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Using a Live Orchestra in Game Soundtracks

May 20, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

The paper is directed toward producers, designers and executives in the video game industry. Therefore, this article is not going to be about orchestration techniques, doublings, notation for today's orchestras, and so on. It's about why to use an orchestra in first place. What will it do for your game and probably most importantly, for your production process?

Jack Wall conducting the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle, WA for the Myst III: Exile score.

The only reason to use a live orchestra in a game soundtrack would be to make the game better than if you had not used an orchestra; to make the game more immersive, more engaging, more fun than if it didn't include the orchestra. And on the business side, it would be helpful if you could sell enough units to pay for it. That's it, basically - the rest will just be commentary. But, then you might say: "Of course a live orchestra would make our game better, but we can't afford it!" Well, my goal by the end of this paper is to communicate just one thing: In order to make a game that would truly be better due to using an orchestra, can you really afford not to use one?

Composition, and the Sound of the Orchestra

I am a composer. I compose music that goes along with a mood, a visual. I help to drive the action or drama along. But composing the music, which is arguably the most important part of the music production process, is not the only element of the music that matters. There is the sound of the music itself. How the sounds are made is worth quite a bit to the overall value of a piece. I have always had to pay attention to the sounds in a composition, because my first job in music was as a recording/mix engineer. I was fortunate to start my music production career that way, as it has allowed me the opportunity to really study the elements of a particular musical mix in great detail. Thus, I learned how to understand the processes of making a musical piece sound better. Unless, you understand these processes and how they affect the music, it's hard to see the worth of them. And so I write this paper.

But, whether you are an engineer or not, you can still hear a distinct difference between a given composer playing every instrument in their composition, and an orchestra full of virtuosi adding their individual, distinct flavors, coloring the sound of the music. Yes, Maria, the hills are, indeed, alive!

The added value of the live orchestra in a game soundtrack, then, comes primarily from its sonic and dynamic benefits. Of course there is more. Orchestras can do things that no sample can do or even imitate. The orchestra becomes a wonderful tool for the composer. In composing for an orchestra and not orchestral samples, there is really nothing in the way to halt creativity. A side benefit is that it puts loads of pressure on the composer to do extraordinary work (pressure, by the way, that the composer will always welcome!). And, it excites the entire game production team, as they all know there will be very little difference, if any, between the quality of the sound of the music in their game title, and that of the blockbuster playing at their local megaplex down the street.

So what about the pros and cons of recording a live orchestra for your video game title? Well, of course, you have to make sure that you don't screw up. Imagine blowing a session with 50 to 75 people who are going to get paid whether your music is playable or not. Ouch. Fortunately, this doesn't happen too often. You can imagine why. It's important to put the right team of people together to make the sessions successful.

What orchestral recording options are available? What are the various costs in putting together a budget? Where are the orchestras? I will touch on all of these aspects of using a live orchestra in a game soundtrack. But, the essential point I would want to make here is that the live orchestra is a viable option for today's best games.

Conductor score for Myst III: Exile.

Why Use an Orchestra? (Or "Why should I spend that kind of money on music?")

The Technology is Ripe
So we are all on the same page, let me define a few terms. Digital music is the linearly played-back music we are all used to listening to. It comes on CDs, MP3 files and streamed over the internet, etc. Midi music consists of Midi commands (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that trigger General Midi or DLS sounds. General Midi sounds are a set of 127 instruments that are included as a standard in various devices that playback music - Quicktime, Winamp, Microsoft Media Player all have general midi sound banks included within their software. DLS sounds enable the user to be able to load custom instruments into General Midi sound banks which can subjectively improve the quality of the sounds. For all intents and purposes, digital music sounds markedly better in almost every case because the composer goes from a palette of127 instruments to an infinite supply of instruments in the production process.

