Video Game Composers: The Tech of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is almost here! I’m looking forward to giving my presentation soon on “Music in Virtual Reality” (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  Over the course of the last two years, I’ve composed a lot of music for virtual reality projects, some of which have already hit retail, and some of which will be getting released very soon!  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what role music should play in a virtual reality game. During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike RPG-Shooter hybrid from Labrodex Inc.  In preparing my GDC presentation, I made sure my talk addressed some of the most important creative and technical hurdles facing video game composers working in VR.  However, time constraints ensured that some interesting info ended up ‘on the cutting room floor,’ so to speak.  So, I’ve written two articles that explore some of the best topics that didn’t make it into my GDC presentation.

My previous article focused on some abstract, creative concerns facing video game music composers and audio folks working in VR.  In this article, we’ll be turning our attention to more concrete technical issues.  Ready?  Let’s go.

New Binaural Developments

Illustration of popular binaural developments in VR audio, from the article by composer Winifred Phillips for video game composers.VR games currently focus on binaural audio to immerse players in the awesome soundscapes of their virtual worlds.  As we know, binaural recording techniques use two microphones, often embedded in the artificial ears of a dummy head (pictured right).  By virtual of the popular binaural recording technique and/or binaural encoding technologies, game audio teams can plunge VR players into convincing aural worlds where sounds are spatially localized in a way that conforms with real world expectations.  The technology of binaural sound continually improves, and recently the expert developers of the Oculus Rift VR headset have refined the quality of their VR sound with two significant upgrades.

First, they have introduced “Near-Field Head Related Transfer Function.”  We’re all probably familiar by now with the concept of Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF), in which sound interacts with our heads, bodies and ear canals on its way to our ear drums.  The subtle changes undergone by those sound waves endow them with the specific qualities that reflect the real-life aural world.  In the original Oculus Audio SDK, realistic HRTF was limited by distance.  Sounds that occurred a meter away or more would reach us with all the correct HRTF effects we’d expect, but when sounds were emitted within that meter-wide diameter around our heads, the HRTF effects would no longer function.  So now the Oculus team has introduced “Near-Field HRTF” to fill in that gap.   This allows sounds that might occur close to our heads to feel more realistic.

“With our recently introduced Near-Field HRTF, developers can model sounds much closer than one meter away with a greater degree of accuracy,” writes the Oculus team in a blog article announcing the new technology. “Now, if you’re holding an object that makes sound (like a ringing telephone) and bring it closer to your head, we’re able to replicate that experience in VR in a more believable way.”

Near-Field HRTF might have great applications for game composers interested in employing diegetic music that occurs close to the player, such as a musical instrument that the player is expected to ‘play,’ or a music-emitting device (a radio, a music box) that’s held in the player’s hand.  Here’s a video produced by the Oculus team that demonstrates Near-Field HRTF in action:

The second binaural audio upgrade from the Oculus team allows for “Volumetric Sound Sources.”  This is a simpler effect to understand, but with more interesting implications for music inside the VR space.  “Volumetric Sound Sources let sound designers model objects of virtually any size in a way that sounds realistic,” explains the Oculus team. “Rather than trying to pinpoint the source of a sound, designers can give a sound a radius—the larger the assigned radius, the larger the sound’s source.”

Theoretically, this effect should make a single sound source emit a more expansive breadth of sound, sidestepping the otherwise mono-like qualities that many object-based sound sources typically display.  When implementing music in ways that attach it to the environment (such as audio mixes that separate instrument sections and spread them out across the virtual landscape), this kind of “Volumetric” effect would prevent these sounds from feeling as though they each emanate from a single point.  For instance, a violin section might have the wider breadth expected from such a recording.  Here’s the video produced by the Oculus team that demonstrates this effect.  Unfortunately, in the video the developers focused on white noise-heavy sounds like rushing/falling water, hissing machinery noises, and ocean surf.  This is less than revealing for other types of sound (such as musical sources), but it might give us a general idea of the developers’ intentions:

Both of these recent innovations depend on the binaural delivery system in order to function.  Binaural is currently very important in VR audio, and is likely to remain important for some time to come.

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio.GDC 2018 Presentation Preview

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be reviewing the history of the binaural recording method and its importance to virtual reality game development.  By virtue of both my own experiences with multiple VR projects, I’ll be describing several ways to spatially-localize music and audio content within a binaural audio delivery system.

However useful binary audio may be for VR audio design, binaural also has some logistical drawbacks for the consumer.  Let’s take a look at those, and examine some solutions that have been proposed.

