In this series, producer, DJ, label head, and mix engineer, Kevin McHugh – who you may already know as Ambivalent – sets out to explore some of the less obvious ways in which music producers can turn their existing skills towards a fulfilling career. Along the way, he’s speaking to successful figures from each field, diluting their wealth of combined experience into practical advice for aspiring music makers. In this installment, he speaks to four composers who are responsible for some of the most memorable video-game scores of recent years.
Full disclosure: I’m a terrible gamer. I rarely succeed at getting anywhere in a game because I’m so often distracted by the immersive aspects of the fantasy world that’s been created. That immersive world-building is the creative milieu for the next chapter in our series about turning your passion into a profession for musicians: sound design and composing for games.
As musicians, many of us spend an enormous amount of time on how our music conveys a feeling, how it changes the listeners’ energy and state of mind. One of the crucial ways that music can do this is by moving the listener through the time of the piece, like telling a story. But what does a composer do when that story is constantly changing, when the music doesn’t follow a straight line, but has branches like a tree, and a listener can decide which branch they follow and for how long?
This is why I’m so fascinated by gaming composers and sound designers. They’re building a sonic world, and all the myriad possibilities within it. It sounds like a massive, daunting challenge, and I was keen to hear about it from a number of artists who’ve succeeded at doing it. Here’s a little bit about them, followed by some really insightful descriptions of how they work, and how you can pursue it as well.
Kat Wenske is a composer and sound designer based in Austin and a core member of Team Audio. She’s worked on AAA and indie games on multiple platforms, including Age of Empires Online, Darksiders 3, Wizard 101, and Afterparty.
Wilbert Roget II is a freelance composer for video games based in Seattle and board member of the Game Audio Network Guild. He was a staff composer at LucasArts where he scored several games in the Star Wars Universe including Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Wars First Assault. Since then, he has scored Mortal Kombat 11, Call of Duty: WWII, Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, and more.
Asy Saavedra is a Los Angeles based musician and composer. With her sister Chloe Saavedra, she performs in Chaos Chaos (fka Smoosh) and recently composed the soundtrack to Trover Saves the Universe, the video game created by Justin Roiland of Rick & Morty.
Brian D’Oliviera is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and sound artist based in Montreal. He is the founder and creative director of La Haçienda Creative, a music and audio post production studio in Montreal. His credits include scores for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Papo & Yo, Batman: Arkham Knight – Batgirl, Little Big Planet 3, Eden Rising: Supremacy, Tearaway, and more.
What are some of the unseen challenges associated with composing for a non-linear format like gaming? Is there a way to keep music fluid and responsive to changes in the game while also keeping it coherent and sensible?
Kat Wenske: Games are a strange beast. Unlike your traditional forms of media (ie. film, television, radio), the user, or player, can interact and affect the overall audio experience. Every player’s sonic experience of a game is slightly different; they are in control of what and how long they might focus on an experience.
In a 3D, first-person horror game, a curious player might walk slowly in corridors, spend time investigating objects, or stay further away from combat-prone zones. The little shuffling of cockroaches, the creaking of a building’s foundation, distant echoes of impending combat – this is where the subtleties of sound design and music really shine and help set the tone and mood. Maybe as the player moves from the long corridors and enters the basement we change the theme to fit the mood of the new area, something more tense and paced. This shift lends to the audio narrative experience.
We can use the same approach with a stinger to signify the death of the enemy and bridge the music back to a lower intensity track to signal to the player that danger is no longer present.
I think a lot of it depends on the audience and gameplay (ie. length of encounters).
Composing music and designing sounds is much like creating a multi-course meal – you want each dish to stand on its own, but complement the previous platter, and for the overarching ‘theme’ to be cohesive.
Wilbert Roget: It’s important to have the big picture of player experience in mind at every stage in the score’s development! I like to periodically take a step back from the composition and put myself in the player’s shoes, and imagine what kind of music I’d find both surprising, refreshing and appropriate for that moment in the game.
In terms of the non-linearity and implementation, every game is unique in the way transitions should work. For some titles I’ve had simple scripted transitions from one loop or oneshot to the next, on others I’ve had deep, multilayered AI-driven cue systems that respond to many different aspects of the moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s important to design the interactive music system in a way that suits both the game’s pacing and the music content itself – some styles are more suited to layering and beat-synchronized transitions than others, for example. For this reason, many scores are written as through-composed pieces, which are then delivered in many stems and then edited to create the in-game content. This way, music is always coherent and unified while effectively responding to gameplay changes.
