Many moons ago I found gently resting upon the highest mountaintop a piece of parchment. It was written in a long-forgotten language, but after endless nights of translation I finally unlocked its secrets. Indeed, it was the lost Ludus Sonitus Decretum, or the “Game Music Edicts”. I pored over its many rules and saw the usefulness, even today, of every last one of them. Now, on the pages of this blog, I will share each edict one at a time in the new “Thou Shalt Not” feature.
…use fortissimo samples softly in your mixes.
I have noticed this one far too often from inexperienced composers. This one especially applies to brass and percussion. When a bass trombone plays a fortissimo low F, it’s going to be loud. Very loud. Make sure it’s not buried in the mix. It won’t sound natural at all. The only exception to this rule is if you want the effect of having the instrument off stage. But then you need to compensate with EQ, delay, and reverb settings.
I thought I’d pass this along to all you aspiring video game composers and also bands looking for some more exposure. InstantAction is running a contest where one lucky person or band will get their song included in an InstantAction game soundtrack. Find out more at Attack the Soundtrack.
Voting is already underway but they’re still accepting submissions. A tip, just from what I’ve heard so far of the hopefuls, just because you use some classic arcade samples in your music doesn’t mean it’s right for a video game. Also, spend some extra time mixing and mastering your masterpieces. InstantAction games are looking and playing very slick. They need soundtracks to match! Good luck!
I found a fun little Flash game on the PBS site. See how many sound effects you can correctly identify: http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/arcade/name/index_flash.html
I got 16/18. A couple of the games I had never played before. But for some of them, it was as if I was a kid again walking through the arcades.
There’s something to be said for having a limited palette of sound to work with. Sound designers back then (often just the game’s programmer) were forced to get everything they could out of the sound chip. And back then, just as now, coming up with something original could be a huge benefit to the game. I mean, eating ghosts in Pacman just made such a satisfying sound! That we still remember many of the sounds is a testament to their cleverness.
As promised, here is some advice on how to break into the game industry as a composer. I decided to just post an interview I did a few years ago with Paul Taylor for the January 2006 issue of Computer Music magazine’s feature story “How to be a games musician”. It is a good overview on how at least one composer got his start (me) and has advice for others looking to get their start.
And now, the interview (questions by Paul Taylor, answers by yours truly):
1.) How did you get into composing music for indie games?
After graduating from grad school in 2000 I started looking around for permanent employment in game companies around the country. During my search I came across the GarageGames website and I recognized it as a place with great potential to help indie developers create some innovative and fun games. I visited the site regularly and noticed that one of the “GarageGames community” companies, 21-6 Productions, seemed to really have its act together so I contacted them. They enjoyed my demo CD and I started doing the music for their cooperative sci-fi FPS, Myrmidon. Since then, I’ve helped 21-6 with a number of games while continuing to peruse the GarageGames website looking for similarly dedicated and talented indie companies. GarageGames actually helped me make the decision to freelance rather than find a permanent job. I could do contract work for the commercial companies but I felt there would also be a booming indie scene, spurred on by GG support. And there has been, though a little slower than anticipated.
2.) What do you feel are the advantages of this kind of work?
There are two big advantages in doing indie game music. First, you may be given more leeway in your musical choices. As long as you create something good and something that you think should fit into the game and conduct yourself professionally, the developers will often at least give it a chance. Big budget games are nice in one way, in that you’ll get a paycheck, but can often have a constricting effect on your creativity. The corporate number crunchers often want everything to appeal to the broadest audience, including the music. I think some of the best soundtracks, like Grim Fandango, have been created when the producers have trusted the composer enough to do what he or she thinks is best. That trust comes from having familiarity with the composer, but can also come from the fact that an indie composer is willing to do some work for royalties or just for recognition or portfolio-building.
The second advantage is that you can have an influence on the game outside the music. As indies, the developers are very passionate about making their game fun. They’ll be willing to listen, especially if you’re an avid gamer. This creates a sense of camaraderie that really can’t be beat. Everyone’s in the same boat, trying to get the game done and fun.
3.) The disadvantages?
99% of the games being developed by indies will never be completed. You really have to look out for the indies that are in over their heads. That strategy/FPS Civilization/Doom 3 hybrid will probably never make it out of Billy’s parents’ basement (lovingly decorated with X-Files and Captain Janeway posters). Indies shouldn’t be trying to compete with the big boys. They can’t. But there are plenty of niches out there for indies to fill. Look for those innovative, simpler projects.
Also, the infectious indie enthusiasm that permeates the beginning of a project probably won’t last through the entire development cycle. As unexpected problems arise and the weeks pass by, the project can seem more like a chore, especially if you’re not getting paid for it up front. As much as you’d like to deny it, money is a powerfully motivating factor. The lack of it is noticeable. But the rewards of contributing to a fresh indie project are worth it.
