…put making money over the game experience.
Yes, I’m talking to you, Grand Theft Auto IV on the 360 and PS3. For some reason, Rockstar decided not to give us the custom MP3 music station that we’ve grown accustomed to in every previous game… you remember, the station that played the MP3′s you had ripped onto your machine. Part of the fun of the game was driving around causing mayhem to the sound of your favorite music. I loved jacking cars and usually getting one of their radio stations, but every once in a while I’d get a car playing some of my favorite tunes. That helped make me feel a little more involved in the city I was in.
Well, that’s gone now. Why? I suspect it has everything to do with them trying to get you to buy the music that’s playing on their radio stations. That’s easier than ever now, too. When you hear a song that you like (and, honestly, you’re bound to find a few with over 200 songs in GTA4) you can text a number using your in-game cell and then get information about that song and purchase it through Amazon MP3 through the Rockstar social network (sounds like an easy process?).
I also assume Rockstar would rather not have excluded the custom MP3 station, as it is present in the PC version, but the (mustache-twirling) record labels put pressure on them to force at least the console players to listen only to their music. Maybe they’re counting on the Stockholm syndrome to sell their music, where captive listeners will grow to love their music through sheer force of repetition.
Anyway, one source of joy from GTA is gone for now, all because someone thought they could make a few extra dollars. I keep hearing rumors that the custom MP3 station will be added in an update, but nothing has materialized yet. One final thought: this wouldn’t be such an issue if the MP3 station hadn’t already been in every previous GTA game and in this game’s PC version. That they actually removed this little in-game treat is just disappointing.
waste your time.
Time is a precious commodity when it comes to the music you create for your game, especially your downloadable games. It’s not uncommon for your title track to be one minute long and the in-game tracks could be even shorter. So it baffles my mind when I hear a composer waste what little time he or she has.
What does it mean to waste time? Basically, repeating things. Unfortunately, many composers still think dance music is appropriate for game music. Dance music repeats. A lot. They can spend 8 bars right at the beginning of a piece just doing the one-measure drum rhythm over and over. Then the next 8 bars adds the one-measure bass line. Then the next 8, keyboards, then voice…
Well, we don’t have time like that to waste in games. Repetition is inevitable. Every minute, your entire piece will repeat so don’t make the mistake of repeating music within your piece. We need a quick intro that leads right into the meat of your piece: the memorable and catchy theme. Then, maybe a B section that leads into a key change or another new idea.
Let’s look at it structurally. The most common musical structures can be boiled down to ABA and AB. Both of these work for your musical loops, but with ABA make sure the second A section is short or in a different key or has some other discerning feature and then has a transition back to the beginning. When you guide your piece to new territory through the entire piece, you create the illusion of a longer piece. Going the dance music route, the player will get tired of your piece much earlier because your piece actually seems shorter than one minute.
As the bad guy in Star Trek: Generations said, “Time is the fire in which we burn.” Make your fire a little more bearable by keeping things moving along in your piece.
Music is of course an integral part of any video game experience. But while other components of video games (like graphics and user interface) are absolutely necessary throughout the entire game, music isn’t always necessary and in fact sometimes should be left out. If a game has wall-to-wall music, one important possibility of musical contrast is left out: the simple and effective contrast between sound and no sound.
Nothing encourages a player to reflect or see a new perspective like eliminating music for a while. It doesn’t have to be long. One common way to use silence is to place it right after finishing a level on the score screen. When the music stops, the player is free to breathe to their own tempo which helps them take control of their own thoughts and regroup. If the game immediately launches into new music without that break, the player is left at the mercy of the music’s beat and remains mentally at the surface of the game experience. ..no reflection, just an urge to launch into the next level. Never underestimate the power of silence to help deepen the player’s experience.
To take a couple of examples spanning a couple decades, think about Super Mario Brothers and Grand Theft Auto 4. In SMB, at the end of a level after jumping up to get a flag or kill the final baddy, a short victory piece is played and then there is a brief period of silence. The player can catch their breath and think back on their hard earned victory. If new music started immediately, the player would naturally be in “anticipation” mode rather than “satisfaction” mode. Sure, even with silence they’ll still anticipate a little but it’s important for the player to get that reward. Music’s not totally left out of the end of SMB levels… they do get the victory music. But silence is an important way to help make the player look back and feel satisfied about their accomplishment.
