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Tips and curiosities from computer games music, part 2

Tips and curiosities from computer games music, part 2

By: Piotr Koczewski


Polish – Lithuanian Connection

Now I would like to share some of my personal experience, summarizing in a few paragraphs my achievements as the composer (hope it may serve as an inspiration for some of you). In May I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on music making and on sound to the Lithuanian students. I started by playing live some of the music from a Modern Warfare 2 trailer. Then I showed the notation for the winds section of my own piece “Dust of War”. Having finished the piece, I was astounded to get an applause from the audience. It was quite a surprise. Well, I was so tired that I seriously considered the possibility that it was merely a hallucination. Apart from that, I did not really expect the piece I presented to be inspiring for people of my generation. Then I created a 30-second tune from scratch in about 5 minutes, explaining all the time what instruments I was playing. I got another round of applause when I saved the music as an mp3 file and replayed it. I also answered some questions, for example about how long I had been composing, or if I had had any formal training (I said I had had not, which got me another round of applause). I finished with an animation by Aleksander Wasilewski with my music (which was received with laughter rather than fear).


Piotr Koczewski and Latvian Translator

My Polish connection came during a business trip to Wroclaw (I was negotiating with an investor about an MMORPG), which I used as an occasion to meet my fellow composer Piotr Szwach. We spent time until 5 am composing war game music, discussing about equipment, music, computers and exchanging experience. I think both of us learned something new.


From Independent projects to AAA games

If you ever get an e-mail asking you to make a sample of music for an “AAA” game teaser, enjoy the very fact that you were contacted (even if they have to postpone publishing the teaser trailer for technical reasons), because a lot of musicians dream of cooperating with big companies that work on large-scale projects.

At the beginning, I’ve treated my adventure with music as a hobby, something like Sunday fishing at my favourite lake. After some time of distributing my tracks to friends, I’ve noticed that they like my work, what’s more – one of them persuaded me to create my own album (to my own surprise it got high rates and good reviews). The initial problem with creating music was: Who will listen to it? And at some point you realise that someone is actually listening to your music – and what is even more – he is willing to pay for it!

Take advantage of every day to learn something new. After finishing work recall your music. If you can do it and you remember it – congratulations! It’s one of major keys to success in video game music creation.

However, before you decide that your work is hundred percent finished and ready, listen to it a few more times. If you don’t have any objections after that, you can send it to your publisher or boss. Usually, the next day after recording you can hear your shortcomings – it’s a normal sign of creativity, all it means that you strive for perfection!

Learn what ASAP is!

If your employer expects you to do a music track, and in the conversation, or an e-mail, he uses an acronym of ASAP (as soon as possible, in case you did not know), then focus on the recording (even if the mess in your kitchen resembles that from the movie “7” and there is a family meeting tomorrow). By sending even a sample of the tune (1 minute) you will calm the nerves of your boss, who wants nothing more than to yell “Jetson, you`re Fired!”.

The Power of Marketing

It is a good idea to appear on expos, conferences and meetings related to Game Development and presenting yourself, spreading your business card or demo CDs (in my case, several free singles from my Wasteland Theme album increased the interest in me). Therefore you should stay in touch with your old team, employers and companies, because someday you may receive a call / an e-mail with a job offer. In game development, as a rule, clients are working with people they remember, and with whom they had no problems during the cooperation (the more contacts you establish, the greater chances of employment you have). It’s highly probable that some past occupation will result in a contract for another game in the future. Even if you had submitted an application, and you didn’t get a job because they took someone else, it does not mean that they will not call you again in a few months, because they remembered you and your savoir-vivre). Be open to constructive criticism (and be critical of yourself). Never be afraid to alter or add some instruments to your track, even if you’ve been working on it for three days. Learn something new every day. Experiment with instruments. Creating the “Little Boy” track, related to the 6th of August 1945 (nuclear attack on Hiroshima), I was wondering how to capture the character of that event using only orchestra. When I was choosing suitable instruments, Bass Wagner’s Drum caught my attention (I used the sound of scraping and light, long beats for the sound of the shockwave).