Asy Saavedra: The songs typically have to be able to layer and delayer (like Legos) in a way that’s responsive to the player’s actions and the flow of the game. So you essentially create a piece of music that becomes interactive once the player starts playing the game, and their actions instigate changes in the song. For example, you can have a chill, meditative-level song that can suddenly become hectic when the player enters battle. I think some of the challenges in video game scoring is that songs and melodies have to be a little bit pulled back so that they can continue on for a long time and sound intentional, but also sound intentional when they change at any given point!
When setting out to score a game I find it helpful to think about the vision and make sure there’s a strong sense of self in the music, like it’s a character in the game. There has to be something fluid in the entirety of the game’s music, but the music needs to allow for changes that correspond to moods and levels in the game. It’s good to go back and check yourself every step of the way to make sure you’re not going too much on a tangent that steers away from the game vibe.
In hindsight I actually wished I returned more to a theme melody throughout [Trover Saves the Universe]. Instead of a theme, I had a vibe and certain types of scales and melodies I used. But a consistent theme melody would have been cool.
Brian D’Oliveira: Scoring for non-linear interactive formats definitely takes a shift in the state of mind on how you approach the creation process, since interactive music systems can be infinitely complex with hundreds or even thousands of elements – or as simple as a fixed-length loop.
The great thing is that as musicians, we intuitively already know how to do this by default, since we spend a large part of our studio time devoted to coming up with ideas that create experiences for our listeners. Once you understand, or have designed, how the interactive music system will work, it’s just a matter of creating the right set of ingredients that will seamlessly work within this recipe so that it feels both coherent and sensible. My personal approach is to spend a lot of time with the game and really take the time to iterate collaboratively with the game development team to understand what the intent and subtleties are within the experience.
When I get back in-studio and dive into production mode, I then focus on the core of what the distinctive musical sound is for the experience and let that be the inspiration for how I will approach the composition and asset elements going forward. And last but not least, always try to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible so that the focus is on the expression and intent rather than trying to fit according to a complicated system.
It’s no different than how you arrange for a song; you are in essence creating a journey that propels you forward. The only difference is that you might break it down to loopable sections and one-off stingers and either approach the musical ebb and flow vertically and/or horizontally. A great ideation canvas is using Maschine’s live arranging capabilities to help prototype how this might work. I usually do this performing with the pads live to gameplay and it has helped speed up my workflow massively.
Are there inherent clichés in gaming audio? What do you try to avoid in composing or sound designing for games?
Kat Wenske: I’m biased when it comes to my preferred types of music in games. I feel like in the late 2000s, we approached this realm of “music must sound like a film”. While robust and full, I feel like it felt much more wallpaper-like and removed the qualities that I enjoy about music in games. I love unique instruments and textures; I want instruments to have their own role in the story they’re telling! Oftentimes if I’m composing a track, even if it has a more “sterile” purpose, I try and add hints of quirkiness or tiny elements of playful textures.
If a track plays more of a static role in a game, I want music to have a personality. For example, I love the style of music in Jet Set Radio and Katamari Damacy. I’m also a huge fan of themes per region or per enemy because I feel that it really ties a sonic identity to an area or character (e.g. in Super Mario Sunshine, Shenmue, and Chrono Cross).
This is a long-winded answer, but clichés in game audio are “things should sound bad-ass,” “it should sound like a movie,” and “more is better!” Oftentimes, if you remove layers in a track or sound, you’ll find they really weren’t adding much to the overall picture.
Wilbert Roget: We’re still a relatively new industry, with significant graphical and storytelling advancements every console generation, and so I don’t think we worry as much about clichés as film scores might. Some games greatly benefit from a more “earnest” scoring that wears its heart on its sleeve, others use a more cool and distant sound influenced by modern-Hollywood; It always depends on the story and presentation.
In the case of Call of Duty: WWII, I specifically avoided certain WWII clichés like snare drums and high brass – partially in order to keep the story feeling modern and relatable, and also to make sure that music didn’t interfere with sound design in the mix. Snare drums and mallet percussion have very sharp transients, which we quickly identified as being risky to place against our authentic WWII weapon SFX, so I erred away from those sounds. Similarly, I avoided overtly modern elements like synth arps and hard trailer-esque drums and percussive loops, instead using rhythmic solo strings and a generally closer mic setup for the orchestra to get the rhythmic aggression needed for Call of Duty gameplay.
