The question is often asked, "How do I get started writing music for video games?" The quick answer is that I know of no two people who got started the same way.
Do you have computer chops? With a few exceptions, they are required. That's because it's not a simple matter of write music/record music/give music files to the game company/collect pay. Most of the time you have to keep technical game sound code requirements in mind. Sometimes you're part of figuring out just what those requirements are through experimentation. And that code is usually particular from company to company or even from game to game within one company. Usually, your music has to be "game ready."
Write, write, write. Yes, it's often difficult to write music without some particular project in mind. But, luck in this business is 99% preparation. You should write at least a song a week. It doesn't have to be something you think is good. Think of some of the junk music you've heard that's made it into the mainstream. Obviously it wasn't junk to some people :-) Keep everything you write. It will come in handy. And hopefully, your junk won't end up being the music that made you popular. This happened to Ian Whitcomb who, at the end of a recording session decided to record a novelty song he knew would never get released. That song, "You Turn Me On" became #8 on the Billboard chart in July, 1965 and earned Ian the title “Father of Irish Rock”.
Have a web presence. Even a simple website can advertise for you 24/7. YouTube has given many people free "web presence."
Go to the GDC (Game Developer's Conference). Notice I didn't say "attend." You do not have to pay for the conference to meet people. The conference can be very expensive to attend. Besides, people are all over the place and conference proceedings are not a particularly good time or place for introductions. You can hang out in the public section of the location for the GDC and watch for miracles. They happen every second. Another great place to hang out is the local after/during hours hangouts. Keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity. You don't have to force an opportunity -- the best ones will come to you without effort from you. Buy an early airline ticket so you get a really cheap fare. Go with several people and share a room, or scope out a weekly rental in the area. Include an inexpensive rental car in your plans so you aren't spending all your time waiting for transportation.
If you really want to get on the show floor, look for people with Exhibitor passes. Get to know some of them. If they represent a product that you really love, let them know it. They have passes to give out so prospective customers do not have to pay ~$200 just to get on the show floor.
Introduce yourself to anyone where the situation allows it. You never know where it will lead. Back in the mid 90's a guy introduced himself to me. He was graduating from Full Sail in Orlando. He wondered if I needed help. I told him I didn't but would take his info just in case. We kept in touch while he moved back home and started working for a local software outlet. I did have an opportunity that required extra help and called on him. He had the computer chops I mentioned above and was able to provide "game ready" music. A couple of years further down the line, I received a call from a headhunter wanting to know if I wanted to work for a huge corporation that was getting into game development. I said I didn't want to move to the west coast, but I knew someone who would be perfect for the job and might be willing to relocate. Long story short, he got the job. He didn't get the job because he knew me or because I recommended him. He got it because he was a perfect candidate for the job -- he knew about luck being 99% preparation. The role I played was information sharer. Had I never met him, I could not have passed this information on to him and the headhunter.
Until it happens, you never know that someone you've introduced yourself to was your future information sharer.
Be happy for the success of others! I love it when someone else gets a great gig. The success of any one of us is a success for all of us.
Now that I have a gig, what is the expected turnaround time for delivering the music?
Any time from yesterday up to a year from now. Some game developers wait until the last minute. The larger game companies have projects planned well into the future.
What information about the game will be provided to inspire me to write appropriate music?
In the early days, I had jpeg's of the characters and some description of how they would work in the game. Nowadays, you may have an alpha or beta of the game where you can see the animations.
What about pay?
Traditionally and almost always you will be asked to sign a "work for hire" agreement. It says that you never own the copyright to your work. You can get paid many ways: salary, hourly, per minute of music, flat rate, no pay at all so you'll get your name out there, etc. (I highly recommend not doing something for nothing. Those who have done that usually never get paid for anything even though they are worth it.)
Or you can license the music for royalties. That's what I always did, and it worked out for both the developer and me. Many of the developers I worked with didn't have money to pay me anything up front. So I did the work on spec, so to speak, with a royalty percentage if the project ever made it to retail (shareware in the early days). It never hurts to ask for this.
