Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Three Ways to Build a Sound Library

by Paul Virostek

What’s the best way for a new field recordist to begin building a sound library? How can a sound designer grow a folders of scattered samples into a collection with heft and weight?

Huge sound clip libraries roam the Web. Some have tens of thousands of sound effects. New sound pros are easily intimidated. Perhaps you want to sell your sound clips on the Internet. Maybe you just want to grow your collection to use in your own projects. How can you grow a similar sound library? Most of us don’t have thousands of dollars to spend doing so.

I know the feeling. I began building my sound library of with only a handful of DAT tapes. Now it numbers over 20,000 samples. You can do this, too.

So, today I’ll share three ways to start building a sound library. I’ll explain the difficulties, how to avoid them, and the pros and cons of each method.
What You Need to Get Started

What do you need to start a sound collection?

A good library demands endless intangible qualities: ideas, creativity, flexibility, and originality. We’ll look at things more directly, though. What tools do you need to begin building a good collection?

  • Gear.
  • Sound isolation.
  • Original recordings and copyright.
  • Cash.
  • Time.

Your choice of the following three options depends on how much of these you have, and want to use.

1. Do It All Yourself

 The simplest way to get started is to do everything yourself. This means you’ll provide the gear. You’ll shape the recording space (whether a sound booth, or a clean atmosphere outside). You’ll find the cash to fund everything, and the time to get things done.

The major benefit of this option is control. You can record in your home at two in the morning. There’s no need to schedule studio time, or rely on assistants to show up.

And, since you produce every clip, you’ll own all of them. You can twist them, remix them, or even give them away however you like. Your collection will be perfectly legal and 100% yours.

Many recordists on a budget are able to find free software and plug-ins to achieve the same effect as commercial options. You’re free to adapt your home for the best recordings: shut off the HVAC, unplug the fridge, and so on.

Just the same, the recording environment won’t be as pristine as a studio. That may mean you’ll have to alter what you record. For example, you may not be able to record quiet props. Loud, more prominent recordings will work well, however. You may wish to focus on exterior atmospheres, too. Just ensure a substandard recording space doesn’t sacrifice the quality of your recordings. Sound isolation and quality are extremely important for a high-quality collection.

• You learn a lot.
• You improve your craft.
• You have complete control.
• The only expense is time.

• Lack of sophisticated equipment.
• Possibly a noisy environment.
• Takes longer.

2. Record in a Studio

Major cities will have dozens of recording studios. They’ll feature the latest software, and plug-ins. They’ll stock a mixture of modern equipment and classic vintage gear. These studios will be soundproof, and acoustically treated. This allows you to capture delicate, quiet sounds. This is a good choice to ensure you have clean recordings. You also have access to superior microphones.

However, this benefit comes with a cost. Studios are expensive. Research options. Big studios charge $200 an hour. There are cheaper, smaller studios that charge as low as $50 an hour. Weekend rates are cheaper. Night rates are cheaper still.

If you decide to work this way, make sure that you are fully prepared. Make a list of everything you want to record. Gather all your props beforehand. This means you will need less time in the studio to record what you need. That makes it cheaper.

It’s a good idea to explain to the engineer that you must own all recordings. Most of the time they don’t care. They’re selling the space, not the artistic work. It’s critical to have this discussion, nonetheless.
Do you have your own recorder? Comfortable choosing and arranging microphones? Record everything yourself. Inform the facility you don’t need an engineer. This will save a bit more in studio costs.

Remember to bring your own hard drive. Don’t use theirs. Others may use the studio later, and mistakenly use sound effects you own.
This option resolves the fragile recording process itself. Once the recordings are captured you can return to your home studio and master all the final clips yourself.

• Professional, modern equipment.
• Pristine recording space.
• Engineer’s expertise with acoustics, microphone quality, and so on.
• Creative advice from a sound pro. Collaboration.

• Need to pay whenever you want to record.
• Dependent on others.
• Must ensure ownership of files with studio.

3. Hire an Artist.

A third option is to pay someone else to build a sound library for you. There are hundreds of sound pros that are happy to record or design sound effects for your collection. These pros are highly-talented people that will deliver superior recordings.

In this case, you’ll send them a list of tracks you need. You may choose from a selection of existing tracks and “buy out” the rights to own them yourself. The fee for this will be based on an hourly rate, a bulk package, or a price based on quantity.

This is a quick, effortless way to build your sound library. An appealing side effect of hiring others is that they’ll provide a fresh take on sound recording.

