Have you ever stopped to sit down and think, “What kind of music am I going to put into my game?” If you haven’t, you really should. Sit down and think about classic games, games that have withstood the test of time and will remain memorable for years to come. What are you imagining? If you’re anything like me, you’re seeing their vibrant landscapes, feeling the excitement of their challenges, and naturally, hearing the sounds of their worlds. If you want your game to truly shine, you can’t overlook music and audio.
This has made it challenging for us at the Black Shell Media blog to be able to write about such a topic. Our team is comprised of many colorful and interesting people. We have designers, games journalists, artists, developers, and even a photographer. However, we don’t have any audio guys. Because of this I got in contact with a good friend of mine and professional composer, Jabari Alii, to speak with us today about how you go about creating an awesome soundtrack your fans will never forget.
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So Jabari, Every story has a beginning and it is always interesting to learn the humble starts where the giants in the industry we see today have come from! Tell me, how did you make the jump into videogame composing?
I’ve always been an avid gamer and a dedicated musician, so this has been a very natural, professional progression. I can still remember those classic melodies from playing Legend of Zelda on Gameboy back in the 90s. This was back when I was just a kid playing jazz piano. Even then I knew I wanted to work with games, I just wasn’t sure how best to approach it. Fast forward twenty years and I was playing classical piano gigs as well as working as a freelance producer and engineer. However on my off time I would play League of Legends and admire the score. I thought to myself, “I’d love to make this kind of music.” Along the way I learned a lot about what makes a great game, and just how big a role music plays in that process. I was able to attain an ear for all the little details, not just because I’m a musician, but also because I’m a gamer. I love game music. I listen to Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) the same way someone else might listen to Rihanna and Drake.
But it wasn’t until a year ago that I took that leap from gamer to professional composer. I had just released my classical piano album Prelude To Everything, and while shooting a promo video for the CD, I worked heavily with a violinist named Somin Lim. This reignited my taste and passion for cinematic and orchestral score, so I decided to give it a shot. I studied the music, invested in a couple VSTs, and started composing. I loved it! I was really having a lot of fun, and the music seemed to be pretty good. But I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to get serious until I met a composer named David Earl. David is a great game composer who has worked on a ton of noteworthy projects, his most recent being Headlander by Double Fine. He took me under his wing, gave me some great feedback on my music and introduced me to a few people in the industry. The positive feedback from people who were already in the industry combined with my love for videogames and my appreciation for the music turned my spark into a fire. I haven’t looked back since.
Since you do contract work for game developers looking to outsource their music, it’s always important to be able to show what you can bring to the table. What projects have you worked on in the past and why should people come to you specifically?
I have a strong history in music composition and audio production. I studied Music Education at Howard University and for over a decade I’ve worked as a classical pianist, music producer, and studio engineer. This combined knowledge of the software, technology, and music theory has translated well into my game composition and sound design. I have the ability to compose music in a wide range of emotions and genres. I can create big epic orchestral scores, suspenseful gripping horror music, fun electronic beats for puzzle games, and anything in-between.
I also have skills in sound design and implementation, and can work with Wwise and FMOD. This triple threat of composition, sound design, and implementation is very hard to find, yet almost essential for smaller studios working with tight budgets. Having one person work audio also helps to streamline the organization and productivity of a project. I currently have not worked on any games but I do have demo reels available. I also plan to release gameplay demos later this month after GDC. This will allow developers to see my music, sfx, and implementation in action. Every artist starts out a little wet behind the ears and needs an opportunity to prove themselves and show their merit. I have no doubt that I’m ready for that chance.
As all avid gamers know- videogames are an incredibly unique medium. No matter how much some people would like them to be- they are not films, comics, or any other sort of linear media. What is different about making music for videogames compared to other artforms?
The biggest difference in regards to video game music versus music for other media is the implementation. Well-crafted game audio consists of seamless loops that blend perfectly with the sound design instead of overshadowing it. Furthermore adaptive game music is essential in the modern era of gaming. Adaptive game music has a life of its own and develops in parallel with the gameplay, accenting the visual art, and complementing the sound design.
For example, in a basic shooter game, you might have several different levels. Not only do you need a great score to bring emotion to each level, but within each score, you need multiple stems and loops that can be manipulated to reflect the various game states. Not to mention intuitive stingers and short cues for unique game triggers and events. Adaptive game music allows you to fade out the horns and drums in the music when your player goes into stealth or transition into the epic final movement when your back up arrives. In other forms of music, regardless of how complex it may be, the music remains linear. In games, the music has to adapt and interact with the user.
Now, here at the Black Shell Media blog we’re all about information. We do our best to set up new developers with the tools they need to make their game a success. What would you say is the biggest mistake you often see game developers do in regards to music?
I’d say the biggest mistake one can make is to cut corners. The importance of music is constantly overlooked because when it’s done right, you hardly notice it. But that’s the point. A great score will sit in the background and embellish the tone and emotion of the scene, without getting in the way of all the sound design and gameplay.
A great score is like the support in a MOBA or the healer in an MMO, very easy to neglect but indisputably critical to success. Not only does the music need to sound great, but it also needs to be relevant and highly adaptive. I know that some developers think it’s okay to just throw a loop over each level and be done with it. Taking the time to build immersive music that constantly changes and reacts to the gameplay will give the user a much more positive, interactive, and believable experience.
So, you’ve brought up how good music needs to loop, but also needs to have a dynamic aspect to it. Wouldn’t a developer be able to buy stock music which has already been configured to have the kind of dynamic flexibility they would need? What benefit does contracting custom work provide to a studio?
I understand that time and money are the biggest factors that go into decision making for a games development studio. This can make stock music very appealing. The biggest problem with settling for stock music, however, is continuity. If you only plan to use one or two cues on your whole game, say for a simple mobile puzzle game, then stock music may not be a bad choice. However, if you’re going for anything bigger, more complex, interactive and realistic, a composer should be hired. One who can create a suite of compositions around a central theme or instrumental palette.
It’s all about being believable and immersing the player in to the experience. When the same composer works on an entire game they are able to create a familiar atmosphere that the user can identify with throughout the game. This also allows you as the developer to get exactly the right tone and style for your game, versus trying to find the closest fit with limited options. The flow between one cue and another, as well as the overall musical quality and consistency of your game, will be much greater when under the roof of one composer – hence why this is such a common practice for larger studios. Having your music composer also work your sound design and implementation can streamline your workflow, and do wonders for your budget. Ultimately it is an ideal approach for indie developers. Because I realize needs and budgets vary, I am available to compose a custom suite of musical scores for developers, and also have pre-composed scores available as well.
Do you have any advice you can give to aspiring game developers that might help them when it comes to their soundtracks?
- Take your time and get it right. Find a composer who makes good music but also who is genuinely excited about the game you’re making.
- Create a lot of cues and make them all highly immersive and adaptive. As an avid gamer, I can attest to the popular opinion of being underwhelmed by obviously simple, cheap sounding loops.
- If appropriate and possible, have sound design, composition, and implementation all handled by the same person. This just streamlines everything and makes the whole team’s workflow better. And it gives the audio a much more cohesive feel.
- Be original. Try not to sound like anyone else or to have your music and sfx too cliché or typical of your genre. You will stand out from the competition and your fans will love you for it.
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And there you have it! I know I’ve certainly learned things I’ve never even thought about from Jabari. Big shout out to him for giving his time to the Black Shell Media blog! If any of you guys have further questions about sound design for Jabari, or even want to go about contracting him, he can be reached here.
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