There is another thing that I discovered creating the WWII music. French horns played long, depending on the velocity, can imitate an Air Raid Siren Sound. A few months ago I racked my brains on how James Hannigan created the electronic background effect in “Yoriko Theme”. After an hour of experimenting with effects and rhythm of the instrument called shaker, I finally found out how to record something closely resembling the original song. Not only did I find a good way to create background music, but also discovered how to make the sounds of futuristic computers.

For about five years I have been devoting myself to an ongoing effort of boosting my keyboard skills, expanding my knowledge of orchestra articulation, and continuously developing information technology. After so many years of working with music, I finally became a recognizable person in the game industry (but before I achieved my present status, I had gathered experience in amateur projects). Professionals from all around the world write to me and invite me to music expos. One very motivating thing for me was the positive opinion about my music, which came from a western musician who creates music for commercials and AAA games. As I already mentioned, I once had the chance to create the music for a teaser trailer of an AAA game. Then, after a few months, I got one more such offer – for the E3 expo too! By the end of May, I was to create the soundtrack for a teaser trailer for Afterfall Insanity, which meant I had to meet the team in a studio to discuss the music. E3 – this acronym left me sleepless for days. Even though I did not make it in time for the presentation (someone else had to fill in for me), I created a few versions of the music for the teaser trailer, which served as my demo reel.


The making of Afterfall Insanity Trailer Music

It is also a very pleasant feeling to receive good reviews of your work from the project manager. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from the head of the Russian game project PostWorld that after their last meeting they decided that they had to have my music at any cost. For an unbelievable moment I felt like I was the new Hans Zimmer. When strangers ask me what I do for living, I proudly answer: “I create music for computer games” (so far I have not discovered why there is always a slight expression of surprise on their faces).


 Post-World Unity Engine and Gameplay Screenshot


Piotr Koczewski`s Home Studio

When I play games I sometimes add my own music in my head. Some ideas I write down as notes, for the future use. A few years ago I was supposed to create music for a Space Opera comic. Unfortunately, the piece, which I thought was perfect for it, was rejected. However, a few years later it found its place in another project.

Finally, a few pieces of advice from me: listen to music as much as you can. After some time you will start recognizing instruments and be able to place them on the world map. As for the most important advice, which served me well in the music design (changed the way I work) and life in general – spend money to develop, not to impress (Michael Dell). After a few years of work I try to overcome my own limitations. For example, I created a 13-minute piece (inspired by Modern Warfare 2) for my second Wasteland Theme album. Remember to sign up on portals like Linkedin, Myspace, Reverbnation and to create your own homepage and keep it up to date. In the future, in order to protect your music copyrights, you should register a copyright for your tracks in organizations such as PRS (Europe) or similar. Remember to create your web page portfolio and keep it updated.

I hope that my tips will be helpful, and we will meet at the Video Games Live concert this year.

You may also want to read part 1 of this article.


About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website


Maximizing composer agreements for the mutual benefit of composer and company

Maximizing composer agreements for the mutual benefit of composer and company

Kole has written a nice article for our site, about how composers of original music for games, apps, TV and more can maximize their income and benefits of working under contract with a production company. In this article he shares several ideas and methods for setting up agreements that are mutually beneficial for composer and company alike. Click here to read: Maximizing composer agreements.

Interactive Music in Videogames: We look at the options, the methods and the impact

Interactive Music in Videogames: We look at the options, the methods and the impact

By West B. Latta

Whether you’re a game developer, game player, or carry only passing interest, it is plain to see the growth and advancement of the video game industry over the past decade. Robust graphics systems, ample disc space, bountiful system memory, and dedicated DSP have all become increasingly common on today’s game platforms.

While this continues to drive the look, feel, gameplay, and sound of games, it can be said that, to a large degree, high-profile, large budget games have increasingly looked to film as their benchmark for quality. Achieving a true ‘cinematic’ feel to a game seems to be the hallmark of what we now consider ‘AAA’ games.

