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Inside a Game Soundtrack

October 1, 2009
Most of the game action comprises fights between the various Demigods, and Mostrom's music ratchets up the intensity as the action progresses.

Most of the game action comprises fights between the various Demigods, and Mostrom's music ratchets up the intensity as the action progresses.

There are many similarities between composing music for films and for videogames, but there are also significant differences. Because game composers generally don't get the notoriety that their film-scoring peers do, the procedures involved in writing game music are less well-known.

To help shed some light on the process, I spoke with Howard Mostrom, staff composer at Gas Powered Games, a developer in Redmond, Wash. Mostrom has scored a number of games for Gas Powered, including the recently released Demigod, which will be the focus of this story.

Getting In the Game

Mostrom is a sax player who cut his teeth in the commercial music field working as a staff engineer at Triad Studios in Redmond. “We'd have a wide variety of clients,” he says. “One day we'd do a TV spot, the next day recording orchestra for a WB [network] trailer, a rock band or whatever; it was all over the place. I would write, produce and perform music whenever there was a need. We also did some game stuff. And that was kind of my introduction into games.”

One of the Triad clients was Frank Bry (pronounced “Bree”), the audio director at Gas Powered Games. Bry, says Mostrom, “kind of coaxed me into game audio. When we worked together at the studio, he was always trying to get me into games because we worked really well together. I made the switch, and I've been loving it ever since.”

Early Stages

Because Mostrom is on staff at Gas Powered Games, he's involved in projects at an earlier stage than a freelance composer might be. In the case of Demigod, a game in which the player (or players, as it's often a multiplayer online game) chooses to be one of the eight “Demigods” and fight it out for who will “join the Pantheon of true gods,” Mostrom familiarized himself with the game — which was still a work in progress — by playing it.

“I started playing the game as much as I could so I could get the pacing and the overall feel of where things should go,” he says. When I ask him if it is typical for a composer to play the game before writing the music, he replies, “I know it should be. I'm not sure how typical it is. I know some people do and some people don't. But for anyone who was integrated as I was into the project, it's a necessity.”

After getting a sense for how the game worked, Mostrom began working on some of the sound-design elements. (Throughout the project, Mostrom, along with Bry, developed the numerous sound effects for the game.) “I would put sound effects in place, even if they were just temp,” Mostrom recalls, “so that they could give me feedback for the game's soundscape and pacing. I like to do that before I write so I know what frequencies to work off of, and I'm not fighting with the sound effects as much.”

At that juncture, the working version of Demigod not only had temp sound effects, but also a lot of temp graphics. At the point at which composers do much of their work on a game, the art elements are frequently still being hashed out. “You're working off of concepts, so it can be vague,” he says. “Sometimes there will be different phases of the art in place. Usually, it's just like a block, or a very vague form of what the creature is. And it will be working in the game, but it doesn't have all of its art facets in place.”

Getting Musical

The first decision for Mostrom was the score's musical direction. “Choosing an instrument palette was probably the toughest thing to do in the process,” he explains. “If you listen to the music, there's not much brass at all, and there's no choir either.”

Instead, Mostrom combined elements of orchestral and ethnic instrumentation (see Web Clip 1). “I didn't want it to sound like I was featuring any ethnicity,” he says. “I wanted it to sound like it was another world. Instruments included Duduk and Tambura [wind instruments]. “A lot of the stringed instruments are ethnic, as well,” he says. “It's kind of all blended together.”

At first, Mostrom had to submit ideas to higher-ups at the company for approval. “Once they knew my general direction, they were very happy with where I was going with it.” At that point, he was able to continue without needing constant sign-offs.

Although he eventually mixed the game music in Digidesign Pro Tools, much of the composing and arranging work was done in MOTU Digital Performer, and was often in the MIDI realm. His instruments included those in the Native Instruments Komplete bundle, as well as Submersible Music's DrumCore, among others. He used orchestral sounds from a range of collections, including those from EastWest and the Vienna Symphonic Library.

Mostrom, who was a music major in college, deftly handled the classical orchestration. Although there were some live recorded wind and percussion parts on the soundtrack, the strings were all programmed, yet sound very realistic (see Web Clip 2).

He played many of the MIDI wind instrument tracks using an Akai EWI. “It was really fun using it,” he says, “because you can be so much more expressive than with a regular controller.”

Mostrom also created custom instrument sounds to help create the feeling of otherworldliness that the game required. “I did a lot of custom sound design work for the drums,” he says. “I actually went out and recorded a bunch of crazy things: Axes hitting a huge garage door and stuff like that.”

Many of the percussion sounds ended up being heavily layered (see Web Clip 3). “I wanted those big hits to be their own and not sound like anybody else's,” he says. He would often pitch the samples down to make them sound even bigger. “I would treat the drum hits more like a sound effect. Some of the drum hits would have 30 different elements for the hits themselves.”

