All systems alert! Composing to commence in three, two, o-error! Milestone detected!
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for future-tech, sci-fi, arcade-like shooter games. The kind of game that gets the blood pumping, there's plentiful explosions, enemies flying across the screen... all set to a fast-paced soundtrack that just won't quit.
Iconic Space Battles
A lot of sci-fi arcade shooter games draw inspiration from techno. That would be where to start, but metal and electronica are also great considerations. Youtube these to start getting to hear what sound patches you can use for your compositions. If you're looking for a more retro title (who could forget the awesome soundtrack to Star Control II?), mixing in chiptunes and other low-fi samples would make a fine choice. Look for games similar to your design and know your target platform. A casual game for the iPhone is going to sound a lot different than an XBLA title.
Heavy accents on every beat in an allegro, 4/4 time signature creates the energy necessary for a gamer to fly into the dangerzone (I think I just dated myself!). Super-fast 1-beat triplets at the start of a phrase are great to use four in a row for a measure, quickly followed by slower quarter, or half notes in the next. In the last beat of a melodic phrase, tear it up with quick sixteenth notes right before you move into your next melodic motif.
Instruments of Mass Destruction
Electronic music has a wide variety of samples to reinforce a sci-fi, high-tech feel. Start with a synth bass, an electric piano, metal guitar strums, and a vicious techno drum kit. If you throw in synth strings occasionally, it will really up the production value by giving it a more orchestrated and professional vibe. An electric guitar as the lead melody works well depending on the game, otherwise try synth brass stingers behind a more subdued electronic keyboard.
Upgrades and Powerups
Anything buzzy should go through a resonance filter sweep. Keep a bit of the buzz at the tail end and then fade out.
Start in a minor key, but play with the relative major often. This gives a forward-moving drive to your melody so that it doesn’t feel like it sits.
Try multiple, different bass samples playing your composed bass line. At key moments in the song, take another synth bass and layer it on a couple octaves higher.
Parting thoughts… before you insert coin to try again
It’s always best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Hear what the market is looking for and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. While there are no easy schematics for crafting exciting space battles or robot invasion music, this entry should give you a jumpstart to power up your compositions!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.