“Feel-Good Game Sound” for the Game Music Composer

How can we define “feel-good game sound”? That’s the question that sound designer Joonas Turner attempted to answer with his recent GDC Europe talk entitled, “Oh My! That Sound Made the Game Feel Better!”  Joonas’ talk was a part of the Independent Games Summit portion of GDC Europe, which took place in Cologne Germany on Monday August 3rd 2015.

While much of Joonas’ talk focused on issues that would chiefly concern sound designers, there were several interesting points for game composers to consider.  I’ll be exploring those ideas in this blog.

Joonas is a video game sound designer and voice actor working within the E-Studio professional recording studio in Helsinki, Finland.  His game credits include Angry Birds Transformers, Broforce, and Nuclear Throne.  After briefly introducing himself, Joonas launched into his talk about creating an aural environment that “feels good” and also makes the game “feel good” to the player. He starts by identifying an important consideration that should guide our efforts right from the start.

Consider design first

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Joonas Turner, sound designer at E-Studio.

In his talk, Joonas urges us to first consider the overall atmosphere of the game and the main focus of the player.  Ideally, the player should be able to concentrate on gameplay to the exclusion of any distractions.  The sound of a game should complement the gameplay and, if possible, deliver as much information to the player as possible.  If done perfectly, a player should be able to avoid consulting the graphical user interface in favor of the sonic cues that are delivering the same information.  In this way, the player gets to keep attention completely pinned on the playing field, staying on top of the action at hand.

Clearly, sound effects are designed to serve this purpose, and Joonas discusses a strategy for maximizing the utility of sound effects as conveyors of information… but can music also serve this purpose?  Can music deliver similar information to the player?  I think that music can do this in various ways, by using shifts in mood, or carefully-composed stingers, or other interactive techniques.  By way of these methods, music can let the player know when their health is deteriorating, or when they’re out of ammo.  Music can signal the appearance of new enemies or the successful completion of objectives.  In fact, I think that music can be as informative as sound design.

Music, sound design and voice-over: perfect together

As his GDC Europe talk proceeds, Joonas reminds us to think about how the music, sound design and voice-over will fit together within the overall frequency spectrum.  It’s important to make sure that these elements will complement each other, with frequency ranges that spread evenly across the spectrum, rather than piling up together at the low or high end.  With this in mind, Joonas suggests that the sound designer and composer should be brought together as early as possible to agree on a strategy for how these sonic elements will fit together in the game.

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(Here’s where Joonas brought up the first of two controversial ideas he presented during his talk.  While I’m not sure I agree with these ideas, I think the viewpoints he expresses are probably shared amongst other sound designers in the game industry, and therefore could use some more open discussion in the game audio community.)

While composers for video games always want to create the best and most awesome music for their projects, Joonas believes that this desire is not always conducive to a good final result.  He suggests that the soundtrack albums for video games are often more exciting and musically pleasing than the actual music from the game.  With this in mind, Joonas thinks that composers should save their best efforts for the soundtrack, while structuring the actual in-game music to be simpler and less aesthetically interesting.  In this way, the music can fit more comfortably into the overall aural design.

Your sonic brand

At this point in his presentation, Joonas urges the attendees to find aural styles that will be unique to their games.  He tells the audience to avoid using a tired sonic signature in every game, such as the famous brassy “bwah” tone that became pervasively popular after its use in the movie Inception.  If you are wondering what that sounds like, just hit the button below (courtesy of web developer Dave Pedu).

In 2012, Gregory Porter (an avid movie lover and creator of YouTube videos about the movies) created a fun video illustrating just how pervasive the infamous Inception “bwah” had actually become:

In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss the concept of creating a unique sonic identity for game in the chapter about the “Roles and Functions of Music in Games.”  In the book, I call this idea “sonic branding”(Chapter 6, page 112), wherein the composer writes such a distinctive musical motif or creates such a memorable musical atmosphere that the score becomes a part of the game’s brand.