As game technology progresses, it is useful to look at not only the ways in which the technological aspects have improved, but also how design and artistic approaches have changed in relation to changing technology. With regards to music, what is it, specifically, about cinematic music that works so well? In this brief article, we’ll take a look at how changing technology has altered our perception and application of what music in games should be.

Where We’ve Been

In the early years of games, music was predominatly relegated to relatively short background loops, generated by on-board synthesizer chips and various systems of musical ‘control data’ that would trigger these pre-scripted musical sequences. While not unlike our use of MIDI today, these systems were typically proprietary, and learning the language and programming of these systems was no mean feat for a workaday composer.

And yet, these were the ‘iconic’ years for video game music – where the Super Mario jingle, the Zelda theme, and many other melody-heavy tunes were indellibly imprinted on the minds of a generation. The limitations of the sound systems in these consoles were, in themselves, a barrier to creating anything other than relatively simple, catchy tunes.

As we progressed into the mid and late 1990’s, technologies afforded us higher quality sounds – with higher voice counts, FM synthesis and even sample playback through the use of wavetable soundcards. Though the sounds were often highly compressed, the playback of real, recorded audio was a leap forward for home consoles and computer games. PCs and even some consoles moved to more MIDI-based or tracker-based musical systems, and so were somewhat easier to compose for than their earlier predecessors. Even so, musical soundtracks didn’t drastically advance beyond the simple, background loop modality for quite some time.

In the mid to late 1990’s, however, we began to hear a shift in game soundtracks. While simple backgrounds were still the norm, there was a sort of “mass-exodus toward pre-recorded background music”(1). there were a few higher profile titles that were afforded a greater percentage of budget, disc space, and system resources. This all added up to a slow, but perceptible shift toward the elusive ‘cinematic’ feel of film. I still remember watching the opening cinematic for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and thinking to myself, “This can’t be a videogame!” The quality of the voice acting, the soundtrack – the entire game felt, to me, like a dramatic leap forward. This was but one example among many titles that set out to push the boundaries of audio in games.

During the past 10 years, we have seen rapid and dramatic changes in the technology, artistry, and application of music in video games. Disc-based game platforms came to the fore with the release of the Sony Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube early in the decade, and higher powered consumer PCs became increasingly more affordable. As a result, we hear a definite shift in musical scores, with significantly longer runtime, more complexity, more robust instrumentation and arrangement, higher quality samples, and even CD-quality orchestral recordings.

Where Are We Now?

At present, we’re steeped in the current generation of gaming systems. Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii, and PC gaming have grown to include full HD video resolution and high-quality 5.1 surround sound. Low fidelity, synthesized or sample-based soundtracks have given way to fully arranged and orchestrated scores, recorded by world-class symphonies. While they haven’t yet become household names like Zimmer, Williams or Goldsmith, well-known game composers are highly sought after as developers continue to strive for a more cinematic feel to their games. Truly, some game soundtracks rival those of major motion pictures in quality, scope and performance. This trend has even given way to a small ‘video game soundtrack’ industry, with record labels devoted specifically to releasing and promoting game sountracks to the mass market via CD and digital download.

Moreover, the sound of classic and contemporary video games have increasingly gained mainstream popularity as the synthesizers of old platforms such as Gameboy, C64, and NES have made their way into popular music by some of today’s biggest musical artists. Likewise, game soundtracks are increasingly being presented to the public in unique ways. Bands such as The 1-Ups, The Minibosses and Contraband present re-arranged versions of old game tunes on live instruments, while live orchestras perform soundtracks via events such as Video Games Live.

While it is undeniable that the quality and scope of game music have, in some cases, grown to match that of film, it simply isn’t enough. Games are an interactive medium, and as such, the presentation of musical soundtracks must also be able to adapt to changing gameplay. To get a truly immersive experience, the music in games must change on-the-fly according to what is happening in the game, while still retaining a cinematic quality. Rigidly scripted musical background sequences can’t impart the same level of depth as music that truly matches the moment by moment action.