Get affiliated with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC and register your works for 100% of the writer's share (if you're the sole composer). This way, if the song ever makes it to television or a movie, you'll receive royalty payments for its public performance. It's a revenue stream that doesn't cost the game company a penny. The public performance licensing fees are paid by the ones licensing the song for public performance.
How did I get into this?
Starting with the beginning of the MIDI standard, I had a day job, but stayed up most nights learning how to use MIDI to create an orchestra/band. I did backtracks, mostly for my brother who had a one man show. I'd transcribe each recording, performing one instrument at a time. It was great training for my ears. It taught me that perfection isn't required for success in music. Many times I had to play "musically incorrect" notes to accurately transcribe what was on a recording. I learned the software inside and out. First, Texture and then Cakewalk (1.0 :-) I didn't have any particular goal in mind with this except to learn and have fun.
Preparation is 99% of being "lucky.".
One Spring Saturday I was on Prodigy -- it had a Computer Music/Sound "board." I'd been on there a while and had helped (and been helped by) others. There was an open post from a Scott Miller with Apogee Software. He said his company was marketing/distributing games, but gave no other particulars except his game developers needed someone to do music/sfx for computer games. Remember, there was no "Googling" back then, so there was no way to check any of this out. I responded.
The next day, Scott called me. He said he liked my response out of the fifty or so he received.
Two weeks before this, I had downloaded "Commander Keen." I thought it was the best game I'd ever seen on any of then present day platforms. I think it's still one of the best examples of a great game.
I wasn't sure if Scott was just a "wanna be." I knew he was a lot more than that when he mentioned that he was marketing and distributing Commander Keen.
Scott "hired" me on the spot. He wasn't to hear any of my music for several months. He said he would have some developers contact me.
Several months later, I received a call from John Romero with a new little company called "id Software." We hit it off from the start.
This isn't the time or place for a book, so I'll just say "The rest is history."
What equipment do you need? Only what is required to get the job done. Particular brands? What you like to work with. Particular software? What you're comfortable with.
I'm w-a-y behind on email. I try to answer as much as I can. Below, I will be quoting some email and answering it best I can so all who read this article will have the information.
The best way to get one's name around as a composer is to write some music that catches people's interest. Nowadays there are many ways to get music out for free and to the world. YouTube would be the most obvious. There are also sites that allow you to upload and sell your music. You can give it away for personal use. What do you have to lose? You might even catch the attention of some music directors who are looking for new stuff for television and/or movies.
It's highly unlikely that just because you've met someone, even on several occasions, they will think of you for music unless they have heard your music.
Write a song that gets several hundred thousand downloads, and I'll bet you'll hear from someone wanting to use it for some commercial venture.
The way to not waste time is to use all the time you've got to get ready for opportunities that will come along. It's a "build it and you'll be ready when they come" kind of thing. As I said above, write a song a week -- good, bad, beautiful, ugly -- doesn't matter. It will teach you to use the software and your ears to write better and better stuff. It will also give you something to laugh about six months down the road when you listen back to it.
As for equipment, that depends upon what instrument(s) you're comfortable with. I use a very small keyboard for most of what I do. A basic USB interface. With software like Sonar and some of the basic software synths, one can do wonders. The many thousands of dollars of outboard equipment I used to use is a relic of the past. This brings up a point for those who cannot afford the software samplers.
I would almost bet that you could go to someone with a studio full of hardware sound generators, basic mixing boards, etc. and take them off their hands for free. They hold onto them because they don't want to throw them in the trash. I'd bet they'd love for that equipment to have a new home.
Why should you use hardware equipment with all the virtual stuff that's available? Well, if it's free or dirt cheap, why not? A huge plus is that it will give you the opportunity to learn more than the very basics about MIDI. When you have to wire all this stuff up, you learn a lot about things other than wiring. So it's not wasted knowledge.
