Video game music composer gives lecture at the Library of Congress

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

On April 6th I was honored to give a lecture at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington DC (pictured right).  As a video game composer, I’d been invited to speak by the Music Division of the Library of Congress.  I’d be delivering the concluding presentation during their Popular video game music composer Winifred Phillips is here shown outside the Thomas Jefferson Building (Library of Congress, Washington DC), where she gave the first-ever video game music composition lecture at the invitation of the music division of the Library of Congress.premiere event celebrating popular video game music.  My lecture would be the very first video game music composition lecture ever given at the Library of Congress.  I was both honored and humbled to accept the invitation and have my lecture included in the 2018-2019 season of concerts and symposia from the Library of Congress.

In my presentation, I included many topics that I’ve written about in previous articles.  My lecture topics included horizontal resequencing, vertical layering, and interactive MIDI-based composition. I explored the various roles that music has played in famous games from the earliest days of game design (like Frogger and Ballblazer).  I also discussed how music has been implemented in some of the awesome games from the modern era (like one of my own projects, Assassin’s Creed Liberation).

My lecture was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress. The audience gave me both a warm welcome and lots of great questions following the conclusion of my lecture.  Afterwards, the discussion continued during a book signing event that was kindly hosted by the Library of Congress shop.  During the book signing event, I was pleased to sign copies of my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. I also got to talk personally with quite a few audience members.  Such an engaging and insightful crowd!  It was a pleasure getting to know these lovely people.  I really enjoyed the lively conversation – I had the best time!!

The video of my full lecture will be posted on the Library of Congress web site within the coming months.  However, I thought I might offer a preview in the form of a partial transcript including some of the top questions from the Q&A session that followed my lecture.  So here are some of the questions that were posed – starting with a question about a topic of great importance to the Library of Congress – copyright protection for artists!

The Library of Congress logo, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).


Question I know copyright is a big thing, so I was wondering how do you approach that?  So that you can avoid having the copyright issues?  At least from your experience?

Phillips: Copyright is a very interesting and important aspect of our work.  A lot of games are structured specifically around the idea of using licensed music. I’m sure you can think of a lot of Electronic Arts sports games in which music is introduced for the first time.  You find a band that you really love by playing one of those sports games.  That’s been a really big avenue for young artists to make their start, and it’s been great for the music community at large.

No game developer wants to find out that they’ve used a piece of music and that they haven’t secured the rights appropriately.  Particularly if you’ve fallen in love with a track.  You’ve incorporated it into your game, and (oh God forbid) you’ve actually structured your gameplay around it.  Then you find out you can’t use it!

It’s great that the Library of Congress has served the artistic community for so long in making sure that artists are protected.

Popular video game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured during her lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Presenting her lecture to a full-house at the Whittall Pavilion, Winifred Phillips gave the first video game music composition lecture at the Library of Congress.

Question What challenges do you face, or conventions do you follow, when you are mixing down a dynamic piece of music for a retail CD release? Or for a promotional material?  How do you make that stay interesting to the listener, if it’s not as dynamic as it once was?

Phillips When you’re composing music for a game, you’re essentially composing a lot of different bits and pieces.  You know that during gameplay they’re going to be triggered by the progress of the player.  So it’s essentially a flexible, fluid story.  I try to think about the most impactful course that the player might have taken through that level…  through that piece of music. Then I will construct in my music production software an ideal course, an ideal way to go through it.  I’ll mix it so that it becomes a memory of the experience of playing that game.  A lot of the people who buy these soundtracks are people who have played the games.  They want to own the music because they want to relive the experience.  That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m pulling all of the interactive elements together.  I want to create a sort of ideal listening experience.

Question How often do you use virtual libraries, in comparison to a real orchestra?  Do you use virtual libraries more for mockups, or do you use it more for scoring a game?

Phillips There have been projects where I’ve used it just in the mockup stage at the beginning. Then the project has gone on to record with a live orchestra.  So that’s always fun. But then there are other projects where the budget is just not going to accommodate that.  One of the things that’s important to me as an artist is the option to work with both large studios and also indie teams that don’t have the same kind of budgets. It allows me to do a wide range of projects that are exciting and creative.

To make an orchestral sample library sound satisfying and realistic requires a minute attention to details.  Also, a really good understanding of how sample libraries work.  How live musicians play.  Then, you can approximate the sound in a way that’s going to feel satisfying for listeners.  On the other hand, when you’re dealing with a live orchestra, you really want to be able to take advantage of the strengths of that medium, and appeal to the expressiveness that a live orchestra or live soloists can bring.

A photo showing Winifred Phillips (popular video game music composer) as she presents the first-ever video game music composition lecture to be given at the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC).

Question As someone who plays musical instruments but who has never composed – if I were to try to make an indie game or something and I wanted to make my own music – what kind of recommendations would you have?