4.) Are you receiving any payment for your work, and if not, would you consider doing it for nothing?
Most indie projects are going to be for royalties, which is ok. Again, you just have to pick the projects that have a good chance of being completed. When first starting out, though, look for projects that may not pay but that may get your name out there. Produce Panic was a free game but it had permission to use the Penny Arcade universe. I felt it had a good chance of getting me some exposure so I provided some tracks. At this point in my career, I can’t consider doing a game for nothing, however. My family and I have invested too much into my studio and myself to take less than what I deserve. I’m a modest guy so it’s hard to say something like that, but it’s the absolute truth.
5.) What do you feel that you can offer game music which somebody working for a commercial development team might not be able to provide?
There are some very talented composers working at commercial development teams full-time. But there are also many “buddies” of developers who have no business being full-time composers. That’s part of the reason game music has traditionally been laughed at. Thankfully, as we move away from MIDI and techno soundtracks, there is a growing demand for composers who can create memorable, original soundtracks that have some depth to them.
6.) Do you enjoy your indie status?
I love working with indies.You never know what kinds of games you’re going to find. And when there’s an original game, there’s going to have to be an original soundtrack. Look at Katamari Damacy. There’s some good stuff going on in that soundtrack. Originality breeds originality. I think indies appeal to me because I have a quirky style to my music which fits in with indie games.
7.) Would you consider moving to a higher-paid, more mainstream game composing job, or are you happy where you are?
I would consider it if I could continue to freelance. I like composing in many different genres and would like to keep creatively fresh by having many different projects available to work on. The stability of a permanent job with benefits is certainly alluring, however.
8.) What kind of kit and software do you use?
I use Nuendo and love it. I also use GigaStudio as my main sampler. Everything runs on my trusty old Pentium 4 1.5 GHz computer running Windows XP. Some of my favorite sample libraries are Project SAM brass, Dan Dean Woodwinds, the new RA and Colossus from East West/Quantum Leap, and of course my own Front Porch Banjo and Tuba. I am able to record in my studio and I prefer to record live instruments when possible, especially brass. There are subtle things that sample libraries just can’t do yet. I play tuba in a couple local orchestras, have played trombone since grade school, horn in college, and just started trumpet so I can record almost all the brass myself which lends a certain uniqueness to my orchestral sound.
9.) Has this kit helped/hindered you in the past?
Nuendo and GigaStudio are generally pretty stable. I’ve used ProTools a lot but I prefer Nuendo now. Nuendo is very friendly to use and very powerful. It certainly does everything I need it to do, though its MIDI could be better. I’ve been recording less live brass lately because the time involved doesn’t warrant its use. As a bit of a perfectionist, I’ll record maybe dozens of takes for each brass part. It can be tiring.
10.) What are your opinions about game music as a whole – what set of beliefs do you apply when you’re working on something?
Game music is starting to get good. The days of creating a quick techno loop are just about over. As production values increase, the quality of music must also rise. I love that budgets are now including money for live orchestras and that more care is being taken when selecting composers.
My main concern when composing is to keep my music original. If I think I’ve heard something before, then I want to redo it. If something is too simple, then I want to throw some “spice” into it, as one of my profs liked to say. I want there to be more than one layer to my music so you can hear something new when the piece inevitably loops. A common comment I get is that, “I liked it at first, but then I looped it and started to like it more and more.” That’s the key to good game music. No matter how good the music is, the player will eventually get tired of it. The goal is to make sure that happens after the level has ended.
11.) How do you feel game music should differ from film music?
Game music should have more kazoos and hemiolas than film music. Seriously, game music should be just as thematically coherent as film music, if not more so. You might not know when a piece is going to be played, but having a theme come back in a different mode or rhythm can have a huge emotional impact. As a player plays a game, he or she is really telling the story to him- or herself. The music must enrich that story. Keeping the music coherent is vitally important. There’s a lot to learn about that from film, and a lot to explore about that in games. Is the little snippet of theme you just heard a seed for or an echo from a fuller exploration of the theme? It’s got to function as both and you have to plan for both. I studied musical structure a lot in school so figuring these things out for games is great fun.
(no, not that kind)
Hey developers, want to make sure you’re getting the best composer available? Sure, make sure their resume is in order and they have good references. But let’s face it, unfortunately our industry is infested with unqualified composers who got their careers through certain degrees of nepotism.
Here’s one way to weed out the unqualified: the blind audition.
Orchestras do it all the time. You don’t go in with preconceived notions about the music which affect your listening. It’s all about the music. The composer who has the best music wins the demo reel contest and you can go from there.
Somebody in your company needs to be the point of contact for the composers. Have the composers send all their music to this person, have them strip any identifying information, and then have them send it to the decision makers. After all the votes are in, reveal who had the best music.