The headphones problem

Illustration of the famous headphones problem in VR audio, from the article by Winifred Phillips (award winning video game music composer).In today’s modern high-tech environment, smart devices are everywhere.  One of the defining characteristics of a smart device is its ability to identify itself when used in combination with other technologies.  Smart devices are essentially plug and play.  We can plug a smart device such as the famous iPhone into a computer, and the computer will immediately know what it is.  Lots of peripheral devices are instantly recognizable, such as keyboards, game controllers, hard drives, etc.  Most standard headphones, however, aren’t smart devices.  When we plug them into a computer for use with a VR system, the system won’t be able to identify the headphone model, nor will it be able to detect any onboard signal processing such as noise cancellation or spatial rendering (surround sound or binaural).  That means that the VR system can’t automatically compensate for the headphone technology currently plugged into it.  This is where things can go wrong.

What if a pair of surround-sound headphones are plugged into a VR gaming device outputting in binaural sound?  The VR game’s binaural audio is going to get spatially reprocessed by the headphones, resulting in a serious degradation of the sound quality.  Consumers are accustomed to their devices communicating with each other and sorting these sorts of issues out autonomously.  If the VR system is smart, but the headphones are essentially dumb, what then?

Pictured: today's popular analog headphone models (an illustration from the article by composer Winifred Phillips for video game composers.“For any poorly perceived mix, the user may not know what the problem is or how to go about rectifying it. Even worse the user may even assume the poor mix is a fault of the game’s audio engine,” observed audio programmer Aristotel Digenis in his presentation “Challenges of the Headphone Mix in Games” at the 56th Audio Engineering Society Conference.  “Smart headphones” may be the natural evolution for headphones,” Digenis points out. “The analogue nature of conventional headphones means they have no way of identifying themselves in an equipment eco-system that is rapidly able to identify one another and each other’s capabilities.”

So, in an ideal world, the VR system would be able to identify the nature of the headphones and adjust its output accordingly.  We can all hope that smart headphones will eventually appear on the high-tech horizon, but what about the other end of the equation?  Can VR audio systems provide multiple audio mixes for different types of headphones?  Aristotel Digenis proposes a way in which this can be achieved… although it includes the use of a new audio format, and a dramatic re-evaluation of the way in which VR audio is currently delivered.


The MPEG-H Audio Alliance logo from the creators of the famous MPEG format, included in the article by Winifred Phillips for video game composers.First announced in 2013, the MPEG-H 3D Audio coding standard supports multiple audio channel output configurations including binaural rendering and higher order ambisonics.  One of the advantages of MGEG-H is its compatibility with multiple audio playback systems, from simple stereo, to complex surround configurations, to interactive virtual reality audio systems.  This flexible delivery mechanism, which the designers have coined Universal Delivery, allows the MPEG-H format to be cross-compatible with any type of listening equipment, from simple stereo headphones all the way to the most sophisticated home theater setups.  In other words, MPEG-H would allow VR audio to work on any playback system instead of its current limitation to headphones alone.

“Widespread adoption of the MPEG-H standard could mean game developers may not need to provide binaural mixes for their users,” Digenis asserts. “Instead they can continue delivering multi-channel mixes to the console/A V system, and it can provide a suitable binaural mix to the user if they are using headphones.”

Currently, the developers of MPEG-H are concentrating their focus on TV broadcast applications.  Here’s a short video demonstration of the television use of MPEG-H.  Notice how the audio content remains interactive on a highly detailed level, allowing the manipulation of individual sonic elements by the end-user.

While it seems like the MPEG-H format is a long way from practical implementation in VR applications, it shows some promise in providing future options for game audio folks working in VR.  We can imagine a future in which a virtual reality game may have its audio recorded and mixed in ambisonics, and then output in any number of configurations depending on the nature of the sound playback system.

In this photo, game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured working in her music production studio.GDC 2018 Presentation Preview

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be discussing the role of ambisonics in game audio development, starting with a historical overview and moving to the importance of the format in modern VR games.

Creating more opportunities for ambisonics to flourish in VR audio is an interesting topic to consider.  Let’s examine one intriguing possibility.

