Rich Aitken is a composer, producer and sound mixer who has worked on a variety of TV, movie and video game projects over the years. Rich is and in many ways has always been more focused on being a mixer and producer than being a composer of music.
“I’ve had a long career mixing records, TV scores, film scores and game scores,” detailed Rich. “I’ve written for all those media too but games often require a lot of music so there is more opportunity to write more! I’ve been mixing since 1990. The composition part reflects that I was a songwriter on EMI for many years so maybe that’s where the writing part still pokes its head up. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy writing and composing but production is where I contribute the most. I mean, I get to work with wonderful composers like Joris de Man or Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exclusively a composer…. there are such incredibly creative people out there and I’m stunned at the talents I see in the composition world. I like to work with those people.”
Kamil Orman-Janowski is a composer who has provided music to games such as Warplane Legends, Beyond Space and Isleron: The Rending. Probably his most famous works at this point, however, have been to Path of Exile and its various expansions.
“My vision of music for Path of Exile is still evolving, but there are some major sources of inspiration,” said Kamil. “I try to find proper balance between music from games such as Diablo 1-2 and movies or TV shows with similar setting. I’m always looking for something dark, ethereal, deep, sometimes weird and strange but at the same time epic and noble, so it’s mostly fusion of symphony orchestra, guitars, ethnic and many experimental instruments.”
Jeff Broadbent is a composer who has worked on multiple game soundtracks, including Planetside 2, Monster Hunter Online and the very recent Champions of Anteria. Growing up, he was encouraged to study music by his parents, and loving the music of games like Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Myst, and Panzer Dragoon pushed him towards composition in the interactive entertainment sphere.
“I’ve had a love of music my whole life, starting piano lessons at an early age, soon thereafter learning to play alto saxophone and later studying composition at BYU and UCLA,” Jeff detailed. “I became specifically interested in composing when I was in high school, taking jazz piano and improvisation lessons. The theory of jazz music and creativity of improvising are what really sparked my interest in composing, as improvising and composing are closely related.
Darkness in music is really inspiring. - Arkadiusz ReikowskiClick To Tweet
Arkadiusz Reikowski is a composer who’s made music for horror games such as Kholat and Layers of Fear, in addition to their own unique material like Inner Silence. They cite Akira Yamaoka, the famous Japanese composer of the Silent Hill series, as a major inspiration along with other Japanese composers.
Rob King has been doing sound work in the video gaming industry since the early ’90s. While he’s probably best known for his work on the Might & Magic and EverQuest series, he’s also done work on Prototype 2, Jade Empire, and the Fable series.
Rob’s work extends out from music composition to general sound production, having won the Grand-Prize for the 2004 Yamaha International Music Production Contest and winning of the 2004 Los Angeles Music Awards for “Best Engineer”. He has also worked various film and TV projects, including The Legend of Korra. Rob has also made music with various bands, winning “Modern Rock Album of the Year” for his work on the CD Addictions & Scars by his band Red Delicious.
As a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.
As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.
Once More, With Feeling
Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”
This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”
“Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world.”
Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”
The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.
Reflections and Pushing Forward
“I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music.”
There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”
Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”
In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”
Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”
Scoring orchestral music for games, slamming some Taiko drums under a trailer video, picking up a banjo, writing music for slot machines: it’s all in a day’s work for composer Peter Inouye. We had an opportunity to talk to him about his love for composing, working in the videogames industry, and what slot machines have to do with any of all that.
Being a Part of it
When Peter first started studying composition, his original goal was to write for film. “My first love of music started with John Williams, and progressed through every soundtrack he has done. Eventually though, I started thinking about video games, and all of my favorite tunes from the games of my past. When I started seeing the caliber of the music start to step up from FM synth and general midi to full orchestral scores, I knew the industry was starting to focus more on audio.” As soon as the technology allowed for music to be an integral part of the player experience, evolving with the events happening on the screen, he hopped to it, knowing he “had to be a part of it.”