Be Consistent

When recording music or sound design for a project, Joonas tells us that it’s important to remain consistent with our gear choices.  If a certain microphone has been used for a certain group of character voices, then that microphone should continue to be used for that purpose across the whole project.  Likewise, the same digital signal processing applications or hardware (compression, limiting, saturation, etc) should be used across the entire game, so that the aural texture remains consistent.  Carrying Joonas’ idea into the world of game music, we would find ourselves sticking with the same instrument and vocal microphones, and favoring the same reverb and signal processing settings throughout the musical score for a game.  This would ensure that the music maintained a unified texture and quality from the beginning of the game to the end.

Shorter is better

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In his talk, Joonas shares his personal experience with sound effects designed to indicate a successful action – a button press that causes something to happen.  Joonas tells us that for these sounds, shorter is definitely better.  The most successful sounds feature a quick, crisp entrance followed by a swift release. A short sound designed in this way will be satisfying to trigger, and won’t become tiresome after countless repetitions.

For the composer, the closest analogy to this sort of sound effect is the musical stinger designed to be triggered when the player performs a certain action.  In order to adhere to Joonas’ philosophy, we’d compose these stingers to have assertive entrances and quick resolves, so that they would be fun for the player even when repeated many times.

To clip or not to clip…

(This is the second of the two controversial ideas Joonas presented in his talk. Again, while I don’t necessarily agree with this, I think it’s an idea that hasn’t been expressed often and may need further discussion.)

VU-Meter

A volume unit (VU) meter registering some high audio levels.

The common wisdom amongst audio engineers is to avoid overloading the mix.  Such overloads can produce clipping and create distortion, which deteriorates the overall sound quality of the game.  However, Joonas suggests that for intense moments during gameplay, some clipping and distortion may actually enhance the sensation of anxiety and frenetic energy that such moments seek to elicit.  According to Joonas, this enhancement can actually be a desirable outcome, and the sound designer should therefore not be afraid of such overloads and clipping during intense moments in a game.

How would this idea relate to music?  Well, we’ve probably all heard examples of successful pop music that embraces sonic overload.  Lead vocalists sometimes scream into microphones to produce overloads, or a wailing guitar riff may be recorded with lots of overload artifacts.  As a deliberate effect placed carefully for the sake of drama, such brief moments of overload can add edginess to contemporary musical genres.  However, we’ve all likely heard other examples of overloads that seem more the product of high decibel levels rather than any deliberate processing. It’s important to differentiate a deliberate effect from an accidental one.  In music at least, we always want to control the final outcome of the mix, including the presence or absence of overload distortion.

Conclusion

Joonas wound up his talk by urging attendees to always give priority to the elements in the sound mix that are most important.  That would be a good guiding principle for music mixing as well.  Joonas is an interesting thinker in the area of game sound design.  He can be followed at his Twitter account, @KissaKolme.  Please feel free to comment below about anything you’ve read in this blog, and let me know how you feel about the ideas we’ve discussed.  I’d love to read your thoughts!

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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.

Game Music Middleware, Part 1: Wwise

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The use of third-party audio middleware in game development is a slow-growth trend that will doubtless become more influential in the future, so I thought I’d devote my next two blog entries to some recent video tutorials produced by a few intrepid game audio pros who have stepped forward to help the community.

This first blog is devoted to Wwise, and the tutorials come to us courtesy of Michael Kamper, Senior Audio Developer at Telltale Games.  With over 16 years of experience in audio production, Michael has served as Audio Director for The Bureau: Xcom Declassified, Bioshock 2 DLC, and Bioshock 2, among others.  Michael has also enjoyed a successful career as a feature film sound designer for such movies as Mission Impossible III, The Day After Tomorrow, Legally Blonde, and many more.  His experience in television includes sound design for Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Profiler.

In the following two-part video tutorial, Michael generously details his Wwise workflow during music implementation for The Bureau: Xcom Declassified:

Wwise Interactive Music Demo – The Bureau – Part 1 – Switches

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Wwise Interactive Music Demo – The Bureau – Part 2 – Segments/RTPCs

 

 

LittleBigPlanet 3 Unboxing – Plush Edition!

