Interview: Allison Cociani on Composing Music for iOS Games

We chatted with talented game audio composer, Allison Cociani, who recently finished scoring the music for the innovative iOS game Finger Ninjas. Discover more about her process composing for games.  

Imagine this: a ninja striding across your screen laying waste to an endless array of flesh-eating zombies amidst a gorgeous Feudal-Japan backdrop. You can probably envisage what a game like this might look like, but can you imagine the soundtrack? 

For this game, Finger Ninjas: Zombie Strike-Force, (and the already successful iOS game, Bucket Dan), zemaGamez enlisted the expertise of classically trained vocalist and composer, Allison Cociani, to come up with stand-out and immersive scores. And the resulting score? Simply outstanding. 

I chatted with Allison about her musical background, her unique approach to scoring for games and visual media, how minimal studio setups can be advantageous, and much more...

Can you tell us about your musical background?

Allison Cociani: Sure. I started learning music when I was 5. I was always goofing around at the piano at the time and then I started voice lessons when I was 9. Singing became my main focus and I quit piano when I was 13. I went to the Conservatory of Music in Victoria, BC where I did a Performance program. I then studied privately on and off, in Italy and here in Canada and have performed both in Europe and in Canada.

What style of vocal singing? 

AC: I'm a classically trained singer. But in my late 20's I got a little bored always singing everybody else's music. I've always wanted to compose, but it was scary getting into it as I didn't have the training per se to be a composer. So, I started with a project where I wrote song cycles in French and Italian to my own music, for voice and piano. I put that together and did a few performances with it. It was a really interesting experience, and I really enjoy writing. Since then I've been focusing a lot more on that.

Allison Cociani transitions from Classical Singer to Zombie game soundtrack composer effortlessly.

Allison Cociani transitions from Classical Singer to Zombie game soundtrack composer effortlessly.

Photography by: Wendy D

What DAW do you use to write?

AC: I was using Logic Pro 7 up until I began scoring the music for the game, Finger Ninjas: Zombie Strike-Force. I was using Logic on my husband's laptop which had a difficult keyboard to use! I switched to Logic 9 and I got a composer package from EastWest. So, I used those samples to write the music for my two recent game scores: Bucket Dan & Finger Ninjas. 

So tell us about when you transitioned from composing for voice and piano to composing for visual media.

AC: I did a few things for my husband over the years, and I re-did some commercials last year. A client had two commercials which they'd lost the files for, so I mimicked what they wanted but put my own flavor to it. Now, I've kind of got the feeling that I can probably do anything I put my mind to if I have enough direction. If someone needs something in a particular style and sends me examples, I feel I can create something for it. It's really fun, it's a challenge, and is something I can put my mind into. I get into the sound, listen to the examples and then put my own twist on it. I really enjoy the challenge.

The popular Bucket Dan game for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

The popular Bucket Dan game for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

So, Bucket Dan was the first video game you composed for. Tell us more about your process. Did you have visuals or the game itself to look at before you started composing?

AC: I actually did not have the visuals. I had the concepts and ideas. Martin Sitter and Mark Stope (Zema Gamez) came over and asked me if I wanted to make some rag time songs for a game. Then they explained how they wanted it to sound, and they talked about specific lengths. So, I went to the drawing board and worked with Mark by sending him something. He'd then give me feedback and I'd fix it up. It just went along like that. 

So, you had no illustrations or graphics to draw inspiration from initially?

AC: Not for Bucket Dan. I just had the idea of a guy running around with a bucket catching bombs... and it needed to feel quite frantic! But when the video trailer was being prepared, then the music had to fit to very specific intervals, to match the frames. That was more complicated as I had to really work closely to visuals.

Do you find it easier to work to non-specific durations?

AC: It's completely different. When you have a length structure then it completely affects what you might come up with. There's more direction. But, when you're given an idea, it can be a bit vague, so you need to come up with an idea that you think might be right and then discuss it to get the right sound and feel that are needed. Both are very artistic and challenging but they're very different processes.

The Bucket Dan music is incredibly fun and seamlessly fits into the game. What was it like composing it?

AC: It was really fun to compose. It reminds me of my childhood when I was learning to play piano... you know the fun times learning those fun little songs that you'd only now and then get to learn how to play, because otherwise everything else was strictly classical. So, I tapped into that fun, childhood music memory.

Enter: Finger Ninjas for iOS and Android

Enter: Finger Ninjas for iOS and Android

And you've recently composed an impressively immersive score for Finger Ninjas - a much more complex and involving game.

AC: Bucket Dan had its own challenges. I had never really used Logic 9 before then and spent time learning the program and learning how to create seamless loops. So, I learned the process on that game and then went onto Finger Ninjas. That was very difficult as I didn't know anything about that type of music. I didn't have a clue. I was sent examples of the sound they wanted. But at the time I had no idea what a koto or a shamisen or shakuhachi was really like. 

So, that summer my father was sick. He had cancer and was dying... I was finding it difficult to be creative. But I spent the time learning the samples, playing with them. Sitting in my basement figuring out how to key switch and get the different feel for each instrument. It was quite challenging as I didn't know much about the style of music. I spent a couple of months just playing with the sounds in the basement whenever I could. 