Getting into game audio proved difficult, but was made possible by attending networking events such as GDC (Game Developer Conference) and other meetup groups. “It really helped to find other fledgling game studios and developers that were willing to take chances on new composers.” Peter also found game jams and hack-a-thons to prove useful, since they “force you to be very team-oriented.” Plus, he made a lot of great connections that he still keeps in touch with to this day.
Like most people, Peter has his heroes, those people that help push you in the right direction simply by inspiring you. One of those heroes is Koji Kondo, a Japanese video game composer with an amazing track record. “His original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day. It’s so memorable, and he was so adept at getting as much sound out of the hardware, despite the limitations. Even his modern orchestral work for games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword continues to inspire me.” Peter still looks to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess frequently as a reference whenever he needs to compose for what he considers the “light orchestral fantasy” genre.
Koji Kondo’s original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day.
Irish Pennywhistle, Banjo, and Taiko Drums
That doesn’t mean he limits himself to traditional orchestral music, no sir. His tastes range far and wide when it comes to musical styles. As he says himself, his influences are probably “too many to mention.” “I have always had a deep love for Irish and Scottish Celtic music. I started playing a little bit of renaissance recorder for a while, which paved the way to playing Irish pennywhistle in college. That led to a deep appreciation for early American ‘old-time’ music, and I still play clawhammer 5-string banjo whenever I can get time.” It should come as no surprise then that he very much would like to incorporate some banjo music into his soundtracks soon.
Playing in various groups, ranging from concert bands to orchestral ensembles, has contributed in defining his own music. ”Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way. Playing trumpet in concert bands all through grade school made me love brass in general, so I tend to overuse brass sometimes. Playing in an orchestra made me really see all of the different sounds a string instrument can make, and really examine what was written to get that exact sound.” If there’s one more experience he craves, it’s playing in a Taiko group, since he loves putting Taiko rhythms in his soundtracks. “Heck, I even did a flamenco-style trailer recently, and threw Taiko drums underneath. That’s just how I roll.”
Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way.
Although a love for music and composing is key, there are particular things to consider when writing for games. “Your music is not the reason the player is there.” Much like writing for film, the music is there to “immerse the player, and possibly communicate some subtext that is not explained directly through the game.” While a memorable theme is very important, the music is still there to support the rest of the game. “Sometimes, I think I have this amazing piece written, with complex melodies, countermelodies, and rhythmic accompaniment, but it’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.”
It’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.
As far as the development process itself, Peter wishes he would be brought on to big games in the beginning. “It would let you be more of a part of the design process.” Asking questions like “what if every time this thing happens, this audio plays?” can help the audio director integrate it into the whole “brand” of the game. “But it depends on your relationship to the director, too.” The possible downside of being involved that early, though, is that the game concept can “keep pivoting, and your lush orchestral music no longer fits the new steampunk visual theme.” Much like in film, there’s benefit to someone coming to you with an almost complete game, “with a list of assets they need, knowing exactly what they want.” As long as the producer isn’t overly attached to the temporary tracks they used, it can be very efficient. That kind of scenario can also put you in a tough spot, though, since you have to fully embody the essence of a game in a short amount of time. “After all, you’ve only been working on it for a few weeks, while everyone else has lived and breathed that game for the last year or two.”
Scratching the Surface
Whatever the situation, it doesn’t diminish Peter’s enthusiasm when working on game music. “I’m actually very excited and optimistic for the future of music in games. We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.” File size limitations will slowly vanish, letting us have more tracks of music in games. “And processor power increases will allow us to have more tracks of audio playing simultaneously, letting us mix individual instruments on the fly.” This makes him think “this will let us have huge immersive music beds, with lots of variation, and without ever getting too repetitive.”
We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.
One of his more recent projects, Minion Master, taught him something outside of sound design. “I think the biggest lesson the devs [from Bitflip Games] and I learned is that no matter how good the game is, or how many people try the game and love it, there’s still no guarantee of success.” He points out that even with advertising budgets, releasing an indie game “into the wild” isn’t actually much different than app-store roulette: “you release a game and hope it takes off.” Peter’s biggest concern is for indie developers that spend years on a game, and never recoup their costs. “I’d hate to see the indie devs start to build games more like mobile companies–where you spend only two months on a game, kick it out, and move on to something else. It could cause us to lose the deep and complex games.”
