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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Postmortem - What I Learned From Producing a Game Soundtrack

Recently I completed my first soundtrack for a computer game; a turn-based strategy title in a stylized fantasy setting. Although the game is on the verge of cancellation, working on the score was a fantastic learning experience.

Generally, a composer is given artwork from a game, or if he's really lucky, an early playable copy of the software to play around with. I didn't have much artwork or software to go by. Actually, I didn't have any. I was writing the soundtrack based entirely on the background story and game structure that the director described to me over the phone and through email. So it wasn't quite the same experience that a composer for media usually has. Regardless, in the end, I had roughly 40 minutes of music spanning 15 tracks. Here are some of the things that I learned from the experience:

MIDI Quantization is your friend - I didn't start using MIDI quantization until this project, but now I've learned how useful it can be when trying to write and simultaneously record. MIDI Quantization is the process of playing a melody and then having the computer nudge the notes around a little to keep everything synced up with the tempo. Some would call it cheating, and it is in a way, but when you're writing an entire soundtrack and live performance is irrelevant, then it can save you a lot of time and frustration, and allow you to focus on quality of composition.

is an important musical technique to know
- Because of the experimental nature of my writing style, I tend to simply throw in whatever sounds I think will make a song interesting. The game had a fantasy setting, so I couldn't go nuts with, say, the electronic elements as much as I would like. I had to stick with a smaller sonic palette than I normally use, a situation which tends to give a person a false sense of creative limitation. It will, however, force a composer to be more creative with the elements that he does have. This is probably why the soundtracks to all those old Nintendo games are so catchy: when you only have four channels of audio to work with, you tend to make those the best damn four channels of music you can possibly deliver.

I really, really need to learn more about chords and chord progressions
- oh boy do I ever. Learn how to make a variety of good chord progressions or all your songs will start sounding the same. This has always been a problem of mine and it's starting to catch up with me. I learned a lot just from making so much music in a relatively short period of time, but there is still so much left to learn. If you learn as much as you can about chord progressions, and drill chord structures into your mind, you will become a much better musician.

When writing for others, you can't get too attached to what you make
- You need to see everything you make objectively. Even when you think you've made your best work, the other members of the team may not like it at all, and you'll have to rewrite it. I was fortunate to have a team that gave me a lot of creative freedom, but I still needed to do the occasional rewrite.

You can learn a lot when you force yourself to write every day
- In fact I wrote a whole article on this after finishing the soundtrack: Don't Find Inspiration: Create It. It is one of my most popular articles.

- I didn't really do this before I started the soundtrack, but now I can't stress this enough. If you have a 30 track song, and you need to re-record a particular string part but you just left all the tracks labeled as "track 21", "track 22" or something else equally generic, you're going to be miserable trying to figure out precisely which string patch you used before, especially if you first recorded it weeks ago. Label each track with precisely what was recorded, along with any special conditions involved in recording it.

I learned a lot of small technical things as well, but these are the most important, overarching lessons I've learned from writing and producing a score. I think they all can apply to music writing in general. Any other composers or producers wish to share their thoughts?

Head over to to hear a few samples from the game soundtrack: The Regrets of Man, The Inevitable and Legacy of the Dead.

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