I’ve never heard anyone say they wanted a smaller budget. Countless times I’m part of conversations where fellow composers and sound designers long for a taller pile of tools, with the belief that having more means the best way to launch beautiful sonic fireworks. Bigger recording spaces. Better microphones. All the latest and greatest software. And on and on.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit. – Igor Stravisnky

I get it. There are times where I’ve been no different in my thoughts and desires. To believe that having more will help me create something better. If I could just have that new, hot plugin or a better-designed recording room, I’d be able to deliver the greatest score of all time! What I’ve found, though, in my long path of career experiences is that having that extra tool or that better studio is not what’s going to put my work over the top. Where I’ve found the most gains is elsewhere. It is usually in a place where there’s challenge and friction. Specifically, in limitation itself.

Our human nature coaxes us to find the shortest path. To get straight to the result without issues. To follow a road of low resistance. While this seems attractive, it’s also an illusion. If it has no resistance, then it means it’s easy. And if it’s easy, then it means it’s already been done. And traveling down the path that’s already well-worn isn’t going to set you apart and give you that unique edge. Limitations are not what’s going to break you. It’s what’s going to make you.

Dealing with limitations is a call to do something genuinely creative. Limitations are, in many ways, an opportunity in disguise. When I worked on staff at game developer Oddworld Inhabitants (developers of Abe’s Oddysee, Stranger’s Wrath, etc.), I wanted live percussion for the music score I was working on at the time and requested a budget to hire musicians for a recording session.

There were constraints, however; budget, obviously. Creative Director Lorne Lanning loved to iterate on work over a period of months until the last hours when a project needed to wrap and he felt that once we recorded the parts, it would be more final and inflexible. Therefore he wouldn’t approve my request for live musicians. Here were my limitations. A director who wanted total flexibility across the timeline of the project. No budget approved for live musicians. No compromises in quality of work.

The Diasporic Identity of Game Music

I felt strongly that I needed live percussion for this project and needed to find a way. So, I devised another way. What if I could find a way to do it myself? After some thought, I proposed the idea that if the company paid for me to take percussion lessons, that I’d be able to record and re-record myself while giving Lorne his flexibility. They liked the idea!

For the next 7 months on Saturday mornings at 8:00 AM, I’d sit sleepy-eyed at the Big Sky Diner in San Luis Obispo and have scrambled eggs and coffee before I headed over to the small musty beach house where I took percussion lessons in a smoke-filled room with my percussion teacher. Did I become a great percussionist? No. Over time, though, I acquired enough of a proficiency for what I wanted to do and develop a sound and process that gave the soundtrack a distinctive vibe. Fifteen years after the release of the game, I still receive correspondence from people who loved that score.

Long before I worked on Oddworld and Ratchet & Clank, audio tech for games was more restrictive due to the state and technology at the time, especially around memory and data storage, which was quite costly per kilobyte. This restricted the use of digitized, or sampled, sounds, and so instead the standard of game audio was cheap FM synth chips. Composers of the early 1990’s composed for these built-in chips, because that approach took up far less precious memory and storage.

Fifteen years after the release of the game, I still receive correspondence from people who loved that score.

My early game soundtracks, like Microprose’s Dragonshere and Return of the Phantom, were written for these chips and the project requirements restricted my work to the use of 6 voices maximum for any composition. Not only that, but I could only use tempos that were divisible by 4 (such as 100, 104, 108, etc.) and could not use note durations shorter than 16th notes. Coming from a place where I had access to recording gear and instruments that allowed me to create in more of an unhindered way, working with these impediments was initially painful and I longed to be able to create fully digitized music like film composers at the time could. But I was also fascinated by this new technology and the constraints it imposed. Instead of feeling frustrated, was there another mindset that could work in this scenario?

As I dug into the work, something interesting happened. I was finding ways to do more with less, and not just on these “synth chip” games, but on other projects as well, where I wasn’t facing 6-voice limits. Looking back now, I can see that working within such small borders was essential to my growth as an artist and composer. This transformation in thinking allowed me to apply this to other areas of my life, especially on bigger projects where I had a whole music team and I taught up-and-coming composers better approaches to writing and producing. When it comes to limitations and creating new possibilities, one doesn’t have to exclusively focus on one’s own. The best opportunities can be those where you are aware of the struggles of others and finding ways to help them.

The Composer As Empath

Back in 2012, I knew of a new game studio that was developing “Kings Road”, a fantasy RPG adventure. Many on their team had AAA backgrounds and came from companies like EA, NCsoft and other established studios. They aspired to bring a AAA-style game experience to mobile. I was chatting with a colleague who worked there and he told me they didn’t have an in-house sound design team and instead were contracting an outside team to do the work. It wasn’t going so well. The deliveries were routinely off the mark and the producers were becoming exasperated. They were struggling to get the sound designers to understand the direction they wanted. They were focused on all the other aspects of game development, and didn’t have quite the expertise and time to get their sound on the right path. I could see their “limitation” and I knew I could come in and help them execute an audio vision. So, I pitched to them that if they brought me aboard as audio director, I could solve the problem.

I briefly talked with the KingsRoad producers who communicated the vision of the project, and they showed me the latest sound design assets. I could immediately hear there was a disconnect. The sound design was geared toward creating a “casual” sound, which was light and friendly in tone. But this game needed something with impact and weight, perhaps leaning toward a “Game of Thrones” tone with melee and combat. I explained this and they became excited to bring me aboard. Once aboard, I did an introduction call with the sound design team, while also giving feedback and direction. A week later, they delivered their next round. It still wasn’t right.

This transformation in thinking allowed me to apply this to other areas of my life.

Michael Bross

On the side, I had checked out their work on other games. They seemed to be able to do a range of styles. But they seemed not to understand how to give my client what was needed. After another round with them along with phone calls, we were still running into trouble. It initially didn’t make sense, but as I asked more questions, I sensed that their skill wasn’t the issue. Their boss (the owner of their company) had them on too many projects, and they weren’t able to give the attention that the game required. Because I myself was on a timeline and didn’t see this team clearing the time they needed to do it right, I made the decision to fire them and, from there, I did the work myself for the next year. The development team was happy with my work, and helped them get past that initial obstacle.

A difficult decade for game music

So, as you can see, helping others with their hindrances can create opportunities for you. My question for you is: how can you take this idea of “limitation as opportunity” and spin it into something better? Maybe you don’t have the budget for that big orchestra or foley session. Or you are working with a client who works in a way that challenges your usual process. Perhaps you are given constraints in your composition choices that you weren’t expecting. Instead of being discouraged and backing away, lean into it. Find the opportunity that’s hidden there. Run with it. Make it yours. Make it amazing. I’d love to hear your stories on how you’ve overcome your limitations and did something even better. Write me at composer@bross.com and tell me about it!

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Michael Bross

Music Artist. Producing in the vicinity of electronic & ambient. Composer on soundtracks for Oddworld, Ratchet & Clank, Honor of Kings and others.