Rewarding the Player
At last year’s Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Peter talked about designing music and sounds for slot machines. This might sound a bit detached from videogames, but the philosophy is quite similar. “It’s really more just the idea of remembering that your music and sounds are part of the reward.” With every slot machine having a theme, it’s what makes players sit down and start dropping money in. “So your sounds should fit into that theme, and really mean something to the player when they hear them. You want the player to hear certain sounds and get excited that something big might hit.” When something big does hit, “something big should happen to confirm that for them.” He also notes that it seems to make players happy when that audio draws attention from other people too.
The reason he got into sound design for slot machines is simple: “just like the advances in audio for video games, slot machines are quickly evolving as well.” According to Peter, they’re becoming more like video games, “being able to have more and higher quality sounds, and matching them to the animations on the screen.” Whenever he tells people that he creates music and sounds for slots, they instantly think of the annoying standard sounds they used to make when the reels spin. “I’ll admit that I had the same thoughts when I got my first gig with Bally Technologies, but slots have evolved way beyond that.”
Slot machines are quickly evolving as well.
Other than writing for slot machines, Peter has also being doing something else entirely. He recently completed the game Change Happens for a proprietary Android tablet for kids called the VINCI Tab. “It’s a game for young children starring Jim Henson’s characters from Sid the Science Kid.” It’s been an interesting experience for him, challenging him to do more than he usually does. “I’m normally just the audio guy. On this game, I’ve done most of the concept, design, script, some artwork, and edited music from the show, all while managing contract programmers, artists, and animators.” Though seemingly happy about this experience, he seems more than happy to be “going back to just being the audio guy.” Check out his portfolio on his website: peterinouye.wordpress.com.
Rich Vreeland, more commonly known as Disasterpeace, has always had a passion for music. After playing the guitar throughout childhood and his teenage years, Vreeland pursued his interest in music by going to Berklee College of Music. After college, Vreeland interned at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab where he worked on the puzzle games Waker and Woosh. This experience would not only further solidify his love for music and gaming, he would use this experience to build a career designing sound and music for videogames.
GameSauce was recently able to interview Disasterpeace about his background, his experience at MIT Game Lab, working on Bomberman, developing January, crafting the soundtrack for Fez, and his general thoughts on music in gaming.
Beginning of Disasterpeace
Rich Vreeland always had a love for music. As a teenager, he was into “Nu Metal and pretty much anything that was guitar heavy and riff oriented,” with two of his favorite bands at the time being Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It was around this time that Vreeland became interested in videogame music. One of the first projects to truly get Vreeland’s attention was Metroid Metal – a website dedicated to the soundtrack of the Metroid videogame franchise.
It was also during his teenage years that Vreeland created the name that many know him by: Disasterpeace. Coined in 2004, Vreeland says, “Disasterpeace came out of ‘masterpiece’, and I changed piece to peace to give it an additional meaning, in the sense that disaster and peace are sort of diametrically opposed to one another.” It is a name that Vreeland not only feels accurately represents his approach to music and sound, it is the name that Vreeland would take with him through college and into his professional career.
Vreeland began his college career in 2006 at Berklee College of Music and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Music Synthesis. Due to Berklee being located in Boston, Massachusetts, and his interest in videogame music, Vreeland eventually learned of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Game Lab and its internship opportunities. Vreeland was able to earn an audio intern at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.
Getting into Gaming – MIT’s Game Lab
Taking place from June 2009 to August 2009, Vreeland’s internship at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab involved him being placed into a team that, as he told GameSauce, “worked together to create games that solved specific educational problems.” One game that his team created “attempted to help teach math concepts like acceleration and velocity.” Moreover, he continued, they “created two versions as a side effort to determine if narrative had any impact on the success of such an experience.”