And you'll have the "warmth" of analog by patching all that equipment through an analog mixer :-) [This is an attempt at a joke because I've always believed that the "warmth" folks claim to miss with all digital recordings is merely the noise that's inherent in analog equipment. I've run experiments by adding noise to a digital recording and my "analog is warm" friends never fail to pick my "analog" version :-)]
Since you are in school, maybe you can use a school computer that has different musical production software on it. Spend all the time you can learning that software. Whatever you get comfortable with will serve you well even if you end up changing to another brand of software. The lessons I learned on a pattern based MIDI sequencing program ("Texture") came in handy when I started using Cakewalk and Sequencer Plus Gold.
The game company doesn't pay anything to a performance rights organization. If the game company uses your music, hopefully they pay you directly or through your own publisher. When you register your work, you put yourself in a position to be paid part of the licensing fees the performance rights organization collects. They determine how to divide up those collections for payment by a formula that you can learn about directly from them (there are links to them further down this page). It's beyond the space I have here to attempt an explanation. And, because this is a possibly confusing aspect of the music business, I would refer you to a book like "This Business of Music" which explains in a whole book what I cannot here.
Those who do not let themselves become demoralized know a large part of the secret of personal power. It's quite a game in the music business to get others to think they are powerless because they don't have all the necessary equipment/software/etc. to make good music. Yes, I read all about the fancy equipment/software that "top producer A" or "#1 engineer B" uses. And I think, "some of the best music I've ever heard was recorded and mastered on what we all would consider JUNK today." Then I think "some of the junk music today is being recorded on equipment/software that didn't exist just a year or so ago." Then I see a musical equipment catalog. HUNDREDS of pages of THOUSANDS of pieces of equipment. Who buys all that stuff? How many units do they have to sell to make it worth their while to line manufacture them? How does any one company/device/software get an edge on the competition?
Some of them do it by making you think you've just got to have it to keep up with "top producer A" and "#1 engineer B!" I say, "believe what they say if you wish" but I've usually made the choice to try the simple before going with the complex. Understand, that's just me. If you really have to have "high-end gear X" to complete your project the way you want it completed, then you need "high-end gear X." Let's say your result is a #1 song. Does that mean that everyone else who wants a #1 song has to have "high-end gear X?" I'd argue no to that.
When someone asks me what equipment/software I use, I hesitate to say. That's because, while it works for me, it might be totally unusable for you. You might be going for a completely different sound than I could ever get with my setup. I will say that I've recorded some great stuff with talented musicians/singers, a very simple multi-track audio editing program, a four year old computer and a $200 quad capsule USB mike. No studio, just a room with carpeting. It's one of those "better to record magic however you can when it happens" things. Forcing magic to occur in a specific location at a specific time is very rare, as proven by the limited number of albums that have nothing but gold on them. And this is after many decades of recording.
As for the cost of software/equipment, as I said above, there's lots of older (not ancient) equipment out there that needs a new home. And the "software of yesterday" was used by many people "yesterday" to make the music you hear today. I'm not saying this is the case with you, but many potentially great composers use lack of equipment/software as an excuse to not move forward and take a chance.
The cost of software/equipment/plugin's/virtual instruments/etc. I personally think that the bulk of those downloading "illegal" software are merely curious and never actually use the software to produce a final commercial product. I certainly hope that if they do use it to produce something that sells they do the right thing and pay for the software. Else, one day there will be no such software. I get many emails from people like you who want to learn this stuff but have no means to get the basics to get started. I've been there myself (in the days before cracked software, too). But, it was really important to me at the time, and I saved so I could buy just a few more notes of polyphony in my setup. I was lucky, too, to have a brother who shared my interest and bought some equipment himself.
With the advent of the internet and the ability to find like-minded souls, I might suggest that you try to form a local organization that would pool resources to purchase some decent equipment/software that each member has the right to use for a certain percentage of the time. If it were four people, each person could have full use of the equipment for one week out of each month. It's really no different than the days of renting studio time. One big plus is you won't waste a lot of time getting down to working on your projects if your "studio time" is limited.
MIDI terminology can be very confusing. Search for on-line articles that explain different aspects of it. www.midi.org has a wealth of information about the MIDI ("Musical Instrument Digital Interface") standard. It's the home of the MIDI Manufacturers Association.
