exact same moment in the composition:

In the Ziggurat level created by the development team at Sumo Digital, Sackboy repeatedly visits a central hub area, and the layers of the music are triggered in different configurations depending on when Sackboy visits.  The layers don’t change noticeably while Sackboy is exploring the level, but when he returns to the same level later, the music will have changed its layer configuration. Here’s a brief example of how that worked:

In the awesome user-created level Fuga Ad Infinitum (designed by Aratiatia), the Ziggurat Theme music is used with a very different triggering strategy.  The layers are turned on and off depending on the actions of Sackboy as he runs and flies through a mythologically-inspired environment, causing the music to fluidly change its character while Sackboy explores.  Because of this fundamentally different method of music triggering, The Ziggurat Theme has a unique tone and atmosphere in Fuga Ad Infinitum.  Here’s a gameplay video that shows how the music was triggered in the Fuga Ad Infinitum game:

The user Aratiatia created a mesmerizingly beautiful level, lacing the layers of The Ziggurat Theme throughout with thoughtfully designed trigger points that supported the action of the game very well.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story

Sometimes an interactive track can come across differently with very small changes in implementation.  As an example – the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game was a self-contained adventure in the world of the famous and popular Toy Story movies.  I wrote an interactive western bluegrass track for gameplay sequences that included cowboy romps with Woody and his pals.  The details regarding the composition of each layer in this bluegrass Vertical Layering composition are explored in one of the tutorial videos I produced to supplement my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music:

During the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game, the interactive music would be used for both low-energy cinematics and high-energy gameplay.  Here’s a brief video showing how the music was implemented in the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game:

Now, here’s the same music used in an incredibly clever LittleBigPlanet 2 user-created game called Paper World 2 by Adell22.  In this implementation of the music, Adell22 chose not to use the melody layer, opting instead for the bluegrass rhythm and energy to give the vehicular gameplay its momentum:

The drastically different gameplay circumstances, combined with the different mix of layers in the music, help this track to come across distinctively and support the action of the Paper World 2 user-created game.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

I’ve blogged before about the music I composed for the Victoria’s Lab level of LittleBigPlanet 2 – I mention it here as an illustration of how a Vertical Layering composition can change depending on the implementation.  The music of Victoria’s Lab includes both whimsical and dark layers which can be played together or separately.  Here’s a 15 second excerpt of the full mix of Victoria’s Lab, to remind us of how all six layers sound when played together.

In a user-created level for the LittleBigPlanet 2 game, the user Acanimate chose to implement only the drums, guitars and strings of the Victoria’s Lab music (in other words, the dark and serious layers) in this exciting and perilous level called Sprocketz.

As a contrast, in this section of another user-created level called Sweets Fantasy by the user White Rabbit, only the light and comical layers of the Victoria’s Lab music were used, with the following result:

I’m always inspired by what the LittleBigPlanet user community does with the interactive music written for the franchise.  It’s a privilege to create music that will become part of user-created levels, and fascinating to see how the players choose to implement the interactive components of the LittleBigPlanet music system.  Their choices sometimes reveal hidden utility in the music created for the franchise, and looking at their choices can help us better understand the creative possibilities inherent in Vertical Layering.

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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.

Social Media for the Game Music Composer

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Candace Walker, recruiting manager at Naughty Dog studios.

Candace Walker, recruiting manager at Naughty Dog studios.

At the recent Game Developers Conference Europe (August 3-4, 2015), top recruiting manager Candace Walker of Naughty Dog gave a presentation entitled “Career Bootcamp: The Benefits of Building an Online Presence and How To Do It.”  While her talk was not aimed at freelancers such as game composers, some of her strategies and recommendations are worth considering.

I explored some of these social media approaches in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (chapter 14, page 246), but Candace adds a new perspective to the topic from her vantage as a recruiter. I’ll be exploring some of the best highlights from her talk in this blog.

But first, let’s watch a short video created by best selling author Erik Qualman, author of What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube.  This video focuses on the power of social media, in case any of us were unsure of what impact it might have on our professional lives:

The Goals of Social Presence

Candace Walker began her talk at GDC Europe by emphasizing four important guiding considerations that should shape our online efforts in the realm of social media.