Don't Annoy Me

Howard Mostrom is a staff composer at Gas Powered Games.

Howard Mostrom is a staff composer at Gas Powered Games.

One of the differences between game and film/TV composing is that in a game, a piece of music often repeats numerous times. Therefore, composing themes that won't become tiresome when heard over and over is an important consideration. “If the themes are too dumbed down and you can't get them out of your head,” Mostrom says, “it gets kind of annoying.”

So does that mean he is trying not to write memorable themes? Well, not quite. “For me, it's all about choosing your moments for where you want your themes to stick out,” Mostrom says. “And then trying to make it so those themes aren't repeating so much that they get annoying. It's a very competitive game, and some players play it so much that if they're hearing the same theme over and over, they'll just turn it off.”

In a videogame, different music gets triggered depending on what's happening in game play. “I wanted the overall match [the fight between Demigods] to have different intensity levels,” Mostrom says. “I wanted it to have a climax at the end so it really fluctuates depending on what's going on.

“Because I didn't want there to be a lot of repetition, I have alternate mixes that I'm triggering, as well as different themes that I would use throughout,” he continues. “But the overall pacing and shape to the match was important to me because it's not a game that really has a lot of downtime, you could say. It's pretty much nonstop action (see Web Clip 4).”

This Year's Mod

Demigod's audio engine comprises third-party software — referred to as “middleware” — called Fmod from Firelight Technologies. “Middleware is software,” explains Mostrom, “that interacts with the game. So instead of writing a sound system in code from scratch, you buy this piece of software and you use that in the game. And it's very, very flexible.” With Fmod, Mostrom says, he has “the ability to control every aspect of the audio of the game.”

Among the many sound-related tasks that Fmod takes care of in Demigod are converting the audio to the correct format for output and triggering sound effects. “It can have multiple alternates, so we could have 20 different sounds that trigger and each time it's different,” Mostrom adds. It also helped him set up the game for surround sound.

“I didn't do separate surround mixes,” he explains, “as much as I defined how things would be treated in Fmod. So in Fmod I can determine, basically, ‘Have the music play in the front, and have reverb from the music playing in the rears,'' and things like that.”

Keeping Track

Mostrom has a Pro Tools HD setup with a Digidesign D-Command mixer at his studio at Gas Powered Games. He used it for some of the live instrument tracking, but there is no live room so he could only do basic overdubs there that didn't require a dedicated recording space. As a result, some of the audio tracks were recorded elsewhere.

“I went to London Bridge Studios in Seattle and recorded percussion and drumset,” he says. “We did some really crazy stuff with the percussionists, like recording bowed broken cymbals and things like that. The room sounds really great. I was able to get really huge sounds there.”

Mix and Match

After months of composing and tracking, it was time for the mixing phase, which Mostrom handled entirely separately. Mixing for a game has some additional considerations as compared to a traditional song mix.

For one thing, he had to do separate mixes for the Demigod soundtrack CD and for the music going into the game itself. For the latter, Mostrom had to be careful about the music competing, from a frequency standpoint, with the many and varied sound effects. “There are potentially thousands of sound effects playing at the same time,” he points out. In the game mixes, “Some of the EQ is a little brighter on the top end because I wanted certain elements to pop out more and really cut through.”

He also had to take into account the numerous speaker types that gamers might be using, a difficult factor to consider as there is no hard data available on end-users' speaker choices. “There seems to be a lot of people with really low-end PC speakers,” Mostrom says, “but there are a lot of people who have 5.1 systems, as well.”

To handle this wide variation, Mostrom has eight pairs of speakers in his studio that he switches between while mixing, ranging from a Genelec 5.1 system featuring 8030A monitors and a 7060A subwoofer to a “horrible-sounding” pair of 2-inch computer speakers. Of the latter, he says, “If you make it sound good on those, it will sound good anywhere.”

Finish Lines

Mostrom says that composing and mixing the Demigod score took about six months to complete. “It's hard to say, precisely, because I was also busy with other audio responsibilities at the same time,” he says. All told, he did about 100 minutes' worth of music as well as a lot of sound design and voice-over work.

Mostrom was surprised by how much response he received from his Demigod music. “When we put out the first trailer [the game composer frequently scores the trailer, whereas in a film it's usually handled by someone other than the main composer], I was actually shocked by how much e-mail I got in my personal inbox. I don't even know how they tracked me down.”

As for whether he had any additional advice for readers about game composing, Mostrom says one of the most important traits to have is adaptability. “Be flexible for whatever the scene is, and make sure that the music fits the game.” Imbuing the score with a distinctive sound is also important. Speaking of the Demigod music, he says, “I really wanted you to hear it and recognize, ‘That's from this game.''”


Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer and the host of the monthly Podcast, “EM Cast.”

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