You know, I put out a DOOM Music CD several years ago. Amazon made some really good money on it (they charged a ridiculous fee to sell things). It was fun to do. I learned a lot about what not to do, too. I also decided way back then that the CD was going to be a dead item sooner than later. [My opinion is their cost to value ratio has killed them.] But, somewhere I have maybe 10-20 of the 1000 I had pressed. If I can find them in storage, I'll make them available for sale with proceeds going to some charity. I'll post it here if/when I find them. I just checked and as of September 2008, Amazon charges 55% of the sales price of a music CD. That's crazy! It's less, though, than they charged me. As I recall, I "maybe" received 20% of a sale. The CD originally cost me 15% of the sales price, so I was clearing less than 5% when you take my cost of shipping to Amazon into account. And I had to ship the CD's in small bundles whenever Amazon decided they needed them. Thanks for asking this question. Now I remember why I decided never to produce a CD again!
And, yes, I've tried the on-line virtual sales. The only people making money there are the middle men. What site of this type does anything more than house your music on their server, hoping that your songs sell at least well enough so they get their minimum monthly fee?
I'll never do this again. Like somebody once said, "There's an old saying in Tennessee. I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says: 'Fool me once ... ... ... ... ... shame on ... ... ... ... ... shame on you ... ... ... ... ... .... If fooled, you can't get fooled again." So like all Tennesseans and Texans, I can't be fooled again :-)
You know what? You're starting exactly where most of the people I know started. They had to invent the wheel. Good luck if the company wanting your services has a game engine for you to work with. All the luck in the world if you all are going to have to come up with your own engine. Since I've seen exactly that done, it's possible. And why not Garageband? If you come up with something that fits the game and sound good, what does it matter how you generated it?
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I have read biographies and autobiographies about many of the great composers, lyricists and song writers. Not a one of them knew what they were doing at first. They did have an idea of what they wanted as an end result, though.
One thing's for sure, these guys wrote all the time. And they wrote a lot of bad stuff that we never knew of. What you need to get started is to know how you want the end result to sound. That would be based upon the basic theme of the game. Even if it's described in words like "it's a space war game," you'll know what feel to put into the music. The better a feel you have for what the game is about, the better your music will fit. As for spending two and a half year on the music for a game, it can be a time-consuming task if you're asked to write layered music. By "layered" I mean music that can be quite simple when there's low action in the game but can be ramped up by adding instruments, increasing the tempo, changing the key and such when there's lots of action. This is the equivalent of writing many songs. And it might only be used in a very small part of the game. The end result can be many, many hours of non-repetitive music. Hours of music can take a lot of time to write.
So, basically, start with a solid idea of what you want the music to do. Then put down (into your music software) any musical ideas that come into your head. This is where a good ear for music and harmony comes in. If you come up with a beat you like, start with it and build from there. If you come up with a bass line, build around that. I've heard that some composers of old listened to mechanical sounds to hear a possible melody hidden in the noise. In the early days of sound recording, people did the same thing most of us have done with sound editing software -- they played the recording backwards and heard the basis for a new tune. Some of my best inspirations have come from just noodling around with the guitar or keyboard, not trying to come up with anything.
It's great to have a knowledge of software that's loop based. There's some outstanding music that's been done that way. And it's quicker to get results than having to record live or create MIDI sequences. The down side is that if you cannot create your own loops (from scratch, not from sampling) you may not be able to find loops that make the music sound the way you've decided it should. For that reason, I highly recommend getting some MIDI sequencing software and practice recreating in sound what you hear in your head. If you can hear it in your head, you can learn to recreate it. I have heard unbelievably wonderful music that was sequenced without a MIDI controller (keyboard/guitar/etc.). The composer entered the notes by hand (or with mouse clicks) and then tweaked the velocity, timing, controller settings and such on each note. I can only imagine how many man-hours such a thing takes in a very detailed and long song. I had to do the same thing to make MIDI files fit along with games on 360k 5.25" floppies. But those songs were short (by necessity). Still it took me many hours to get it right.
They can tell you better than I can.These organizations are the type where you can only contract with one at a time (usually for a two year period).
