• Matthew Walker

GAME SOUNDTRACKS | how to.

I can easily recall being that young, as in the gif below - playing through game after game after game, and thinking vividly about the moods, and emotions these video game sounds would / could evoke. It wasn't until much later however, that I realised this to be a life-long ball that I would continually want to bounce.

Whilst this blog post isn't an exhaustive list, I wanted to touch upon some key, and simple tips for anyone (in 2020), looking to produce video game music composition - whether young or seasoned, this is a short list that'll be useful.


These days there are dedicated graduate courses to walk you through Middleware, Sound Synthesis, Design, Signal Flow Chains etc, but I believe there are far more easier concepts to grasp, that prove themselves to be just as valuable, perhaps even moreso...



| EBB AND FLOW


Video Games are not a linear medium. There is a dynamic ebb-and-flow that changes with the response and actions to that of the player. These dynamic shifts need to have audio that reflect this - in turn creating audio landscapes that are breathing - living even. Sustaining an experience that feels more than a loop alone.


Take combat for example. You could easily throw in an energetic cue, that displays all the necessary drama - but that cue would only ever achieve one output from its loop, and could become repetitive very quickly. A simple solution for this would be to think about Vertical Layering.


Vertical Layering in game music composition is a technique whereby you stack multiple layers of music intensity on top of each other, introducing a new layer when combat intensifies. I explain this concept a little more in the below Dark Future : Blood Red States video...



You treat each layer as though its one singular track. I found it useful to simply create the loopable track, and then move specific instrument types into groups, so that each can be triggered separately and efficiently. When these groups are then rendered into tracks of their own, you'll have confidence to know that they work as one entity, even when all intensities are playing simultaneously.


These cues are then implemented to engine for testing.


This is a very simple example (if Middleware is being used, you'll have plenty more flexibility), but an effective concept to digest and use nonetheless.



| COMMUNICATE


This goes without saying really, but is still a skill to develop. In game development, communication is crucial.


Everything from explaining your ideas, suggesting new concepts, and most importantly the consistency of naming files - all these things lead to a clean dialogue that allow for development to move smoothly. You have to do 'your bit', as you're part of a greater machine. Programmers won't have the time to constantly check what this file name means, or which is the latest render... etc etc. Be clear, and consistent.


Speak slowly. Think about what you're saying, and communicate regularly - especially during the creative process. It's important to have a back-and-forth throughout the dev-cycle. It'd be a mistake to plough forward without the consultation of the team for input and feedback.


I've done this, and it's not an effective way of working.


Allow others into your process via communication, for a smooth communication of ideas and workflow.



| UPGRADES


In retrospect, throughout my twenties I had conditioned myself into thinking that 'this is my skillset, and I can't learn anything else'. Good god man - what was I thinking?! That was the guy whom played piano, and sang a bit too. That was kind of it.


Now, as a seasoned creative in my thirties, I hold the roles of sound designer, audio engineer, podcaster, sound recordist, editor, implementer, and music designer. Am I flaunting my skillset? No. These are simply the roles that I've invested my time into, to learn of their importance, and grow within them.



There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a specialist in one discipline. Not at all. I am however a supporter of expanding upon your skillset, spreading wider within it, but without spreading too thinly. All of the above roles that I hold all fall under the umbrella of 'audio producer' now.


You can enter any industry with one or two skills, and that's fine - but you'll almost certainly grow at a heightened rate if you allow yourself to expand and constantly learn new things.


The same is true for learning new systems. You may have a process for producing music already, but test this process, and try a new flow. You'll be amazed at the results you can achieve - using the above example where I'd mentioned Middleware. This is a term used for describing audio software that can bridge a more flexible gap between DAW (digital audio workstation) and game engine.


Be open to these new processes. You'll not only become more employable, but you'll prove to yourself too that learning doesn't stop in your twenties.



| FILES, FILES, FILES


So I've alluded to naming files consistently a little already, but in short here's an example of what I mean...


[client]_[project]_[track title]_[rate]_[BPM] - so, translated...


Sebaudio_PianoMoments_TwoBrothers_4824_80bpm


The rate refers to the bit rate and kHz the file is rendered at, whilst the BPM refers to beats-per-minute. Another example might be...


SuperMatthewBros_RedPepperLand_ChaseIntensity01_4416_120bpm


File names are specific to each project, but the most important thing to remember here is to include the most vital information, and keep in consistent.


This is system that works for me, you may find that you'll have your own version of this, but keeping file names consistent in their naming helps so much toward making sure that the most recent and correct file is being used at any one time.


Files can begin to stack up very quickly in Game Audio. It's a no-brainer to have a system in place that aids clarity. By adopting a system like this all departments will visibly review the same files, and know exactly what is what throughout development, eliminating the potential for confusion.



| WHAT DOES THE GAME NEED?


I've worked on loads of games early on whereby I was like "ah man, I want to produce that kinda track", but the fact is that the game just might not require whatever 'that' is. Always think about what the game needs as opposed to any personal feelings towards what you'd like to produce at that time.


The game will have a voice that is undiscovered. You have to determine what is included in that voice once you've 'found it', and produce tracks that are going to amplify the emotional intentions and tether, that the player needs to feel. The immersion will grow deeper because of this, and the playing experience heightened.


Some of the best soundtracks out there aren't always necessarily the most decorated. Yes, they'll be beautifully mixed and arranged, but often by allowing for a simpler composition, helps create a bed that supports gameplay sitting above it.


Heighten the gameplay, add depth to the immersion




So, as mentioned - this isn't an exhaustive list, but a list nonetheless that highlights small things to consider when putting your tracks together, and creating a workflow that is far more supportive.


Walker out.



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