Phillips I’ve seen development teams in which the main developer also creates the music.  There have been some really interesting games that have been created that way.  If you are a musician creating a game, you can sense how the music fits into the mechanic of the game – since you’re creating both.  So that’s something that I’ve seen done.  But I do think that if you haven’t composed before, it might make sense to try to start doing some of that first, before you try to bring those two elements together.  They’re Popular video game composer Winifred Phillips discussing her music from Assassin's Creed Liberation during her lecture at the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). This was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.very different disciplines.  You want to have a basic skill set.  You want to be comfortable with that, before you start taking something that’s hard in and of itself (music composition), and then adding into it something else that’s hard in and of itself (game design). You don’t want to get overwhelmed.

If you are familiar with any student teams, or teams that are involved in game jams, you could get involved in that.  A game jam is one of these events in which all of these game developers come together to create games on the fly really quick.  It’s actually a lot of fun, because it becomes a way to be very creative and solve problems right on the spot.  It’s also a fantastic opportunity to jump into a team right away as the composer.  You get an opportunity to just think about that part of the game, to create the music within the structure of a team.  I think you’d learn a lot about what goes into music composition for games.  Do that first – before you put the thousand ton weight on yourself by doing both things at the same time.

Question Given the gaming consoles and other platforms have grown so much in terms of their capacity, what limits do you feel are placed now (or still) on your budget?  And what’s your response then, in terms of strategies that you bring to increase your expressiveness?  What resources are available, while still remaining within the resources allowed?The Library of Congress organized a book signing event to take place immediately following a lecture presented by popular game music composer Winifred Phillips in the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips signed copies of her book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

PhillipsThat definitely becomes an issue from project to project.  I can’t honestly think of a single project I’ve worked on when budget doesn’t become a factor, even when the budgets are very large. There’s always the opportunity for your ambitions to explode beyond the boundaries that any game budget can accommodate.  At that point you triage the situation.  You look at it and you say, ‘how can I maximize the potential of a smaller amount of music? How can it provide coverage for a game and not become too repetitive – too annoying?’  You don’t want your music to become a negative. You always want it to be something people love.

I’ve talked about vertical layering, the idea of music broken apart into its individual layers that can be used separately.  That makes one piece of music more flexible to cover a larger amount of time. It can morph and change and become more adaptive to what’s going on.

On the other hand, there’s also the quite valid consideration of when music should settle back into silence. That gives the player room to absorb the moment. You strategically place music in those positions where it’s going to have maximum impact, where it’s going to be meaningful. You can still have a satisfying musical experience in the game without needing an enormous budget to accommodate it.

So those are two approaches that can address the problem.  But it’s a continuing problem.  Every game development studio wrestles with it at one time or another. We’ve all got the hope and the yearning to do something really special with music.  A lot of the times we can!  Sometimes the restrictions can make us be creative in ways we couldn’t have predicted.  That is the way to grow as a development team or as an artist and composer. So these challenges can serve to make us grow and become better.


The Library of Congress logo, included in the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this partial transcript of the Q&A session from my lecture at the Library of Congress.  Be sure to revisit this space over the coming months, when I’ll be posting a link to the full video recording of my lecture on video game music composition.  The video of my lecture will be preserved as a webcast on the Library of Congress web site, where it will become a part of the Library’s permanent collection.  In that capacity, my lecture will be available in the Library of Congress collection for worldwide viewing and for the benefit of future generations.  It was a tremendous honor to give a lecture at the Library of Congress!  I’m grateful to the Library of Congress’ Music Division for inviting me to speak about my work as a video game composer!

 

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score will be performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicks off in 2019 with its Los Angeles premiere at the famous Dolby Theatre. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Phillips’ is a sought-after public speaker, and she has been invited to speak about her work as a game composer at the Library of Congress, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and many more.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

 

Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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VR Game Composer: Music Beyond the Virtual

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, from the article entitled "VR Game Composer: Music Beyond the Virtual."Welcome to the third installment in our series on the fascinating possibilities created by virtual reality motion tracking, and how the immersive nature of VR may serve to inspire us as video game composers and afford us new and innovative tools for music creation.  As modern composers, we work with a lot of technological tools, as I can attest from the studio equipment that I rely on daily (pictured left). Many of these tools communicate with each other by virtue of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol, commonly known as MIDI – a technical standard that allows music devices and software to interact.

Image depicting VR apps from the article by Winifred Phillips, Game Music Composer.In order for a VR music application to control and manipulate external devices, the software must be able to communicate by way of the MIDI protocol – and that’s an exciting development in the field of music creation in VR!

This series of articles focuses on what VR means for music composers and performers. In previous installments, we’ve had some fun exploring new ways to play air guitar and air drums, and we’ve looked at top VR applications that provide standalone virtual instruments and music creation tools.  Now we’ll be talking about the most potentially useful application of VR for video game music composers – the ability to control our existing music production tools from within a VR environment.

