Composer Winifred Phillips answers Reddit’s questions in viral Ask-Me-Anything about video game music

Photo of popular video game composer Winifred Phillips, taken as 'proof photo' for her recent viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that hit the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.

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Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic.  I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers.  It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could.  It was an awesome experience!  Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral.  It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards.  My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit.  I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!!  During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here.  Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition.  The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience.  I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything!  If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.

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Cool and Inspiring Ideas for the Game Music Composer

As game composers, we need a little inspiration now and then.  This blog will share some fun thoughts and ideas that have the potential to stir our creative juices, or just help us to think about game music in a different way.  First, we’ll get a perspective on what the classical symphony performance has in common with the act of playing a video game. Then, we’ll learn about a method of turning a video game into a musical instrument for performance art.  And finally, we’ll hear about a sonic toy that lets us trigger game sounds and music as a spontaneous aural performance to accompany roleplay gaming. I hope these ideas will get us thinking about the relationship between game music and live performance. At the very least, some of these ideas may tickle our creative fancy, so let’s get started!

Andrew Norman’s Play (Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

andrew_normanFirst, let’s consider the viewpoint of acclaimed symphonic composer Andrew Norman (pictured left), who is currently nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” for his symphonic work entitled Play. The nominated recording was performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, as conducted by Gil Rose. As a composer, Andrew Norman is no stranger to accolades, having previously achieved the finalists list for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2012 for his string trio The Companion Guide to Rome.  What’s most fascinating about his symphony Play, aside from its bold and experimental approach to musical composition, is the philosophy with which it was created. As it turns out, video games played a key role.

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VR for the Game Music Composer – Artistry and Workflow

Since the game audio community is abuzz with popular excitement about the impending arrival of virtual reality systems, I’ve been periodically writing blogs that gather together top news about developments in the field of audio and music for VR.  In this blog we’ll be looking at some resources that discuss issues relating to artistry and workflow in audio for VR:

  • We’ll explore an interesting post-mortem article about music for the VR game Land’s End.  
  • We’ll be taking a closer look at the 3DCeption Spatial Workstation.
  • We’ll be checking out the Oculus Spatializer Plugin for DAWs.

Designing Sound for Virtual Reality

In these early days of VR, postmortem articles about the highs and lows of development on virtual reality projects are especially welcome.  Freelance audio producer and composer Todd Baker has written an especially interesting article about the audio development for the Land’s End video game, designed for the Samsung Gear VR system.

Here, you see me trying out the Samsung Gear VR, as it was demonstrated on the show floor at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in 2015.

Here, you see me trying out the Samsung Gear VR, as it was demonstrated on the show floor at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in 2015.

Todd Baker is best known for his audio design work on the whimsical Tearaway games, and his work as a member of the music composition team for the awesome LittleBigPlanet series. His work on Land’s End for Ustwo Games affords him an insightful perspective on audio for virtual reality. “In VR, people are more attuned to what sounds and feels right in the environment, and therefore can be equally distracted by what doesn’t,” writes Baker.  In the effort to avoid distraction, Baker opted for subtlety in regards to the game’s musical score. Each cue began with a gentle fade-in, attracting little notice at first so as to blend with the game’s overall soundscape in a natural way.

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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music in 2015

A Composer's Guide to Game Music, photo from the article by game music composer Winifred PhillipsHappy Holidays, everyone!  2015 has been a really memorable year for me, and a successful one for my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Writing this book not only allowed me to express my excitement about game music, but also opened up my world to a huge community of game music enthusiasts that I’m now proud to call friends.

I’ve been delighted to meet so many people who have read my book – from aspiring composers, to scholars and educators, to game audio pros.  It’s been tremendously gratifying!

I’d like to spend this blog recapping the events of 2015 as they related to my book, and I’ll also be sharing some book-related resources and tutorials that I created in 2015 (in case you missed them).  Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you so much for your tremendous support this year!

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AES Convention: Interactive Music of the LittleBigPlanet Franchise

Winifred Phillips - Audio Engineering Society ConventionI was very proud to speak at three events during the Audio Engineering Society convention last week!  My hour-long presentation last Sunday was entitled “Interactive Music of the LittleBigPlanet Franchise: Dissecting a Complex, Multi-Component System.”

In addition, I spoke as a panelist during a game audio panel presentation on Saturday, and I also participated on Saturday as a game audio mentor in the awesome AES Speed Mentoring session, sponsored by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services.  Attendees got a chance to ask loads of terrific questions of the assembled professional mentors, and it was great fun to answer game audio questions during the mentoring session!

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Happy Birthday, LittleBigPlanet!

birthday-7thThe LittleBigPlanet franchise is 7 years old today!  On October 28th, 2008, the very first LittleBigPlanet game was published by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.  In the seven years since that auspicious day, players have explored the whimsical world of LittleBigPlanet in countless awesome adventures.  I’m very proud to have been a part of the music team for this famous franchise.  So, to celebrate the game franchise’s seventh birthday, let’s go for a tour through the history of LittleBigPlanet!

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139th Audio Engineering Society Convention Schedule

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The Audio Engineering Society’s annual convention is next week, and the entire schedule is now available, so I can now share the dates and times for my presentations!

Sunday, Nov. 1st, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm (Room 1A22)  Interactive Music of the LittleBigPlanet Franchise: Dissecting a Complex, Multi-Component System.  If you can only come one day, then pick Sunday, because I’ll be presenting an hour-long talk on the music system of six games in the LittleBigPlanet franchise. It should be a fun talk!

Saturday, Oct. 31st, 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm (1A22)  Game Audio Education – New Opportunities for Students.  I’ll be a panelist answering questions and participating in discussion of the role of education in a game audio professional’s career. Fellow panelists include Steve Horowitz, Scott Looney, Leonard J. Paul and Michael Sweet.

Saturday, Oct. 31st, 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm (Room 1A07)  SPARS Speed Counseling with Experts – Mentoring Answers for Your Career.  I’ll be acting as a mentor and answering career related questions to participants in a speed group mentoring format. Game Audio mentors for this event will include myself, Tom Salta, George Valavanis and Gina Zdanowics.

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Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 2: A Game Composer’s Guide

music-sepiaWelcome back to my three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games! In this series of articles, I’m discussing the techniques of arrangement as they pertain to interactive game music by exploring examples from the music I composed for video games from the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  In part one of this series, we went over the role of the arranger, the importance of an interesting and creative arrangement, and the relationship between arranging for traditional linear and non-linear interactive music. We also reviewed arranging techniques that apply to melody, and how these should (or should not) be applied in an interactive composition.  If you haven’t read part one, please click here to read that entry first, and then return here to continue reading part two. Okay, are you back now? Ready? Here we go!

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

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.