Behind the scenes of the video game music industry

The wind is howling. You can hear footsteps in the distance — some knocking and moans of monsters. The general mood suggests that something will happen very soon. Then a wolf’s howl and some indistinct whispers. A chainsaw sound. Is it outside, or is my mind fooling me? I felt uncomfortable and opened my eyes widely when some loud sound appeared. “Listen, oh, how beautiful! Goosebumps! This howl is made only with a violin! Don’t you say you don’t like it”. 

Kacper Kajzderski’s road to music production led through classical music education. He graduated in composing class at Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music in Poznań. Since early childhood, Kacper also spent a lot of time playing computer games besides creating music. A few years ago, during university, he participated in in-game music workshops facilitated by Marcin Przybyłowicz (Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 OST) on Poznan Game Arena. “I usually do not participate in such events; I leaped the opportunity and was exploring the expo. By accident, I came across the stand of two guys presenting the demo of their first game. We chatted a little, but neither one of us would expect that we will see each other again.”

After graduation, he reminded himself about the expo and the people he met there. He found a business card and website of guys he chatted with. “I read about their inspiration” heavy metal hymns of Dio. “I was right after releasing a CD with my metal band, so I got an idea. I e-mailed guys, and one thing led to another – I became part of a Hyperstrange crew, responsible for creating music for their first game – Elderborn.” After years of hard work, the game became a success, and the Hyperstrange crew increased to several dozen people. “While working on Elderborn, I met Piotr “Buffout Boy” Stachera, an electro music producer. We created a few compositions for this game, connecting heavy guitars with heavy electronic sound. Eventually, we decided to set up a cooperation. Since then, we have been working under Ivory Tower Soundworks.”

Music

The characteristic of everyday work depends on the production stage – usually, beginnings are lazier, but the time right before releasing the game or trailer is more ‘hot’. Typical workdays can vary: some days, the composer works only on music or sounding – Kacper prefers to concentrate more on one task. “Sometimes, we have access only to concept arts or game descriptions, and based on that, we have to start creating the first music sketches. Sometimes the team is on such advanced level of production that we have access to ready game excerpts.” When it comes to composing, many ways and methods are endless. It depends on the client’s requirements – some of them have a clear vision of the musical frame. In that case, they send references – links to particular songs, that composers should model their music on. Others have only direction and are waiting for their proposals. “There are times when I work on a piece of music I had been thinking a while, and I know what I am looking for – I know which instruments, what kind of structure and speed to use, and what kind of impact it should have on a player. Sometimes I have an accurate image of some part of music or melody in my head. Other times – I start from scratch. I am sitting with pencil and piece of sheet music paper or with an instrument, and I am looking for sounds or improvising.” In this phase, they clarify the general mood of the soundtrack. “Then usually is ping-pong – we create some music and send it to the client. We get feedback, improving what needs to be improved, and we are doing that as long as we need to satisfy the contractor.” Creating a ready few-minute piece, depending on its complexity, usually takes from a few to a dozen or several dozen hours after throwing a few sketches into the trash. 

Inspirations

“I am looking for inspirations mainly in other music, other games, and art in general. Creative-stimulating for me are books or even articles about creating, not only music and sounds. Interviews with artists can inspire me to work. Sometimes the most inspiring is that an eminent creator was also fighting art-block and other difficulties I am fighting myself.” He listens to very different genres. As a classical musician, he loves the music of Beat Furrer, Gerard Grisey, Morton Feldman, Webern, Brahms, and Wagner. On the other hand, his metal soul craves heavy sounds of Meshuggah, Nile, or Suffocation. “I also follow the work of incredibly creative Norwegian rock band Motorpsycho or listen to albums of Clark or Alva Noto. When it comes to games, I have some “road signs.” Iconic Thief series and its phenomenal sound and music setting by Eric Brosius (especially Thief 3 OST) or Mark Morgan’s official soundtrack to the first two parts of the Fallout series. I have known these pieces for ages, but still going back to them to inspire and breathe some ‘fresh air.”

