Glad you’re here! I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic. I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers. It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could. It was an awesome experience! Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral. It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards. My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit. I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!! During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here. Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition. The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience. I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything! If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.
On April 6th I was honored to give a lecture at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington DC (pictured right). As a video game composer, I’d been invited to speak by the Music Division of the Library of Congress. I’d be delivering the concluding presentation during their premiere event celebrating popular video game music. My lecture would be the very first video game music composition lecture ever given at the Library of Congress. I was both honored and humbled to accept the invitation and have my lecture included in the 2018-2019 season of concerts and symposia from the Library of Congress.
In my presentation, I included many topics that I’ve written about in previous articles. My lecture topics included horizontal resequencing, vertical layering, and interactive MIDI-based composition. I explored the various roles that music has played in famous games from the earliest days of game design (like Frogger and Ballblazer). I also discussed how music has been implemented in some of the awesome games from the modern era (like one of my own projects, Assassin’s Creed Liberation).
My lecture was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress. The audience gave me both a warm welcome and lots of great questions following the conclusion of my lecture. Afterwards, the discussion continued during a book signing event that was kindly hosted by the Library of Congress shop. During the book signing event, I was pleased to sign copies of my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. I also got to talk personally with quite a few audience members. Such an engaging and insightful crowd! It was a pleasure getting to know these lovely people. I really enjoyed the lively conversation – I had the best time!!
When I talked about some basic techniques for achieving a more organic sound with virtual instruments, I didn’t mention any mixing considerations. Since this is a complex subject that goes far beyond the scope of a single blog, I’ll probably be returning to it several times… but let’s start with a general overview, and some thoughts about the orchestral recording environment. Mixing for a virtual orchestra can be a highly contentious subject, with controversy pursuing nearly every topic of conversation from reverb to volume levels to panning. It’s good to remember, though, that there is a pretty broad range of recording environments and mixing approaches in live orchestral tracks, which means that there can’t (and shouldn’t) be just one “correct” approach when working with virtual orchestras.
Some live orchestral recordings take the studio approach, in that they are fairly dry and close-mic’d in a small recording environment that’s buffered to eliminate acoustic artifacts, leaving only the original sound. Other orchestral recording sessions are clearly conducted in a very large space such as a concert hall, which gives the sensation of both distance and complex reverberation, reflections and tonal coloration caused by the unique properties of the space. Both the studio and the concert hall environments for orchestral recordings are entirely legitimate and afford the composer a set of advantages and disadvantages. The concert hall environment provides a richness of tone and texture from the acoustic properties of the room, but instruments in this space can sound distant and small performance details may not come through clearly. The studio approach allows the instruments of the orchestra to be captured with greater sonic detail and intimacy, but the dryness of the space may have a detrimental effect on the ability of the orchestral sections to blend properly, requiring artificial reverb to be applied during the mixing process.
What does this mean for virtual orchestras? Well, before we think about the recording environment that we’d like to simulate, we have to evaluate our orchestral sample libraries in terms of the environments in which they were originally recorded. Are they wet or dry? Some libraries are reverberant to the point of sounding dripping wet. Others are dry as a bone. This can make it difficult to use these libraries in tandem, but I usually don’t let this deter me. We can apply reverb to the dry instrumental samples so that they match the acoustic properties of the wet ones. I find that a process of trial-and-error can yield satisfying results here. However, there’s no way to completely remove the reverb from an orchestral library that was recorded wet… so what if our hearts were set on that intimate studio sound? Well, there are ways to address this issue. For instance, we can assume that our orchestral recording was captured in a large space, but that many microphones were positioned in tight proximity to the important players so that the subtle nuances of their performances would come through. When we layer our dry instruments with our wet ones, we can send some of the dry signal out for reverb processing (to account for the larger space) and mix those echoes and reflections with the reverb tail found naturally in the wet recordings. This will allow the dry instrument groups to sit in the larger space, but still feel intimate.
Now, what do we do about the orchestral sections that still feel purely wet? They’ll likely sound quite distant and washy. We can counteract this by layering dry instrumental soloists into these sections, sending their signal out for reverb processing as we did before. This can work very well for section leaders such as the first violin. When I’m applying this technique, I’ll sometimes evaluate the number of players in wet orchestral sections, and if it would be realistically feasible, I will boost this number by adding a dry chamber section. For instance, I might add a dry chamber violin section consisting of 4 players to a very wet 1st violin orchestral section consisting of 11 players. This will give me a resulting 1st violin section with fifteen players, which is large but not unreasonable. I’ll add some reverb to the dry instruments so that they’ll give the impression that they exist in the same space as the others, but that they are more closely mic’d.
These are just a few ideas on how to reconcile wet and dry instrumental recordings. As always, experimentation and close listening will be our best guide in determining if these techniques are achieving the desired results. In the future, I’ll talk a bit more about other mixing concerns, such as panning, level balancing, and mastering techniques. Hope you enjoyed this blog entry, and please share your own methods and questions in the comments below!