For best results, give each composer some money (for their time and talent, really $1000 spent here will pay off later when you realize how you could have wasted much more on a subpar composer) to write 30 seconds of music with a good amount of description for what you want. Make the music relevant to your current game so the music from the winning composer isn’t wasted. Perhaps make it a cut scene that they must write music for. You will see how well each composer follows direction and how they do under pressure. For the sake of landing a contract, I guarantee they will do their best.
If you don’t have money to spare, just have your contact person take 2 or 3 similar pieces from each demo reel and prepare them for you.
It’s all about the music. Well, and they have to work well with other people and have excellent communication skills. But at least with the blind audition, you know your top choice will have the mad compositional skillz to help take your game to the next level.
I get asked from time to time how one gets started writing music for games. I am happy to give advice and say what’s worked for me and other people. And in the near future I will write a blog that gives advice on how to go about successfully achieving your dream career. But before I do that, I’d like you prospective (or maybe even current) game music creators to just ask yourselves some questions, with the underlying question… Are you a composer ready to take your craft into the world of games or are you a com-poseur?
I apologize in advance if this isn’t a feel-good post and it seems unduly negative, but my mission for this blog is to simply help games have better soundtracks. There are people out there who are capable of this. And there are some who aren’t. If you aren’t right now, it doesn’t mean you never will be. It just means you need to take some time to work on your art. And it does take work. Just because you’re a kid who has a music keyboard hooked up to your computer doesn’t mean you’re ready to list yourself as a content provider on Gamasutra. Anyway, consider these questions:
1) Are you proud of all the music you’ve ever created? Do you look back on your collected body of work and revel in all its genius? Well, unless you’re Mozart, you probably have no reason to. I am embarrassed by almost all the music I wrote in my undergraduate college years, up until my thesis. I had so much to learn. At the time, I was kind of ok with some of it, but what kept me going were the flashes of potential that I had at times. My professors recognized that potential and nurtured it. But the music itself was secondary to learning the process of how you become a good composer and learning how other works achieved their musical success (and defining what constitutes musical success). This leads to the next question…
2) Are you proud of having no formal musical education? Ah yes, you are untainted by the bounds of a formal education. Well, maybe a bad formal education will force you to write like Brahms or Beethoven but a good education will help you develop your own voice. It will guide you to a mastery of your own language. Yes, sometimes composers with no formal training go on to have very successful careers. But it’s just easier to have teachers there to help point the way for you. No force, just a friendly hand. You will learn things that will pay off in your career. Definitely a good investment in your future. There is no test you must pass before you go on to start your career, but having a formal education on your resume does show future employers that you probably have at least a solid foundation in your craft. They need to trust your skills. Having been through a musical education, you will be able to trust and have real and proven confidence in your skills once you’re selling yourself. That’s big.
3) Do you know what subito means? What’s the highest safe couple of notes you should write for a (live) horn player? This is related to the last question. You don’t necessarily need a formal education to know these things, but it helps. Regardless, how can you call yourself a composer if you don’t know the basics of our musical language? Again, it’s strange some people take such pride in the fact that they don’t know these things. Oh, let the orchestrator deal with that? Well, orchestration is part of composition. A melody played by a muted trumpet will have a very different effect when played by a clarinet. You, as the composer, have complete control of what you want your piece to sound like. Why not learn as much as you can about the entire palette of sound and how to use it?
4) Do you have one or more pirated sample libraries? These libraries cost money to make. You’re hurting the very people who are trying to help improve your craft. You’re also hurting the entire legitimate composer community. If you can’t afford the more expensive libraries, maybe you are not ready to make it in this industry yet. Start smaller. Buy what you can afford, work with smaller companies that are also starting out. Your talent and bank account will grow together.
5) Can you point out problems in even your most favorite game soundtracks? No soundtrack is perfect. If you can’t identify problems in other people’s works, you probably can’t identify problems in your own works. We must always look for ways to improve. If you’re completely happy with your composing skills, you’re not doing something right. Know your weaknesses and work on them. I reviewed the Grim Fandango soundtrack a few days ago. I believe it’s one of the best soundtracks ever made. One problem, though, is that its instrumentation is a little too homogeneous. I would have preferred just a few more tracks to have an instrument or two that come out of the blue and surprise us a bit. They actually did do that for a couple tracks and they could have utilized that more. A nitpick, but it’s important to question everything in the quest for improvement.
6) Do you own and wear a powdered wig when you compose? Duh. The best composers all wear powdered wigs. Bathing monthly is optional.
I hope these questions get you to think a little bit about if you’re truly ready to put your skills on the line in the fast-paced world of game audio. I may sound like a crotchety old man here, but I think not to ask prospective or current composers to ask these questions would be a disservice to everyone. Composers should be fluent and ready for anything. Developers should expect competent and confident composers.