“But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”
Vreeland’s experience at MIT’s Game Lab also made it clear to him that music is his skill. “Music is what I do best…, so it’s been a relatively easy choice for me to keep music as my primary focus.” It was a realization that confirmed his passion and cemented his desire to pursue a career in game music and sound design. His experience also taught him the importance of exploring areas outside of his comfort zone while keeping in mind his strengths. “I don’t have any qualms exploring areas that I’m not comfortable or the best in,” says Vreeland, “But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”
This internship proved to be more than just a line on his resume, but rather an experience that would help him throughout his career. “Above and beyond anything else, I think I learned a lot about working with others in a creative environment,” he says.
Approach to Sounds, Music, and Franchise Games
After his internship, Vreeland went on to write music for games such as Bomberman Live: Battlefest and Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. During this time, he learned how a work environment could affect his creativity. “As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want,” says Vreeland. “Large teams tend to have layers of abstraction which make it difficult to communicate with others at times, and to get the right piece of information from the right person.”
“As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want.”
In regards to his work on Bomberman Live, a franchise that has been around since the 1980s, Vreeland remembers how he and his colleague aimed to honor “the aesthetic style of the more recent games by creating music that was high fidelity but had lots of ‘gamey’ charm and energy.” He does admit, however, that he “would have liked to have paid more tribute to the older games,” but was more focused on meeting the required standards.
Vreeland learned during this time that his approach to sound design had to differ from job to job. “Developers want you to handle most of the conceptual legwork yourself, which is great fun, but other times, they want to work more closely with you,” he explains. Overall, he feels that a significant aspect of designing a game’s sound is letting the person with the “strongest vision for the work” lead you through the design. An example of this was his next project: designing sound for Fez.
Released in April 2012, Fez is a puzzle/platform game created by Phil Fish and developed by Fish and his company, Polytron. First announced in July 2007, the highly anticipated game took much longer than expected to be built. Upon the game’s release, Fez was not only met with critical and commercial success, its soundtrack was also well-received. It was so well-received that the soundtrack could be purchased, and an official remix version has been released.
Though Fez became known for its long development time, Vreeland only joined the project after the game’s visuals were established. “When I joined the project, the game’s visuals were largely set in place,” he says. “All that was left was figuring out how the levels worked together, some mechanical adjustments and lots of tweaking, as far as I can tell.” As such, Vreeland and Fish instead focused on how to develop a soundtrack that complimented the game’s unique mechanics.
Originally, he and Fish discussed using music that “tapped into the mechanics”. “It turned out to not really make much sense, so we ended up taking a more traditional approach,” Vreeland says. However, Vreeland pointed out that “one area in which the music takes advantage of the structure of the game is in the fact that the game is highly modular, and in some places, the music is as well.” Vreeland described this aspect as “layers com[ing] in and out and the music shifts as you move through various levels that are similar, but different.”
Snowflakes and Music – Developing January
Prior to working on Fez, Vreeland had been playing with ideas for games that would allow him to strengthen his programming skills. After finding a tutorial in Flixel on how to make Space Invaders in Actionscript 3, Vreeland felt that it would be the perfect opportunity to make a game about falling snow. This game concept eventually evolved into January.
Centering on a person outside while it’s snowing, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note. “In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was going to be a strictly music-related experience, but that is sort of how it evolved as I got deeper and deeper into the code and trying to see what I could do with it.” As such, it is a game that uniquely displays how gameplay can be utilized to create original music.
The Shift to Mobile
Being involved in games, Vreeland noticed the significant change in consumer habits that is affecting all aspects of the gaming industry: the shift from consoles to mobile devices. Though this reallocation of consumers has impacted those that code and design games, Vreeland feels that “the difference between these two is still tantamount. In the beginning, I was writing music for cell phone games as MIDI files to be delivered, so in that regard, things have converged a bit.”
However, he doesn’t view mobile devices as having the hardware needed to a sound experience comparable to consoles.“Cell phones still have terrible speakers, and oftentimes, you have to adjust your sound and how it’s mixed accordingly so that it doesn’t get washed out by low frequency content that it simply cannot handle.”