I am sure there are composers, past and present, who do not play a musical instrument. It's not required, but ... being an instrumentalist makes it easier to turn the sounds you hear in your head into audio. Knowing how an instrument works opens up the musical possibilities of that instrument. It also makes it much easier to find the sound you want. If you don't know the names and sounds of instruments, how can you find the proper "patch" or "sample" to recreate that sound?
The two instruments you are studying can prove extremely invaluable when you start composing "for real." While sampling technology has improved greatly, I have yet to hear more than a handful of sampled violin solos that don't give themselves away as sampled. Those that have fooled me had to take many hours of tweaking to make them sound real. So, you can play your own solos real time and they will sound exactly like you want them without tweaking. Or, if you have someone else play them you will know how to communicate what you want out of the performance.
So, I say, practice on. You've got plenty of time to learn the software skills. Having the musical skills will help when you do start using the software as a full time tool.
At least a basic ability to play the piano really helps when there are keyboard parts to perform. But, piano performances recorded via MIDI are some of the easiest to tweak, too. There's no concern about pitch bend, or vibrato, or amp settings, etc. Additionally, there is a tendency among some keyboard instrumentalists to do all of their composing using keyboard fingerings. Lots of string parts sound like a keyboard voicing with strings patched in. That's where your knowledge of the stringed instruments and their voicings would give you an edge.
While I am sure it seems that time is passing very slowly as you practice those seven hours a day, when you perform with others, you'll learn what I consider the best lessons for a composer or songwriter. You get to hear the harmonies and voicings up close. That is one of the reasons I love to perform. It provides the opportunity to learn composing while having the fun and joy of making music with a group. [That's one of the reasons I love software that helps non-musicians make "music." Everyone should have the experience of communicating with music.]
It's very practical to use your two specialty instruments to compose. Listening to the "Top 20" I hear strings making a comeback (if they ever really went anywhere).
I'm going to try to catch up on some of the great questions that have been coming in this year. The one above is from March. Sorry to be so behind :-(
This question is impossible to answer because you are correct -- it varies "hugely." Besides that, the deals are usually under an agreement that the terms will not be disclosed. The amounts vary greatly depending upon how much the game company wants a particular composer/recording artist, too. It's "what the market will bear" on the part of the music provider and it's "as little as we can get by with" on the part of the music licensor/purchaser. While some game companies like the idea of paying per minute of music, others will want music that fits the game, and the longer each piece the better.
I wish I could give a better answer.
The games of the Cosmos Cosmic Adventure era were in a "sort of" MIDI format. They were not "standard" MIDI files that would play as is. The reason is that the music player built into the game was not a standard at all. It was coded for games that id and Apogee released. It actually sent the equivalent of machine code to the FM synthesizer chips on sound cards of the day. If you download Dosbox (mentioned on the Home page here), you can hear the songs and even save a wav file of that version.
Over the years I have tried to make the time to record the songs, but it takes more time than I have had. The reason is there are no "real" instruments that have the sounds of many of those songs. I invented the instruments by messing around with the FM synth settings. To get enough notes, I had to stay away from percussive mode on the FM synth. This was a mode that had decent sounding percussion sounds, but that limited the number of musical notes significantly. So, I used melodic instrument patches well out of their normal ranges to make the percussion sounds.
What was really funny about this was that while these games were first being distributed, the sound card companies were coming out with "wavetable" synths that used actual instrument samples for some of the sounds. They were compatible with FM synth music that didn't abuse the instruments for some kind of unique FM synth sound. Orchestral FM music sounded a lot better. My music was laughable because the snare drum ended up sounding like a little tin drum that a wind up bear would tap on. Other sounds were also affected. Some enterprising individuals actually came up with wavetable sound sets that made what I had done sound fair to good, but most people didn't know how to use any other than the sound set that came with the sound card.
That brings up an interesting matter. Would the music for Cosmo "feel right" if it had been recorded in a studio with live musicians? I don't think so. The sound of the FM synth really does work with a lot of games, and the sounds help players buy into the game.
