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!

Communities / Discussion Forums

From the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration for the 'community discussion' resources list.When we’re faced with stumbling blocks in our progress, many of us turn to online communities for guidance.  From bulletin boards to social media groups, the internet has a lot of free advice to offer.  This is especially true for new video game composers looking for business and career advice.  For instance, in the open Facebook group “Video Game – Composers & Sound Designers,” advice for newcomers is especially abundant.  “It’s all about meeting people, making friends, and finding out how you can enhance the creative vision for their project,” offers Nick Borrego, while Alex Jones adds that her career tactics include “talking to people online through social media, forums etc, networking lots, attending all game or game audio related events I could and going to game jams.”

We’ll also find plenty of software/gear discussion in these communities, which often includes such topics as DAW recommendations  and microphone discussions.  We can even enjoy the benefit of the hands-on experiences shared by other game development pros, with more experienced audio folks describing their perspectives on such topics as the importance of the audio design document, and the difference between mixing for speakers or headphones.  As we become more experienced and technically ambitious, we can find ample advice on working with audio middleware, including Wwise and FMOD.  Below I’ve compiled a list of active online communities where we can go to ask these sorts of questions and enjoy the viewpoints of other game audio folks:

Software Tools

An illustration for the 'Software' resources list, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.According to the results of the most recent Game Audio Industry Survey, audio middleware software is increasingly popular with the big developers, with the Wwise software application leading the pack among triple-A development teams (while indie and casual teams most often employ no middleware at all). Audio middleware apps have been steadily growing more sophisticated and intuitive over the years. Having some experience with an audio middleware software package can be a useful skill for an up-and-coming video game music composer, so I’ve included a list of those applications below.

Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations came from Steinberg in 2015 when they introduced the Game Audio Connect function into their Nuendo Digital Audio Workstation, allowing for easier importing and exporting of audio files between Nuendo and Wwise.  While Nuendo isn’t middleware software, its ease of use in conjunction with Wwise may make it a more attractive option for video game composers when choosing a DAW.

I’ve also included a couple of applications that are designed to enhance game audio engines by increasing their functionality.  Elias is music engine software focusing on the horizontal re-sequencing model of musical interactivity. Pure Data is a programming language used for Generative / Procedural music creation.  Below you’ll find the complete list of software tools:

 

Video Game Music Scholarship

From the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration for the 'music scholarship' list of resources.While most aspiring video game composers will be more focused on creative endeavors and career advancement, I’ve lately become increasingly interested in the mind-expanding research that’s been pouring out of game music academia in the past few years.  Our work as game composers is, after all, quite different from music composition for any other form of entertainment.  Games are experienced and enjoyed actively rather than passively, and this stimulates different parts of our brains and influences the way in which we perceive and process sensory stimuli.  It’s possible that, by virtue of a greater awareness of the unique nature of our work as game composers, we can acquire creative and intellectual tools that will enable us to compose more effective music for games.  With this in mind, I’m including four organizations engaged in academic research in the field of music for games:

 

Concert Tours

An illustration for the 'concert tours' section of resources, from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.If we want to compose timeless symphonies, one of the essential steps in our educational process has always been to attend symphonic concerts and experience the music first-hand. Likewise, if we yearn to write awesome rock songs, it’s natural for us to go to rock concerts, soak in the atmosphere and see how the rock stars make their music come alive. Unfortunately, for a long time this option wasn’t possible for video game composers.  Until fairly recently, game music wasn’t available to be experienced in live performance.  Now, however, aspiring game music composers can soak up both inspiration and edification by attending large-scale concerts enhanced with big-screen game visuals and razzle-dazzle lighting effects.  Here is a list of the concert tours currently performing video game music live in venues all around the world:

 

Educational Resources

From the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration for the 'educational resources' list.To round out this collection of helpful online guidance for aspiring game composers, I’m including the following list of articles that are chock-full of good ideas for game audio folks.  Some are written by expert pros with decades of experience and famous projects under their belts.  Some are written by newer audio folks with more recent success stories to share.  A few of these links point toward discussions on community forums that include interesting advice and ideas from varying perspectives in the game audio field.

How to be a video game music composer – Tips from the pros
by Sophia Tong, GamesRadar.com

Music in the Gaming Industry – Getting a Job as a Game Composer
by Nelson Everhart, Kingsisle Blog

I want to be a game composer
GameDev.net community discussion

Getting Started as a Video Game Composer
by Bobby Prince, BPmusic.com

Where does an amateur composer find job, or is he heard?
Northern Sounds community discussion

How to Get Music in Video Games
by Kris Giampa and Erik Pettersson, Beatport.com

Pursuing a Career in Game Audio
by Nathan Madsen, GameAudio101

How to Wrangle a Job Writing Music for Computer Games
by Lance Hayes, Andertons Music Co.

Game Developers and Music Composers – How do you network?
TIGForums community discussion

GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
by Laura Shigihara, SuperShigi.com

Advice for Breaking Into a Career in Composing Music for Videogames
by Lisa Horan, Mix Magazine

Conclusion

I hope this collection of resources is helpful!  Please let me know if you’ve encountered any other resources that you think would be good additions to this list, and let me know what you think of the article in the comments section below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred 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 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.

 
 

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!