Video excerpt from my game music talk at the Montreal International Game Summit

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Last week, I spoke at the Montreal International Game Summit.  It was a fantastic experience, and I wanted to share a video excerpt of my speech with you!  The speech was called, “Music, the Brain, and the Three Levels of Immersion.”  I’m grateful to Clement Galiay and Nicolas Bertrand-Verge of the MIGS for the opportunity to speak at this great event!  Also, I’d like to give a shout-out to Jean-Frederic Vachon for the tremendous support and encouragement for me to get involved in the MIGS — thanks, JF!!

More about the Montreal International Game Summit:

MIGS was founded in 2004 to meet the needs of the video game sector, which currently represents close to 9,000 workers in Quebec. Ten years later, its mission remains: developing the transfer of knowledge and expertise, increasing exposure for Quebec players abroad and promoting exchanges and communications between stakeholders, making MIGS the East Coast’s leading professional-only event for the games industry.

Talk Description:

Music, the Brain, and the Three Levels of Immersion
Music has the power to deepen player immersion through psychological effects documented in scientific research. This talk explored the influence of music on the brain, and how these effects can aid game designers in meeting the criteria necessary for the “Three Levels of Immersion.”

Ultimate Trailers – West One Music

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I’m pleased to share some news about one of my recent projects: music composition for the Ultimate Trailers album from West One Music.  The album is described by West One Music as “hard-hitting epic action trailer cues including electronic and rock hybrids and orchestral action.”  West One Music is one of the leading recording labels for production music that graces audiovisual productions around the world.

Music from the album will be available for use in television and film productions, so I’m looking forward to seeing my music appearing in lots of interesting projects!  Here are some photos from the orchestral recording sessions for the Ultimate Trailers album.  My music was recorded by the Alvernia Orchestra – some of their other film projects have been Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove and Closer to the Moon.

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Breathing Music: The Role of Silence

Image by GagDonkey.com

 

The Designing Sound blog recently devoted a series of articles to the topic of silence, including an elaborately philosophical article on the nature of silence as a Zen state of altered consciousness (Silence is the Sound of Listening, by Miguel Isaza).

My main impression from the article was an emphasis on sound as the state of calm in which we (as listeners) become receptive to the world of aural phenomena constantly surrounding us.

 

The article brought to mind a few ideas that I thought I would share about the role of silence in the creative output of a game composer.

Sometimes when we as game composers receive creative guidance in regards to the musical style of a project, we’ll be instructed to do the following:

Let the music breathe.

The idea of “breathing music” can be interpreted in several ways.  It can mean that the music should dwindle intermittently into absolute silence so that the game’s soundscape can essentially “take over” for a few moments, before the music resumes.  It can also mean that the music should be written with sparse instrumentation and lots of unoccupied space in the frequency spectrum, resulting in the impression of lots of brief silent pauses that allow the sound design environment to filter through the lattice of musical elements.  Finally, it can mean that the music is composed of a series of crescendos and diminuendos, whereby the musical score swells dramatically and then recedes into a near-silent state on a regular basis.

All of these approaches share one aspect in common: the music is structured to allow the sound design to move regularly into the foreground, pushing the music further into the background of the player’s conscious awareness.  With this in mind, should we interpret this instruction to “let the music breathe” as a desire to deemphasize the music in favor of other aspects of the game’s aural design?

On page 52 of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss an interesting study conducted by Stanford University, which casts a very different light on the effect of silence on the experience of listening to music.  The study revealed that when listening to a piece of music, our minds become most attentive and filled with the most anticipatory focus when the music becomes silent for a moment.  For instance, in the short pauses between the movements of a symphony, the listener’s attention to the music peaks.

So, when we’re asked to let the music “breathe,” perhaps we can interpret this to mean that we should include those brief pauses that cause the player to pay more attention to our music than they had before.  As Miguel Isaza wrote in his article for Designing Sound, the act of becoming silent awakens our consciousness to the world of sound around us.  Perhaps by using silence as a tool in our game music, we can awaken gamers to the world of music we have created.

 

Subtle Weapons in the Loudness War

Over at the Designing Sound website, there’s an interesting article about loudness metering in video game middleware. While reading the article, I paused on a particular phrase: loudness war. The music industry is painfully familiar with this form of sonic warfare. It’s been an ongoing conflict for years, based on a pretty vicious cycle of reasoning that goes like this:

  • We want our music to be exciting.
  • Listeners get most excited when the music gets loud.
  • Therefore, we want our music mixes to feel loud.
  • Other people are mixing their music to be more exciting by being louder than ours.
  • To counteract this, we have to make our music as loud as theirs, or better yet, louder.

Like an audio arms race, each side piles on the volume until everything overloads, then squashes their mixes with massive compression in order to avoid clipping. This leads to painfully flattened music that explodes from the speakers like a tsunami of sound, always pouring forth, never ebbing. It’s the ultimate apocalypse of the loudness war.

But does it actually feel loud?

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s another kind of loudness war about to break out once again in a couple of weeks. The big game publishers mount some of the showiest booths each year, complete with enormous video screens, stacks of speakers and rumbling subwoofers installed under the floor. The result can feel pretty thunderous. The noise levels were so migrane-inducing that in 2006 the Electronic Software Association began enforcing a cap on the loudness levels, with fines levied against the transgressors. Nevertheless, from my perspective as an annual attendee, the war seems to rage on. Entering one of the big E3 booths sometimes makes me feel like the “Maxell Man” from the classic commercial in which the power of sound is portrayed like the driving force of a wind tunnel. It hits me with a solid whomp, and I can almost imagine it whipping my hair back. Whoosh.

Despite this, I find that after only a little while wandering the expo floor, none of the sounds feel particularly powerful or impressive anymore. Sure, it’s all still quite loud, but it’s also all the same kind of loud. Likewise with the sonic arms race in the music industry – when every song strives to push itself into listener’s faces with aggressive sonic intensity throughout, it becomes numbing. Our senses deaden, and the music blends into a loud but featureless white noise.

How does this relate to our work as game composers, sound designers and audio engineers? The article at Designing Sound briefly discussed the lack of clear standards for levels of loudness in video games, and the loudness war that has resulted as game developers attempt to outdo each other in making their games sonically exciting. Like the big booths at E3, we’re all trying to shout each other down. As a game composer, I’m always aware of the place my music occupies in the sonic landscape of the game. If the game is loud, should my music be loud too? And will this turn into a mush of sonic white noise? How can I prevent this, and still create that level of excitement that is the holy grail of the loudness war?

My brilliant music producer Winnie Waldron has a saying when it comes to this subject. Since we tend to communicate in our own shorthand, I’ll need to translate it for you. When talking about loudness, she says, “Contast, contrast, contrast! Yin and yang, yin and yang!!” What does this mean? We only know a thing if we also know its opposite. Therefore, we only recognize something as loud when we have experienced something soft in close proximity to it. This is also true for all manner of musical effects, from tempos and pitch elevation to texture and rhythmic devices, but for loudness its particularly meaningful. In order to create an epically loud moment, we have to preface it with something hushed. Really effective popular music uses this phenomenon by incorporating unexpected pauses, stutters and breakdowns that challenge expectations and create those hushed moments. In game audio, moments of stillness can be our subtle weapons in the loudness war.