If you’re looking at making a career composing music for video games, you are probably thinking about scoring the next Destiny, God of War or BioShock. And those are certainly great gigs, developed by incredible companies spending tens of millions with teams of hundreds of ‘elite’ game developers and hardworking, super-talented composers. Land one
of those, and you will be part of an awesome sound team, often made up of a dozen or more audio specialists: composers, sound designers, technical integrators, VO directors and managers and more. Your job will be to compose, and pretty much nothing else.
However, those large-scale, large-budget games (“AAA” games), represent only a very small number professionally created video games each year. For every “Mass Effect,” hundreds of small, 2-50 person teams make games for mobile devices, Virtual Reality, PC’s and even the major game consoles, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. And the team makeup for these is drastically different from the big AAA games; in particular there is little, if any specialization, especially for audio.
These companies aren’t looking separately for a composer, a sound designer, etc for their game. More often than not, they are looking to contract a single “audio person” to handle all their game's audio needs.
And here’s one of the lesser known facts about writing music for video games:
Most Game Composers are also good Sound Designers
According to the most recent GameSoundCon survey, almost 3 in 4 game composers say they also do sound design. In fact, they often are responsible for everything that comes out of the speakers for the game: music, ambiances, sound effects, voice over recording and sometimes even script-writing.
In a small game studio, people are expected to wear many hats: programmers double as the "IT" team, game concept artists double as 3D modelers, the game designer doubles as "the game trailer person," etc. A game team of 5-10 is not going to have 2 or 3 working on audio. To best fit in with these teams, the “do it all” game composer/sound designer has a clear advantage over the person who only knows how to write music. If you say “sorry, I don’t do sound design,” they may reply, “sorry, we’ll have to get someone else.” According to the most recent GameSoundCon Survey data, more than 40% of non-AAA games had just a single person create all the audio content: music, SFX, VO recordings—the works.
So, if you want to be a working game composer, here are tips to increase your employability for these smaller, yet still very serious and well paying, game companies by getting started in sound design.
Take Sound Design Seriously
This should go without saying. While it’s natural you that will be the most enthusiastic about your composing and music production, how well you do on the sound design will factor greatly in whether they use you again, or—worst case, they drop you mid-way through the gig. Chances are you will find that good sound design has challenges not dissimilar to composition or orchestration—figuring out how various sound elements work (or don’t work) with each other and combining sounds in compatible ways. You may even discover you enjoy using sound as well as music to help tell the story.
Use your composition chops to your sound design advantage
For many styles of games, many of the ‘sound effects’ can be more accurately described as ‘musical flourishes’ or fanfares. Think of a brass fanfare when you find a hidden treasure item, or a musical glissando when you collect an item. Far from diegetic game Foley that make up most AAA sound effects, these musical sound effects also must fit in well with the background music and other sounds.
When quoting on games, I treat ‘musical sound effects’ differently from other sound effects, and charge more for them accordingly. (My rule is “if I can write it down on music paper, and is more than one instrument, it’s a musical sound effect”).
Get a broad-based, professional sound library
As with any other aspect of your game audio career, proper tools are essential. You should count on investing between $500 and $2,000 on a professional, broad-based sound library. Although it is tempting to pick and choose ‘one of’ sound effects off the internet as needed, having a local, fast indexed, general purpose library will increase your productivity by literally orders of magnitude. When a deadline is looming, you can’t afford to be wasting time google searching various ala-carte sound libraries online. Companies like Sound Ideas or Pro Sound Effects have excellent, broad-based sound libraries at a variety of price points.
Create interesting, layered sound effects
Very few game sound effects are simple recordings. To keep your sound design quality high, create interesting and unique composite sound effects by combining multiple individual recordings and using appropriate DSP effects (pitch shifting is especially useful!). Then, you won’t have your game producer say “hmm..that sound sounds familiar” if they recognize a particular explosion or car crash sound (yes, that happens more than you’d think).
[even better is to learn to use the game audio design tools like Wwise, FMOD, etc to create complex composite and interactive/variable sound effects—we’ll cover that in a future post].
Look for a DAW with ‘sound search’ capability
Your music DAW may or may not be the best for sound design. You want to be able to very quickly and easily search your 20GB sound library by keyword or description and be able to easily drag sounds from the library into your DAW. I originally bought Reaper just for its integrated media search engine. Later I discovered Reaper is an excellent DAW for sound design —I can almost instantly go from needing individual elements to make a complex sound effect to having several wave files populated in Reaper tracks. Reaper is also nice that it is inexpensive ($60 for nonprofessional use, $225 for professional use) and comes with a lot of very usable DSP effects. You can also install it on multiple computers without any dongle hassles.
Buy an affordable portable recorder and acoustic mic shield
No matter how good your broad-based sound effects library is, there will be times you need to record custom sound effects. A hand-held device such as a Zoom H4n makes it very easy to sounds which are more precisely tailored to the games’ specific needs. Hint: as you create your own sound effects wave files, tag them appropriately with descriptive words and put them where your DAW’s ‘sound search’ functionality can find them. A decent enough mic shield can be had for about $100, and is essential if you want to be able to record simple VO in your home studio.
...or considering partnering up with a sound designer
If you really have no interest in doing sound design, consider partnering up with someone who does. Ideally, that person would be fluent not only in sound design, but also the specific game audio tools such as Wwise and FMOD Studio used most commonly by game developers. As an audio team, the game studio will still have just one point of contact (which they like), and the two of you will own the overall aesthetic. Many successful game audio outsourcing companies have started just this way.
Owning the big picture
One of the advantages of being both the composer and sound designer in a game is you directly own the complete aesthetic—During the parts of the game where you’ve created sound effects with a lot of low end (say explosions, earthquakes, etc.), you can keep the music free of bass sounds or low percussion. Not to mention the possibilities that lie in doing the sorts of coordination between music and sound effects found in games like Peggle Blast. These are the sorts of games whose composers/sound designers really stand out and win awards and are only achievable when game composers embrace their inner sound designer with both hands.
So, as a composer who wants to do more video game composition, consider using your musical ear and stretching into sound design. In addition to finding it interesting and challenging, you may find it to be lucrative as well.
Brian Schmidt is a 30 year veteran of the game audio industry and the Founder and Executive Director of GameSoundCon