Hey, everybody! I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips. As game composers, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually be asked to create music in a genre with which we have little or no experience. Some projects may throw several unfamiliar musical genres our way. It can be a scary prospect. I’ve worked on many projects that have required me to quickly learn new musical styles and techniques, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about how research can help us cope with these sorts of unexpected demands. This article will explore the role of music research, including how it can initiate us into the mysteries of unfamiliar musical styles, and ways in which it can lead us in unanticipated (but not unwelcome) directions. I’ve had lots of experience delving into diverse musical genres and doing music research for projects both big and small over the course of my career. For this article, I’ll be describing my recent experience composing the music for the Sports Scramble VR game, developed by Armature Studio and released earlier this year for popular VR platforms such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift/Rift S.
Hi! I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and sometimes my game music shows up in places I never would have expected. A little over a week ago, while I was eagerly watching an awesome trailer for the just-released blockbuster Avengers Endgame, I was suddenly stunned to hear my own music in it! (I’ve embedded the Avengers Endgame trailer that features my music at the end of this article.) What made this moment even more jaw-dropping for me was that I had originally composed this music for the video game Spore Hero (a game from Electronic Arts’ popular Spore franchise). Just as a reference, here’s what the characters look like in Spore Hero:
The style of Spore Hero couldn’t be further away from that famous Avengers style, as expertly displayed in the Avengers Endgame trailer. Yet the same music was used for both projects.
The Spore Hero music I was hearing in the Avengers Endgame trailer was my “Hero Theme,” which functions essentially as a leitmotif within the Spore Hero score – it’s the central recurring melody in the game. By virtue of the theme-and-variation technique, the melody undergoes a gradual transformation from invitingly cute to heroically epic.
The Avengers Endgame trailer featured the most dramatic iteration of this theme. When I recovered from the initial surprise, it occurred to me that a mini-postmortem of this particular melodic theme might be the best way to explore an interesting topic: how does a single theme transform itself from an amiable melody to an avenging one?
In this week’s blog, I’d like to explore the role that comedy can play in a video game, and how we as game composers can use some of the techniques from comedic sound design to our best advantage. Along the way, we’ll be looking at an interesting essay article by pop culture critic Christopher Gates, a presentation by game sound designer Luca Fusi at the December 2015 Vancouver Sound Design Meetup, and an interview with film sound designer Chris Scarabosio.
I’ll also be sharing some of my experiences applying comedic sound design techniques during music composition for the video game The Maw – an award-winning and very funny gamethat was developed by Twisted Pixel Games. To the left, you can see that I’m working hard to give The Maw its proper dose of comedic wackiness… but more on that later.
First, let’s get a broad perspective on the role of comedy in gaming.
I was honored to serve as a speaker this year at the Audio Engineering Society Convention! The event took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center from October 9th to the 12th — here are a few photos from the event:
My speech was titled “Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content.” My speech expanded on some ideas that were explored in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. The great audience were really kind and appreciative, and they asked lots of interesting questions!
I had to take a photo of the sign that was outside the door to the presentation room where I gave my speech.
This was my AES convention badge. It had an AES presenter ribbon! I was so proud. 🙂
Stopped to take a quick photo in the lobby outside of the convention expo floor before going in.
Since the Alto Music store has met my needs many times, I had to pay their booth a visit.
This massive black balloon hung over the exhibit floor, urging AES attendees to “Mix the Masters.” Seems like a sensible request for a crowd full of audio engineers.
The amiable guy giving the thumbs-up sign is Noland Anderson of PostProduction.com. He and his production partner did a video interview with me for their web site (the interview will be posted to the site soon). Thanks, guys! It was great fun.
I could not call myself a true Pro Tools user without stopping at the Avid booth to gawk at the new Pro Tools toys.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences had a nice booth, including information about their Grammy U initiative designed to help young aspiring audio professionals make their way into the recording industry.
On display – some microphone solutions for drum kits.
Big honking mixing consoles were absolutely everywhere on the exhibit floor.
I could not neglect to say hello to the RCA dog.
Emerging from the exhibit floor again, I took a walk down the AES red carpet.
