Resources for Video Game Music Composers: The Big List

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips creating music in her video game music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  Every year, between working in my studio creating music for some awesome games, I like to take a little time to gather together some of the top online resources and guidance available for newbies in the field of video game music.  What follows in this article is an updated and expanded collection of links on a variety of topics pertinent to our profession.  We begin with the concert tours and events where we can get inspired by seeing game music performed live.  Then we’ll move on to a discussion of online communities that can help us out when we’re trying to solve a problem.  Next, we’ll see a collection of software tools that are commonplace in our field.  Finally, we’ll check out some conferences and academic organizations where we can absorb new ideas and skills.

Ready?  Let’s get started!

Concerts and Tours

An image accompanying a discussion of popular video game music concert tours and events, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).

Let’s check out some of the great concert events and tours that are circling the globe, offering famous video game music performed live to audiences ranging from sedate symphony halls to screaming mosh pits. There are tons of ways in which we game composers can find inspiration in these performances, and there’s a wealth of options from which to choose.  If our tastes lean towards the more classical side of things, we can check out the big orchestral concerts like the Video Games Live and Distant Worlds tours, or we can opt for the subtler pleasures of a chamber ensemble approach with the intimate music of A New World.  Then again, some of us would rather head for the mosh pits and get ourselves some head-banging good times.  These folks may want to opt for events like MagFest and Bit Gen Gamer Fest.  There’s something for everyone in the collection of links below.  I’ve also included video clips that show notable performances from past shows.

I’d like to start with a concert tour that was just announced last week, and that means a lot to me personally:

Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour

Kicking off its world tour in June 2019, the Assassin’s Creed Symphony will feature the most popular music selections from the entire Assassin’s Creed game franchise, including music from the score I composed for Assassin’s Creed Liberation.  I’m very excited that selections of my Assassin’s Creed Liberation music will be performed by an 80-piece orchestra and choir as a part of the world tour.  The concert tour will premiere in the famous Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, best known for hosting the Oscars ceremonies each year.  This is a brand-new concert tour that hasn’t premiered yet.  Since there aren’t any videos from past shows, here is the official trailer from Assassin’s Creed Liberation, featuring three of the tracks from my Liberation score: “Stealth,” “In the Service of Humanity,” and “The Hunt.”

A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy

This concert tour of video game music from the Final Fantasy repertoire takes a unique approach.  Instead of opting for large-scale orchestral ensembles and choirs, A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy uses small chamber ensembles and special arrangements designed to accommodate them.  The result is a complete reimagining of Final Fantasy music, allowing well-worn tracks to feel more fresh and personal.  Three concerts are currently set to take place in small venues during 2019, including performances in Los Angeles, Seattle and Atlanta.  Here is a performance of the “Chocobo Medley” from a 2017 show that took place in Vancouver.

Bit Gen Gamer Fest

The Bit Gen Gamer Fest is an annual event celebrating game soundtracks during one jam-packed day of music and mayhem.  Feeling like a cross between a rock festival and a video game arcade, the July 2018 edition of Bit Gen Gamer Fest included 18 musical acts performing video game cover songs at the Ottobar in Baltimore.  Here’s an extended video of the X-Hunters full set during Bit Gen XIII.

Distant Worlds: Music of Final Fantasy

Launching into its twelfth year of touring the world, the Distant Worlds: Music of Final Fantasy concert tour continues its quest to spread the music of Nobuo Uematsu to video game fans everywhere.  The performances include the large-scale Distant Worlds Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Grammy Award-winning conductor Arnie Roth.  Here’s a video of their performance of the Final Fantasy VII Main Theme during a 2014 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Game Music Festival

This is a brand-new game concert series, planned to be a yearly event.  The concert took place this past October at the National Forum of Music in Wroclaw Poland.  Sponsored by GameMusic.pl, the Game Music Festival concert featured musical selections from Heroes of Might and Magic, Grim Fandango, Ori and the Blind Forest, and three Blizzard properties: Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Starcraft.  Here’s a trailer produced by the concert series for their first annual event:

Joystick with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra

Like the Game Music Festival in Poland, the Joystick concerts in Sweden are intended as an annual event.  Joystick is now entering its eleventh year of offering video game music as performed by the Malmo Symphony Orchestra.  The program for this year’s concert includes selections from The Witcher 3, Hitman 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and Final Fantasy VII, among others.  Here is a performance of “The Dragonborn Comes” track from Skyrim, as performed during the Joystick concert in 2013.

