5 Tips for developers to work more effectively with musicians

(This is an English transcription of the talk Como mejorar la música y el audio de tus videojuegos given at GameDev Santiago).

As a musical producer, my first impression of the video game industry in Chile was that a lot of video game developers doesn’t know how to communicate with musicians, and that it leads music that the developers did not want or need at all. These are a few tips that come from the audiovisual industry and I adapted them to video games I hope they’ll help you to get an excellent soundtrack!

1. Identify the Purpose of the music

When it comes to music, there are a lot of developers who think “I have a game! I need music for this, let’s call a musician”. The issue is that when you have a game, you don’t necessary “need” music, there are a lot of indie titles out there that have almost nothing musical in the soundtrack (when I talk about soundtrack, I mean every sound that’s on the game, sound effects included). As vague as the first idea is, as vague that the result will be, so the first point of this post at all is for you to recognize what’s the purpose that you are going to assign to your songs and themes.

Here I will show you a list of musical purposes that are used in the  industry and the movie industry as well:

To evoke emotion

Is the musical representation of an emotion that is a part of the game, or a particular scene/stage. This is a very good example, the whole OST of this game works around the emotions of the story.

To identify character

Is the musical representation of a character of the game, commonly the protagonist or antagonist. In this example we can listen how the composer managed to represent the origin of the character in the music.

To convey place

This is the musical representation of a place and its characteristics. This is commonly used in RPG’s to represent cities, woods, deserts, etc. In the example, the music perfectly fits the place uniqueness (a tricky and mystic temple).

To convey time

This is the musical representation of a time or age. Almost every game is placed in another timeline; it could be prehistoric, futuristic or medieval, for example. There’s a beautiful game that turned 20 years old a few days ago, and it features time travel, the example is the prehistoric music of the game, temporal identification at its best.

To convey situation

This represents a specific situation of the narrative development of your game. I hate to use so much RPG examples, but Uematsu is one of my favorite video game composers. In the example, the music represents the character and the situation simultaneously, when the player realizes that what just happened, the music comes immediately to support the situation

To give continuity

Continuity is the music that connects two musical pieces that exist in the same stage, or the same scene. Transition is the music that connects a musical piece with another scene or stage. So, this is a movie/cinematic almost exclusive purpose, in this example there’s a lot of analysis to work with, but there are two things that are important to realize. In 0:38, the music volume goes down, so the dialogues could be the main audio of the mix, and in 1:08, the music became a continuity piece that connects with 1:32, when the new music begins.

To give feedback

When you need to represent an action. In the example, at 4:50, there’s a trigger for the music, the player gets 4 stars and new music appears.

To provide contrast

This is an audiovisual tool that became popular with Quentin Tarantino movies; the music represents a contrast to what is happening in the scene. A movie example would be perfect, but I think this is a nice video game approach to the concept.

To represent mechanics

This is a Video Game specific purpose and a really difficult one to compose, puzzle games music is the most representative but figure this example’s boss, you can’t kill him and you don’t know about it, so the music tries to represent that desperation.

To anticipate events

This is the representation of a future situation of the narrative development, terror movies use it to represent the feeling of “something is going to happen”. At 4:32, the music of the example works as a anticipation of the final boss, and prepares the player for what is to come.

2. Think of Instruments and Genre

When you have the first step sort of defined, you’ll have to start thinking in a style and some instruments that will be the support for the music. It’s not necessary a huge level of detail in this point, in the indie videogame industry no musician will ask you to tell him to work in these terms: “Ok, I need 8 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses and a viola da gamba”, but it would be nice if you could tell him that you need “some strings”.

It’s the same thing with genre, it’s enough if you can tell the musician that you need “rock”, or “jazz”, but in the end, it comes for you to know some musical references that can help the musician to find where to start.

3. Compile a List of Keywords

This is a tip that works for almost every artist out there, from concept artist to sound designers. It’s always important to communicate the main concepts of the art that you’re requesting for your game, from emotions, adjectives or even situations, so when the artist makes any progress, they will look the keywords and figure out if they’re missing something important.

4. Identify Sections

For any developer, even experienced ones, it’s always good to remember to be organized with their work, and so it is for visual artists and musicians. A way to make the composers work a lot easier, is that you bring him a list of the “scenarios” from your game, everything that’s in your world, screens, menus, etc. And when you have this list, think in the tracks that you will need for every one of them. There’ll be a lot of situations when a musical piece will be in more than one scenario (the same music could be in the splash, the settings and the main menu, for example), and it’s really important for you and the musician to be aware of this.

5. Find References

As I said before, it is always up to you to communicate clearly with the composer, to let him know exactly what do you want and what do you need for your game. Audio references are an excellent way to do it.

About Felipe Salinas

Felipe Salinas is a Chilean video game composer and sound designer, he studied musical production in "Universidad tecnológica de Chile INACAP". The last year of his career, he dedicated to investigate the Latin American video game industry and its musical and audio production for his university thesis. He’s currently working as a music and audio consultant in a publisher, and working to grow and professionalize the Chilean video game music.