We’ll explore three applications that employ MIDI to connect music creation in VR to our existing music production tools. But first, let’s take a look at another, much older gesture-controlled instrument that in ways is quite reminiscent of these motion-tracking music applications for VR:

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VR Game Composer: Music Inside the Machine

Illustration for an article in the VR Game Composer series, written by video game composer Winifred PhillipsWelcome to part two of our ongoing exploration of some interesting possibilities created by the motion tracking capabilities of VR, and how this might alter our creative process as video game composers.

In part one we discussed how motion tracking lets us be awesome air guitarists and drummers inside the virtual space.  In this article, we’ll be taking a look at how the same technology will allow us to make interesting music using more serious tools that are incorporated directly inside the VR environment – musical instruments that exist entirely within the VR ‘machine.’

Our discussion to follow will concentrate on three software applications: Soundscape, Carillon, and Lyra.  Later, in the third article of this ongoing series, we’ll take a look at applications that allow our VR user interfaces to harness the power of MIDI to control some of the top music devices and software that we use in our external production studios. But first, let’s look at the ways that VR apps can function as fully-featured musical instruments, all on their own!

Soundscape

Let’s start with something simple – a step sequencer with a sound bank and signal processing tools, built for the mobile virtual reality experience of the Samsung Gear VR.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips demonstrating the Samsung Gear VR headset during the AES convention in NYC.I got a chance to demo the Samsung Gear VR during the Audio Engineering Society Convention in NYC last year, and while it doesn’t offer the best or most mind-blowing experience in VR (such as what we can experience from products like the famous Oculus Rift), it does achieve a satisfying level of immersion. Plus, it’s great fun!  The Soundscape VR app was built for Samsung Gear VR by developer Sander Sneek of the Netherlands.  It’s a simple app designed to enable users to create dance loops using three instruments from a built-in electro sound library, a pentatonic step sequencer that enables the user to create rhythm and tone patterns within the loops, and a collection of audio signal processing effects that let the user warp and mold the sounds as the loops progress, adding variety to the performance.

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VR Game Composer: Music in the Air

Illustration for the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips, entitled "VR Game Composer: Music in the Air"Since I’ve been working recently on music for a Virtual Reality project (more info in the coming months), I’ve been thinking a lot about VR technology and its effect on the creative process.  Certainly, VR is going to be a great environment in which to be creative and perform tasks and skills with enhanced focus, according to this article from the VR site SingularityHub.  I’ve written in this blog before about the role that music and sound will play in the Virtual Reality gaming experience.  It’s clear that music will have an impact on the way in which we experience VR, not only during gaming experiences, but also when using the tools of VR to create and be productive.  With that in mind, let’s consider if the opposite statement may also be true – will VR impact the way in which we experience music, not only as listeners, but also as video game composers?

Game composer Winifred Phillips tries out the VR experience of Google Cardboard (pictured here in her music production studio).Simple VR technologies like the popular Google Cardboard headset can be a lot of fun – as I personally experienced recently (photo to the left).  However, they offer only the rudimentary visual aspects, which omits some of the most compelling aspects of the VR experience.  When motion tracking (beyond simple head movement) is added to the mix, the potential of VR explodes.  Over the next three articles, we’ll be exploring some interesting possibilities created by the motion tracking capabilities of VR, and how this might alter our creative process.  In the first article, we’ll have some fun exploring new ways to play air guitars and air drums in the VR environment. In the second article, we’ll take a look at ways to control virtual instruments and sound modules that are folded into the VR software.  And finally, in the third article we’ll explore the ways in which VR motion tracking is allowing us to immersively control our existing real-world instruments using MIDI. But first, let’s take a look at the early days of VR musical technology!

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Video Game Music Production Tips from GDC 2016

Game Composer Winifred Phillips during her game music presentation at the Game Developers Conference 2016I was pleased to give a talk about composing music for games at the 2016 Game Developers Conference (pictured left).  GDC took place this past March in San Francisco – it was an honor to be a part of the audio track again this year, which offered a wealth of awesome educational sessions for game audio practitioners.  So much fun to see the other talks and learn about what’s new and exciting in the field of game audio!  In this blog, I want to share some info that I thought was really interesting from two talks that pertained to the audio production side of game development: composer Laura Karpman’s talk about “Composing Virtually, Sounding Real” and audio director Garry Taylor’s talk on “Audio Mastering for Interactive Entertainment.”  Both sessions had some very good info for video game composers who may be looking to improve the quality of their recordings.  Along the way, I’ll also be sharing a few of my own personal viewpoints on these music production topics, and I’ll include some examples from one of my own projects, the Ultimate Trailers album for West One Music, to illustrate ideas that we’ll be discussing.  So let’s get started!

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