Looking Back – Lessons Learned and Future Goals
During his time as a videogame music producer, Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has. “I think seeing people experiment and create music that has so many nonlinear possibilities has given me a lot of perspective about music that I didn’t have before,” Vreeland reflected. “When paired with other media, it can really take you places you wouldn’t even think to go, and that’s one of the things that I think is so great about games and music in games.” Though he is amazed by the near limitless potential of games and music, Vreeland pointed out that “there are a lot of times at the end of the day that I still just want to listen to a good record. It’s funny that way.”
Vreeland is currently working on other several projects, with the next game to be released featuring his music being Cannon Brawl. In addition to making games, Vreeland wants to continue to develop his potential as a musician. “I really want to explore some different spaces, work my way into areas that are not all necessarily game related,” says Vreeland. “I really want to make some traditional albums, because it’s something I’ve been flirting with for years but have never done.” He has also become interested in scoring, an interest he describes as “refreshing and requires an entirely different set of parameters to accomplish.” Overall, though Vreeand doesn’t know exactly where his love of music will take him, he does know what he wants: “to be doing music-related things for a long, long time.”
Penka Kouneva was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she began piano lessons at an early age, and wrote music for children’s theater as a teenager. In 1990, she arrived in the US to study composition at Duke University on a graduate fellowship. In 1999, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her career as a composer for film, and eventually expanded into video games. Kouneva has composed on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Gears of War 3 games, and has orchestrated for the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean films, on Angels and Demons, and most recently, as a Lead orchestrator on Sony’s Elysium. Her game orchestration credits include World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Diablo III. Last year, Penka released an artist album with orchestral music titled A Warrior’s Odyssey available on iTunes and Amazon.com.
Nicholas Yanes: According to IMDB, you started working in the entertainment industry in 1999. What inspired you to want to pursue this career?
Penka Kouneva: I arrived in LA in 1999. I love collaborating with other creative artists, and have loved film since childhood. Scoring for media felt like the most natural vocation for me, since my music is evocative and dramatic. I was very passionate about becoming a film composer. I still am, but my heart these days is in games. I find game scoring to be more energizing and inspiring.
Lots of people want to have careers in entertainment, what do you think you did right to make it in your field? Did formal education help you?
Formal education is essential, in my opinion. I came to LA recommended very highly by my Duke mentors, and my first mentor in LA was the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams who is also a Duke alum. I connected with busy professionals right away. In 2000, I met my other most significant mentor, Bruce Fowler, Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator. It was not until 2004 that Bruce started giving me jobs. He also introduced me to Steve Jablonsky who later plugged me in on Transformers films and games, Gears of War 2 and 3 and on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, for which I composed 2 hours of game music.
As to what I did right…I have always been extremely passionate, devoted, hard-working and loyal to my clients. The hard work on a great variety of projects allowed me to develop great skills. I am also very proactive, stay in touch with my collaborators, foster new relationships. I am a good collaborator and try to be always positive and constructive, even in the heat of the battle.
To me, it seems that working as a composer on a film means creating an audio environment that adds to the narrative experience. What does being a composer mean to you?
My job is to support the vision of the game makers (or filmmakers) by creating an environment of music and sound to support the characters, emotions, genre and, most importantly, the story. I breathe life into the images and add emotional depth to the story. With my music, I make the audience or the gamers feel deeply, laugh, cry, connect with the film or game and remember viscerally the experience of watching or playing.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered while being a composer for a film? For instance, was there ever a time you felt that the music should be significantly different from what the director wanted?
“To understand the director’s vision and support their vision, it sometimes takes more than one conversation.”
I work hard to understand the director’s vision and support their vision. Sometimes it takes more than one conversation, especially if they are unsure, or willing to explore various ideas. Usually good, open communication solves all problems. Composers learn to ask insightful questions of their collaborators. I ask a lot of questions, take notes and then think about it.
Your LinkedIn profile states you worked on the 2002 videogame, Enter the Matrix. Why did you decide to begin working on videogames?