MAGFest

The “Music And Gaming Festival” known as MAGFest takes place over the course of four intense days each year in which massive gaming tournaments run 24 hours a day and banging video game music concerts play loud and long into the night.  In addition to the big yearly bash (coming to National Harbor Maryland in January 2019), the nonprofit MAGFest organization also sponsors a touring concert series called Game Over, and several smaller music/gaming events that take place around the country.  Here’s a cover version of the Mega Man 3 Intro music as performed by The Advantage during MAGFest VI:

Metal Gear in Concert

The Metal Gear in Concert tour began with two performances in Japan before coming to Paris in October 2018.  This coming year, the Metal Gear in Concert tour will stage two concerts in the United States, including its stateside premiere in March 2019 at the United Palace in New York City, and a Los Angeles performance in April at the Wellshire Ebell Theatre.  The tour features a 70-piece orchestra and performances by vocalist Donna Burke, best known for singing the themes for both Peacewalker and The Phantom Pain.  Here is a video of Donna Burke performing the Snake Eater theme during the Metal Gear in Concert performance in Paris:

Video Games Live

Finally, we have the granddaddy of them all – the Video Games Live concert tour.  Since its debut in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, the Video Games Live concert tour has pursued a rigorous schedule involving hundreds of performance dates around the world.  The Video Games Live series eschews its own orchestral ensemble in favor of recruiting local symphony orchestras and musicians in each of the touring cities and towns it visits. The result is a touch of local flavor influencing the character and size of every Video Games Live performance.  Here is a clip of Video Games Live performing music from the Overwatch game during a 2018 concert in Germany:

So now that we’ve looked at the concert tours that can get us inspired to make great game music, let’s look at other resources that can help us to stay energized and improve our skills.

Communities / Discussion Forums

An illustration for a discussion of social communities for game composers - section of the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.Need help?  Expert advice?  A shoulder to lean on?  These are some of the most popular online communities where you just might find the answers you’re looking for.

The game audio community is tremendously friendly and approachable.

Some of these communities listed below are focused on specific topics (such as a software application).

Other communities have a broader mandate to discuss any and all issues pertaining to game music composition and sound design.  Feel free to explore the below links and find a community that’s a good fit for you!

 

Software Tools

Image illustrating a discussion of the popular software useful to game audio pros, from the article by Winifred Phillips for video game composersThere are a wide variety of audio middleware solutions available for implementing audio and music into games, and I’ve listed some of the more high-profile software packages below.

Some of these middleware solutions are designed specifically with video game music composers in mind, to provide a user-friendly way for us to have the best control over the music implementation process.  These include Elias, FMOD, Nuendo, and Wwise.

The rest are more general-purpose audio implementation tools, with the exception of the Facebook 360 Spatial Workstation (designed with Virtual Reality and 360 video applications in mind) and PureData (designed specifically for generative music uses).

 

Game Music Academia & Conferences

An image accompanying a discussion of academic scholarship and educational conferences for game composers - section from the article by Winifred Phillips, video game music composer.

When we’re in the mood to broaden our minds and think about our discipline in a new way, there are lots of scholarly organizations and conferences ready to offer us some inspiration and enlightenment!  First we’ll check out a list of academic and scholarly groups dedicated to studying the history and practice of music creation for video games.  After that, we’ll see a list of the yearly conferences that focus on audio and music creation.  Most of the list consists of conferences exclusively dedicated to the video game industry, but one of the conferences (Music & the Moving Image) offers a more general “music for media” event that includes video games in its offered content.