Finally, I couldn’t leave without a souvenir! I’ll wear my AES hat with pride! Thanks very much, Audio Engineering Society. It was tremendous fun, and I look forward to next year, when AES will hold its convention in New York City.
I’m pleased to share some news about one of my recent projects: music composition for the Ultimate Trailers album from West One Music. The album is described by West One Music as “hard-hitting epic action trailer cues including electronic and rock hybrids and orchestral action.” West One Music is one of the leading recording labels for production music that graces audiovisual productions around the world.
Music from the album will be available for use in television and film productions, so I’m looking forward to seeing my music appearing in lots of interesting projects! Here are some photos from the orchestral recording sessions for the Ultimate Trailers album. My music was recorded by the Alvernia Orchestra – some of their other film projects have been Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove and Closer to the Moon.
In a cool article for Ask Audio Magazine, G. W. Childs IV suggested 5 Unusual Things Every Sound Designer Should Try. These tactics were designed to shake the cobwebs off the creative process of sound designers, opening minds to new possibilities (including binaural recording techniques, plug-ins for randomizing audio content, adding reverb to dry audio sources by playing back the recordings in actual reverberant spaces, etc.)
In the spirit of that article, I’m going to offer 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try. If you’re a game composer, you can play with some of these techniques. I’m not going to say that you should, but if it sounds like fun, then go for it.
Use Sound Design Musically
One of the most energizing ways to get inspired is to use the actual aural building blocks of your game’s environment in a musical way. For instance, in the Speed Racer video game I incorporated lots of sound effects associated with the sport of racing into the music, including doppler effects that were worked into musical transitions, tire screeches mapped to the keyboard to accentuate their natural pitches so that they could be used harmonically, and crowd cheers worked into the rhythm section. These elements helped my music feel more connected to the game, and kept me invigorated as I worked.
Get Sneaky with your Genres
Lately, the genre mashup has become very popular, in which two disparate musical styles are layered together in order to produce a novel effect. Mashups can help keep a composer inspired, but even better — why not sneak that second genre into your track? There’s no reason for us to be overt about it, and hiding a second genre within the first can give a composer a sense of wicked enjoyment. For instance, while creating music for such bright and airy projects as Shrek the Third and SimAnimals, I worked in subtle avante garde orchestral approaches that included unusual meters and dissonance. The influences weren’t particularly overt, but they kept the composition process fresh and interesting for me and helped the music feel more unique.
Turn Tracks on their Heads
Some years back, I was involved in a project (which I will not name) that required me to take a large portion of music I had previously composed in one style and completely rework it into another style altogether. This was a thoroughly drastic change, from a light-hearted approach to a dour and heavy-handed instrumental treatment. The essential core elements of the track (meter, melody, tempo) had to remain the same, however. It was a challenging puzzle to solve, but it also opened me up to creative possibilities I wouldn’t have conceived any other way. In that spirit, if at any time we’re feeling creatively blocked while working on a track, maybe it might be fun to turn the track on its head — change its essential personality — while maintaining its skeletal structure.
Don’t Forget Your Old Gear
As our careers progress, we’re likely to build up a large assortment of high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art software tools. After a while, we become accustomed to our workflow with these tools, and there ceases to be any novelty to the creative process. At these times, it can be fun to drag out the old gear and put it to use. Not only can the vintage stuff add some needed retro zest to our sound palettes, but it can also reignite those creative juices by reminding us of the days when we were starting out and filled with starry-eyed yearning.
So that’s it — 4 Unusual Things for a Game Composer to Try. If any of it sounds like it might be helpful, then please give it a whirl! And let me know in the comments if you have any other unusual strategies for getting the creative juices flowing.
The Designing Sound blog recently devoted a series of articles to the topic of silence, including an elaborately philosophical article on the nature of silence as a Zen state of altered consciousness (Silence is the Sound of Listening, by Miguel Isaza).
My main impression from the article was an emphasis on sound as the state of calm in which we (as listeners) become receptive to the world of aural phenomena constantly surrounding us.
The article brought to mind a few ideas that I thought I would share about the role of silence in the creative output of a game composer.
Sometimes when we as game composers receive creative guidance in regards to the musical style of a project, we’ll be instructed to do the following:
Let the music breathe.