There are two issues, however.

First, this is usually expensive. The cost of labour makes it a bit too pricey. You may never make up the costs of two days of artist labour in sound effect sales. You may find someone cheaply, though. That is key. Perhaps you can hire a talented film school student and a lower rate. The second issue is that your freelancer must sign a contract transferring ownership of the work to you. This is called work-for-hire. This ensures you own the creations, can use them in your own projects, and resell them if you like.

It’s important to realize that you’re working with creators, just like you. You have worked hard to create your own tracks, and they are precious to you. The freelancers you hire will feel the same. Most artists are reluctant to give up ownership of their creations. They’re usually emotionally invested in them. It’s completely understandable.

This arrangement certainly can work, however, you just need to make the issue of ownership clear. Tell them you are buying out the sounds, and that you plan to sell them later. Mention this before you begin the work. This ensures everyone is beginning the project with the same understanding.

• Fast.
• High-quality, professional work.
• Fresh recordings.

• Expensive.
• Creative ownership must be guaranteed.
• Must ensure freelancers own the copyright of the clips they are selling you.

Which Do You Choose?

No single option is better than the other. Instead, your best choice is the balance of cash, time, and availability to sound isolation and gear that works for you. Your choice may be influenced by people, too. Are you more comfortable working alone, or do you like bouncing ideas off of others? Perhaps you feel it’s easier to let someone else do all the work instead. Involving others can be inspiring. It adds expense, but saves time.

Be aware that beginning a sound library is a long journey. It takes time to record and polish sound effects. The initial up-front investment in time and cash is real, however it will pay off handsomely over the years of your sound career. Use these three options to begin your sound library now. Why?

A strong collection represents your skill and inspiration in every clip you record, master, and publish. As your sound library grows, it will become involved in every project you join, amplify it, and share your creativity with all that hear your work.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 5

By Kole Hicks

These 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!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 4

By Kole Hicks

* These 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.

In this article I would like to discuss a few of the things I had to consider when scoring the latest release from Ender’s Fund, "Rabid Rascals". This is a head-to-head mobile game with a unique hyper-violent "stuffed animal" type art style where you can take out opponents and level up to get better gear. It’s free to play, so I’d recommend checking it out HERE!

I. Making the Most of your Music

It’s important to understand that before we start, because this is a mobile game, we’re going to have restrictions on how much music can be used in the game. In regards to "Rabid Rascals," this is especially important, seeing as there are a large amount of Sound Effects and Voice Over "Effects" that will all need to share the same space. So early on in development, I recommend figuring out where music is absolutely necessary and how much is needed for that segment of the game to feel "enhanced."

For example, if we understand that most battles in-game will be around 60 seconds long, then a 15 second combat cue on a loop could get absolutely irritating. It may even get to the point where a player would turn the sound off entirely. My rule of thumb (for mobile games) is to figure out the average amount of time a player spends on a certain screen (or in a specific game mode/state) and then create a cue around 1 ½ times that length.

This covers the "standard" situation, but also lasts a little bit longer before looping for those epic battles. However, sometimes this may not be a possible option, as some games will keep a player in the same game mode/state for 5 minutes or more. For "Rabid Rascals" though, and many of the other mobile titles I’ve worked on, my rule of thumb seemed to work quite well.

In addition to the average amount of time a player spends in each game mode/state, I recommend figuring out how that game mode/state evolves over the player’s experience with it. In "Rabid Rascals," we knew that battles would get more intense over time as each player landed shots and their character’s health receded. So, for "semi-timed" game modes/states like this, I was able to build the intensity of the piece over its entirety to help enhance what is happening visually. Although this is a simple loop and not in any way interactive, it can help give the illusion of an adaptive score; which ultimately adds a bit more tension to each battle.

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to write less music than you originally intended. For example, we could have easily decided that the inventory management/shop screens should have their own specific music cue. However, because the player may switch between the main menu and inventory screens often, we felt it was better to just have the Lobby/Main Menu piece play throughout both screens as to not break the momentum of the piece. Otherwise it could get tremendously annoying to consistently hear the first 5 -- 10 seconds of both the Lobby and Inventory/Shop cues as you switch between the screens.