Asy Saavedra: I’m sure there are clichés, but I probably did not avoid them, haha! Since this was totally new territory for me, I was sort of like a kid who was unaware of the potential clichés and just ignorantly plowed my way through composing. It felt sort of liberating, like I was exempt from the cliché crime. Especially because I decided I wanted to have my own approach, instead of competing with what other composers do incredibly already! But it was helpful to try and understand the world of game music to understand the world I was working in and to know what I wanted to do and not do after listening to other game music. I knew I wanted the music to have a lot of emotion. I think that’s IN now, like giving the game soundtrack an insane depth so it totally drags the player into the world of the game. I think that’s dope. Who wouldn’t want to be swallowed up by the product they’re consuming?!
Brian D’Oliviera: Gaming is one of my favorite media because it’s one of the most open in terms of creativity and in pushing boundaries of musical expression, and because of this it has allowed me to express myself as an artist and also push my creative palette even beyond what I would have ever imagined as a result of this openness.
Regrettably, I do see a lot of new composers using literally the same suspect stock orchestral or chiptune–inspired sounds, and usually trying to copy some of the bigger AAA scores that, in comparison, dwarf the example demos in terms of quality and production values. I would try to avoid taking this approach and instead focus on creating something that is close to one’s artistic voice.
Are there tools or instruments that you find yourself reaching for across multiple projects? And do those sounds feature in your non-gaming compositions? Can you talk about some of your favorites?
Wilbert Roget: As far as software, I use Reaper as my DAW, and NI Kontakt is my sampler of choice. For each of my scores, I try to do some amount of custom sample library development and sound design – either fully-featured patches within Kontakt, or loose WAV elements I cut together in Reaper. For example, on Call of Duty: WWII I manipulated authentic recordings of WWII-era vehicles and weapons, and used the resulting airy, reverberant processed sounds as substitutes for standard orchestral percussion instruments. And for Mortal Kombat 11, I recorded a small library of orchestral effects and extended techniques during our scoring session.
Asy Saavedra: I usually have go-to instruments, or things I go to for a specific sound (my Juno-60 for emotional synth swells, Korg Prologue for melodic additions). For Trover I had just been given a bunch of cool plugins from Sonic Charge like Synplant and Permut so I totally went crazy using those all over the game. And now I have a bunch of saved sounds from the game that I actually have been using and reworking in my new pop songs for Chaos Chaos! It’s fun. As a producer, I love quirky and bold sounds and trying to fit those into pop songs so a lot of the Trover sounds actually work perfectly. I also decided to force myself to use weird instruments that were not my go-tos, and would definitely inform the writing. For example, the theremin. I’m not gonna say which song it’s on but it’s in there.
Brian D’Oliveira: Though I now play hundreds of real physical instruments and am able to practically cover what an orchestra does live and beyond, I originally started out as an electronic music artist back in the early ’90s and I am equally comfortable with any and all electronic and experimental-based tools. So the fun part is in being able to constantly change my workflow according to what project I am on without any limitations in terms of instrument or tools.
On specific go-to tools that I do consistently use, I am a long-time user of NI – since the very beginning – and have worked a lot with Maschine, Kontakt, and Reaktor to re-sample myself, sample-mangling, and rearranging live on the spot. On the DAW side, I am platform-agnostic and lately have been floating between using Cubase, Ableton, and Reaper depending on what mood and workflow I have established as my recipe for the project I am on.
Despite this fluid approach, the one consistent thing I do is to avoid getting caught in the trap of making music purely visually, and instead perform and arrange using my heart and ears and less of my logical side. And to me, there is no such thing as a ‘game sound’, I don’t differentiate between the type of project, and instead focus on creating a bespoke sound palette and compositional approach for each of my projects – such as when I spent several years researching Pre-Columbian music when I worked on Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, or when I had to master medieval folk music in the span of two months for Tearaway – that I then executed using my own hand-built, paper-based instruments.
People want to work with individuals whom they enjoy and can see themselves working with. Skill can be built, but personalities stick.
Gaming is a universally popular world, but for someone trying to work in the industry, it can often seem impenetrable and insular. What has been helpful for you in getting into this work, and how has it affected your other creative outlets?
