There’s no getting around the fact that a live orchestral recording is going to sound much, much better than even the best sample-only orchestral recording. The subtleties that are lost in sampled music are hard to ignore. Live musicians bring their own feel to the music and make a whole that is much bigger than simply the sum of its parts. There is a warmth to live music that simply cannot be replicated by samples (at least not yet).
And, of course, that warmth and liveliness comes at a price. A pretty whopping huge price, comparatively. You can pay a typical composer $1000 per minute of music and get some pretty good sounding sampled music. That is, right now, good enough for most games and their players. Samples are always improving and, truth be told, 80%+ of the game players out there couldn’t tell the difference between live and well-sampled music. That’s somewhat disheartening to admit, but that’s where we are.
With that said, if you want the highest production values possible and you want your players to really be blown away, consider adding a few thousand bucks to your music budget. You can hire a session orchestra in Europe for around $2-3000 an hour. Each hour will yield 3-4 minutes of music. Even with 3-4 minutes, you have your main theme and maybe another significant piece in the game. The main theme is very important. It’s the first taste your player gets of your game and you want it to be of the highest quality. Though I said most players can’t tell the difference between live and sampled, I would bet that deep down, they will find a live orchestra to in fact be superior, however subconsciously that feeling is.
I do have mixed feelings about sending orchestra gigs overseas. As a semi-professional instrumentalist here in Seattle I do like to see gigs stay local. Local musicians work hours a day practicing their craft, constantly seeking new gigs. They deserve compensation for their hard work. But as a game composer, I simply want to see games have the highest quality sound possible. While the caliber of player in European orchestras is an unknown quality, overall they will achieve very good results. The nice thing about staying local, however, is that you can physically sit in on the session and be much more efficient. Though the cost per hour of orchestra time in a local orchestra may be 1.5x to 2x that of a European orchestra, the cost per minute of recording the local orchestra may only be 25% more:
European orchestra: 3 minutes @ $2400/hour = $800 per recorded minute
local (Seattle) orchestra: 4 minutes @ $4000/hour = $1000 per recorded minute
So either way, you’ll be in good shape. One thing, though. Be sure your composer is an excellent orchestrator. Many game composers aren’t trained in orchestrating for real instruments and don’t know how to use such an ensemble effectively. Composing for samples is completely different from composing for real instruments. The last thing you want during an expensive recording session is to have players constantly having to re-write parts because they just don’t work on their instruments. Professional musicians are good at covering up a composer’s mistakes (because they can play almost anything) but you still want the parts to fit well on their instruments, and within the orchestra.
Can’t cough up that much money? Well, you can do the next best thing and find a little extra cash to enable your composer to hire a live musician or three to come in and sweeten up the tracks. It may not be a complete live orchestra, but even having one live player will infuse the music with some much needed life. Especially for a piece that has a solo instrument highlighted, get that live player in there. $100 should be good to get at least a semi-pro in your composer’s studio for an hour to spruce up your game’s music. Again, make sure your composer has experience writing for real instruments. I should warn you, having a college degree in composition is no guarantee of having the ability to write for real instruments. Ask to hear some of that live-performed music. Time is money. Don’t take chances on this.
So, there you have it. A couple ways to help take your music to the next level. Maybe you don’t have the cash to do it now, but keep this in the back of your mind for a project down the road. You’ll be happy you did.
(this post applies to those games that wouldn’t obviously be more suited to a more adrenaline-based soundtrack based on rock or hip hop or accordion, etc.)
I’m all for epic orchestral soundtracks. There’s nothing like hearing a huge orchestra playing grand themes and sweeping us up in the excitement of victory and moving us to tears in times of strife.
But only in the right games.
Not every game calls for a full orchestra with a choir, just like not every game calls for a hip hop or a rock soundtrack. But so many games could benefit from pulling back a little and experimenting. Especially in the world of indie games where the gameplay is often new and innovative, why not come up with a new and innovative music ensemble to complete the picture?
The first couple of Katamari games did this beautifully. Their ensembles ran a huge stylistic spectrum. There were lovely lush orchestral pieces, but there were also some pieces with almost unidentifiable instruments playing the Katamari themes in new and interesting ways. And it was all executed masterfully. The mish mash of ensembles fit the gameplay, just like the way the ball grows bigger by collecting a mish mash of random objects.
It would be refreshing to hear a soundtrack that had only piano. Or maybe a soundtrack that had classical instruments, but only two at a time. Not every game art style uses the same palette of colors. Why should the game audio style? It really comes down to the game. I’ve just seen too many games with a forced orchestral soundtrack.
Granted, this isn’t a huge problem. But it does seem that far too often the first template game composers go for is the orchestral one. Why is this? Well, probably because writing for an orchestra is actually easier than writing for smaller ensembles. You have an incredible amount of colors to choose from. There is a wide variety of cliches to throw in, ever so effortlessly. A bigger ensemble being easier to write for seems a bit counterintuitive. And certainly, making a fresh and interesting orchestral piece is very difficult. But to throw together something acceptable is a cinch with an orchestra.
Part of the reason for this blog is to help improve the quality of game soundtracks and “acceptable” doesn’t cut it. We want “awesome” or “yowza, I’m speechless!”, right? Originality within the music and within the music’s colors heads us in the right direction. This isn’t all on the composer’s shoulders, of course. All you game devs out there should think carefully about your music direction. Sure, consider an orchestra. But maybe step back a second and think if there is any other sound you might like. Solo guitar? Some Jethro Tull flute and cello? Give it a shot.