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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The Great MIDI Comeback?

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!