Kat Wenske: The first track I made was back in college. I was asked to compose music for a student project, but I only had experience playing classical music. Playing music is vastly different from composing; suddenly you’re asked to pull ideas from the ether and weave them together into something tangible and understandable. My tracks were sloppy, but the stories were there, and I loved it. Eventually I stumbled into sound design and learned that much like composing, sound effects can tell a story, albeit in a much more compact timeframe.
The ear I had trained from music helped teach my sound design ear that textures have a voice to tell a story.
For me, working in the game industry was not my “intended path”, and I had a lot of cultural influences that made it difficult to deviate and explore what it meant to be creative. At the time, there were fewer learning resources and not many folks whom I could reach out to.
Thankfully, the landscape has changed within a short time for game audio! A few tips I often share with budding audio folks:
- Make mistakes and fail often: As a composer or sound designer, you’re constantly putting your work out for judgement, whether it be by a client or coworker. Understand that audio is subjective, and even a great track or SFX might not fit what the client had in mind, or work in the context of the game.
- Make something: It doesn’t have to be jaw dropping, but you need to start somewhere! Maybe find a clip of a game cinematic, combat sequence, or a character walking into town. Nuke the audio and redesign the sequence to what your ears would want to hear.
- Work on non-school projects: Many times, I see similar portfolios from students because they’re sharing things they did in class. I want to see what you make on your own time. I want to see the initiative you have. Maybe join a small team of other students or hobbyists. Learn how to work with a team and learn how audio plays a role in different ways. A good spot for short engagements is to look for individuals working on Game Jams. Sometimes there are regional or even global Game Jams that you can sign up for online and they might last a few days to a few weeks.
- Network meaningfully: The internet can be a great place to make new connections, but remember these are actual people. Not every interaction leads to a job, and not every person you talk to wants to hear about what you’re peddling. Form real relationships with people, not their company. People want to work with individuals whom they enjoy and can see themselves working with. Skill can be built, but personalities stick.
- Ask questions: Reach out to folks in the industry, but be mindful of their time. Usually folks are happy and willing to share knowledge.
- Have a portfolio: Create an online portfolio that is easily accessible. Your demo should be concise and very clear as to what you’ve worked on.
- Not all composers are sound designers, and not all sound designers are composers: This is important to note, because composing and sound design pull from different realms, but can feed one another.
Wilbert Roget: I’ve always been primarily interested in scoring for games, starting even as far back as middle school! And my fascination with the technology behind game development allowed me to build a network of like-minded developer and artist friends, in addition to fellow musicians and sound designers. Maintaining these friendships over the course of many years not only led to each of my video game gigs, but also gave me a constant source of inspiration, insight and support as I’d take on increasingly difficult scoring projects.
Asy Saavedra: Well, unfortunately, I think it definitely involves connections first and foremost. Having contacts in that world is the best way to get into it. I don’t know how I would have scored the game if I hadn’t collaborated with Justin in the past and already developed a solid relationship because of that. I guess he did reach out to us (Chaos Chaos) out of the blue to use “Do You Feel It” in Rick And Morty, but I think that’s rare and we’re super lucky that it was such a natural collaboration that led to so many fun opportunities together.
I think the gaming world, and TV world, are both insular. I would love to do more game scoring, but I don’t know If I’m “in” now because i did one thing, or how that really works. It feels like a small world in some ways, and I think doing one thing gets your name on people’s radar and then you can use that to get more and more opportunities.
I do know one thing really matters and that’s just putting your freaking ALL into everything you do. Even if you’re getting paid a small amount, or if it seems like a small opportunity, you never know what will blow up and what will be the thing that gets your name out there. So you’ve got to put everything into every project you do. I try to remind myself of that. I think of it as being like a sport where you constantly have to challenge yourself to grow – that’s how you find your identity and also get opportunities that will inform your career and development. Woohoo!
Brian D’Oliviera: I came upon my first game experience purely by chance when I got to score for Papo & Yo. At the time, its brilliant creator Vander Caballero basically gave me a creative carte blanche and told me that this was my chance to tell my very own story within what I was creating. This was the very first time that I was allowed to fully express myself as an artist within a commercial project environment, and it transformed me both as a person and artist. As a result, I quickly fell in love with the medium and it has been one of my main focuses during this past decade.
I would encourage everybody that wants to start working in games to focus on developing a bespoke sound palette that is unique to their project and artistic voice, and use that as the foundation for what you create as your showpieces and demo. Believe me, people will take notice and you will attract the right projects as a result.