Actually, I became really passionate about games a bit later, with us getting a PS2, then PS3 and Xbox. The game narratives and visuals were stunning, the stories were engaging and the music was fantastic – inspired, ground-breaking and fun. The turning point for me was the BioShock games, Uncharted 2, and Gears of War 2. I decided to devote my full focus to games. I had never before felt so energized and inspired as I felt by these games. Enter the Matrix was a very complicated job, and my task was to support the composers on it. I didn’t play it until later.
Most people simply watch a movie from start to finish, but with videogames, there is the expectation that players will fail a level at first and have to replay a section of the game multiple times. Does this affect how you approach composing for videogames?
Yes, it very much affects the interactive (dynamic) design of the music. The score has many elements (Drums, low strings, melodies, embellishments) and each layer is combined with various elements on consecutive plays, so that there is some difference and it’s not totally repetitive. I remember once playing Modern Warfare 2 and got stuck on a level for 2 weeks, and the same music kept playing over and over again.
I can’t imagine composing music for a film and not watching the movie. How many times do you play a videogame in order to get sense of how the music should be developed?
Usually I receive concept art, characters, some early prototypes (stick figures and grey blobby 2D figures, with no color, no movement). On GOW3, we did receive animation (for the cinematics) but no one moved their hands or feet, they were just floating. I can imagine quite well how the animation would look in its final rendition. I also love art, architecture and design, so I am very visually oriented composer.
I’ve never felt inhibited by lack of moving picture. Usually the music is implemented before the game is playable, so I get “level walkthroughs” but never play the game myself while composing. My composing process is all based upon a combination of images, prototypes, written briefs about the story, and conversations about concepts, style, tone and ideas with my collaborators.
On this note, what are some differences between composing for videogames and for movies? In your experience, do the industrial differences between games and movies impact your work?
The similarities are being able to write great themes, to support characters and genre, and to create a sonic imprint for the world of the game or film. This is where the similarities end. While in film, all the music is composed to picture, in games, only the cinematics are composed to picture. The rest of the score is based on the concepts and function of the music. The score is delivered with a high degree of technical rigor – in stems, in 2 or 3-minute loops, in stingers, themes, variations. We receive incredibly detailed audio briefs that list 100’s of bits and pieces of music that are needed by the game. Then we have to deliver with utmost technical precision.
While I’m sure you’re proud of all your work, have there been some games that have stood out the most to you?
Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands (PS3, Xbox, PC) was my break-through job and my most cherished experience, because I was able to combine my Bulgarian background and deep knowledge of Eastern music with knowing the epic Hollywood sound. I also loved composing on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a few big battle pieces and right now, I love the iOS games I am scoring (one Medieval and another exploration game).
There have been several debates about if videogames are becoming too cinematic. However, these discussions are usually about a game’s visuals. Why do you think gamers are more willingly to accept movie quality sound effects, but struggle with movie-like scenes?
In my opinion, some games benefit from being more cinematic (most console games like Uncharted, which is a very cinematic game). On another hand, other games have absolutely no need to be cinematic (e.g., platformers, experimental games). Probably gamers want to feel that gameplay is distinctive and different than sitting on your sofa watching a movie. I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.
“I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.”
With more and more games being developed for cell phones and other mobile devices that lack the sound systems found in theaters or houses, how do you think sound develop for games will be affected?
Well, most iOS games have slightly less elaborate and complex scores anyway. I think the quality of earphones is pretty advanced. We are all required to submit stereo mixes for iOS games, not super-complicated stems as for console games which are mixed in “surround sound.”
Penka Kouneva is currently working on two iPhone games – Rollers of the Realm and Black Hole Explorer, via Indie Game Audio based in Toronto (and her collaborative partners) and another which she’ll announce when it’s released.
The game industry, much like Hollywood, is a wonderful melting pot of influences, creativity and talent. Just like film, inspiration to embark on a career in games typically finds its origin in a passionate appreciation for the work of veteran talent that came before you. Such is the case for Aaron Walz, co-founder, composer and sound designer at Game Audio Alliance. His work now spans close to 100 games – largely centered on the mobile, social and casual games space.