**It’s also worth mentioning the importance of clearly defining the feel of each game mode/state/screen with your music in mobile games. You often have less music to work with and can’t always develop/evolve motifs over multiple pieces. Get to the point, but be clever with your usage of these themes. For "Rabid Rascals" we only used 3 pieces of music. Lobby (=Mischievous/Fun), Versus Screen (=Impending Danger), Battle (=Chaotic blend of the previous 2 feels).

II. Loops and Loops and Loops...

Some game engines, especially if they allow FMOD or Wwise integration, can contain highly interactive music scores. However in my experience, for the most part, mobile games either don’t call for this amount of interactivity or don’t have the financial resources available to license a 3rd party audio software like FMOD or Wwise. So, it is up to us to do the best with what we have available... which in most situations tends to solely be loops.

As I mentioned in a previous article, first it is important to create a piece of music that is rich in interesting material so that the player hears something new each time, or at the very least doesn’t mind hearing it over and over again. Beyond that though, there are a few other things we can do to help our loops sound "better."

Mp3s tend to be the most common playback format for mobile music tracks and if they are to loop, then this can cause some issues. Most notably from the tiny "bubble" of silence that is inserted before each loop repetition, thus making seamless loops nearly impossible. There are a few technical things you can do to eliminate this unwanted space, but I’d like to talk about something you can do compositionally which can help the situation.

For "Rabid Rascals," all of the tracks in the game feature a mostly percussive "outro" section. The natural decay of percussive sounds can work quite well for loops, especially if you write a piece so that the final hit allows a few beats for the sound to fade out before we loop back to beat 1. In addition to this, when applicable and expecting the piece to loop a few times, it is sometimes wise to not resolve the harmonic tension until the loop starts over again; so feel free to sit on the dominant at the end of a piece.

III. Identifying What’ll Make your Score "Pop"

What do I mean by "Pop?" Well, it’s purposely vague, as it could truly mean anything. For "Rabid Rascals," we determined the music style early on and I was able to identify a few characteristics of the style that absolutely needed to be executed correctly for it to be convincing.

The main thing I needed to achieve was to make sure this highly active and "bouncy" orchestral style was articulated with an immense amount of passion for it to feel alive. However, when you’re working on mobile games you rarely (if ever) get to work with a live Orchestra, especially if you only need to record a few minutes of music.

Although samples are getting better every year, I still prefer using live players whenever possible. So, since it was within budget, I hired a fantastic violinist to record herself playing all of the 1st violin lines a few times. Stacking and layering in these recordings made a huge difference. Not necessarily because you could "hear" the violin more, but because the aggression captured from the live recordings "trickled" into all the other parts and made them feel more real.

For your project though, the thing that makes your music "Pop" may not be a soloist at all. It might be a creative way of mixing your piece, altering your recording methods, or something else entirely. Whatever it may be, I advise you to actively search for and definite it. This will help keep your score cohesive and allow it the ability to better fulfill its role in the game.

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!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 3

These 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.

Hello Again! It’s been a little while since I’ve written one of these articles, but I just finished scoring a new game and learned quite a bit from the experience that many fellow Game Composers may find useful. The game is called "Cities of Legend" and it’s a Social Game for Facebook based off the New York Times bestseller, "Legend" by Author Marie Lu (Developed by Wicked Sweet Games & Published by CBS Films). I’ve worked on Flash games for Facebook before, but have never had the opportunity of creating the "Audio World" for an established IP. That in and of itself was quite a fun challenge, but I also learned a few other things I’d like to share on what a Composer should keep in mind when scoring for games.


I. Platform Constraints

This is the third article in this series and the first subject of each one has been about Platform Constraints. It is so tightly knit to video games and the direct performance of your music system, that I’m fully expecting to learn something new on each project (especially considering there are so many platforms to create games for!). "Cities of Legend" is a flash game for Facebook, so I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the constraints we had to work around.

First and foremost, people expect the loading times for their Facebook games to be minimal. The longer it takes your game to load, the higher the probability of the player just closing the window and ignoring your game altogether. This expectation directly limits the amount of music (and quality at which it’s being played back at) you can have in your game. For "Cities of Legend" we decided on three Sixty (60) second loops for: The Rebels Home, The Republic Home, and Combat/Mini-Game.

Another factor that limited us to three music tracks was Flash’s inability to create a basic interactive music system. Rather than spending our time trying to force the engine into something it’s not familiar with, we decided to invest our time into reinforcing the most important moments in the game with strong, thematic music that can easily loop.