  1.  What is our goal?  What are we trying to achieve?  As game audio freelancers, we want our potential clients to be aware of our availability and (hopefully) our awesome skills as game composers!  We may also want to reach out to the game audio community at large, contributing to the overall body of knowledge and/or making friends and contacts.  Whatever our ultimate purpose in regards to social media, we should always define our goals specifically and keep them at the forefront of our online efforts.
  2. Who is our audience?  For game composers, the online audience may be composed of potential clients, fellow composers, game press, game music fans, etc.  Different messages are meant to reach different audiences, and we need to keep this in mind.
  3. Does our intended message have value for its audience?  Social media has parallels with consumer culture, in that an online audience is investing something of worth in order to obtain something valuable. In this case, the investment takes the form of time, and the valuable return may be educational or entertaining content.  With any social media message, we need to evaluate the inherent value of our content.  Will our audience think it’s valuable enough?  Will our message be worth their time?
  4. Does our intended message have the potential to incite conflict? This one is a tricky issue for us to ponder.  If we’re simply reaching out to potential clients, the issue of unexpected conflict shouldn’t be particularly problematic.  However, if we’re discussing the craft of game audio in social media and we suddenly stumble across a contentious topic that starts ruffling feathers, we need to take a breath and consider the possible ramifications. In this case, Candace advises us to take a step back and favor the cautious approach.

At this point, Candace continued her presentation by taking her audience on a tour of the most famous and popular social media platforms.

YouTube

YouTube

Candace tells us that having a YouTube channel and producing videos can be useful for the game industry professional with expertise to share.  YouTube tutorials and educational videos are fantastic ways to spread knowledge.  As game composers, we can avail ourself of this avenue of social media outreach by producing educational videos that explore important skills, or tutorial videos that explain the use of vital game audio tools.

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Pinterest

According to Candace, this social media platform is growing in usefulness to game industry recruiters.  Pinterest allows a user to set up a “pinboard” of relevant links that fall within a single subject of interest.

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Facebook

Using Facebook as our conduit for professional outreach is entirely possible, Candace assures us.  However, we have to be clear about our purpose on Facebook.  If we’re on Facebook in a professional capacity, then we have to refrain from sharing too many personal posts.  Candace warns us against diluting our message with day-to-day observations and pet peeves.  Our initial goals for our social media presence should help us make decisions about what to post.

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LinkedIn

This social media platform is Candace’s #1 tool for finding new talent. According to Candace, LinkedIn has the potential to put us on the radar of our industry colleagues, and can deliver vital information about our services to potential clients.  In her presentation, Candace advises that we complete our LinkedIn profiles as thoroughly as possible, including all the relevant information about our experience in the industry and our skills.  An added side benefit is the ability of the LinkedIn site to reformat the content of a user’s profile page into a serviceable résumé that we can then use to woo potential clients.

Conclusion

Candace ended her presentation by recommending the social media strategies of several of her colleagues at Naughty Dog.  Here are some of the links she provided:

Twitter:  @jack_dillon, @cgyrling

Facebook: Glauro Longhi, John Sweeney

LinkedIn: Kurt Margenau, Jason Gregory

YouTube: Glauco Longhi, Richard “Pipes” Piper.

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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.

“Feel-Good Game Sound” for the Game Music Composer

How can we define “feel-good game sound”? That’s the question that sound designer Joonas Turner attempted to answer with his recent GDC Europe talk entitled, “Oh My! That Sound Made the Game Feel Better!”  Joonas’ talk was a part of the Independent Games Summit portion of GDC Europe, which took place in Cologne Germany on Monday August 3rd 2015.

While much of Joonas’ talk focused on issues that would chiefly concern sound designers, there were several interesting points for game composers to consider.  I’ll be exploring those ideas in this blog.

Joonas is a video game sound designer and voice actor working within the E-Studio professional recording studio in Helsinki, Finland.  His game credits include Angry Birds Transformers, Broforce, and Nuclear Throne.  After briefly introducing himself, Joonas launched into his talk about creating an aural environment that “feels good” and also makes the game “feel good” to the player. He starts by identifying an important consideration that should guide our efforts right from the start.

Consider design first

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Joonas Turner, sound designer at E-Studio.

In his talk, Joonas urges us to first consider the overall atmosphere of the game and the main focus of the player.  Ideally, the player should be able to concentrate on gameplay to the exclusion of any distractions.  The sound of a game should complement the gameplay and, if possible, deliver as much information to the player as possible.  If done perfectly, a player should be able to avoid consulting the graphical user interface in favor of the sonic cues that are delivering the same information.  In this way, the player gets to keep attention completely pinned on the playing field, staying on top of the action at hand.

Clearly, sound effects are designed to serve this purpose, and Joonas discusses a strategy for maximizing the utility of sound effects as conveyors of information… but can music also serve this purpose?  Can music deliver similar information to the player?  I think that music can do this in various ways, by using shifts in mood, or carefully-composed stingers, or other interactive techniques.  By way of these methods, music can let the player know when their health is deteriorating, or when they’re out of ammo.  Music can signal the appearance of new enemies or the successful completion of objectives.  In fact, I think that music can be as informative as sound design.