Academia

 

Conferences

Conclusion

I hope you find some good resources and helpful information in this list!  Please let me know if you think I should add anything else to this collection, and let me know what you think of the article in the comments section below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her game composers production studio.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. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 
 

Understanding Audio in VR – A Game Music Composer’s Resource Guide

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her game composers production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

When I’m not at work in my studio making music for games, I like to keep up with new developments in the field of interactive entertainment, and I’ll often share what I learn here in these articles.  Virtual reality is an awesome subject for study for a video game composer, and several of my recent projects have been in the world of VR.  Since I’m sure that most of us are curious about what’s coming next in virtual reality, I’ve decided to devote this article to a collection of educational resources.  I’ve made a point of keeping our focus general here, with the intent of understanding the role of audio in VR and the best resources available to audio folks.  As a component of the VR soundscape, our music must fit into the entire matrix of aural elements, so we’ll spend this article learning about what goes into making expert sound for a virtual reality experience. Let’s start with a few articles that discuss methods and techniques for VR audio practitioners.

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Resources For Video Game Music Composers

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

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

I’m pleased to announce that my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, is now available its new paperback edition! I’m excited that my book has done well enough to merit a paperback release, and I’m looking forward to getting to know a lot of new readers!  The paperback is much lighter and more portable than the hardcover.  Here’s a view of the front and back covers of the new paperback edition of my book (click the image for a bigger version if you’d like to read the back cover):

award-winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips' book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, is now available in paperback.

From the article by Winifred Phillips (composer of video game music) - depiction of the book cover of A COMPOSER'S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC.As you might expect, many aspiring game composers read my book, and I’m honored that my book is a part of their hunt for the best resources to help them succeed in this very competitive business.  When I’m not working in my music studio, I like to keep up with all the great new developments in the game audio field, and I share a lot of what I learn in these articles. Keeping in mind how many of my readers are aspiring composers, I’ve made a point of devoting an article once a year to gathering the top online guidance currently available for newcomers to the game music profession.  In previous years I’ve focused solely on recommendations gleaned from the writings of game audio pros, but this time I’d like to expand that focus to include other types of resources that could be helpful.  Along the way, we’ll be taking a look at some nuggets of wisdom that have appeared on these sites.  So, let’s get started!

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Game Music Middleware, Part 3: Fabric

Middleware-Blackboard

Welcome back to my series of blogs that collect some tutorial resources about game music middleware for the game music composer.  I had initially intended to publish two blog entries on this subject, focusing on the most popular audio middleware solutions: Wwise and FMOD.  However, since the Fabric audio middleware has been making such a splash in the game audio community, I thought I’d extend this series to include it.  If you’d like to read the first two blog entries in this series, you can find them here:

Game Music Middleware, Part 1: Wwise

Game Music Middleware, Part 2: FMOD

Fabric is developed by Tazman Audio for the Unity game engine (which enables game development for consoles, PCs, mobile devices such as iOS and Android, and games designed to run within a web browser).  Here’s a Unity game engine overview produced by Unity Technologies:

The Fabric middleware is designed to expand the audio capabilities of the Unity game engine.  The complete product manual for the Fabric middleware is available online.  The video tutorials that I’m featuring below were created by two game audio professionals who have very generously walked us through the use of the software.  If you’d like a more nuts-and-bolts overview of the software features of Fabric, you can find it here.

The first video was shot in 2013 during the Konsoll game development conference in Norway, and gives an overview of the general use of Fabric in game audio. The speaker, Jory Prum, is an accomplished game audio professional whose game credits include The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Broken Age, SimCity 4, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and many more.

Making a great sounding Unity game using Fabric

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In the next two-part video tutorial, composer Anastasia Devana has expanded on her previous instructional videos about FMOD Studio, focusing now on recreating the same music implementation strategies and techniques using the Fabric middleware in Unity.  Anastasia Devana is an award-winning composer whose game credits include the recently released puzzle game Synergy and the upcoming roleplaying game Anima – Gate of Memories.