My friend and talented Composer, Gerard Marino, shared his way of thinking about music loops with me a while ago. I’m going to paraphrase a bit here, but he basically said, "If you only have a minute of music to work with and that minute is going to be looped over and over again, put so much detail and interest in that single minute that the player can hear something new each time it repeats."

I directly applied this concept to the music of "Cities of Legend" and ultimately it does a better job of reinforcing the game world than a few ambient loops would. It may be harder to pick out the looping point for Ambient tracks, but we felt that approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a game of this size. The whole game flow is very fast and Ambient tracks (in that short of a time frame) have nothing to add or say to the game. Which conveniently moves us to the next subject...

II. Get to the Point

Not all games feature a twenty-hour single player campaign that develops your hero from rags to riches. So the "Symphonic Composer" mindset of taking your time to cleverly develop your motifs in unique ways over longer periods of time may be completely ineffective (depending on the style, game play, demographic, etc.).

While "Legend" (the Novel) is rich with detail and must take its time to dramatically crescendo, "Cities of Legend" (the Social Game) is meant to hastily throw the player in the world and have them immediately grasp almost everything that’s going on. Even if the player is unfamiliar with the world, within the first minute of playing they should understand the following: Pick a side to fight for, understand the function of the UI, and realize how to jump into battle. So as the Composer, we initially have about a minute to help reinforce or describe the tone of the faction they chose to fight for. After that amount of time, the player will most likely jump into a battle.

So we have a minute, what can we say in that amount of time?

Early on we decided that each faction (Republic vs Rebels) should have their own designated theme, instrumentation, and overall tone. I had read "Legend" before working on the score, but meeting with the Producer and Author was very helpful. For the sake of organization, I’ll provide a visual breakdown of how I determined which various musical elements I assigned to each faction.

III. Work your Themes into Trailers or Promo Videos

I mentioned in the previous section that developing your motifs over the course of a game may not be the best option (or even possible) in some scenarios. However, if you’re able to negotiate and work on the Trailers/Promo Videos (and have time to Compose the necessary themes before the trailers are released) this is a good place to do it.

Rather than just writing stereotypical trailer music that would just serve to move the action along, I was able to sneak in bits and pieces of each theme (Rebel & Republic) in our various Trailers. Furthermore, I was able to "stamp" the ending logo with the Rebel motif, which just so happened to align with the overall tone of the first novel (and thus served well as a "Main motif"). I found that this was not only musically satisfying, but helped establish the world of "Legend." This is especially effective since you won’t hear those themes (or probably that same combination of sounds/instruments together) anywhere else.

Trailer 1 (Republic theme sneak in)
Trailer 2 (Rebel theme sneak in)

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the "Cities of Legend" and would highly recommend both the game and novel to anyone interested in near future dystopias with strong characters. Thanks for reading fellow Game Composers and I hope you’ve found this useful!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 2

By Kole Hicks

These 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.

In the first article on this subject we went through three different items to consider when scoring for a mobile game. Coincidentally, the latest game I finished scoring was also a mobile game, but many of the challenges and priorities differed. In this article I’d like to share three of the main things I took into consideration when composing the music for ‘Bag It!


I. Platform Constraints

This has always been an issue for Game Audio people, but as technology has developed over time it’s become less of a burden for those working on Console/PC games. However, with the emergence of mobile games (and restrictions of certain ‘stores’), this issue has once again reared its ugly head... or perhaps I should be the optimist & say this ‘unique challenge’ has once again reared it’s ‘special’ head.

Interestingly enough, the previous mobile game I worked on (mentioned in the first article) didn’t mind if we went over the allotted 20mb limit for 3G downloading. However, the developers at Hidden Variable Studios made it absolutely clear that they wanted to keep the whole game under 20mb.

After looking at the proposed asset list & discussing the audio ‘budget’ (around 3mb for all of the Audio) it became clear that this was a case of quantity or quality. I always tend to favor quality and as the game progressed it just so happened to work out that many of the proposed audio assets were not needed. This gave us room to use a little bit higher quality audio files. In addition, working with people who had a clear vision of what they wanted really helped me develop the appropriate audio necessary in a timely manner.

Specifically the SFX were bounced at 16/22 (mono .wav) & the Music at 16/44.1 (stereo .wav), but then compressed in Unity. Not absolutely ideal, but still pretty good and ultimately effective for the game. Also, there are issues when looping with Mp3s so fortunately (with a little tweaking from the Programmer) we were able to use features in Unity to create seamlessly looping music with .wav files.

