Is this the real life, is this just orchestral fantasy?
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing the fantasy genre. Great for RPGs or adventure games, the below may be helpful for those who may be a bit intimidated with using a full orchestra.
Iconic Fantasy Scores
You don’t have to look far for inspiration. Lord of the Rings. Conan the Barbarian. Hollywood knows its stuff when it comes to fully orchestrated, epic fantasy scores. In terms of video games, Heroes of Might and Magic, Elder Scrolls, and Final Fantasy have the genre down. Most of the games I personally love to play are the roleplaying kind, and most of these bring vibrant, lush scores to life. Whether through digital orchestras, live, or a combination, a rich orcestra brings the necessary power and professionalism to a lot of video games.
Instruments of the orchestra
Your mainstays for this genre of music are brass, strings, and timpani. French horns, trombones, tubas, and the occasional heroic trumpet make up your brass section. If you’re finding trouble getting a quality sound from your brass, try to use them only as backup instruments. Use volume attenuation to mimic a sforzando on your climactic moments, or, a strong trombone cluster that starts strong then fades out may be all you need. Strings are a bit easier to compose with. Double all your melodies in octaves. If you’re not comfortable with solo strings, it’s easier to get a realistic sound from strings in a larger group setting. Timpani are large drums that are pitched, so use that to your advantage, by accenting your bass notes.
Tips to level up your score
- Orchestral music is all about drama, and sometimes not so much what’s in your melody. Instruments that make big impacts and weave in and out create the foundation for a dramatic soundscape.
- Repeating doublebass and cello marcato strings striking on every accent beat is an excellent baseline from which you can add dark horns, cymbal rises, and high strings.
- Volume attenuation not only reinforces a sense of drama, but it ups the production value of your samples, making them more realistic.
- Add a flute layered on a trumpet during a heroic moment to your score, you’ll hear the difference.
- Use brass rips (quick low-to-high sound) liberally.
- Thunderous bass drums are your backbone for especially adventurous or tense combat pieces.
- For truly epic moments, try using background choirs to double your high strings.
Parting thoughts… before you go off and save the world
There’s no short supply of fantastic orchestral music, so it’s best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Hear the commonalities for yourself 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. As always, there’s no quick recipe for crafting orchestral fantasy music, but hopefully this entry takes some of the intimidation out of a big orchestra. It’s really a blast getting to conduct a digital orchestra!
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.