Surprisingly, adaptive and interactive music schemes have been used in games for longer than we realize. Even the original Super Mario Brothers music changed tempo as the player’s time was running out. Yet making highly interactive, high-quality, orchestral scores adds a layer of complexity seldom attempted by many game developers. Instead, many continue to rely on simple geographic and ‘event’ triggers for our accompaniment, rather than a truly adaptive music system.

While some developers have attempted to tackle this issue themselves, many of their solutions are proprietary. To go a bit deeper into interactive music, we will instead turn our attention to middleware developers. Firelight Technologies – makers of the FMOD Ex audio sytem, and Audiokinetic – makers of Wwise – the two premier audio middleware providers for today’s most popular AAA titles.


Firelight has taken a unique approach to dealing with interactive or adaptive music. Their FMOD Designer system allows two distinctly different approaches. Through their Event system, the composer can utilize multichannel audio files, or ‘stems’. This allows certain individual instruments or sections to be added or subtracted based on game states, or any other dynamic information fed into the FMOD engine such as player health, location, proximity to certain objects or enemies, etc. This technique was used to great effect in Splinter Cell:Chaos Theory, where, depending on the level of ‘stealth and stress’ of the player, different intensities of music would begin to brought in. This type of layering is often called a ‘vertical’ approach to music system design.

The second approach FMOD takes is through their Interactive Music system. This system takes a more ‘logic-based’ approach, and allows the designer to define various cues, segments and themes that transition to other cues, segments or themes based on any user-defined set of parameters. Moreover, this particular system allows for beat-matched transitions, and time-synchronized ‘flourish’ segments. In this way, a designer or composer might break down their various musical themes into groups of smaller components. From there, they would devise the logic that determines when a given theme, for example “explore” is allowed to transition to a “combat” theme. This segment and transition based approach is often referred to as a ‘horizontal’ approach.

A system of this kind was used in the successful Tomb Raider: Legend. For that particular project, composer Troels Folmann used a system which he devised called ‘micro-scoring’, crafting a vast number of small musical phrases and themes that were then strung together in a logical way based on the players actions throughout the course of the game. For example, the player may explore a jungle area with an ambient soundtrack playing. As they interact with an artifact or puzzle, a seamless transition is made to a micro-score that is specific to that game event.

Audiokinetic Wwise

Wwise is relatively new to game development, gaining popularity over
the past several years with its first major debut in FASA Interactive’s
Shadowrun. Since that time, Audiokinetic has rapidly enhanced their system,
and their interactive music functionality takes a ‘best of both worlds’
With Wwise, it is possible to have both multichannel stems as well as
a logic-based approach to music design. A composer can create a series
of themes with time-synchronized transitions based on game events or states,
while simultaneously allowing other parameters to fade various stems in
and out of the mix. This system incorporates both a horizontal and vertical
approach to music design, and it has resulted in an incredibly powerful
toolset for composers and audio designers.

What’s next?

The term ‘videogames’ now seems to encompass an entire spectrum of interactive
entertainment in all shapes and sizes: casual web-based games, mobile
phone games, multiplayer online games, and all manner and scope of console
and PC games. It seems impossible to predict the future of interactive
music for such a variety of forms, and yet we have some clues and ideas
about what might be next for those AAA titles.

First and foremost – we can be sure that the huge orchestras and big-name
composers aren’t going away any time soon. In fact, as more games use
the ‘film approach’ to scoring, it seems more likely that it will continue
to be the standard for what we consider blockbuster games. Fortunately,
tools like FMOD and Wwise have given composers and audio designers robust
tools to adapt and modify their scoring approach to be more truly interactive
with the game environment. As this generation of consoles reaches maturity,
we will yet see some of the finest and most robust implementations of
interactive music, I’m sure.