Today’s the big day!  The release of LittleBigPlanet 3 in the USA. I’m so proud to have composed music for this project and been part of the extraordinary music composition team for LittleBigPlanet 3!  Just got my LittleBigPlanet 3 Plush Edition, and I couldn’t wait to see what was inside.  A new LBP3 sackboy will join my previous LBP2 pal. Here are some pics from the unboxing.

My very own copy of LBP3! Sackboy looks interested back there...

My very own copy of LBP3! Sackboy looks interested back there…

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I think Sackboy is taking over this unboxing.

I think Sackboy is taking over this unboxing.

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Sackboy is wondering what's in there...?

Sackboy is wondering what’s in there…?

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A fantastic new LittleBigPlanet game! And a smaller Sackboy in a plastic bag!

A fantastic new LittleBigPlanet game! And a smaller Sackboy in a plastic bag!

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Sackboy uses his crafty scissor tool to release his new friend from his plastic bondage.

Sackboy uses his crafty scissor tool to release his new friend from his plastic bondage.

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Fresh air for Sackboy's new friend!

Fresh air for Sackboy’s new friend!

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Pals for life! :)

Pals for life!

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It was a thrill to compose music for LittleBigPlanet 3! My two new sackboys will live in my music studio and provide me with daily inspiration.  :-D

It was a thrill to compose music for LittleBigPlanet 3! My two new sackboys will live in my music studio and provide me with daily inspiration. 😀

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Can't get these two kids to stop playing with the box that the game came in.  ;-)

Can’t get these two kids to stop playing with the box that the game came in. 😉

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Showreel – TV & Ads

For game composers, it’s a good idea for us to try to spruce up our professional web sites with some new content on a regular basis. Keeping things fresh helps to make our web sites feel continually relevant and useful as an information resource for our potential clients. Recently, I added a new page to my site, devoted entirely to a collection of videos that demonstrate some of my music credits for television and advertising.

showreel-snap

Being a game composer doesn’t necessarily mean that our skills won’t translate well to linear entertainment like television programs, advertisements and trailers. It can be interesting work, and it provides us with something that most of our game projects don’t – backend income.  When music is played within a video game, this isn’t considered to be a “musical performance” by the performing rights societies, so game composers don’t receive any compensation based on how many times their music might be played. In this particular regard, television is superior to games. I think it is always a good idea for a game composer to look into diversifying into television as a side endeavor.

I’ve had some fun experiences connected with my television composition work.  Hearing my music suddenly pop up in a commercial during the Thanksgiving Day Parade last year was a highlight. Once, I was taking a taxi to the airport and I heard one of my tracks in a car commercial – I told the cab driver, and I think he was more excited than I was!

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I also composed some music that was featured in Macy’s campaign for the Make-A-Wish foundation, so that warmed my heart.

My Showreel page has twenty four short video clips from my television, trailer and advertising credits.  You can visit the page here:

Showreel

I hope you find the page interesting, and if you’re a media composer thinking about putting together a showreel page of your own, I hope this helps!

Creativity and the World Wide Web

World_Wide_Web

A few days ago I was reading Echoes: Insight for Independent Artists, a blog published by Disc Makers (the CD replication service), and I came across an article entitled “How to Stay Productive as a Music Composer.” Some of the advice seemed pretty sound (get comfortable, formulate a plan, set deadlines) but I was brought up short when the article advised composers to get rid of their Internet connection while working. “The only way for me to be productive,” says the author, “is to stay clear of the Internet when I’m trying to work.”

I’m not arguing with the logic behind that idea. The Internet has the possibility of distracting a composer with irrelevancy and time-wasting entertainment, thereby slowing down the pace of work. But this isn’t an inevitable outcome, and I think it can greatly depend on the nature of the composer-Internet relationship. For me, the Internet can be a vast library, a repository of knowledge and advice. Some of that advice is great, and some is not so good… but all of it has the potential to help and inspire me while I’m working, as long as I stay focused on my goals.