Fabric and Unity: Adaptive Music in Angry Bots – Part 1

Fabric and Unity: Adaptive Music in Angry Bots – Part 2

MIDI in Wwise for the Game Music Composer: Peggle Blast

PeggleBlastBanner

In a previous blog post, we took a look at a few tutorial resources for the latest version of the Wwise audio middleware.  One of the newest innovations in the Wwise software package is a fairly robust MIDI system.  This system affords music creators and implementers the opportunity to avail themselves of the extensive adaptive possibilities of the MIDI format from within the Wwise application.  Last month, during the Game Developers Conference in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, some members of the PopCap audio development team presented a thorough, step-by-step explanation of the benefits of this MIDI capability for one of their latest projects, Peggle Blast.  Since my talk during the Audio Bootcamp at GDC focused on interactive music and MIDI (with an eye on the role of MIDI in both the history and future of game audio development), I thought that we could all benefit from a summation of some of the ideas discussed during the Peggle Blast talk, particularly as they relate to dynamic MIDI music in Wwise.  In this blog, I’ve tried to convey some of the most important takeaways from this GDC presentation.

PeggleBlastSession

“Peggle Blast: Big Concepts, Small Project” was presented on Thursday, March 5th by three members of the PopCap audio team: technical sound designer RJ Mattingly, audio lead Jaclyn Shumate, and senior audio director Guy Whitmore.  The presentation began with a quote from Igor Stravinsky:

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself, and the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to maintain the precision of the execution.

This idea became a running theme throughout the presentation, as the three audio pros detailed the constraints under which they worked, including:

  1. A 5mb memory limit for all audio assets
  2. Limited CPU
  3. 2.5mb memory allocation for the music elements

These constraints were a result of the mobile platforms (iOS and Android) for which Peggle Blast had been built.  For this reason, the music team focused their attention on sounds that could convey lots of emotion while also maintaining a very small file size.  Early experimentation with tracks structured around the use of a music box instrument led the team to realize that they still needed to replicate the musical experience from the full-fledged console versions of the game.  A simple music-box score was too unsatisfying, particularly for players who were familiar with the music from the previous installments in the franchise.  With that in mind, the team concentrated on very short orchestral samples taken from the previous orchestral session recordings for Peggle 2.  Let’s take a look at a video from those orchestral sessions:

Using those orchestral session recordings, the audio team created custom sample banks that were tailored specifically to the needs of Peggle Blast, focusing on lots of very short instrument articulations and performance techniques including:

  1. pizzicato
  2. marcato
  3. staccato
  4. mallets

A few instruments (including a synth pad and some orchestral strings) were edited to loop so that extended note performances became possible, but the large majority of instruments remained brief, punctuated sounds that did not loop.  These short sounds were arranged into sample banks in which one or two note samples would be used per octave of instrument range, and note tracking would transpose the sample to fill in the rest of the octave.  The sample banks consisted of a single layer of sound, which meant that the instruments did not adjust their character depending on dynamics/velocity.  In order to make the samples more musically pleasing, the built-in digital signal processing capability of Wwise was employed by way of a real-time reverb bus that allowed these short sounds to have more extended and natural-sounding decay times.

wwise-logo-empowers

The audio team worked with a beta version of Wwise 2014 during development of Peggle Blast, which allowed them to implement their MIDI score into the Unity game engine.  The composer, Guy Whitmore, composed the music in a style consisting of whimsically pleasant, non-melodic patterns that were structured into a series of chunks.  These chunks could be triggered according to the adaptive system in Peggle Blast, wherein the music went through key changes (invariably following the circle of fifths) in reaction to the player’s progress.  To better see how this works, let’s watch an example of some gameplay from Peggle Blast:

As you can see, very little in the way of a foreground melody existed in this game.  In the place of a melody, foreground musical tones would be emitted when the Peggle ball hit pegs during its descent from the top of the screen.  These tones would follow a predetermined scale, and would choose which type of scale to trigger (major, natural minor, harmonic minor, or mixolydian) depending on the key in which the music was currently playing.  Information about the key was dropped into the music using markers that indicated where key changes took place, so that the Peggle ball would always trigger the correct type of scale at any given time.  The MIDI system did not have to store unique MIDI data for scales in every key change, but would instead calculate the key transpositions for each of the scale types, based on the current key of the music that was playing.