Ambisonics and the orchestra

In October of last year I wrote an article about some of the VR topics discussed at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference.  As a part of that article, I touched upon an idea that was briefly mentioned by Jay Steen of Criterion Games during his talk about the audio of Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One X-Wing VR Mission.  During the Q&A portion of his talk, Steen was asked about spatial positioning for a Star Wars musical score in VR.  “We did do a quick experiment on it, and we found that it’s like having an orchestra sitting around you,” Steen observed. “We didn’t want to evoke you sitting in the middle of an orchestral recording. We just wanted it to sound like the movie.” Even with that seeming dismissal of a spatially-positioned Star Wars score, Steen went on to add,  “Ambisonic recordings of orchestras for example, I think there’s something fun there. We haven’t experimented with it anymore than that, but yeah, definitely, we’d want to try.”

An illustration of popular ambisonic recording techniques for live orchestral performance, from the article by Winifred Phillips for game composers.Ambisonic orchestral recordings are not often encountered in VR games, but they’re becoming a bit more common in other forms of virtual entertainment.  As a way to imagine how ambisonic orchestral recordings might be deployed in future VR games, let’s take a look at an experiment undertaken by the Institute of Communication Systems at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.  In April of last year, the Institute began a cooperative venture with the Aachen Symphony Orchestra.  Over the course of several months, the orchestra was recorded with an em32 Eigenmike microphone array, which is capable of recording 32 channels of audio for fourth-order ambisonics.  They placed the microphone in the middle of the string section, and also positioned a 36o° camera at the microphone array location so that a VR video could be made.  The result replicates the experience of sitting right in the middle of the orchestra during a live concert.

The Institute of Communication Systems reports that “the recorded content will be used for future research activities in the area of audio signal processing for immersive audio systems, e.g., 3D audio formats, binaural signal processing and spatial audio playback.”  So these experiments may yield results that prove to be useful to game music composers working on VR projects.  Here’s a video of one of the recorded performances of the Aachen Symphony Orchestra.  Remember to wear headphones when listening, and feel free to swing the camera view in all directions!


In my past two articles, I’ve shared some of the additional research I’d encountered that didn’t make the cut for my GDC 2018 presentation, ‘Music in Virtual Reality  (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  The presentation I will give at GDC 2018 will include lots of practical and concrete techniques and strategies for video game music composers and audio folks looking to implement music strategically and effectively within VR. That being said, the more general research and techniques in these two articles can also provide helpful insight. I’ve included the official GDC description of my upcoming talk below.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section at the end of this article!


Music in Virtual Reality

Illustration of the VR projects to be discussed in a GDC talk presented by Winifred Phillips for video game composers.This lecture will present ideas for creating a musical score that complements an immersive VR experience. Composer Winifred Phillips will share tips from several of her VR projects. Beginning with a historical overview of positional audio technologies, Phillips will address several important problems facing composers in VR.

Topics will include 3D versus 2D music implementation, and the role of spatialized audio in a musical score for VR. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic music will be explored, including methods that blur the distinction between the two categories.

The discussion will also include an examination of the VIMS phenomenon (Visually Induced Motion Sickness), and the role of music in alleviating its symptoms.  Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors looking to utilize music in the most advantageous way within a VR project.


Through examples from several VR games, Phillips will provide an analysis of music composition strategies that help music integrate successfully in a VR environment. The talk will include concrete examples and practical advice that audience members can apply to their own games.

Intended Audience

This session will provide composers and audio directors with strategies for designing music for VR. It will include an overview of the history of positional sound and the VIMS problem (useful knowledge for designers.)

The talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).


Photo of Winifred Phillips in her video game composers music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent projects are the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the Dragon Front VR game for Oculus Rift. Her credits include games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in 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 MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.






Video Game Composers: The Art of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.


By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Once again, the Game Developers Conference is almost upon us!  GDC 2018 promises to be an awesome event, chock full of great opportunities for us to learn and grow as video game music composers.  I always look forward to the comprehensive sessions on offer in the popular GDC audio track, and for the past few years I’ve been honored to be selected as a GDC speaker.  Last year I presented a talk that explored how I built suspense and tension through music I composed for such games as God of War and Homefront: The Revolution.  This year, I’m tremendously excited that I’ll be presenting the talk, “Music in Virtual Reality.” The subject matter is very close to my heart!  Throughout 2016 and 2017, I’ve composed music for many virtual reality projects, some of which have hit retail over the past year, and some of which will be released very soon.  I’ve learned a lot about the process of composing music for a VR experience, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes music for VR unique.  During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike Shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.  I’ll talk about some of the top problems that came up, the solutions that were tried, and the lessons that were learned.  Virtual Reality is a brave new world for game music composers, and there will be a lot of ground for me to cover in my presentation!

