Composing the Soundtrack: A Guide to Writing Music for Video Games



Composing the Soundtrack: A Guide to Writing Music for Video Games

Writing music for video games is a unique and challenging task that requires a different approach than composing for movies. Unlike movies, in video games the player is in charge and the music must respond to their decisions. This means that the length of time the player spends in any one place can vary greatly, making it difficult for the composer to determine how long the music should play.

To overcome this, composers use loops. Loops are 16 or 32 bars of music that can be randomly selected to give the impression of constant change. The loops should be written in such a way that they can seamlessly repeat without any discontinuity or clicks. To achieve this, the composer should record the tail end of the loop along with the loop itself, so that when it repeats the notes can die away naturally. Additionally, the composer should make sure the loop crosses a zero crossing, which is where the amplitude crosses the center line, to minimize the click.

Horizontal interaction is another important aspect of video game music. This refers to the music changing based on the player's actions in the game. For example, if the player encounters a zombie, the music could change to a tense and suspenseful track to reflect the danger. On the other hand, if the player succeeds in defeating the zombie, the music could shift to a triumphant and celebratory tune. To achieve this, the composer should have different pieces of music ready to be triggered based on the player's actions.

Lastly, vertical interaction refers to the music changing in real-time based on the player's actions. This could be achieved by using a system such as a game engine that adjusts the music based on the player's input. For example, if the player is running, the tempo of the music could increase to match the pace of the action. The composer should work closely with the game developers to ensure that the music changes smoothly and seamlessly based on the player's actions.

5 Must Know Tips:

 1. Collaborating with the Sound Designer

As a composer in the world of video games, it's essential to have a strong partnership with the sound designer. Whether you're handling both the music and sound design yourself or simply focusing on the music, understanding the role of sound design in the overall experience of the game is crucial.

Just like in film, the music and sound design in a video game can sometimes clash, causing one or both to be turned down in favor of the dialogue. To avoid this and ensure the best possible outcome for your game music, it's important to establish a relationship with the sound designer and get an early understanding of their work.

One of the best ways to do this is by requesting to hear or view footage with the sound design already implemented in the game. This will give you a better sense of the environment and help inspire your music writing process.

2. Avoid Ear Fatigue with Music Length

Have you ever started playing a video game and the music was so catchy that you couldn't help but tap your foot, only to find that the music was only 30 seconds long and repeated over and over again? This is a classic example of ear fatigue, which can easily drive players away from a game.

Winifred Phillips, author of "A Composer's Guide to Game Music," provides valuable insights on avoiding ear fatigue. She suggests that a single piece of music should be at least 5 minutes long before looping to prevent players from getting tired of it.

In open-world games, where players have the freedom to explore, it's even more important to keep the length of music in mind. Imagine a player exploring an area for 10 minutes, with music only lasting 3 minutes. In this scenario, the music would repeat three times, which could easily become irritating for the player.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent ear fatigue, such as creating longer pieces of music or using more sophisticated techniques.


 3. Incorporate Adaptive Music

Adaptive music has been a game-changer for video game composers. This technique involves creating multiple dynamic layers in music that can change based on player actions within the game. This is a great way to immerse players and make the audio experience more engaging.

For example, a mix could be separated into three distinct layers:

  1. Low Intensity: Drums and Percussion
  2. Medium Intensity: Brass, Woodwind, and Strings that play supporting melody
  3. High Intensity: Main melody on Strings/Brass with choir shouting

The low-intensity layer could be played as a warning sign for players that danger is near. If a robot charges towards the player, the medium-intensity layer kicks in, which elevates the intensity of the music from low to medium. If multiple robots arrive, the high-intensity layer will play in sync with the other two layers, taking the intensity level even higher.

Incorporating adaptive music is a fantastic way to ensure the audio experience stays fresh and dynamic throughout the game.


4. Improving Your Mixing Skills

Most people do not have access to a properly treated room or even high-end speakers. Some rely on headphones, like Alan Meyerson, who mixes video games knowing that most players listen on headphones or laptop speakers.

To enhance your ear and mixing skills, it's crucial to listen to well-mixed tracks. In the past, mixers and engineers would create a reference CD of their favorite mixes that they were familiar with, to understand the acoustics of the mixing room and improve their mixing skills on the project they were working on.

Nowadays, there are reference plugins available that make it easier to compare your mix with professionally mixed tracks. One of the best reference plugins is MAGIC A/B, which allows you to upload up to nine songs and compare your mix with them. It helps you understand the balance, EQ, reverb, and compression of your mix.


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 5. Deadline

Establishing deadlines for your projects is crucial, even before you start working on them. Many talented musicians fall into the trap of endlessly creating ideas without actually finishing them. It's better to have 20 incomplete pieces of music and move on to creating new ideas, than to hold onto the best idea for a year without making any progress.

Working on video games often requires more time to compose and complete music than in film or TV. However, it is essential to adopt this mindset from the start to avoid being labeled as unreliable. As the famous saying from Mortal Kombat goes: "Finish him!" The same applies to your music projects. Establishing and adhering to deadlines can help you avoid procrastination and ultimately, improve your productivity.

In conclusion, writing music for video games is a unique and challenging task that requires a different approach than composing for movies. The use of loops, horizontal interaction, and vertical interaction are the three foundational techniques that every composer should understand to create immersive and engaging music for video games.


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