And now, since we’re all ready to enter into the game industry with our powdered wigs, diplomas, and legal sample libraries, I will soon post a helpful guide to getting your first gigs which lead, I hope, to a long and successful career.
After putting much thought into it, I finally chose “gamenotes.org” as the new URL of this blog. Get it, get it? Like musical notes and written notes. I would have preferred .com at the end, but some squatter already got that and wants $2k for it. Lucky for me, he didn’t think to buy .org so I’m happy about that. Lots of blogs have .org domains so no problem.
I almost went with TGCblog but that’s sort of meaningless and doesn’t look very friendly in the url window.
Ok, back to business…
I just found out that Alexander Courage died last month on May 15. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the Star Trek theme he composed. His music really captured the spirit of that show, exotic and moving (and firmly planted in the 60′s).
Unfortunately, whenever I think of Courage I also think of how rough the music business and show biz in general can be. He didn’t know what he was getting into with the original Star Trek but he composed one of his best works and was entitled to his share of the success the show would later achieve. I’m sure everyone would agree about that… except the creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry. Turns out Roddenberry was a sly one and wanted his share of the music royalty pie. He slapped some lyrics on the music after Courage finished writing it and then, because of the royalty rules, he was instantly entitled to 50% of the royalties the music would receive. The lyrics just add SO much:
Beyond the rim of the starlight,
my love is wand’ring in star flight.
I know he’ll find
In star clustered reaches
Love, strange love
A starwoman teaches.
I know his journey ends never.
His Star Trek will go on forever.
But tell him while
He wanders his starry sea,
Roddenberry claims to have had a handshake and later written agreement from Courage to do this, but Courage would of course claim this was completely unfair. And it was. But I guess the lesson here is to be very careful about contracts you sign. It’s common practice now to sign 100% of your game music over to the company you’re working for. Yes, that’s extremely unfair. You worked hard on that music and you’re entitled to its rewards. Let’s hope the game industry and show biz both aim for more fairness. It won’t happen if we don’t actively pursue it.
Qapla’, Alexander Courage.
In our profession, it’s inevitable that sometimes we’ll write something that sounds just like something else. Sometimes we haven’t heard the other piece and when someone points it out to us, we’re kind of peeved that someone else had the audacity to write that piece of brilliance first. How dare they! Other times, however, we know that what we’ve written sounds like something else but it’s just inevitable in our music that it has to sound that way. The flow of the piece just brought us to the point where we have to borrow a bit of someone else’s work. To do otherwise just may not make sense musically.
Well, playing Morrowind years ago I was always struck by one particular snippet of music that sounded just like a part in Jupiter from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I finally sat down today and listened to both works side by side and they’re not only incredibly similar, but the snippets are in the same key and both come at very important points in the music, the ends of phrases. I think that’s pretty funny. Jeremy Soule is a terrific composer and I don’t want this to be a knock on him at all. We’ve all been there. But he has to know that he lifted this particular phrase from Jupiter. Have a listen:
Morrowind Snippet (Call of Magic):
Again, not a knock on Jeremy Soule. This is just one of the more obvious examples of music… tributing… I’ve found in games. It goes on in music all the time. The Planets was generously… tributed… in Gladiator. John Williams has … tributed… many many composers in his work (check out Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella for a motherload of material Williams… gives tributes to).
Anyway, this topic came to mind yesterday as I was writing a piece of “Hollywood Egyptian” music. Something was sounding an awful lot like Philip Glass. So I changed it. A bit. It still kind of sounds like him. But not exactly. I hope.
If it does, well then… it’s a tribute.
I thought I’d start a new series by reviewing a soundtrack every month. What works, what doesn’t… let’s take a look at what other games are doing with their soundtracks!
This month’s soundtrack comes from the game Grim Fandango, the classic LucasArts adventure.
Simply put, it is perhaps the best soundtrack ever made for a game. I recently listened to the soundtrack as I was preparing to do my own film noir tune for a game I’m working on. Sometimes listening to a parody of a genre is more informative than researching a particular example of the original genre and this is a good example of that. They’ve distilled the film noir jazz sound into its essence so well, you’d think the music came from the black & white age.
Peter McConnell created a masterpiece with his score for this game and all other adventure game developers should look at this classic as an example of what’s possible in game music. One of my goals as a game music composer is to help raise the quality of game music. I’m glad that other composers, though few and far between right now, are out there with that goal in mind too. This soundtrack has great depth and it avoids cliches, something every composer should look to do. Pick up a copy of the game. It’s worth it for the game itself, but everyone needs to hear what’s possible with a game soundtrack.
Verdict: Required Listening