Music, sound design and voice-over: perfect together

As his GDC Europe talk proceeds, Joonas reminds us to think about how the music, sound design and voice-over will fit together within the overall frequency spectrum.  It’s important to make sure that these elements will complement each other, with frequency ranges that spread evenly across the spectrum, rather than piling up together at the low or high end.  With this in mind, Joonas suggests that the sound designer and composer should be brought together as early as possible to agree on a strategy for how these sonic elements will fit together in the game.

puzzle

(Here’s where Joonas brought up the first of two controversial ideas he presented during his talk.  While I’m not sure I agree with these ideas, I think the viewpoints he expresses are probably shared amongst other sound designers in the game industry, and therefore could use some more open discussion in the game audio community.)

While composers for video games always want to create the best and most awesome music for their projects, Joonas believes that this desire is not always conducive to a good final result.  He suggests that the soundtrack albums for video games are often more exciting and musically pleasing than the actual music from the game.  With this in mind, Joonas thinks that composers should save their best efforts for the soundtrack, while structuring the actual in-game music to be simpler and less aesthetically interesting.  In this way, the music can fit more comfortably into the overall aural design.

Your sonic brand

At this point in his presentation, Joonas urges the attendees to find aural styles that will be unique to their games.  He tells the audience to avoid using a tired sonic signature in every game, such as the famous brassy “bwah” tone that became pervasively popular after its use in the movie Inception.  If you are wondering what that sounds like, just hit the button below (courtesy of web developer Dave Pedu).

In 2012, Gregory Porter (an avid movie lover and creator of YouTube videos about the movies) created a fun video illustrating just how pervasive the infamous Inception “bwah” had actually become:

In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss the concept of creating a unique sonic identity for game in the chapter about the “Roles and Functions of Music in Games.”  In the book, I call this idea “sonic branding”(Chapter 6, page 112), wherein the composer writes such a distinctive musical motif or creates such a memorable musical atmosphere that the score becomes a part of the game’s brand.

Be Consistent

When recording music or sound design for a project, Joonas tells us that it’s important to remain consistent with our gear choices.  If a certain microphone has been used for a certain group of character voices, then that microphone should continue to be used for that purpose across the whole project.  Likewise, the same digital signal processing applications or hardware (compression, limiting, saturation, etc) should be used across the entire game, so that the aural texture remains consistent.  Carrying Joonas’ idea into the world of game music, we would find ourselves sticking with the same instrument and vocal microphones, and favoring the same reverb and signal processing settings throughout the musical score for a game.  This would ensure that the music maintained a unified texture and quality from the beginning of the game to the end.

Shorter is better

short-hand

In his talk, Joonas shares his personal experience with sound effects designed to indicate a successful action – a button press that causes something to happen.  Joonas tells us that for these sounds, shorter is definitely better.  The most successful sounds feature a quick, crisp entrance followed by a swift release. A short sound designed in this way will be satisfying to trigger, and won’t become tiresome after countless repetitions.

For the composer, the closest analogy to this sort of sound effect is the musical stinger designed to be triggered when the player performs a certain action.  In order to adhere to Joonas’ philosophy, we’d compose these stingers to have assertive entrances and quick resolves, so that they would be fun for the player even when repeated many times.

To clip or not to clip…

(This is the second of the two controversial ideas Joonas presented in his talk. Again, while I don’t necessarily agree with this, I think it’s an idea that hasn’t been expressed often and may need further discussion.)

VU-Meter

A volume unit (VU) meter registering some high audio levels.

The common wisdom amongst audio engineers is to avoid overloading the mix.  Such overloads can produce clipping and create distortion, which deteriorates the overall sound quality of the game.  However, Joonas suggests that for intense moments during gameplay, some clipping and distortion may actually enhance the sensation of anxiety and frenetic energy that such moments seek to elicit.  According to Joonas, this enhancement can actually be a desirable outcome, and the sound designer should therefore not be afraid of such overloads and clipping during intense moments in a game.

How would this idea relate to music?  Well, we’ve probably all heard examples of successful pop music that embraces sonic overload.  Lead vocalists sometimes scream into microphones to produce overloads, or a wailing guitar riff may be recorded with lots of overload artifacts.  As a deliberate effect placed carefully for the sake of drama, such brief moments of overload can add edginess to contemporary musical genres.  However, we’ve all likely heard other examples of overloads that seem more the product of high decibel levels rather than any deliberate processing. It’s important to differentiate a deliberate effect from an accidental one.  In music at least, we always want to control the final outcome of the mix, including the presence or absence of overload distortion.

Conclusion

Joonas wound up his talk by urging attendees to always give priority to the elements in the sound mix that are most important.  That would be a good guiding principle for music mixing as well.  Joonas is an interesting thinker in the area of game sound design.  He can be followed at his Twitter account, @KissaKolme.  Please feel free to comment below about anything you’ve read in this blog, and let me know how you feel about the ideas we’ve discussed.  I’d love to read your thoughts!

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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.