Actually, one time I was down there and I was playing the koto in the middle of the night, and I looked down and there was a cricket jumping around on my piano. So, I took him outside. Then I continued playing and then noticed another cricket in the room. I had no idea what was going on... But, apparently crickets are attracted to the koto sound!

How cool! I guess that makes you a Pied Piper and shows how authentic your koto playing is! So, did you have any visuals to work with from Finger Ninjas, or any hands-on time with the game itself?

AC: A little bit. After the summer, Mark Stope showed me some screenshots and showed me the jungle level of the game and what it looked like to run around in there. At first I didn't realize we only had around 40-50 seconds for each composition, so my first loop was much longer. But, I basically wrote pieces specifically for each level and Mark would give feedback on the tempo and length. 

Some loops can feel repetitive, but yours don't! Did you have an approach to creating loops that wouldn't feel too repetitive for the gamer?

AC: Exactly, you have to create something that won't be irritating. A few of the levels are quite rhythmic, so I'd try and be minimal with the tune itself. I just followed my own instincts and if I felt it was going to be annoying I would stop. I would take out something from different sections to give it a better feel. It's tricky writing loops - It's like making a puzzle.

Finger Ninjas:

Finger Ninjas: "It's tricky writing loops - it's like making a puzzle."

In terms of getting inspiration for the compositions, aside from collaborating with Mark at Zema Gamez, did you draw upon anything else to help you?

AC: I listened to a lot of traditional Japanese music. While doing my yoga I put on whatever I could find on YouTube or elsewhere and just meditated on it and tried to get it into my head. I wanted to do the game justice by having a traditional Japanese foundation with my own flavor to it.

You mentioned your use of the East West sample library, do you record real instruments too?

AC: I do, but for this project I couldn't as it was so specific. I used a lot of the Taiko drums samples in the East West player which I found completely intoxicating. I just loved playing with those drum sounds and creating drum rhythms. It was fantastic. 

I understand you've got a very minimal studio setup. I think this proves you don't need all the bells and whistles to create beautiful music...

AC: You know, you're right. For me it's about having a good space to work in that's clean and my own. Me, my brain, my thoughts (and quite often my cat on my lap) are enough. I think you can do a lot with a very basic setup. Just think of how much less musicians had only 15 years ago. It's amazing!

You compose with your cat on your lap? How does that work?

AC: Ha! She's really amazing. She doesn't respond to music so much unless it's Max Richter. When I'm writing or playing music she wants to be on my lap, and she wants to be right there. 

Allison Cociani on her studio requirements:

Allison Cociani on her studio requirements: "Me, my brain, my thoughts, and quite often my cat on my lap, are enough".

So what gear is in your studio?

AC: Well, mostly I'm a singer so my gear is my voice (and my hands for the piano!) My husband has some old synths: MKS-80, a Nord, and lots of guitars and electric drum kits. My husband does all my mastering and technical work so I don't use an audio interface when composing, I just plug my headphones directly into the computer's built-in audio port. 

The microphone I use is a Neumann TLM 103 which I use with a TL Audio 2051 Mono Valve voice processor, pre amp. I also have Sibelius 7 for scoring....Oh, and I use Grado SR60 headphones. I also use a Korg SP-170 as my keyboard. It's great for traveling and fits in the car for performing live too. 

Do you have any tips for musicians looking to compose to visual media?

AC: I've found for me the best route to approaching composing for visuals is to just spend time watching and feeling the musicality in what you're seeing, and tuning into the timing and tapping into that. It's important to be free with your mind and let it follow the natural rhythms that you're seeing, and how the picture is moving, and how someone else has edited the images together. These are all aspects of art. So, I just relax, watch, accept, and not try to control and try to create something that works with and flows with the visuals. That's how I like to look at it. 

When you let music control you that's when the best stuff comes up. With Finger Ninjas, I'd just sit down, close my eyes, and think about whatever images I'd seen from the game and wait for an idea to pop into my head, take it and allow it to become something. 

Which artists have influenced you and your music?

AC: Well, my main musical influence in my life is definitely Mozart. I'm inspired by a lot of different genres and different musicians within those genres, like David Bowie, Radiohead and The Beatles... it's difficult to choose just one or two because it all depends on my mood. Right now I've abandoned my iTunes library and am listening to all my old records collected from over the years. I'm listening to a lot of eclectic old stuff, from Star Wars story albums to Techno and more ambient stuff. Often when I put music on these days I'm doing Yoga so I listen to a lot of noise or soundscape style stuff. 

Thanks. What do you have planned for the coming months?

AC: Right now I'm working on songs for new levels in Finger Ninjas. I'm also focusing on some shows in Spring 2013... I'm working on a project with my husband called SunSpot Mothership. It's a musical collaboration featuring very eclectic visuals and sounds and that's my next focus. 

Download Bucket Dan [iOS, FREE] 

Download Finger Ninjas [iOS, Android, FREE].

Follow Allison on Twitter here:

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More


Gary Hiebner
Cat on laps. A must have in a studio.

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