The presentation ended with an emphasis on the memory savings and flexibility afforded by MIDI, and the advantages that MIDI presents to game composers and audio teams.  It was a very interesting presentation!  If you have access to the GDC Vault, you can watch a video of the entire presentation online.  Otherwise, there are plenty of other resources on the music of Peggle Blast, and I’ve included a few below:

Inside the Music of Peggle Blast – An Interview with Audio Director Guy Whitmore

Peggle Blast!  Peg Hits and the Music System, by RJ Mattingly

Real-Time Synthesis for Sound Creation in Peggle Blast, by Jaclyn Shumate

PopCap’s Guy Whitmore Talks Musical Trials And Triumphs On Peggle Blast

 

GameSoundCon Industry Survey Results

GameSoundCon

As the GameSoundCon conference draws closer, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the Game Audio Industry Survey that was designed by GameSoundCon Executive Producer Brian Schmidt.  The survey was prepared in response to the broader “Annual Game Developer Salary Survey” offered by industry site Gamasutra.  Since the Gamasutra survey suffered from skewed results for game audio compared to other game industry sectors (owing to lower participation from the game audio community), Schmidt set out to obtain more reliable results by adopting a different approach.

Instead of focusing on the yearly salaries/earnings of audio professionals, the survey concentrated on the money generated by the music/sound of individual projects. Each respondent could fill out the survey repeatedly, entering data for each game project that the respondent had completed during the previous year.  The final results of the survey are meant to reflect how game audio is treated within different types of projects, and the results are quite enlightening, and at times surprising.

GSC-SurveyThe financial results include both small-budget indie games from tiny teams and huge-budget games from behemoth publishers, so there is a broad range in those results.  Since this is the first year that the GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey has been conducted, we don’t yet have data from a previous year with which to compare these results, and it might be very exciting to see how the data shifts if the survey is conducted again in 2015.

Some very intriguing data comes from the section of the survey that provides a picture of who game composers are and how they work.  According to the survey, the majority of game composers are freelancers, and 70% of game music is performed by the freelance composer alone.  56% of composers are also acting as one-stop-shops for music and sound effects, likely providing a good audio solution for indie teams with little or no audio personnel of their own.

A surprising and valuable aspect of the survey is to be found in the audio middleware results, which show that the majority of games use either no audio middleware at all, or opt for custom audio tools designed by the game developer.  This information is quite new, and could be tremendously useful to composers working in the field.  While we should all make efforts to gain experience with audio middleware such as FMOD and Wwise, we might keep in mind that there may not be as many opportunities to practice those skills as had been previously anticipated.  Again, this data might be rendered even more meaningful by the results of the survey next year (if it is repeated), to see if commercial middleware is making inroads and becoming more popular over time.

Expanding upon this subject, the survey reveals that only 22% of composers are ever asked to do any kind of music integration (in which the composer assists the team in implementing music files into their game). It seems that for the time being, this task is still falling firmly within the domain of the programmers on most game development teams.

The survey was quite expansive and fascinating, and I’m very pleased that it included questions about both middleware and integration.  If GameSoundCon runs the survey again next year, I’d love to see the addition of some questions about what type of interactivity composers may be asked to introduce into their musical scores, how much of their music is composed in a traditionally linear fashion, and what the ratio of interactive/adaptive to linear music might be per project.  I wrote rather extensively on this subject in my book, and since I’ll also be giving my talk at GameSoundCon this year about composing music for adaptive systems, I’d be very interested in such survey results!

The GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey is an invaluable resource, and is well worth reading in its entirety.  You’ll find it here.  I’ll be giving my talk on “Advanced Composition Techniques for Adaptive Systems” at GameSoundCon at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 8th.

Many thanks to Brian Schmidt / GameSoundCon for preparing this excellent survey!