II. Creating the Appropriate ‘Feel’

This is always a tricky one for anyone working in audio for media, as the sound/music really sells the visual. There are a million different directions to go in and you have to be aware of how other people perceive sound (more detail on this in III). With that said, the artwork for ‘Bag It’ was fantastic and really helped me when developing the appropriate mood with the music.

Fortunately, the CCO I worked with directly already had a good idea of the feel of the music they wanted (even some instrumentation too!). So building the rough foundation was rather easy... especially when considering one of the reasons they decided to work with me was because of the spec demo I submitted. So identifying the elements we wanted from my piece and other music (in a similar style) was quite painless.

After collecting all of the appropriate instrument colors for our foundation (Pizzicato Strings, Acoustic Guitar, Piano Synth, French Horn, & Light Percussion) it was time to discuss the role our music was to fill in this game. ‘Bag It!’ is a challenging, but light-hearted game driven by unique characters. We knew that the SFX would help identify the characters & realized quickly that the music should play a supporting role during game play. However, during the menu we needed the music to be a bit more active & engaging... thus there was more liberal usage of melody.

Furthermore, although we backed off on our usage of melody during the game play music, we decided that it should be semi-interactive. Realizing the constraints of our platform & the feel of the game, we decided on a simple approach that allowed the music to develop ‘organically.’ Essentially it is one single piece of music (30s long), however we don’t hear the ‘big picture’ until the 2nd layer comes in. So, about 30s into playing (by then the pace has picked up a bit) you’ll hear a more active & engaging piece of music.

However, I would also like to note that our original intent was to include 3 different layers in our game play music system. Unfortunately, this would put us over the 20mb limit, so we restricted it to 2. Perhaps this will change as more downloadable content is made available.

I recommend buying the game to hear the ‘music system’ in action (beyond my normal bias & the fact that it’s quite fun); however I’ll also supply a link below to our trailer, which happens to feature a decent chunk of the music used in the game.

Bag It! Game trailer video at YouTube

III. Being Aware of Other People’s Perceptions of Music

Iterations are a part of life and business in every corner of the world. Trying new things, developing new ideas... it’s how we grow. With that said, I highly recommend having multiple iterations be a part of your initial bid/contract as they’re inevitable and you’ll thank yourself later.

Previously I mentioned the importance of being aware of how other people perceive sound. This is especially important when working with producers who are extremely involved in the process and enjoy experimenting.

On this project I was fortunate to work with a CCO who not only had a good idea of what he wanted, but knew how to speak music (or at least express the ideas he couldn’t explain with musical terms). However, there were a few cases of miscommunication based purely off our different perceptions of music.

In one such case we were having an issue identifying elements of our main theme that sounded a little to ‘childish’ for the feel we were going for. Since I was creating the tracks based almost purely off our references it was hard for me to identify what our testers considered ‘childish,’ as that critique had not come up before when reviewing any of those reference tracks.

Eventually, after a little discussion back and forth, we found the culprit in a Pizz. String Harmony and octave doubling with Glockenspiel on the second pass through the theme. It seems so obvious to me now that I look back at it, but why was it difficult at the time?

Well, the reference tracks included Glock/Pizz. String Harmonies, but not that high in their register & not so exposed. The solution we found was to continue playing the main theme in its original range on the Piano Synth, but with Arco String accompaniment, a Guitar doubling underneath, and no Glockenspiel up top on the 2nd pass through. This helped move the piece forward while achieving our goal of keeping the piece light-hearted and playful, but mature.

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.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Things to Consider When Scoring for Games, part 1

By Kole Hicks

These 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.

When scoring for any medium, our ultimate goal as a Composer is to enhance the listener/audience/participant/gamers’ experience. In this way all Composers are exactly the same, as we want to move people when they hear whatever we’ve created. The differences always come down to the technical details. The technical skill set one has to have when composing to locked picture is quite different from those necessary for creating an adaptive score ready to change based off the gamer’s choices. Likewise, there are different things we must consider as Game Composers... I would like to talk about 4 today that specifically came up (and I learned more about) when creating the music for the fun puzzle game "Box Knight".

I. Platform Constraints

Interestingly enough this was one of the last things the developer and I spoke about, because when I was originally approached to create the score for the game there were two platforms it was being ported to... PC & iDevices. Since there was so much emphasis on creating great music at a decent enough length that it wouldn’t get old and an unspoken understanding that the PC port was priority, certain app store limitations for the mobile version never crossed our mind until much later in the development process.

