So you are starting out as a game composer or you have few small projects in your portfolio and you want to raise a bar. You just got a gig, You feel excited and want to create great music for new game.
So what do you do? You open up your DAW you load your favorite patch from Albion One or Metropolis Ark 1 which you spend all your savings on and… that excitement stops as soon as you realise it all sounds the same as dozen other tracks you did last time. I assume We’ve all been there so don’t worry too much just yet.You have no choice but to use some sample library.
You have no choice but to use some sample.
As far as big and professionally crafted sample libraries are bread and butter of composer’s life, We all have to put some effort to have control over samples and not let samples to control us. I’m not saying there is something wrong in using samples as they are. It is not yet uncommon to have very low budget on music in gamedev. In order to have string ensemble playing soaring beautiful lines for instance, You have no choice but to use some sample library. Also to achieve most realistic results with a sample library, is to write music to strength of samples.
Which means you force your writing to use articulations, techniques and sometimes even tempo or dynamics of a sample library you have. So basically you sacrifice wide range of ideas and maybe even composing skill you may have in favor of having best possible sound / performance quality. But that’s easy or rather easier way of producing music. I’d like to mention few ways to make your music production a bit more ambitious.
One of first things You can do especially when writing for classical instruments (strings, woodwinds, brass) is to focus on writing and not so much on sound and samples at first. I know many composers still like to write piano sketch before orchestrating. This may seem like a step backwards to some but I can honestly say I love that approach as well. Especially when I know that core sound of a piece I work on is based on traditional instruments.
I’d like to mention few ways to make your music production a bit more ambitious.
Once writing piano sketch you may have certain instruments in mind or not, and leave that for later consideration. Once piano sketch is finished, then you start working with samples and you choose best library for certain task. You will often find it requires combining multiple sample libraries to fulfill production needs of composition. It doesn’t have to be necessarily sophisticated writing. Sometimes length of staccato sample can be too short for what your piece needs and it will force you to look for better library just to cover that single articulation.
There’s nothing complicated there and yet it was almost impossible to make fast strings pattern sound right. One sample library I used had nice and quite long short articulations but with slow attack, too slow for that piece. Some other library had very fast attack but overall length of articulations was way too short to make all notes sound connected with each other and not sound like percussive figure.
I ended up combining three strings sample libraries to get little closer to the sound I had in mind while writing piano sketch. There are still some notes too short in various moments, but subjectively it’s much better from what single sample library was capable of.
Combining multiple libraries may be difficult or even impossible for those of You who just got started and possess only one orchestral library. Unfortunately there are no all rounders in sample libraries world. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a need of having more samples. If there is one piece of advice I can give you on choosing orchestral sample libraries it’s this: start by choosing sample libraries recorded in similar spaces, sizewise. At some point I was obsessed at so called dry samples.
Which means that sample library was recorded in relatively small studio with short reverb and close microphone positioning. Idea of having dry samples was important to me because it’s much easier to combine multiple samples when they are all recorded close and dry. You can easily change panning and timbre with EQ to make different samples match with each other and then you can add any reverb you want and design a space you want those samples to live in.
But to be fair it is not that much important if you pick dry or wet (reverberant) sample libraries. Dry samples are just bit more flexible, but also require much more sound engineering. To summarise that I’d say if you already have an orchestral sample library, whether it is wet or dry and you’re looking for another to widen your options, pick one recorded in similar studio and if possible the same sitting (position of instrument sections in a room).
Using synths, even in orchestral tracks is a great way to add some originality. Just stay away from presets whenever you can. There is nothing wrong in using presets and sometimes it may be the only way of to finish a job on very tight schedule. However if there is time, it’s worth trying to design Your own sound for specific project.
This will not only make your music more unique but perhaps it will help to develop your sound, which eventually will become your signature. And there is no better place to start than using soft synths. Especially there are many free options like Uhe Podolski (one of my favorites), Uhe TyrellN6 and many others. If you prefer using presets because you don’t know how to use a synthesizer and design your own sounds, it’s never been easier to learn it. There are many video courses which help to understand basics of synthesis and some are even covering creating cinematic sounds for films and games. Here are few examples:
Synthesis is great when it comes to creating original sounds but it has one crucial downside. It doesn’t allow using or even recreating realistically sounding acoustic instruments. Yes there are ways to achieve sound similar to some acoustic instruments but it’s never accurate enough to compete with real thing.
Recording and creating samples is so far one of the best ways I found to create original sound for a project. Even if you decide to blend your own samples with some commercial library it will still add some originality and character to a piece.
Recording samples may sound complicated especially when You look at some pictures from huge recording studios shown by big developers. However you’d be surprised how much you can do on your own, especially when you limit yourself to recording solo instruments. At the beginning you don’t even need to hire musicians. You may not have skills to play a guitar, but can You play one note at a time, or one chord at a time ? Sampling an instrument is exactly that. We record sound after sound and then put those single samples into a sampler.
Native Instruments Kontakt seems to be industry standard which means most of us have it. I personally use Steinberg’s Halion 6 instead of Kontakt because I find it faster and richer in features which in Kontakt are available only via scripts. But there are many others like Logic’s onboard new sampler or free Hise sampler. Sampling is still a bit more mysterious profession but there are some interesting resources online which can help you get started.
Assuming you already have a computer, audio interface and DAW, you just need a microphone to start sampling. Just think how many friends or family members you know who have some musical instruments which you could borrow and make some sound out of them. Sometimes it doesn’t even has to be a pretty sound. I always say this anecdote because I find it funny and also confirms, that idea can be found anywhere; Few years ago on very hot summer day I decided to buy a ventilator to my tiny hot like hell studio. I bought the cheapest ventilator I found in a supermarket.
Once I turned it on I realised I can’t work on music even in headphones because of that terrible fan noise. But accidentally I was working on a game cue which needed some mechanical robotic flavor. I recorded that ventilator buzz and I put it into a sampler. I pitched that sound down, added some reverb and voila! It became a drone which I ended up using all the time as robots signature in music.
Sampling has become one of my first steps when I start a new project. I pick up some instrument or even some non-musical objects which can produce a pitched or percussive sound and I record it. I remember when I first started working on music for “Scythe: Invaders from Afar” I immediately sampled Dulcimer and YueQin because that project needed some Scottish and Chinese flavor. I wanted to have those sounds under my fingers in Cubase while working instead of trying to record myself playing in a middle of arranging music. Especially because I can’t play those instruments really. It was easier to use samples while composing and at the and replace some of those parts with recorded performance.
Over two years ago I samples upright Yamaha B2 Piano.
However You cannot forget sampling is very time consuming process, especially when You decide to sample accurately complex instrument such as violin or trumpet. So this may not be right to try it on tight deadline. On the other hand in gamedev there are times of occasional wait, which you can spend on looking for inspiration in sampling. But it’s worth it, especially when you think of how much your project and your portfolio will gain when you use fresh sounds.
Another reward is that in time you will grow an impressive sample library which will be yours forever. In fact my routine of sampling have led me to a place when I decided to share some of my sounds and also create new sample libraries to share with others. That’s why I founded Sonic Atoms a sample libraries boutique. Over two years ago I samples upright Yamaha B2 Piano. I was using it myself until very recently I released it as a free sample library called “Novel Piano”.
I’m not telling you should make commercial libraries, that’s just one of unpredictable adventures which knocked out to my door at some point. But if I could pick one thing which improved my overall game music production skills I’d say it was sampling and creating my own sample based instruments.