Even so, pre-recorded orchestral music – however well designed – will
still have some static elements that cannot be changed or made truly interactive.
Once a trumpet solo is ‘printed to tape’, it cannot easily be changed.
Yet the technological leaps of the next-generation of consoles may present
another option. It isn’t unreasonable to think that we may see a sort
of return to a hybrid approach to composing, using samples and some form
of MIDI-like control data. While at first this may seem like a step backward,
consider this: with the increasing quality of commercial sample-libraries
of all types, and the extremely refined file compression schemes used
on today’s consoles, it is possible to think that the next Xbox or Playstation
could, in fact, yield enough RAM and CPU power to load a robust (and highly
compressed) orchestral sample library. The composer, then, is hired to
design a truly interactive music score in a format akin to MIDI – note
data, controller data, as well as realtime DSP effects. This score, then,
would not only adapt in the ways we’ve described above (fading individual
tracks in and out, and logically transitioning to new musical segments)
– but because we have separated the performance from the sample data,
we would now have control over each individual note played. The possibilities
are nearly endless – realtime pitch and tempo modulation, transference
of musical themes to new instruments based on game events, and even aleatoric
or generative composing, which assures that a musical piece conforms to
a given set of musical rules, yet never plays the same theme twice.

Indeed, thesse possibilities and more are surely coming, and it is an
exciting time for composers, audio designers, and gamers alike. For now,
we can enjoy a new level of attention and awareness on game music. We
are treated to truly orchestral experiences, if not completely adaptive
and interactive ones. And yet, in the coming years, interactive music
technology will continue to mature, and we will assuredly hear more sophisticated
implementations of these technologies across the full spectrum of games.
I encourage you to listen closely to the games you or your friends play
over the next few years. The tunes you hear today are helping to shape
a musical revolution for tomorrow.

Footnote: 1 – Gamepro
– Next Gen Audio Will Rely On Midi

About the author: West Latta has been making strange noises for over 30 years. He has spent the last several years developing his craft in the game industry as composer, sound designer, and integration specialist. He is currently a Sound Supervisor for Microsoft Game Studios, as well as a freelance writer, composer and audio designer.

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 5

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 5

By Kole HicksThese articles are not intended to be a master source for everything one must consider (and how to prioritize them) when scoring a game, rather it will be a series of articles based off my experiences with each newly completed project. As I learn from the process, the other developers that are involved, and write about the experiences here, I hope the information will help better guide your future scoring efforts for games.

I recently had the pleasure of composing the original soundtrack to a fantastic 2d pirate Simulation/RPG called, Pixel Piracy. The experience itself was fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for a better developer to collaborate with, so there weren’t really any unexpected issues we ran into later in the process. However, as there is with every project, there were a few unique musical situations that I had to consider.

I. Defining Musical Roles

The first thing I had to consider was the role music would play in Pixel Piracy. The developer and I had a few discussions beforehand, but they were very open to my suggestions, which let me be more confident in my decisions. This is something that can’t be understated, as it directly affected the quality of the music. It was through this very open line of communication that we decided on two main roles for the music to play.

The first was to “set the stage” so to speak & operate as any normal background score in a game. Subtly enhancing the action on screen while subconsciously influencing the player’s mood. The second role was for some of the music to be consciously thought of as music & possibly participated in by the listener. Each main Role was split into multiple sub-roles that ultimately defined Pixel Piracy’s “Musical Identity”.

For the subconscious background score role, we split it into two distinct categories: Combat & Neutral.

The Combat sub-role covered all potential combat situations in the game, both in the water and on land. Here’s a Combat Example. The Neutral sub-role’s purpose was to serve as light background music during relatively placid moments in the game. Here’s a Neutral Example.

For the Conscious Musical Role, we also split it into two separate categories: Tavern Tunes & Sea Shanties. Both sub-roles could be instrumental only, but the thing that makes them unique, and thus consciously thought of by players more often, is the Lyrics/Vocals featured in many of the pieces.

The Tavern Tunes sub-role only plays when the player is on an island with a Tavern & his captain is inside of it. Here’s a Tavern Tune Example. The Sea Shanties sub-role only triggers when the player is sailing across the sea on his/her ship. Here’s a Sea Shanty Example.

II. Creating that Authentic Pirate Sound

I needed to find the very essence of what it’s like to sail the rowdy pixilated seas with your merry band of salty dogs. To accomplish this, I frequently played early builds of the game and had some in depth discussions with the developer, which helped inform me of the overall tone of the game. Beyond that I looked for inspiration in various styles of music and other pirate related media.