By the way, Apogee Software is making a comeback. Go to apogeesoftware.com and read about it. Some of the older games (including side scrollers) are going to be re-released on portable platforms, starting with Duke Nukem..
The music for these two games was never in a higher quality than the original game sequences. Have you ever played a MIDI sequence written for one particular patch/sample and then tried to play that sequence with another patch/sample of the same instrument? Most of the time, it just doesn't work because, for example, guitar patches/samples vary in attack, velocity response, sustain ... you name it. With the old FM synth patches, you had to set sustain by tweaking the patch to do just that. If I wanted a guitar wail to last as long as the note was held, I had to set the patch up to do that. Basically, if I had used high end equipment to originally create the MIDI sequences, I would have had to almost start over to get any kind of decent sound out of a sound card synth. My general flow was to create the FM patches for a song and then write the song already knowing what sounds would be used. That saved a lot of time.
The way the MIDI player in those games worked, the data for the FM synth was streamed to the synth in real time. Much like digital audio. The size of a song increased dramatically with the addition of notes -- much more dramatically than a general MIDI file. After creating what I wanted, I had to tweak the number of notes and delete those that weren't absolutely required. Sometimes even required notes were deleted to keep the size of the song file down. That's why some of the songs are so short, too.
Unfortunately, I didn't keep the pre-tweaked versions -- wish I had, as it would have made for an interesting comparison later.
As I said somewhere above, you can use DosBox to record wav files of the FM synth sequences from "back in the day." DosBox sounds as good (bad?) as those cards did, and it's as true to the original performance as one of the old cards (and a LOT less trouble).
This is a great question, and something I should have mentioned before now. I never placed the music for any levels. In some games, I wrote for what I thought would be levels, but the music I wrote often ended up on a completely different level than I had envisioned. For id Software games, John Romero (maybe along with Tom Hall when he was there) decided where to place what music. John had a great feel for this. And there were games I worked on that ended up having music from sources other than me. And I didn't have anything to say about that as it was a decision the game company had the right to make. It's something I never considered until it happened. Remember, these were the equivalent of the days of the first Hollywood talkies, and the music/audio "wheel" in the game business hadn't been fully invented yet.
On other games, generally the game's producer (often the only other one working on a game except for artists) made all decisions as to music placement.
Few of the games I worked on had completed levels before I had already completed the music. Sound effects were a different story. I would often create them as I learned about creatures/weapons/animations, but many had to wait until at least some levels were locked down. For the most part, even when I was asked to create many different effects for the same creature/weapon/animation, the first one I had created was the final selection.
Sound effects for Doom/Duke Nukem and later had to be tweaked to follow the animations too. In film, this is easy. You have a time code and frames to lock sound to. There was no standard time code with computer games, and as you probably know, different computers play animations at different speeds. So, I would create a sound for say a weapon. It would have to be compiled into the game. I'd play the game and watch the animation while the effect played. I'd tweak the timing of the sound effect to try to get it to work with the animation. All this while keeping in mind that the animation speed would vary. It actually worked amazingly well -- better than I would have thought it could with the primitive earlier game sound engines.
One of the more boring things to me has been learning music terminology. It took trying to get ideas across to someone else without the terminology to see that it's very time saving to know correct terms. And if you don't know the names of chords, forget about having someone sit in and have any idea about what's going on. I remember when I first played guitar I bought a Mel Bay Guitar Chord book. Man, was it confusing. It wasn't until I read and re-read a music theory book that I started to see how logical guitar chord names are.
I have no idea where music comes from. I consider it all some kind of gift and have trouble taking credit for anything more than bringing it from my head into physical reality. I think experience in life brings a lot of it about. For that reason, I don't think it will ever run out. When I worked on Wolfenstein 3D, I already had personal experience with war, but I didn't know anything about the Nazis. I read several books about them. The one that really gave me the push to write some of the music was a book about Dr. Josef Mengele, a ruthless Nazi concentration camp doctor. He was a very evil person. The music I heard after reading about him was much more evil that anything the computer sound card could produce.
All Music & Sound Effects (C) (P) Robert C. Prince
bobby prince Music, BMI