In a panel of sound designers at Casual Connect USA Aaron Walz of Walz Music & Sound led a discussion about ways to get the most from your compositions. Together, they highlighted Audio Middleware. Tricks, trade secrets and also some examples of how they have avoided the old-fashioned “loop” approach to game music. He revealed, “(One thing) that composers do and that you can do is something called layers or stems (where) you have a music track that has everything in it and then you can strip down certain elements . . . It really becomes staggering how many different things you can do rather than paying your composer to make ten minutes of custom, all individual music.”
Aaron Walz has had a love for video game music ever since he first heard the 4-bit and 8-bit tunes of an NES and Gameboy. “Listening to the game music loop endlessly in my headphones, I knew that is what I wanted to do,” he says.
He hoped to become the next Nobuo Uematsu – writing music that told a story, moved people, and could stand alone as a work of art. Realistically though, Aaron never expected such a dream would come true.
Still, he played games, sang, and played the piano from a young age and even made board games and dabbled in game development. Eventually he graduated from Sonoma State University with a bachelor’s in music composition.
In 1998, he managed to get himself to a point where he could start realizing his childhood dream by contracting part time as a composer. Along the way, though, he learned many difficult life lessons about making art for a living.
No. 1 was that you can’t take anything personally when you are making something for someone else. Sometimes clients won’t like what you bring them, and sometimes you’ll have to re-write or change the work you’ve done extensively.
And sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t make a client happy. Aaron recalls one particular client who could not be pleased no matter what he did. In the end, he refunded their money and walked away from the project. The experience caused him to change his contract details to protect himself from similar scenarios in the future.
Another lesson learned was the need for a diverse skillset. “I don’t really know hardly anyone who just composes for a living,” he says. “You will have to be very versatile to make a good living.”
Inspiration and Discovery
While there have certainly been hard-learned life lessons, there have also been happy discoveries. Aaron realized he enjoyed sound design when clients began handing him videos to compose sounds to, finding it creative and fun to blend and edit sounds that allowed him to “magically” conjure up a scene.
He has also fine-tuned his creative process, immersing himself in the theme, art, and story of whatever he is working on; playing the build, sketching out ideas, and meeting with developers. He says the process is almost like cooking and creating a recipe while you go – throwing things together that work . The more you do it, he says, the easier it gets.
He has used everything from YouTube, to live concerts, to the drone of a vacuum for musical inspiration, noting that inspiration is everywhere, even in the simplest things. While he does suffer occasional creative blocks, they are rare and can be overcome by a walk, trip to the museum, time off, or a glass of wine.
The important thing, he emphasizes, for allowing inspiration to flourish and to avoid creative blocks is to live life to the fullest. “I try to live an exciting, inspired life. So long as you don’t stagnate, you won’t often get blocked.”
Living the Dream with Music & Sound
Since first breaking into the games industry all those years ago, Aaron has accomplished a lot. He has worked as a composer and sound designer on AAA, social, mobile, and casual games such as Wartune, Ravenwood Fair, and Aveyond and has won several awards for his work.
He won “Best Game” for Hardwood Hearts at Microsoft’s Independent Games Festival and “Best Sound” for Aveyond by Game Tunnel. In addition, Ravenwood Fair was also nominated for “Best Audio” at GDC’s Online Awards.
In 2007, Aaron opened Walz Music & Sound as a “total audio solution for sound design, voice overs, and music compositions” in order to do what he loves full time and assemble a supportive team.
Some of the best things about working at Walz Music & Sound are not only working with composition and production – particularly editing, which he loves – but also getting the chance to work with professional actors as part of his voice over work. Additionally, he has had the opportunity to work alongside many others in the entertainment and gaming industries.
One of his favorite people to work alongside has been John Romero for Ravenwood Faire and other projects. After meeting, the two geeked out over Final Fantasy music, singing themes to each other and playing songs from their smartphones. “I had never met a developer who knew game audio so well,” Aaron says of Romero.
He has two pieces of advice for composers and game developers working alongside each other. First, developers shouldn’t be afraid to send over sample references and let the composers put in placeholder music to make sure it’s the direction they want to go. Secondly, when it comes to making sure the music fits the game, simply “plug it in and test!”
Escaping the Loop
When it comes to the future, Aaron wants to see the industry escape the loop static mentality and make gamers’ experience with sound more dynamic and immersive. In an attempt to prepare for this he has learned to use Fabric, WWISE, and other middleware that can help make it a reality, especially as more audio gets internally hired.
One thing is for sure, he believes, “other aspects of mobile games are getting fancier, and so should audio implementation.”