Thursday, 8 August 2013

How to get music in your game without being a professional

I'm not a music composer, but I need music in my game.

This is part 2 in a series of articles describing how I approached each aspect of creating Immortal Empire as an independent developer. You can read the whole backstory here.

One of my favourite things about gaming, in particular when playing RPGs, is enjoying the musical score.  From Jeroen Tel, to Nobuo Uematsu, to Jeremy Soule, there are so many talented composers out there, and I just love listening to game music both in game and out.

So when I started working on Immortal Empire, I knew I wanted it to have a full orchestral score.  Somewhat surprisingly, I don't have an orchestra in my basement, so all the tracks had to be created digitally.  I wrote five of the twenty tracks in the game, the remainder came from a mix of outsourcing to Symphony of Specters (they worked on Castle Crashers, among other things), and a group of composers from the exceptionally talented Renoise community.  The Renoise composers contributed their songs effectively for free (I hosted a small competition with a few prizes), and I was blown away with the quality, community spirit, and overall generosity of this group.

Now while I'm not a professional, I should point out that I do have a background in music, which does make things much easier for me in this area.  I've had formal training in piano and classical guitar, and have been composing MOD music for years as an extremely remote, essentially non-existent member of the demoscene.  So naturally I write music in the excellent, tracker-style program, Renoise.

This article will be discussing how I approached writing music for the game, which you can learn about more in the following video! 

Obviously there's no right or wrong way to create a song, and truthfully the method I use changes depending on the style I'm working on.  But, this is the approach I took for this particular song, so maybe you will find it helpful.  To summarize the video, the steps I took are:
  1. Establish the mood of what you're trying to create.  Have that in the forefront of your mind throughout all the next steps. Ask yourself, does this fit?
  2. Create the rudimentary elements of the song. For the song in the video, I created a motif (in the video I call it the "theme") and a melody.  I generally just use octaves in the left hand and single notes in the right hand to keep things simple at this stage.
  3. Add more complex musical elements, starting in the middle of the whole song.  Put together a single bar that has all the components and instruments you want.  If the bar never sounds right, go back a step and work on the basics again. Once that bar sounds correct, now write the beginning of the song and work up to that bar.  Then create variations on your original concept to finish off the song.
  4. Finishing touches. Listen to the song front to back a few times.  Vary the percussion, fill in gaps that sound empty, and pull back areas that are too cluttered. If you've listened to it 10 times over the course of a few days and it still sounds pretty good, then you might just be done!
I'd also like to briefly touch on another important element of finishing up your song which is audio mastering.  The basic premise is just to take the music you have already written and make it sound better.  Again I am no professional here, but I can give you a few rookie tips to make your song sound more put together.
  1. Panning. This is using stereo to make your song sound more full. Put some headphones on and start placing some instruments a little to the left and others a little to the right. Imagine an orchestra in your head. They're all in front of you for the most part, but the group of violins might be sitting off to one side, the cellos on the other. Emulate this in your song. Adjusting panning can sometimes disturb the instrument volumes you have carefully set, so you might want to keep an eye on them during this process.
  2. Equalization. This is adjusting the low, mid, or high frequencies to fine-tune the tone of your song.  Depending on how much control you have over the samples, you might not need a lot of equalization. As a general rule, I try to use equalization to remove noisy and cluttered frequencies rather than boost areas that sound too thin.  If it still doesn't sound right after this step, I might go back and change out the instrument used.
  3. Compression. This is taking the quiet parts of your song and making them louder, reducing the overall dynamic range of your song to make it sound loud.  My rule of thumb here is to not compress very much.  The reason being that you still want loud parts to sound big relative to the quiet parts.  I usually compress if I find myself wanting to adjust the volume while I'm listening to the song.
  4. Limiting. This is preventing the occasional extra-loud bits in your song from causing distortion by clipping the amplitude peaks.  A limiter will also let you maximize the volume of your song by boosting the input before the clipping occurs.  My rule here is to try and minimize the amount of clipping. You only want a few anomalous blips and blops to be clipped, not a whole loud section.
So that's my process! Writing music is by no means easy and there are a lot of professionals out there who can produce simply amazing results.  But when you're on a budget and can manage with something simple, hopefully the above tips will help you out.

If you want to listen to the soundtrack, you can hear it all for free or download a full quality digital copy for only $7 at  Since Immortal Empire is browser-based, the in-game music was significantly reduced in quality to keep the download size small. The soundtrack of course is mastered at full CD quality, and boy does it make a difference! 

Whether you're a professional composer or an amateur, I'd love to hear any stories you might have with writing music, so feel free to comment below!