In preparing my talk for GDC, I kept my focus squarely on composition techniques for VR music creation, while making sure to supply an overview of the technologies that would help place these techniques in context.  With these considerations in mind, I had to prioritize the information I intended to offer, and some interesting topics simply wouldn’t fit within the time constraints of my GDC presentation.  With that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to include some of these extra materials in a couple of articles that would precede my talk in March.  In this article, I’ll explore some theoretical ideas from experts in the field of VR, and I’ll include some of my own musings about creative directions we might pursue with VR music composition.  In the next article, I’ll talk about some practical considerations relating to the technology of VR music.

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Variation for the video game composer: the music of Little Lords of Twilight

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips at the BKOM booth during GDC 2017.

Since one of my most recent projects, Little Lords of Twilight, became available worldwide earlier this year and was recently greenlit on the famous Steam platform, I thought I’d write this article to share some of my creative and technical process in composing the music for this game. In particular, this project presents a great opportunity to look at how compositional variation (as we understand it from music theory) can be useful for the structure of interactive music.

Developed by BKOM Studios, Little Lords of Twilight won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2017, a Best Designed Mobile App Platinum Award from the BMA Awards, a Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, and has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including those published by PocketGamer, Explore Gadgets, and GameInOnline.  As a player-versus-player turn-based strategy game, Little Lords of Twilight offers a unique gameplay mechanic influenced by the in-game passage of time.  Day and night cycles dramatically alter your character’s appearance and abilities. Depending on whether it is currently day or night in the game, your character will have access to a completely different complement of awesome skills and spells to wield on the battlefield.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 5: semi silence

Winifred Phillips - video game music composer - working on the music of The Da Vinci Code video game in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my five-part article series on music composition techniques for stimulating tension and suspense in video games.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave this year at the popular Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t yet read the previous four articles, you’ll find them here:

Now that we’ve considered the power of Ominous Ambiences, Jarring Jolts, Creepy Clusters, and Drones of Dread, let’s take a look at the last item on our list of suspenseful music composition techniques – Semi Silence.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 4: drones of dread

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, at work in her studio on the music of the original God of War.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the fourth installment of my five-part article series discussing music composition techniques that heighten tension and suspense for video game projects.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

Before we move on to the next music composition technique in our suspense-building arsenal, I’d like to briefly revisit a video game project we discussed in our last article; the popular Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift, developed by High Voltage Software.

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 3: creepy clusters

Winifred Phillips (video game music composer) working in her studio on the music of the Dragon Front video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five part discussion of the role that video game music can play in enhancing tension and promoting suspenseful gameplay!  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous two articles, you’ll find them here:

So, now that we’ve discussed ominous atmospheres and jarring jolts, let’s look at the next technique in our arsenal:

The Creepy Cluster technique

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspenseful game music - an illustration of the 'clusters' technique.As we know, tone clusters are collections of notes packed together to produce unnerving dissonant effects. While it might seem like any cat can walk across a piano and produce unpleasant clusters, well-executed dissonance is actually one of the trickiest techniques we can employ.  It’s tremendously potent when used with expert precision.

Why do human beings respond so intensely to dissonance? Professor Michael Epstein of Northeastern University’s Auditory Modeling and Processing Lab has devoted over 20 years of expert research into why certain sounds have the power to instantly incite and deepen fear in listeners.  He tells Boston Magazine that “common musical intervals, changed slightly to create dissonance, are immediately disconcerting.” According to Epstein, “very precise noises trigger human fear and discomfort.”

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Composing video game music to build suspense, part 2: jarring jolts

Winifred Phillips, composer of video game music, shown in her studio working on the music of the Assassin's Creed Liberation video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five-part discussion of some of the best techniques that video game composers can use to enhance tension and promote suspenseful gameplay.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read our previous discussion of Ominous Ambiences in part one of this series, please go check that article out.

Are you back?  Good!  Let’s continue!

We’ve already talked about how to create an edgy, ominous atmosphere. By carefully nurturing the player’s suspense and anxiety, we can prime the player with an assortment of quietly unnerving sounds, until the player is perfectly ready for…

The Jarring Jolt technique

This is the second technique we’ll be discussing in our five-part article series on the role of music in building suspense. Like the Ominous Ambience (which we discussed in part one), the Jarring Jolt also owes a debt to the expert work of sound designers.  In fact, the Ominous Ambience and the Jarring Jolt are fairly interdependent. One doesn’t work that well without the other.

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