Just to offer one brief example –

When I was composing music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, I needed to do a lot of research. Some of that came from more traditional sources such as historical texts and audio recordings, but a good portion also came from targeted searches on the Internet. For instance, since the game concerned itself with an affluent French society living in 18th century New Orleans, I needed to reacquaint myself with the techniques and structure of French Baroque music of the period. If you type the search string “French Baroque music” into Google today, you can see a collection of relevant articles such as “Music history of France,” “5 Tips on Approaching French Baroque Music,” “Tempo in French Baroque Music,” and “Style and Performance for Bowed String Instruments in French Baroque Music,” not to mention all the books that pop up via item pages on Amazon.com.

Also, watching traditional Baroque musicians performing on YouTube was an excellent way to stay in touch with correct performance techniques, as well as the various ways in which expert musicians customarily improvise within the confines of a Baroque composition.

Research can be very inspiring, both for musical styles of the past and for contemporary genres. I think research on the Internet can continue as an ongoing concern during the composition process. We just have to make sure we keep our focus on our work.

Are there any ways in which you use the Internet to keep yourself creatively inspired? Let me know in the comments!

Music in the Manual: FMOD Studio Vs. Wwise

Wwise-FMOD

A few days ago, I downloaded and installed the latest version of a software package entitled FMOD Studio and was pleasantly surprised to discover that an oversight had been corrected. It’s not unusual for software updates to correct problems or provide additional functionality, but this update was especially satisfying for me. The makers of FMOD Studio had added the “Music” section to the software manual.

A brief explanation: FMOD Studio is a software application designed by Firelight Technologies to enable game audio professionals to incorporate sound into video games. The application focuses solely on audio, and is used in conjunction with game software. In essence, FMOD Studio is folded into the larger construct of a game’s operational code, giving the overall game the ability to do more sophisticated things with the audio side of its presentation.

When FMOD Studio was initially released in August of 2012, the manual did not include information about the music capabilities of the software. Admittedly, the majority of FMOD Studio users are sound designers whose interests tend to focus on the tools for triggering sound effects and creating environmental atmospheres. That being said, many composers also use the portions of the FMOD Studio application that are specifically designed to enable the assignment of interactive behaviors to music tracks. It was a bit puzzling that the manual didn’t describe those music tools.

One of the biggest competitors to FMOD Studio is the Wwise software from Audiokinetic. Wwise offers much of the same functionality as FMOD, and in working with the software one of the things I really like about it is its documentation. Audiokinetic put a lot of thought and energy into the Wwise Fundamentals Approach document and the expansive tutorial handbook, Project Adventure. Both of these documents discuss the music features of the Wwise software, offering step-by-step guidance for the creation of interactive music systems within the Wwise application. This is why the omission of any discussion of the music tools from the FMOD manual was so perplexing.

It’s true that many of the music features of the FMOD Studio software are also useful in sound design applications, and some are similar in their function to tools described in the sound design portions of the manual. Firelight Technologies may have assumed that those portions of the manual would be sufficient for all users, including composers. However, composers are specialists, and their priorities do not match those of their sound design colleagues. In using the FMOD Studio tools, the needs of composers would be sharply different from those driving the rest of the audio development community. Wwise understood this from the start, but FMOD seemed to be following a philosophy that hearkened back to the early days of the game industry.

In those days, the audio side of a game was often created and implemented by a single person. This jack-of-all-trades would create all the sound effects, voice-overs and music. Nowadays, the audio field is populated by scores of specialists. It makes sense for FMOD Studio to acknowledge specialists such as composers in their software documentation, and I’m very glad to see that they’ve just done so. If you’d like to learn more about FMOD Studio, you can see a general overview of the application in this YouTube video:

The Making of a Sackboy Music Video

I’d like to talk about a little personal milestone that just happened this week. My music video, “Little Big Planet 2 Soundtrack – Victoria’s Lab,” reached 200,000 views on YouTube. This is not an astounding view count – it isn’t viral by any means. However, it’s a lot more than I ever imagined when I first decided to create a music video for one of the songs I composed for the LittleBigPlanet 2 video game. I thought it might be interesting to talk briefly about how this video came about, and how the LittleBigPlanet game makes it possible to create a humorous music video like this one.

