I’m sure that many of you have fallen victims to the charm of writing video game music. Some of you play instruments, others are music school graduates, and yet others spend a great deal of their time listening to the best works of all-time greatest composers. Such is the case with me – I’m trying to write as much as I can. In this article, I’ll try to explain some of the aspects of how video game music is made. I hope that for many of our readers it will serve as a window to the composing adventure and knock out the never-ending list of excuses. Not many things in life give as much joy as creating does, especially when we’re able to transfer our emotions and feelings into other people.
In our times, orchestral music can be written by practically anybody.
-one mastered DAW
-a couple of VST instruments (the more, the better!)
-associations (add for flavor)
-manners and positive attitude (also towards critique)
-lion’s bravery, anti-giving up barrier
-synthesizer, post-production and sound design knowledge
-contacts with instrumentalists and vocalists
-sheet music knowledge
The golden era of Hollywood is long gone. In our times, orchestral music can be written by practically anybody who has a little bit of spare time and is determined. All of it through VST plug-ins, which are mini-programs that make what we write in our working environment (more on it soon) sounds like a cello, horn, flute or piano. Those plug-ins need to be inserted into software of our choice which is called a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) – we can (and we will) do anything music-related there, which makes them absolutely indispensable, like a rifle for a soldier. Of course there are both free and paid versions of both VSTs and DAWs and there probably is no need to add that they differ greatly in terms of quality. But they are more than enough to get the journey started; that was the case with me!
We’ve got a DAW and a couple of orchestral plug-ins. What now? Now, we should… close the software and play an album from a game that is exceptionally close to our heart. Think about why certain fragments evoke certain emotions in us. During their pilgrimage, a composer should at any time remember about any associations which cause certain instrumentational, structural or post-productional decisions within pieces. The drums are associated with fighting, something primal, wild; long quiet strings are a symbol of tension; a trumpet playing triplets is nothing other than Star Wars (half-jokingly here). It’s easy to forget oneself in between all the notes and leave the listener behind, but it is the listener that we are writing for. Not for ourselves (at least not entirely).
Shutting down one’s ego is something that also needs to be remembered while illustrating a game. It’s also part of a different lesson which I hope doesn’t need to be given – in freelance jobs, manners are exceptionally important. Especially when the developers, after listening to our amazing tracks, supposed to be playing during some amazing scenes in the game, will say something like: „This sucks. Change that”. Before we jump on him with our fists or swarm his Facebook profile with insults, let’s remember that this does not have to be our only project together and that they are probably one of the best-suited people to give our music the direction it needs.
It’s all about writing music for others, preparing the soundtrack to support the game.Akira Yamaoka
Because, in the end, it is their game we are scoring. The developers are not composers themselves, and therefore probably don’t have a lot of musical knowledge and think like listeners. On the other hand, they are the ones behind the bigger picture, so (hopefully) they have a consistent vision of the end product, of which part is our music. What if our track is a tremendously well written, epic song that can only find equal in Mahler’s symphonies? Then, we have to remember that the composer is one thing. And the game is something entirely different. We are not writing for ourselves. We are writing for the game.
But before we start our collaboration with the devs, we need to find them. There are so many possibilities that it’s almost overwhelming. Social media, industry events (Global Game Jam being one of them!), internet boards, IT major graduates’ projects… and much more. It’s always worth it to have a business card on yourself and a little place with your music in it somewhere in the internet. Our portfolio should be as diverse as possible – orchestral music, electronic music, hybrids (orchestral + electronic), chiptune music, solo piano pieces… you never know which texture is going to be needed by the developer. It’s also worth it to learn mixing and mastering (albeit this is really life-long learning; mixing and mastering are, in short, techniques that make our music sound good in terms of audio quality).
What also definitely wouldn’t hurt is contact with a buddy studying at the music college. Although recording a performance costs money and the process is not as flexible as putting MIDI bricks in our software, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of a soloist. For this journey, you’ll definitely want to come prepared sheet-music-wise (or else the recording time will be counted in days, not hours). You can always perform some parts yourself (like, for example, Akira Yamaoka in the Silent Hill series).
Hopefully this text will let some of you indulge in music from a completely different side.
There are many, many secrets to writing music (show me a field in which this isn’t the case!). Thus, we could write and write all about it, delving into smaller and smaller details and touching upon newer and newer aspects of the job. Hopefully this text will let some of you indulge in music from a completely different side; not only as a listener anymore, but also as a creator. It would be amazing – there will never be enough of good soundtracks.