Was this a bad thing? Perhaps, I always like to take as much into consideration as possible before writing a single note of music. However, since the overall goal was to create a great product with a decent amount of high quality music, the 20mb over 3G limit wasn’t a concern. Yes, this means that you can only download the game via WiFi connection, but both the developer and I think the quality/quantity of the end product makes up for this slight inconvenience.

II. Serving the Right Purpose

Fortunately, the developer was fantastic with communication and already had a playable client ready when I was approached to do the score. This helped immensely at discovering the game’s tone, feel, art style, etc. After a few initial e-mails discussing the direction of the music and signing some paperwork, I was left to create some music. After spending a decent amount of time recording live guitars (in alternate tunings), vocals, and programming V.I., the music for the first half of the game was completed. Confident in my work, I sent it over to the developer and began working on the rest of the music.

Unfortunately and humbling for my ego (haha), the developer got back to me very quickly saying that he really enjoyed the piece, but it didn’t make sense with the game play. After discussing it back and forth, we came to find out that although the art style is unique, it was essential to cue off the game play instead. I had paid more attention to the cool art style when that was in fact the 2nd most important thing the music was supposed to serve. The priority was urging the player forward to complete the level more quickly. With my new understanding of the priority and some arrangement adjustments (plus a few percussion parts), we came to a solid piece that served the correct purpose. Linked below are two short excerpts from the original piece (to dynamic) & the updated version (consistent pulse/rhythmic movement propelling you forward).

Grass Theme:

Original Version VS Updated Version

Also, as a side note I’d just like to mention that the developer also didn’t initially like the feel/style of this first piece. This was mainly because temp. music was used throughout the development process before hiring me, so the developer became very accustomed to hearing a certain style while playing through each of the new clients. Eventually it all worked out though and I’ll explain more about that below.

 III. Overall Vision

As I mentioned above, the developer was using temp. music for the game before I was hired and was (rightfully) expecting something similar... otherwise why pick that temp music? However, in our initial discussions about the music we came to the conclusion that it was important to capture the differences in art style/difficulty level as you progressed through the game.

The first half of the game is much easier and features grass themed puzzles. However, as you progress forward it becomes much more difficult and the grass theme turns into a dungeon theme (which can be heard in the Trailer). Our understanding of expressing the difference between this progression was solid, but we differed on how that would be accomplished with the music.

Since the developer only used a single style temp track throughout both the grass & dungeon themed levels, our ideas of where that style fit best differed (in the future I’ve learned to be more clear when temp tracks are involved!). I felt that the temp style fit quite well for the dungeon theme (as it was intense but not too dark... fitting with the art style) where as the developer believed that it fit well for the grass theme and going darker for the dungeon theme was best.

I strongly felt opposed to this view, as it would take this unique/light art style and might make it a little too heavy or serious... I didn’t want the music to weigh down the experience. However, I always try to make the client happy and began to work on an alternate version. Fortunately for both of us, after the developer had played through the client with the original tracks in the background (while I was working on the alternate) he came to really like the first piece and appreciated the change in feel between each style. This is what I initially envisioned, so I was not only glad to hear that the developer was happy, but learned that sometimes its best to "stick your ground." If time allows for a concept to fully sink in it’s much more likely that the developer will understand/enjoy your intent and have a change of heart.

IV. Recording/Composition Process

As is true for most Composers, the Composition/Recording process often differs from project to project (and sometimes from piece to piece). However, as continuity & accurately expressing an overall vision are very important to me, I try to keep some parts of the process consistent from piece to piece within a project.

Since ‘Box Knight’ was to feature acoustic guitar more than any other instrument, I made sure to write with the guitar & double check that everything would be idiomatic. It’s very easy to get carried away in a song & write outside of what is idiomatic for an instrument (especially when writing for guitar). With that said, I did alter the tuning of my guitars for the ‘Grass Theme’, as the fingering for certain shapes were way too difficult in standard tuning.

It was only after I had set a foundation with the entire (solo) guitar track, that I would then go back & not only add in the other instruments, but "break down" & record many of the guitar parts separate from one another (so I could have more control over them in the mix). Often, I found that even though the acoustic guitar was the "glue" that connected the pieces together, that didn’t mean it always had to be the center of attention throughout the entire piece. So, I had no problem pulling down its level in the mix or playing background lines while a different instrument took the lead if that would best serve the song.

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!