While there have been many other music videos made with the characters and creation tools of LittleBigPlanet 2, I think this one may the first (and perhaps the only) music video made by a LittleBigPlanet composer. The track, “Victoria’s Lab,” was the first I’d composed for the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and I was tremendously excited about it. The track included an ambitious vocal arrangement for four singers. I sung all the parts in this fugato, which is a composition in which multiple independent melodies play simultaneously. They echo each other’s melodic content and then branch off into lots of variations.  While this was essentially a serious vocal composition style, I performed it in a whimsical way using syllables such as “la dee dah.” The whole thing was supported by an accompaniment that included string orchestra, circus organ, beat boxing, rock guitar, vocoder, and lots of other odd and eccentric instruments.

The real fun of a vocal composition like this one is watching it performed live. If you’ve ever seen this kind of vocal counterpoint performed live, you know how interesting it is to watch the melodies shifting from one vocalist to the next, while the others sing independent and related parts. I had this desire to create a visual experience for my Victoria’s Lab fugato… but how?  I really didn’t think that anyone would want to watch me in splitscreen, overdubbing vocal parts into a microphone – that would be boring. The LittleBigPlanet aesthetic and sense of humor heavily influenced this composition, so wouldn’t it be more fun to see a group of Sackgirls singing together?

The developer of the LittleBigPlanet game, Media Molecule, did a wonderful job of creating both a fantastically entertaining gameplay experience, and a imaginative and inspiring creation tool for making game levels. Moreover, they also made it entirely possible to create short entertaining films with LittleBigPlanet, too.  Characters are called “Sackbots” and have the ability to lip sync as you speak into a microphone connected to the PS3. For my music video, I created and dressed up three Sackbot singers. Then I played back recordings of each of the vocal parts into the PS3’s microphone. I played them one at a time, isolated from each other and from the rest of the composition. While each of the Sackbot singers recorded their individual parts for lip sync, I moved the Sackbot’s head and body using the PS3 controller, animating the Sackbot to give it a more realistic “performance.” I recorded each of their dramatic singing performances against a green screen backdrop, so that I could put them into any environment I liked. Sometimes I had them singing on a theatrical stage. Other times, they sang in square frames on screen, Brady-Bunch-style. Finally, I dressed up a Sackbot singer to look just like the character of Victoria Von Bathysphere from the LittleBigPlanet 2 game. Victoria got to sing the operatic, aria-like parts, which she performed with intensity and dramatic flair.

Sackboy-WP

Since I couldn’t leave Sackboy himself out of the fun, I created scenes in which he vigorously headbanged and rocked out to the music. I had him dancing alongside large skeletons playing guitars. Finally, I let him run around the delightfully wacky environments created by Media Molecule for the Victoria’s Lab levels, where this music is actually heard in the LittleBigPlanet 2 video game. The levels created by Media Molecule are pure genius – a combination of joyous silliness and sublime artistry that come together to form the perfectly delightful playground for Sackboy and all his friends.

I recorded all these performances and action sequences using the Hauppauge PVR system, which allows PS3 video to be fed into a computer and captured as video files. Then I edited the video in my computer using Final Cut Pro.

It was a bigger job than I thought it would be, but I had a great time creating the music video. I’m very happy that people have enjoyed my singing Sackgirls and headbanging Sackboy. 200,000 views may not be huge by YouTube standards, but it certainly makes me smile to think of that many people watching my Sackgirls sing. Making the music video was a great way for me to participate in the LittleBigPlanet philosophy of Play, Create, Share.