Grand Theft Auto 4 has a ton of musical content, but it isn’t constantly bombarding the player. You’ll commonly only find the music when you’re driving around or inside buildings. Often, you’ll finish a mission in your car listening to some heart-pumping rock. As soon as you park and step out of your car, you’re greeted with the quiet of a park or the bustle of a city street. Either way, the player is encouraged to reflect on their accomplishment to their own rhythm. The player doesn’t need to be baby-fed their emotion through music. They can find it within themselves with the help of silence. And you can’t always predict how they’ll feel. After mowing down half a dozen baddies, you can feel a little weird then walking around a quiet park with the sounds of the battle still echoing in your own head.
So, be sure and get plenty of musical content for your game. But remember to leave some space for silence. Trust the player to generate their own emotion sometimes. I did write about this in an earlier blog but, sure enough, I found it in the good game music rule book (the long lost and now found Ludus Sonitus Decretum).
rely on loops when creating your music.
The translation from the Ludus Sonitus Decretum was difficult to pin down for this rule. It was tough to say whether the rule meant “Thou Shalt Not rely on loops” or “Thou Shalt Not use loops”. But, in thinking about it, the more sensible translation is “rely”. Loops have their uses. When used sparingly, they can save some time. They can add some color to percussion tracks or add some interest to background ambient sounds.
The problem arises when someone fires up their copy of Acid or GarageBand and spews out piece after piece of loop-created music. Sure, the music sounds pretty professional. Loops are often created with terrific production values. Anyone can make something that sounds practically radio-worthy. But they really didn’t create anything that a monkey with a good dart board couldn’t have created, did they? And then they call themselves a composer? Picking a key and a tempo and then fitting things together that don’t sound like fingernails on a chalkboard are not the only qualifications for a composer. Composition is about creating an original piece of music out of a limitless palette that enables you to express whatever you want. Loops instantly lock you into an extremely limited toolset. Orchestration, melodic and harmonic progression, freedom of structure and expression… they all go out the window.
Not to mention, your music is going to sound an awful lot like someone else’s music at some point. And what are the chances you are going to have the loops that specifically fit the style and character of the game you are working on? You’re locked into expressing a very limited vocabulary if all you use is loops.
Your development as a musician can only progress as far as the loops will take you. You’ll have to wait until the next pack of loops come out before you get out of that inevitable creative rut. For your own good, and as decreed by the good book, keep your exposure to loops to a minimum! In an industry fueled by creativity and originality (or at least aspiring to that), loops have a very, very minor place.
…hire your friends as voice actors.
Your friends I’m sure are very anxious to try their hand at voice acting. Maybe one of them does a decent movie trailer voice (“In a wooorlld…”). But unless you live in Hollywood and your friends are indeed actors, thank them for their offer and search elsewhere for voice talent. This of course isn’t a hard and fast rule. Maybe a couple of your friends have acting experience and can indeed bring a great performance to the table. But in general, recording your friends or relatives is a bad idea.
One of the signs that the game industry still has a lot of growing up to do is that the quality of voice acting is all over the place. We need to think professionally about voice acting and hire professionals. Don’t have money for voice? Well, why not?? Find some. Developers, don’t think of voice as an afterthought. Plan on hiring the best talent you can. If the entire game is unfunded, you can still search for new voice actors looking for work. They’re probably coming straight out of college looking to find some work and will do the job for royalties or simply credits. They’ll gain experience and you’ll record someone serious about voice acting who is familiar with the issues involved. Yes, inexperience can mean trouble so that’s why you should educate yourself about voice acting.
Also, keep in mind you may find a great voice actor, but that doesn’t mean he or she will be right for the role you are looking to fill. Most actors’ voices can only sound natural in a particular range. You need to find the right voice for the character. Be picky, there are many good professional actors to choose from and they know that they aren’t right for every role. It’s all just a part of casting. If you loved working with a particular actor in the past, don’t get caught trying to use him or her for a role they just can’t do. Their voice can only stretch so far. That’s no good for anyone.
A good book to check out is The Art of Voice Acting by James Alburger. The book is full of great advice about the actual craft of voice acting. Practice voice acting yourself. Get some scripts and read through them. Experiencing voice performance yourself is a wonderful way to gain an insight into how to communicate with the actors you will hire in the future. Also, practice recording voice. Find out how to create the best, most natural-sounding, voice you can. Mic types, mic placement, plug-in settings, etc. Get familiar with all of it so when the time comes to record that $300/hour performer, you can get straight to the good stuff.