Now, what do I mean by the technology being ripe for orchestra then? First of all, right now the latest platforms and technology support it. Digital music can now be played back in interactive ways never before imagined. When I first got into the game industry six years ago, many otherwise smart people were adamantly arguing in favor of MIDI files as opposed to digital music in games to allow greater interactivity. The main problem I had with this wasn't even the quality of the sound of Midi music (although this has always been a problem). It was the fact that the composer would be creatively hampered by the fact that he had so small a palette to with which to compose and create. Stifled creativity. Yuck. I wanted no part of it. Most composers want their sonic palette left wide open so that they don't have to compromise their vision of what the music should be. Using the orchestra is the epitome of this freedom, especially since today it's fairly straightforward to combine electronic instruments with the orchestra - you can have the best of both worlds, often within the same piece of music. Contrast that with a general MIDI file. Now that's freedom! I don't want to give the impression that there is anything wrong with electronic scores. On the contrary. My studio is full of electronic gear with lots of great sounds and music production tools. I have scored many a game within those four walls just fine. But my orchestral music recorded with full orchestra sounds better. And it always will, because of its…

Dramatic Effect

There have been many fine electronic scores done for video games and movies for that matter. But when you bring warm bodies into the recording studio and you hand them their parts and they begin to play, it always sounds better than the electronic demo of the same music. It has that "X" factor. It feels real; it feels fresh and alive. The players bring something new and multidimensional to the music that one person simply cannot originate on his or her own. The composer is the visionary, but the players become the conduit to the sublime. Once you watch and listen to the players in the studio, and then hear the final mix, it's hard to justify making music any other way. Not that electronic instruments aren't extremely useful and many times desired. I just think it's important to use the best of both the electronic world and the real-musician-playing world to get the finest results.

After the first hour of the Myst III: Exile session, the producers, the designer, and every associate from the publisher and developer came up to me individually and said how they never imagined how intensely awesome this was going to be. You could see it in their eyes. It changed them. It changed their perspective on music for games. It gave the entire production a major shot in the arm which carried all of us through until we went to gold master. We all realized at that session that it's possible to make games in the future that are state-of-the-art in every facet of their production, including music.

Sellable Commodity as a Soundtrack CD
The argument has to be made that it is rapidly becoming time to create the music for games market. The soundtrack CD needs to be sold and marketed. But not by the gaming industry. Rather, the game soundtrack CDs should be marketed and sold by the established music industry at the launch of the game. Strategic partnerships need to be created in order to accomplish this. The game publishers are not in the music business; the record companies are. And the record companies are interested. They want to tap into the 8+ billion dollar video game industry pie. The main question then, is: Where is the added value? Where does added value on a soundtrack CD come from? A live orchestra is one way. Perhaps a major label artist tied to the CD might be another. In both cases, a label would have to be involved to bridge the gap between the game world and the music world. This would certainly help foster new markets for the game world. Of course, this is an entire separate subject, but the point I want to make is that a soundtrack album needs to have serious music on it. The music has to live on it's own, apart from the game. This brings new audiences to games by letting other markets know there is quality in gamedom. Recording an orchestra goes a long way to ensuring that people unfamiliar with gaming begin to see that games are a serious form of entertainment.

The Main Reason You Should Have Your Composer Score with a Live Orchestra

Of course, not every project warrants using a live orchestra. It's expensive, it takes real planning and design, and it takes a serious coordinated effort between producer, designer, audio programmer and composer (not to mention the "team" that I will talk about shortly) in order to make it worth it. Many smaller projects not only don't have the budget for an orchestra, but they also don't have the time to maximize its use and implementation into the game. But, I'd like to put forth the idea that any project with a production budget of $3 million US, where appropriate, should have at least some of the score recorded with an orchestra. The main reason is that there are enough recording options in and out of North America that a 3 percent allocation of budget funds to music would, with proper planning, allow an orchestral score to be part of your production.

But still you might ask: How will this make my game better? This really is the important question. Everyone knows that when you have something of intrinsic value -- like a nice car -- you are inclined to take better care of it. The same goes for recording an orchestral score for your game. It has a greater value to everyone involved in the making of the game. They will care about the music, and therefore the game, that much more. And because of that value, you will make sure there is real planning and design for the implementation of this music in your game. And, because you're investing your money and, now your planning and design time, you will make sure that the music usage is coordinated well into the game. And guess what? The music not only sounds better, it functions better in the game. And that, my friend, makes a better game.

Recording console in truck. Seattle, WA

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