Arctic-based themes giving you brain freeze? Winter has come to your game, and you’re stuck out in the cold?
I've been thinking about the cold a lot lately, mostly because it is ridiculously cold here right now. Standing out in the snow, my mind began to wander about, touching on how we compose snow, ice, and deep chills into our video game soundtracks.
Snowfall, frozen water, a winter wonderland or a chilling reminder of our mortality... how do we capture these elements and moods with music?
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing a little chill into our songs.
Cold Comfort Comps
Lots of games like to dabble a bit where it’s cold. Whether it’s a seasonal event, a chilly land to explore, or a frosty art backdrop, you may be asked to compose something appropriately icy. Look to your game design and ask your producer/lead designer about what emotions the cold-theme is trying to enhance. Slogging through snow in a desperate attempt to find shelter needs quite a different approach than a facebook game having a Winter Holiday Fun Event. While there are certainly tactics to create generic glacial themes, knowing which moods to enhance is an important first step.
Cold immediately makes one think of slowing down, and we can use that to our advantage. A tempo that starts out moderato but slows down at ends of phrases reinforces that feet-turn-to-ice effect. Using a 3/4 time signature for cold themes creates a sense of a waltz on ice, likely thanks to Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite.
If your game calls for a more upbeat winterland, such as a race or timed event, switch to a 6/8 rhythm instead. That way you'll still get the icy waltz feel, without it getting bogged down.
Instruments to mull over
How often do you get to use sleighbells in your compositions? Basically, only when you're trying to compose a sense of cold/snow/ice. They're really easy to use in songs, and are lots of fun. Just accent the first beat of a triplet, and once in a while, a secondary accent on the third of the triplet.
For tuned percussion, chimes, vibraphones, xylophones, and glocks (no, not the gun), are a must.
Tremolo strings will work nicely, but also try high, sustained strings.
The (not-so) secret, is reverb. Use a bit more than usual, but never too much. The bouncing resonance will help connote a cold frigid landscape, perfect for your wintery tunes.
Parting thoughts… for as you know, Winter is Coming
Given all the resources of the internet from google to youtube, it’s best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Figure out what games are doing similar things to yours, and hear the commonalities for yourself. Keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design, but remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no sugar cookie-cutter recipe for crafting music for ice tombs, tundras, or holiday events. Hopefully warming up to this entry takes a little of the edge off from composing a chilly tune!
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.