Getting Started Early
Aaron originally embraced composing game music at the tender age of 10, when he combined structured piano lessons with a love for game melodies: notably the work of classic Japanese game composers on the NES and Gameboy. He would meticulously learn the tunes by ear and teach himself the basics of MIDI sequencing in the years ahead. Although passionate and ever-expanding his skills, it wasn’t until college that Aaron truly seized upon the notion of making a living out of game music composition.
“I started composing as a freelancer for games while in college, around 1997-1998. I had made a website where I posted game tunes that I sequenced in MIDI by ear, as well as my own original game songs, and some indie companies started hiring me for work,” Aaron tells Gamesauce.
It’s all about the contacts and reputation you acquire along the way
Regarding his transition into the casual games space, Aaron essentially moved with the industry as it matured through the years – carving out his own niche in the process. “Back then there were no Casual Games or Mobile games, so it was PC and Mac retail, or freeware and shareware. I followed the industry as it became Casual, Downloadable, Social, and Mobile. As far as transitioning, it’s all about the contacts and reputation you acquire along the way, and having constant marketing, web and social media presence, or public speaking and interviews.”
Always strive to better yourself
This spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship has clearly been a driving force for Aaron, but he’s also a firm believer in hard work, industry awareness, and mastering the tools of the trade. For sound design and audio engineering students on the cusp of launching a career in the field, Aaron outlines some very specific “self-help” tips and goals for aspiring pros.
“Knowing how to be a recording engineer, reading lots of industry books and articles, playing with new samples all the time, knowing your music theory, performing music – these are all general and vital. All-around computer chops are also a must. Your role as sound designer won’t involve much programming, though, not these days in this space. Of course Protools, and being familiar with Sonar, Cubase, etcetera, helps, and playing lots of games for all sorts of platforms, keeping up on the game charts, owning lots of devices – and knowing them well.”
As Aaron knows all too well, however, a winning personality is just as crucial to success in this industry as the most rigorous of formal education and training. Thanks to his previous work as a Human Resources Director and the associated expertise in leadership training and business law, Aaron is able to evoke a truly collaborative work ethic and company culture when managing relationships at Walz Music & Sound, and most recently at Game Audio Alliance.
Be creative, but stay true to yourself
Aaron values the versatility of an artist and their ability to remain open, fluid, and flexible in all stages of the development process, yet it’s also essential for a budding sound designer or composer to stay true to themselves when seeking employment opportunities in game audio – especially when pushing their own demo reels.
“You should always be yourself. Don’t submit something that isn’t who you are and what you can do. That being said, don’t limit yourself by thinking you can’t learn how to write in other styles as well. Do the work, practice, and produce something different that is quality. If you can’t do that, then don’t put sub-par stuff on your demo. It won’t pay off, and it isn’t representative of your sound.”
Aaron continues: “Keeping that unique sound that is yours is important, and I wouldn’t put anything non-game style on there. As far as foley and sound design, that’s most useful with images, otherwise don’t waste your audio time with much of it unless it is amazing and very much your strong suit. The same applies to voiceover demos.”
The allure of trendy gear
The better you know gear, software and samplers, the more you can pull out of it, and the more quickly you can create work
Historically, aspiring audio pros have never had as much access to affordable sound production software and gear as one can find now. The occasional pitfall of today’s splendid access to sound design tools is that new audio people sometimes surround themselves with stacks of trendy gear and devices without necessarily mastering any one of them. Would a hopeful audio professional be better off dabbling in a wide spectrum of tools, or isolating and mastering just a select handful?
“Both? The better you know gear, software and samplers, the more you can pull out of it, and the more quickly you can create work,” Aaron contends.
But I would not say to force yourself to learn tools you don’t like. Master the ones you love to use, and play with new ones all the time – don’t get stuck using the same ones over and over again.
“You don’t have to have the most expensive and most trendy gear to make something amazing. But that isn’t a reason not to try it and upgrade from time to time.”
