The Fundamentals of Composing Game Audio

Veteran video game composer, Josh Aker (Infinity Blade) shares his tips on how to make it in the Game Audio industry. If you want to navigate from aspiring composer to getting paid gigs... read this!  

One fundamental concept to consider is that composing game audio is an exercise in drawing lines between what your client (read boss) needs/wants and the creative ideas in your head, and then having the ability to take the compatible ideas in your head and produce them at a high quality level to then deliver them back to your client. This sounds simple enough but most, if not all, composers are subject to that inconvenient truth that we simply cannot schedule innovation. The muse seems to come when she wants to. However, there are some fundamentals in composing game audio that we can move on while we’re waiting for the muse to inspire us. And, in fact, it’s often when we move on these fundamentals that she seems to respond. So what are they?

  • Planning 
  • Technical
  • Creativity 
  • Execution

Planning, which is rightfully the first thing in this list, is really the only item over which you have complete control over. 

The Technical is a checklist that may evolve throughout the process depending on what your creativity dictates you will need to make your ideas a reality. While there are undoubtedly some technical requirements that are fundamental and without which you simply cannot get the job done, some non-essential items will fall under “wish-list” and may or may not be within your budget to acquire. 

The Creative is an uncontrollable force that may inspire you at any time from the moment you begin the project up to the very end or, heaven forbid, completely elude you throughout the entire experience. 

The Execution is the final thing you do and whether or not this goes smoothly depends on the first three. Let’s take a brief look at each one. 

Planning

This is essentially a two-part phase – one part consisting of you meeting with your client and the second part consisting of you planning out how you’re going to create all the music in a way that satisfies the things you discussed with your client.

The meeting with your client should answer questions like:

  • What is the game/story?
  • What is the scope of the game?
  • How many minutes of music?
  • What is the platform?
  • Will this be looping backgrounds, scored music, interactive, or all of the above?
  • If more toward the sound design, will we be implementing music on a horizontal or vertical model?
  • Are there villains?
  • Does each villain have his/her own theme?
  • Or does each location in the story have a theme?
  • Hero theme?
  • Victory theme?
  • What is the budget of the game?

The answer to the budget question should not influence how much effort you put into creating the audio. It’s important to always give your best effort as being hired again depends on it. Rather, the higher the budget the more likely it is that you’re going to use live orchestra. Conversely, the lower budgets are going to require that you use sound libraries and maybe a solo instrumentalist here and there. 

Technical


Presumably at this point you know what you need to know about the game and the type of audio you’re going to create for it. The next step is making sure you have the tools you need to get the job done. Obviously you’ll need your DAW. My weapon of choice is Logic Pro .

A screenshot of the chaos I call work.

A screenshot of the chaos I call work. 

Percussion Tracks in a session of intense battle music.

Percussion tracks in a session of intense battle music. 

Beyond whatever in-the-box sounds that come with your DAW and, in addition, whatever third-party libraries you’ll use, you may be recording live sounds. If so, you’re going to need an audio interface, mic(s), cables, etc. And depending on whether or not your client wants you to deliver audio files for them, or they want you to do audio implementation you may need to have a copy of the software engine they use to develop the game you’re composing for, e.g. Unreal Developer Kit. 

Made for PC. Mac users will need Parallels, or something like it.

Made for PC. Mac users will need Parallels, or something like it.

On a side note - a frequently asked question for newcomers in this industry is “which sound libraries should I get?” Well that depends on what you want or need to do of course. Landing a gig creating audio for a game serves as a great road map for how to build up your library of sounds and virtual instruments. As you continue to land gigs you’ll get whatever you need to get the job done and consequently your library will grow. 

In addition to the tools, you’ll also have to know how to use them, which is presumably the reason you’re on macProVideo.com in the first place! As mentioned before, creativity could inspire or elude you at any time so it is important to be prepared for it when it comes. And there is nothing that will prohibit or kill creative energy more quickly than spending too much time figuring out how to create what you hear in your head because you don’t know how to use your software.

Creative

You know what you need to produce, you’ve checked off a list of things you need to get the job done and hopefully have secured them… now be creative! If only it were that easy. If you’re one of those composers that always seem to have creativity emanating from their heads and “writer’s block” is never an issue, than you can skip over this part. For the rest of you, I’ll share a few things I do to get past this discouraging stage.

Firstly, I’ve learned to enjoy it. Discouragement will compound on itself and prolong your writer’s block if you don’t keep it in check. It’s part of what makes the whole process so fulfilling once you reach the finish line.

Record it or you’ll forget it.

Record it or you’ll forget it.

Secondly, I try to always remember that my smartphone has a recorder on it. If you’re anything like me you probably sing and hum and improvise melodies and make beats almost constantly throughout the day, only to get to your computer and sit there in a stupor when it’s time to perform. Well if you can remember to record yourself whenever you’re being creative you won’t be on the spot once you’re sitting at the computer. You’ll hopefully have several ideas already that you can develop.

See how far you can take a musical idea in 10 minutes.

See how far you can take a musical idea in 10 minutes. 

Thirdly, with my DAW open and samples ready to go, I will sometimes set a timer and see what I can create under pressure. The first time I tried this I was pleasantly surprised by the results. It’s amazing what you can do when you forget that your client has told you they need the music in 10 days and instead you give yourself 10 minutes. Obviously whatever you create in 10 minutes will need to be improved, elongated, perfected, etc. but the point is to get your creative juices flowing. Lastly, I occasionally turn to other composer’s music that inspires me. Don’t be afraid of sounding like other composers. It’s inevitable. And it’s not a bad thing. As you get better and better you’ll most likely emulate a number of other composers until you find your own voice.

Execution

‘Execution’ can justly refer to both what you deliver to your client for the final product as well as the process by which you get to that point. Everything discussed thus far discusses some of the fundamentals I rely on each time a client commissions me to create music for them. You may find them to be helpful or you may find other ways of getting the job done. But without a doubt, the most important fundamental is what your client relies on, the final delivery. And regarding that final delivery this is what you need to ensure:

  • It should be on time
  • It should be the best work you can deliver
  • It should be technically what they ask for: Length of audio piece(s), File type (e.g. MP3, WAV, etc.), file naming convention (very important to keep track of different versions you’ve bounced and to swap out versions in the game engine).

Also, be willing to make changes. However much you may love what you’ve created your client must love it too. Remember who is paying! There is such a thing as a difficult client but hopefully that will be the exception and not the norm. 

Armed with these fundamentals you'll likely be in a better position to approach developers and kick-start your game audio career. The next step is putting yourself into a situation where you can meet as many developers as possible... Stay tuned to askaudiomag.com for my next article on attending gaming conferences.

Joshua Aker is the composer behind the incredible soundtracks for two of the biggest game releases to ever hit the iOS platform: Infinity Blade and Infinity Blade 2. Find out more about Joshua's work at: www.somakat.com Read More

Discussion

Kory
Fantastic article. Really great insight and advice. Thank you for taking the time to write this Josh!
Josh Aker
Kory, thanks for taking the time to read it. I'm glad you found it useful. Stay tuned...there's more coming!

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