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.
… 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.