The Game Audio Tutorial

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Music, Silence, Timbre

Today's post is brought to you by a recent hard drive partitioning disaster and Music4games recent interview with Kevin Reipl.
M4G: What would you like to hear more of from game soundtracks?
Kevin Riepl: More silence, I think a lot of games use music too too much, playing and looping it constantly, under action sequences, under ambient settings, all over. As a gamer, I personally get more engulfed into a game when the sound design takes center stage to convey the environment. Of course I think music is an integral part of gameplay and story, it just seems that its used all too often as a blanket. When voice acting is top notch as is sound design, music can then be brought in to emphasize key story plots or important gameplay sequences.
Kevin's views about wanting more silence in games (or at least less music) is a surprisingly common comment from composers (both for games and films). In a thought provoking discussion (Mike Figgis - Walter Salles - Composer and director : Exploring the collaboration) Mike Figgis describes the over use of music in film like a kind of addiction.
Mike Figgis: ...a really important question for filmmakers is: When do you introduce your first piece of music on the film? And my experience is this, I try now not to put any music on for a long long, long time. Because I know that the minute I use fifteen seconds of music the film has lost its virginity, and has become a kind of sex maniac. In a way it just can’t have enough. And it has worked really well as a virgin up until that point, and then the minute you put something on you kind of go, wow, now it really sounds like a film, let’s get some more of that stuff. And then the temptation is just to wallpaper the entire film with delicious music that you have stolen from somewhere else.
One of music's most important roles in film is realised simply by being there. Stephen Deutsch, (Soundscapes : The school of sound lectures)
‘In most films , the appearance of any music at all is a signifier of emotional content. When the music comes on , we are told that the scene is invested with emotional significance and is different from those scenes which contain no music.’
So by having music there all the time in a game we are actually undermining it's effectiveness. (The increasingly blurred boundaries between 'musical' atmospheres and 'sound design' will have to wait until another post !)

Kevin goes on,
Also, I think video games need to stray away from trying to have the Hollywood sound. That certain sound that has become sort of a ‘brand’ in Hollywood is now heavily leaking into games and is causing many upon many of the games out there to sound very similar. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying there is anything wrong with that style of music and by all means I am all for and love cinematic epic style writing and some games indeed call for that, but I honestly think if the industry as a whole had more confidence in being who they are and stopped trying to emulate film, it would allow composers more freedom and a wider palette to provide a signature sound for a game. Also, I think as an industry we have already met the standard of film and have passed it. Video games and film need to now head off in their own respective evolving direction.
I'm not one of those people who think that the only real 'game music' was from the glory days of 8-bit chip tunes but I think the point is well made. I was struck by how widespread the homogenisation of the 'Hollywood' score towards the orchestral template is when I tried to think of a single 'blockbuster' hollywood film in recent years that didn't have a full orchestral score (+ the obligatory pounding percussion) - I couldn't. If we look at the top grossing movies 2007 you can see what I mean (I can't speak for 'Wild hogs' as I haven't seen it and, unless trapped at 30,000 feet in some sort of in-flight-movie-hell, probably never will). (See also the USA top 100 box office films). In aspiring to create the 'blockbuster' game (particularly 1st / 3rd person shooters) it seems like game directors and producers are adopting a similarly myopic stance.

In the music history class during my first degree we were once given an assignment - 'Write the history of western music on the back of a postcard'. (I'm a great believer that if you really, truly understand something that you should be able to explain it simply and concisely - otherwise you don't really understand it, so this is in my view a great assignment to do on any subject !). Being immersed in the detail of music history at the time of course I thought it impossible, and failed miserably. Now however I think I may have at least a stab at fitting it onto the back of a postage stamp instead. The history of western music perhaps goes as follows :

Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Timbre.

I think that in the age of timbre it is time that game producers had the confidence in their composers to allow them to use a wider palatte of instrumentation and sound. It's interesting to note how the film soundtracks that have explored this have become so influential (I'm talking about 'scored' movies here - not ones that use a lot of soundtrack music).

Morricone's 'westerns', Vangelis 'Blade Runner', Mancini's 'Pink Panther', Bernard Hermann's 'The day the earth stood still', and 'Taxi driver' (not to mention the unusual use of strings in 'Psycho') and other iconic scores are characterised not purely on their melodic / harmonic / rhythmic approach but by their instrumentation.

So a call for less music - more timbre ?

How does all this relate to my personal hard drive tragedy ? Well the drive that went down was the drive called 'Patches' that, in addition to having various commercial sample banks (which given endless patience I can reinstall), had numerous sample patches that I'd put together over the last few years. So given this discussion maybe it's a good impetus to get out the mic and start creating some new ones instead of reaching for the nearest 'Orchestral sample patch 101' ?

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