Pixel Piracy is a fun and adventurous game, so Irish Jigs and Reels immediately popped into my mind as a base for the game’s music. I love its jaunty disposition and the unique instrumental colors that comprise its traditional ensemble. However, it wasn’t appropriate for some game play situations to stick strictly within the parameters of this style’s guidelines. It was in these situations, like walking along the beach of a new island or raiding a rival’s pirate ship that I snuck in other influences. Specifically, unique world wind instruments (like a Gemshorn), period instruments (like a Hurdy Gurdy), and of course the bombastic Symphonic flavors used in other popular Pirate projects.

Over the years I’ve invested quite a bit in my own personal rig so that I’d have access to the best virtual instruments and sample libraries on the market. However, no matter how much time I spent behind the computer programming, certain instruments just wouldn’t sound as raw or beautiful as I wanted. So I had the pleasure of hiring a handful of fantastic session musicians (Cello, Violin, Accordion, & a unique instrument specialist) that brought the music to life. Their input, knowledge of their instruments, and interpretation of what I wrote was immensely valuable and Pixel Piracy is the benefactor. In fact, I don’t think I (or anyone else) could have pulled off this score with the same amount of energy and authenticity if live musicians weren’t hired.

At this point you might be asking, “But the graphical style is very pixilated. This seems like a big part of the game and would justify the use of 8-bit/Chiptune music; so why did you ignore it?” The answer is, we didn’t ignore it. We actively had a discussion about its usage in the game and came to the conclusion that an 8-bit style score would push the “nostalgia factor” too much and wouldn’t allow for the raw/gritty emotion derived from acoustic instruments to filter through to the gamer. For some games Chip tunes work perfectly, but for us we felt like it was an unnecessary stereotype for the music to follow and would ultimately limit the score’s effectiveness.

III. Making the Most of What You Have Available

Some games necessitate the design of a highly interactive and complex music system; Pixel Piracy is not one of those games. That’s not to say a simple music system is less effective than a complex one, but rather that each game requires its own unique music solution. For Pixel Piracy, we felt comfortable in its system’s simplicity and rather than worrying about creating various stems or mixes of each piece and hoping it would implement correctly, I could just focus on writing a good, solid piece of music.

Even though our music system was relatively simple in that it only looped full tunes & faded in/out when necessary, we added some depth to it without magnifying our workload. For example, the jaunty tunes inspired by Irish Jigs/Reels will only play when your Captain is on an island with a Tavern. Also, when in combat, rather than loop the same song over and over again the system will cycle through a handful of appropriate combat songs after one of them has ended. It’s not perfectly seamless, but I composed the combat tracks in a way (Similar tempo & exact same key) so that transitioning from one piece to another is relatively smooth.

Although Game Music is very important to setting the tone of a game & carrying or transitioning a player through various areas/game states, it is still near the bottom of a programmer’s priority list. This is not because they don’t think your work is important, but rather (if you’re not implementing it yourself) they have so many other tasks to focus on that they rarely have time to dedicate solely to music. Programmer time is a rare resource, so use it wisely; we were very fortunate that our music system could be quite simple and still have everything sound top notch.

In addition to the rarity of the Programmer’s time, I had a pretty short amount of time to write, record, and mix/master the entire score. So it was essential that I scheduled out my weeks in a manner that would allow me to work efficiently. As Composers know, being inspired & writing great music isn’t simply a switch you turn off/on, so when it was difficult for me to write I would focus on other tasks like finishing charts for musicians or uploading the Pro Tools session to my server so the Recording Engineer could pull it down. Mixing up my tasks & staying busy kept the momentum up; allowing me to finish the score right on time without any “crunch” whatsoever.

As mentioned in the italics at the beginning of this article, this is by no means a complete list and I’m still a young professional with many ups/downs ahead in my career, but nevertheless I believe this information can be beneficial to many composers no matter their experience level. Thanks for reading and keep composing fellow artists!