The importance of open dialogue and peer feedback
At this year’s Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Aaron provided an interesting revelation about the submission process at Game Audio Alliance: Aaron and his team will frequently work with composers who are wonderfully talented from a creative perspective, but may be – comparatively – lacking in proficiency when it comes to the nuts and bolts of polished end production. As opposed to “silently” repairing their work, perhaps avoiding confrontation with the artist, the GAA team is instead all about open dialogue, peer feedback, and helping to improve the all-around skillset of their artists.
Backbone and humility often go hand-in-hand in the games business
“The Game Audio Alliance is always interested in bettering people who work with us, and educating the gaming and music community at large,” says Aaron. “We’d much rather work with people while watching them grow and empowering them, than keeping them down. I’d suggest you always try to work with that kind of person, because I’ve certainly encountered a lot of the opposite, which is why we have structured GAA the way we have!”
Backbone and humility often go hand-in-hand in the games business. “I can’t imagine that anyone should be offended by critique in this industry. If you are, you are not in the right industry. Turn off your ego. Seriously,” says Aaron.
No one wants to work with a big ego, and it will stop you from being as good as you can be.
The importance of maintaining a balance between quality and budget
The team at GAA currently produces almost all of its composition and production work internally in the interest of maintaining a high quality level, but Aaron is quick to note that they “always accept resumes and demos.” The intention is to engage in a bit more contract work and eventually “bring a couple more individuals into the fold” going forward. As is par for the course with any game audio shop, Game Audio Alliance also regularly contracts outside voiceover talent and hires skilled instrumentalists and vocalists whenever a project demands it.
A key differentiator in the GAA pipeline is the company’s current focus on the casual and mobile game space. Compared to work in the “core” or “AAA” game space, there are specific development conditions and mandates to consider when entering this region of the industry – and it’s a decidedly smokin’ hot area of growth right now.
“The audio footprint can be a lot smaller here, and keeping the quality high can be a challenge because the budgets are far lower than core games. The development cycle is also much faster, but it’s rewarding and fun to hear your work in a casual mobile game so quickly after starting work on a project, unlike a year later with other traditional cycles,” Aaron describes.
The appeal of casual games
Do not champion one tier of game audio work versus another, but appreciate the nature of your current workflow.
That compression of sound and time, both literal and esoteric, draws a fairly profound line in the sand between the world of large-scale game development, working with teams of dozens or hundreds, and the more intimate universe of sound design for smaller social and mobile titles. Aaron doesn’t necessarily seek to champion one tier of game audio work versus another, but he appreciates the nature of his current workflow.
“For me, I like being a big part of the process. There is more and more red tape and barriers the more people you add to it, yes, but usually the end product is more amazing too. Most casual, social, and mobile games, they don’t really involve that many people, and usually only one or just a couple of audio people,” he notes.
When is work becomes fun and fun becomes work
A career in pro audio within the entertainment industry is a dream for many aspiring musicians, and training for this role inevitably involves critical listening in a wide spectrum of different genres, eras, and styles of music. But is it still possible to listen to music for purely recreational purposes, to separate from one’s professionally-tuned ears and simply enjoy for the sake of enjoyment? For Aaron, it’s a dual-edged blade: inescapable critical analysis often trumps raw listening pleasure.
“When I listen to music, all I do is analyze chords, listen to production, editing, levels, mixing, panning, the quality of the players, etcetera – so it’s hard for me to enjoy music in a removed way,” he laments.
Thus, for enjoyment Aaron tends to seek music outside his realm of expertise. “I love world music because of this: I don’t know it as well, so African, Cuban, Greek, Arabic, Indian, and Brazilian Jazz are often played at my house for enjoyment. I do also like simple music with a nice beat for doing chores or working out. These sorts of pieces – like dance music – are very simple, so analyzing them really doesn’t take a lot away from enjoyment.”
Aaron Walz doesn’t have a great deal of free time these days, period, but it seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s always available – and often booked – to talk about the industry, give helpful advice to aspiring talent, accept and critique demos, and carefully listen to the opinion of other game industry professionals. He also makes time for a great interview, for which we kindly thank him.
If you’re curious about Aaron’s work or what goes on at Game Audio Alliance, feel free to email him at: email@example.com