Sound effects

“Sound effects are a crucial element of all video games, and sometimes I feel they are overlooked. Sound determines the immersion and draws a player into the game’s world. But it’s noticeable only when there are some missing sounds or when the sound design is not good. If our commission involves sound effects, we do everything – starting with User Interface clicks throughout footsteps and gunshots to the wind blowing through the trees.” There are two ways to work on sound designing. You can create sounds yourself or use ready packages from the sound effect library. It may be not that ambitious, but more common in the industry. That explains why you can hear the same sound effects in different games or movies. Creating the sound may be challenging. “Recently, I had to make a sound of opening and a closing wooden chest. I need to build this sound in my imagination from the very details (there are no bad answers). In this case, do I hear the sound of turning the mechanism into some triggers? The rattle of metal lock? Then sound of squeaking wood that is opening the lid of the chest. Therefore in closing this chest, we are also expecting a squeaking sound. But there is a question – how big is that chest? A small box will close with a knock, but a big treasure chest will close with a bump. Next, we need to choose the sample that is some short records. I look over my sound library, searching for phrases such as ‘metallic rattle,’ ‘wood squeak,’ or ‘wood hit.'” After that, he listens to carefully every sample and rates the suitability for the project. “Finally, I choose the sound of keys rattle, door squeak, and hitting on wooden furniture. I’m arranging the sounds on the timeline lowering the pitch of keys rattle with a computer program, to suggest a bigger sound source, and accelerating the door squeak to match the duration of opening the chest. The impact sound – closing the trunk – has desired “wooden” characteristics but lacks power, so I’m improving it by adding a kick drum hit. Sound effect prepared this way is ready to put into the game’s sound engine so that I can try it in action.” There are times when the first attempt fits perfectly. Still, usually, he’s doing some revisions until it clicks. In the meantime, he asks the rest of the team about their opinions or some coding help. “Some days, you got a dozen of sound effects done. Some days are worse when you are out of ideas or sound samples – then you got a few or none at all.”

Implementation

After creating appropriate sounds and music, they need to put it into the game and mix it. They regulate volume levels place sounds in the game world (Doppler effect on the passing train, changing the volume of the footsteps depending on the movement speed of the protagonist or a bird’s twitter disappearing while the character is straying far from the forest). On this level appear the problem of music transitions: what varies video games music and film music is a static character. We have scenes and events leading to a top-down direction in films, so the music follows the picture. Despite often having movie-like elements that perfectly fit the music, games are based on two components – static and interactive character. Static, because game music often captures some state mood and is not connected with the things happening on the screen, illustrating only part of the game world, some location. “The player can visit castle ruins or futuristic city and music will not emphasize that he met a funny character or noticed the track of the dangerous animal. On the other hand, games are primarily interactive, which means that by his actions, the player can very quickly change calm landscape exploring to fight with a dragon, and vice versa. On the other hand, that is an implementation issue; I mean how one music part changes into another. But we need to remind about it already at the level of pre-composition – songs in a different style or completely distant key signature can, simply speaking, not work in the game.”

How to find a job?

There are two scenarios: when you already have a portfolio – some games and trailers with your music, and people, thanks to contact with released content, are finding you because they know what they want and that you can deliver it. The second situation is more common and does not differ from other industries or job applications – “We sent an e-mail including our short description, links to our works and our website. The thing that may vary from typical job applications is that we can create a short sample using the producer’s materials. That means – we edit already existing trailers with our music or sound. Then we got an answer, additional questions about cooperation details, price, we are invited to a short interview, if we are all good – we start a job.”

It sounds like a dream job, especially when you are a gamer. But in fact, these are thousands of hours of sitting behind the screen, meticulously improving small parts of music and samples. Despite the lack of ideas, the work has to be done. Often very successfully, given how popular some official game soundtracks are. All that for you, my dear players, to have the best game impression possible. 

Aleksandra Kanasiuk

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