About the author: Kole Hicks is an Author,
Instructor, and most prominently an Audio Designer with a focus in Games.
He’s had the pleasure of scoring mobile hits like ‘Bag it!’, has provided
audio for Indie PC titles like ‘Kenshi’ and ‘Jeklynn Heights’, and was nominated
for a 2012 GANG award for an article written exclusively for
titled, “Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative
Music & Visceral Sound Effects… Kole Audio Solutions.

Tips and curiosities from computer games music, part 1

Tips and curiosities from computer games music, part 1

By: Piotr Koczewski

I would like to introduce you to some curiosities from the world of game music, but before we start, just a few words about the beginnings of game music.

The first composers started by creating partitures using Midi sequencers, like Protracker. Probably the most famous composer, and also the pioneer of game music is Tommy Tallarico. He created his first MIDI soundtrack (completely free) for Prince of Persia when he was 21 (in 1991, shortly after moving to California).

It’s hard to believe, that Tommy Tallarico would start from such a small project and finish in the Guiness Book of Records in 2009 as the creator of soundtracks for 266 games. Tommy Tallarico is also a founder of the worldwide festival Video Games Live (you can find more of his work on Video Games Live Official Web Site and also on his own homepage).

All your Score are Belong to us

There is a Polish accent featured in Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It’s a sample voice – “Nie, Nie, Nie” (which means “No, no, no”) included in “The Mud Remix” tune. This was Frank Klepacki alluding to his origins – he has Polish roots. Frank Klepacki is a pioneer of interspersing movie quotes into game music.

Another example is a quote from the movie “Broken Arrow”-“Real nightmare”, appearing in the “Blow it up” track from Red Alert 2. In “Hell March 3” you can hear a German soldier saying “Die Waffen – liegt an” which means “The weapons, at ready”.

From the Home Studio…

You can hear a lot of japanese instruments while playing Red Alert 3. My first impression, when I was listening to these pieces which invoke the images of the Land of the Rising Sun, was fantastic. I was convinced that James Hannigan had had to employ a japanese choir of several dozen voices. Yet, the vocals used in “The might of the Empire” were recorded by only one person, but multiplied to create the impression of a female choir. Japanese phrases were sung by Miriam Stockley, better known for the song “Adiemus”

…and the Score

Creating the soundtrack for Red Alert 3 was divided into symphonic records (including sinthesizer tracks) and recordings of virtual instruments. However, before the pieces were put together as a soundtrack the musicians had to prepare samples of the music using notation or virtual instruments’ audio tracks. Than the notation was checked by a conductor working for Skywalker Studio, which then takes us to…

The Recording Studio

Mixing Audio with Orchestra for Red Alert 3

Sampling… Sampling Never Changes

Mark Morgan, when he created the soundtrack for Fallout 1, used voices
from the movie “Dr Strangelove”.

In “Second Chance” you can hear a quote of Major Mandrake
a few times – “Certainly, General.Why do you ask, sir?”

What’s even more interesting, you can hear the influence of Aphex Twin (Richard David James) all over the soundtrack. In one of the interviews, Mark revealed that he received an Aphex Twin CD from Black Isle as a guideline.

Tips and Hints from Computer Games Music

To be honest, it’s hard for me to start recording a new tune when silence surrounds me, so first, before I start inventing a new melody, I listen to one of my earlier records, which I personally consider a good track. It puts me in an appropriate state of mind. Then I make a choice from a wide selection of instruments, that will be fundamental in my music, and of course I decide about the melody itself (you can even record solo tracks, then mix instrument by instrument). I’ve even created a whole piece beginning the recording from the end.

Writing the music for an image or story

A good musician should be able to create the main theme for a game knowing only its title and genre (knowing the story and concept arts is helpful, but one can do without them). While working on a strategy game about War on the Pacific, I would draw inspiration from movie shots and photos of battles (Russians fighting Japanese, Chinese – Japanese, Japanese – American and so on). Creating the music for “Storm over the Pacific” took me a few months, during which I learned a lot, because until then I had never recorded an entire soundtrack for a WWII game (Creating something brand new is a challenge).