And the bad stuff? I’ll leave you with a hilarious site that shows what can go horribly, horribly wrong when you hire amateurs to do a pro’s work: Audio Atrocities
… overuse Auto-Tune.
For those of you who don’t know, Auto-Tune is a tool people can use to correct pitch problems in recordings. It’s used very often with voices, especially in pop songs. It’s a very powerful plug-in and useful when a singer has done a terrific take but has a note here or there that just isn’t in tune enough.
The problem stems from that little song Cher sang called “Believe” in 1998 that used Auto-Tune in a new way to create an interesting (back then) new type of vocal effect. Suddenly, everyone had to have the “Cher effect”. And apparently everyone got the Cher effect plugged into their own studios, because you can hear it all over the place now. I’ve even been asked randomly several times from people how to go about getting that effect. My first question is always, “Why?”
Again, I love pitch correction software. It can be really useful. And, actually, I’m not complaining about the “Cher effect” in this blog post. People aren’t using it that much anymore and when they do it’s usually in an uninteresting song by an unimaginative group (so who cares what tools they misuse anyway). I’m complaining about the overuse of Auto-tune’s intended use: pitch correction.
Auto-Tune should not be used on every single note. Used aggressively like this, it will suck the life out of a performance. It’s a human singing and humans aren’t perfect. What makes the difference between a good singer or a merely tolerable one is often the subtleties, and Auto-Tune can strip away far too many subtleties leaving a bland, computerized experience. It even sounds computerized. When engineers just throw on the Auto-Tune switch, it seems sometimes they neglect to listen to the results. It can sound very artificial.
It’s amazing how prevalent Auto-Tune has become. I laugh every time I hear it, especially in a country song. Country isn’t about perfectly in-tune singing. It’s about heart and strife and livin’ and sporks. Oh, maybe not sporks. But Auto-Tune overuse just obliterates all that emotion and leaves a sterile homogeneous borefest of a song. Combine it with aggressive compression and Marvin the Paranoid Android might as well be singing.
Anyway, this isn’t purely a game music specific topic, but it is a decree that I hope all game composers will heed in their music when the time comes to use that certain plug-in.
It’s debated whether Cher’s engineers used Auto-Tune or some combination of a vocoder and other effects. It sure sounds like Auto-Tune to me. Also, there are many other pitch correction software plug-ins out there and I used Auto-Tune in this post because it’s probably the most well known, but this post of course applies to all of them.
… use a minor scale as a melody.
This one surprises me. With the almost infinite possibilities at your disposal, why would you use the minor scale as your melody? I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, but this sin has indeed been committed. Maybe it’s been a rough week. The inspiration’s not there? Writer’s block is rearing its ugly head? Well, there’s no excuse for this. Except maybe one: You’re shipwrecked on an island with your piano and the island’s inhabitants have never heard Western music. Then , sure, whip out the minor scale and wow them all.
But for the rest of us, the good book demands you go for something a little more original. And no, using the first 7 notes of the minor scale, then slipping in the major 7th degree before getting to the octave still accounts as a definite no-no. Oh, how many movie trailers have used that one?
Like many other melodic no-no’s, changing the harmony under the melody does not give you the right to use a forbidden melody. It is still too noticeable as a compositional disaster. In fact, if you find yourself using even the first 4 notes in sequence of the minor scale, go back to the drawing board. The first 3 notes is even pushing it. Reach down deep and give us something fresh.
And now for the second installment of Thou Shalt Not…
…use the Batman theme anymore anywhere!
It was fine in the first Batman movie. It sounded pretty cool. But since that movie came out in 1989, I have heard that theme coming from way too many movie and game soundtracks. What’s going on? I swear I’ve heard it on 70% of the aspiring game composers’ websites out there.
What is it exactly? Using the degrees of a minor scale: 1-2-3-6…-5-flat5:
Elfman’s Batman snippet:
Sometimes people change it a bit by doing 1-3-5-6…-5-flat5, but I’m gonna say that counts too.
Something about that little melody must have resonated in lots of people’s minds. The darn thing just won’t go away. I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire again a couple nights ago and it crept up there. I heard it Lord of the Rings too, for crying out loud. I was guilty of using it in a string quartet I wrote shortly after college. But as soon as I realized what it was, I threw that part out. I mean, it’s Batman.
And, no, according to the Ludus Sonitus Decretum from which I got these rules, just changing the harmony underneath this melody doesn’t count. It’s still too noticeable.
Please, all, let’s let this melody rest for a few decades.
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.