Video Games: The top music talents
Field rewards composers with creative latitude
The next generation of bigscreen composers may just emerge from the videogame field.
It’s already begun, with composers like Michael Giacchino (“Ratatouille”) and Christopher Lennertz (“Alvin and the Chipmunks”) receiving their first big exposure in games before getting the call to do TV or features.
“I feel like an A&R person when it comes to discovering what I hope to be the next generation of composers that are coming from new mediums,” says Steve Schnur, worldwide exec of music/marketing for Electronic Arts, a leading interactive-software publisher and distributor.
But, he adds, “I hear the term ‘videogame composer’ a lot. I reject that. Great composers are great composers and, musically speaking, the technology should not lead the way. We try to recognize true talent, whether young talent or established talent.”
Many of the top composers in the game field have few if any feature credits — but most, if pressed, express the desire to “graduate” to the bigscreen. Some are more skeptical than others about whether that’s really possible.
Game composers can make anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 per minute of music, and many games demand 80-100 minutes. There is no backend royalty as in film or TV scores because games do not generate “public performances” as defined by the performing-rights societies collecting that money.
A look at some of the top names in the brave new world of game scores:
Schyman, 55, is one of the few game composers who enjoyed success as a composer in traditional media (mostly TV and low-budget features). He first tackled games back in 1993 (“Voyeur”). “Back then, it was really a backwater,” Schyman recalls.
But orchestral work in TV took a nosedive, and an offer to do a new game that demanded 1950s-era, sci-fi style music (“Destroy All Humans!”) was appealing. For “Bioshock,” which followed, Schyman was able to record a large string section and employ L.A. Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour as violin soloist.
The hugely popular “Bioshock” even inspired a cult of YouTube videos attempting Schyman’s “beastly difficult” (per one YouTuber) Rachmaninoff-esque classical-piano piece. (Schyman finally gave in to requests and put the sheet music on his website.)
“I’m getting to write really interesting music, I’m getting well paid for it, and I’m getting orchestras,” Schyman says. “I’ve found my voice doing videogames.”
Hokoyama, 34, conducted the largest L.A. orchestra yet for a game: 104 players at Sony in late 2007 for the PlayStation 3 game “Afrika.” The Japanese-born, U.S.-based composer recently won the music of the year award for “Afrika” at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
For “Afrika,” Hokoyama says, the producers wanted a “gigantic, sweeping, gorgeous, full-orchestra sound” and spent an estimated $200,000 to record 35 minutes with an A-list ensemble and mix for four days after that. “My ultimate goal would be to do film,” says Hokoyama, who divides his time between his native Japan and the U.S., “but at this point I just want to keep the doors wide open to any field.”
Graves, 36, whose “Dead Space” game music won a BAFTA award, was frustrated by his mid-1990s experiences in the film world. “Unless you were at the top of the totem pole, they just wanted you to rip off something else,” he says from his North Carolina home. “There was no originality whatsoever.”
Then, seven years ago, he was offered his first game and hasn’t looked back.
“The creative freedom is above and beyond anything that I was able to do in film,” he says.
For “Dead Space,” he created an aggressive, visceral soundscape of textures, clusters and aleatoric music reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith or Marco Beltrami.
Zur, 43, is an Israeli-born composer who was busy in children’s TV until he got a game offer in 1996. He’s now done 60 of them, including the popular “Prince of Persia” and “Crysis.”
“In TV and movies,” says Zur, “the music usually will play the scene. Everything is totally locked to the picture. Videogames are the exact opposite. In games, you get to decide what you want the player to feel. It’s all about emotions.” Zur often scores for full orchestra, choir and, as in “Prince of Persia,” exotic ethnic instruments.
A chiptune, or chip music, is music written in sound formats where all the sounds are synthesized in realtime by a computer or video game console sound chip, instead of using sample-based synthesis. The “golden age” of chiptunes was the mid 1980s to early 1990s, when such sound chips were the most common method for creating music on computers. Chiptunes are closely related to video game music, which often featured chiptunes out of necessity. The term has also been recently applied to more recent compositions that attempt to recreate the chiptune sound for purely aesthetic reasons, albeit with more complex technology.
Early computer sound chips had only simple tone and noise generators with few channels, imposing limitations on both the complexity of the sounds they could produce and the number of notes that could be played at once. In their desire to create a more complex arrangement than what the medium apparently allowed, composers developed creative approaches when developing their own electronic sounds and scores, employing a diversity of both methods of sound synthesis, such as pulse width modulation and wavetable synthesis, and compositional techniques, such as a liberal use of arpeggiation. The resultant chiptunes sometimes seem harsh or squeaky to the unaccustomed listener.
Tettix shows HOWTO make “Fake ‘n’ Bake” chiptunes with Reason
Judson “Tettix” Cowan, has taken the time to show us how he makes “Fake ‘n’ Bake Chiptunes” in Propellerheads’ Reason. Which is awesome, because if I ever get off my ass and write that chiptune opera we’ve talked about doing for ages, I’ll probably be doing it in Reason, not in retro hardware.