When listening to a song with false notes, you can feel uncomfortable. Hans Zimmer called it sumbliminal messaging that appears in one’s throat. On the other hand, I call it a signal received by the ears and brain as an in-balance in the envirnoment (hence the unpleasant feeling in my mind while listening to discordant tune).

Sometimes, when I’m having doubts about the selection of a new instrument for my song or after finishing a compliation, it is time for some mastering. I save the song as a new file with a number documenting the progress of my work.

Let`s get back to the past for a while. One of the most popular MIDI synthesizers in the 90’s were Edirol Orchestral made by Roland. You could hear it’s sound in the following games: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Planescape Torment, Turok 2 and Heroes 3.

At one time PC’s had a quite constant computing power and only a limited number of MIDI instruments could be implemented. Now the quality of music depends on the budget of the company creating the game, or its investor.

A higher budget is a requirement when it comes to recording music with the orchestra, but working on your partitures with live musicians gives you a quality incomparable with any synthesizer or orchestra sample libraries. Working on music may be fun, but it’s also time-consuming. The amount of the time spent by a musician ranges from 8 to 16 hours per day (including mixing and mastering). In my opinion, it’s appropriate to reward yourself for all the effort put in the work, for example with a nice meal and a brew (after work only, of course). Remember to constantly save the corrections and remember to use the autosave option. Many a time this option saved me from a serious nervous breakdown.

Knowing the setup of an orchestra is a minimum necessary musical knowledge. A good understanding of it will be necessary for you to “seriously” engage in recording (knowledge of instrument articulation will be a must soon). The setup of the orchestra plays a role in routing instrument channels (left, center and right). The only exception is the position of the piano.

Second Strings?

The first violins play legato (slow) and second violins play staccato (fast). This also applies to the sections of contrabasses, cellos, and wind and percussion instruments.

Do not be afraid to delete already recorded notes that do not fit. If you are worried about your creativity, just move them to the end of your track as backups. I once extracted 3 songs from one project. Why so much? It was simply because I moved unused melodies beyond my track, to use them subsequently in other recordings (when working on a 60 minute soundtrack, every good idea lost means delays in your work, and you can’t let that happen). After an hour or so, save your project and take a break, then listen to it once again. A good method is to write it to your mp3 player, phone or external drive and play it outside the studio (or wherever you are working).

Reset Your Ears

While recording, avoid music of the type you create. If you’re working on a symphonic tune, it is better for you to listen to fast Dance or Disco, rather then symphonic music. Immerse yourself in imagination, let yourself be creative. If you take too much inspiration from some track, you can be accused of plagiarism.

Another method is recording the track on the fly, with nobreaks for silence. Revising notes, mixing or mastering while listening to the track will help you finish the project quicker. So do not waste your own time for making breaks, turn it on and fix it. It is natural to take notes when you create or enhance the mastering. Personally I use special laminated paper (some sort of whiteboard), since searching for a particular piece of content and throwing away A4 pages takes too much time. You can also color-code good notes or fragments.

If you have no inspiration for finishing the current track, work on another one (within a week of work you can create a few recordings without getting bored and losing the energy to complete the tune).

Do not send samples of your work to anyone before finishing it, and never rely on opinions of other people – it is You who started the base of it in your mind. Also, do not ask “what to do” – just use your imagination! If you are away from your instrument, for example at work or school, go further even in thoughts – think it over, what to change, what sounds are needed to be added, what emotions the next track should evoke. Try to put as many different sounds as you can into your track. To be honest, that is one of the things which make professional Hollywood composers special.

And Now Some Tips from Mix and Mastering

Work on studio speakers only, because they sound best (even compared to headphones). Listen to your music in Wavelab looking at a working Spectrum Analyzer and Level Meters. Remember, that the volume of the track and frequencies can’t exceed 0 db. Do not listen to the radio! It usually emits high trebles (this makes the songs more catchy). There is nothing worse than to start mastering a track, with a distracting Macarena or Chiuhuahua song in your mind. It’s best to listen to your music at low volume because then you can catch the most mistakes. You can catch more bad sounds when the music isn’t too loud.

You may also want to read part 2 of this article.

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website