The idea of “breathing music” can be interpreted in several ways. It can mean that the music should dwindle intermittently into absolute silence so that the game’s soundscape can essentially “take over” for a few moments, before the music resumes. It can also mean that the music should be written with sparse instrumentation and lots of unoccupied space in the frequency spectrum, resulting in the impression of lots of brief silent pauses that allow the sound design environment to filter through the lattice of musical elements. Finally, it can mean that the music is composed of a series of crescendos and diminuendos, whereby the musical score swells dramatically and then recedes into a near-silent state on a regular basis.
All of these approaches share one aspect in common: the music is structured to allow the sound design to move regularly into the foreground, pushing the music further into the background of the player’s conscious awareness. With this in mind, should we interpret this instruction to “let the music breathe” as a desire to deemphasize the music in favor of other aspects of the game’s aural design?
On page 52 of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss an interesting study conducted by Stanford University, which casts a very different light on the effect of silence on the experience of listening to music. The study revealed that when listening to a piece of music, our minds become most attentive and filled with the most anticipatory focus when the music becomes silent for a moment. For instance, in the short pauses between the movements of a symphony, the listener’s attention to the music peaks.
So, when we’re asked to let the music “breathe,” perhaps we can interpret this to mean that we should include those brief pauses that cause the player to pay more attention to our music than they had before. As Miguel Isaza wrote in his article for Designing Sound, the act of becoming silent awakens our consciousness to the world of sound around us. Perhaps by using silence as a tool in our game music, we can awaken gamers to the world of music we have created.
The news broke last week that Soundelux (a leading Hollywood postproduction sound studio) had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This is a harsh blow to the entertainment industry as a whole. Soundelux is best known as the postproduction sound studio responsible for the audio in such movie hits as The Hunger Games, Skyfall, Django Unchained and Pacific Rim, but they’re also a huge force in the world of video game audio too (under their Soundelux Design Music Group/DMG subsidiary). With this in mind, I’m dedicating this blog post to the contribution Soundelux DMG made to the field of video game sound.
Soundelux DMG was formed in 1992 by Scott Gershin, Wylie Stateman and Lon Bender in order to address the audio needs of interactive entertainment, theme parks, music videos and commercials. One of their first video game projects involved providing music and audio for Activision’s Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure for PC, released in 1994. Here’s a sample of the music from that project:
As the years went by, Soundelux DMG continued its significant contributions to the video game industry in the areas of sound design, music and voice dialogue. Here’s a sampling of their work in 2003 on the voices of Viewtiful Joe:
Here’s some of the music of Electronic Arts’s The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II, composed in 2006 by Soundelux DMG’s Jamie Christopherson:
The sound design in Dead Space was a highlight of the gameplay experience. Soundelux DMG was a part of the team that created this sound design in 2008 for Electronic Arts. Here’s a sample of why the sound design excelled:
Soundelux DMG provided all the sound design for the cinematics of Disney’s Epic Mickey (Disney Interactive), released in 2010. Here’s a sample of their work on that project:
And here’s a behind-the-scenes video of their dialogue recording sessions for God of War III (Sony Computer Entertainment America, 2010):
Finally, here’s their highlight showreel from 2012, including brief clips from such great game projects as Gears of War Judgment, God of War Ascension, Skylanders Giants, Twisted Metal and Call of Duty Black Ops II: Zombies.
I was honored to be invited to speak at Ludo 2014, the Ludomusicology Conference, last month. I had a great time talking with a wonderful audience of video game music scholars and game composers.
Ludomusicology.org is a scholarly research group in the UK that applies the principles of musicology to videogame music. Researchers from Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol Universities participate in their ongoing research, as well as their annual international conferences on game music. This year’s conference took place at the University of Chichester from April 10th through the 12th. While I couldn’t attend in person, I was very pleased to be interviewed via Skype by event organizer and distinguished musicologist Dr. Tim Summers. The video below shows Dr. Summers and the audience at the University of Chichester in the UK, and myself in my music studio in the US. The discussion ranged from interactive music structure and implementation, to career skills and workflow, to creative strategies for game music composition. The talk also included several topics from my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.
I’m very grateful for the fantastic questions from the audience, and for the gracious kindness of Dr. Summers and the Ludo 2014 conference!