Game Music

GDC 2010: A Whirlwind Tour of the Audio Track

March 18, 2010 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook GDC 2010: A Whirlwind Tour of the Audio Trackon Twitter

This year’s GDC felt much smaller than previous years. Gone was the four story behemoth that is west hall, and everything was instead crammed into the Moscone Convention Center’s north and south halls. The audio track in particular took place in one of two rooms, both in north hall, which were often much too small, which led to sessions filling up and people being left out in the hallway without the chance to hear several panels (the Flower panel in particular was so popular that people lined up outside the room despite it filling up just to meet Vincent Diamante after his hour talk).

So, what were the sights and sounds from north hall? We checked out a number of panels, and rather than post about each one individually, I thought it would be more manageable for you guys if I simply gave a brief summary of each panel that we attended and focused on highlights from the session. There were definitely a lot of surprises, and even some information revealed about the composer of Metroid: Other M from a non-audio track session!

Hit the jump to check out our coverage.

As Long as the Audio is Fun, The Game Will be Too
Akira Yamaoka (Grasshopper Manufacture)

Yamaoka gave a very technical presentation that was less about fun, and more about how certain techniques used in writing and implementing music can impact players. He started with (a much too long) history lesson of Japan to give the audience an idea of who he was and where he was coming from, then went into the physiology of human hearing and how it differs from vision. He then launched into his own philosophy on sound design. He noted that triggering a sound effect before the action takes place on the screen causes fear or anxiety, while triggering sounds after the action takes place generates a feeling of comfort. He also gave a demonstration of how gaps of silence are oftentimes filled in by the brain, and played a clip of “Fur Elise” with brief pauses between notes, and contrasted it with a version where he inserted static between the notes, creating a much more distinct and even startling sound. It was very interesting, even if it wasn’t about fun in particular. Yamaoka ended by playing a new song he wrote on guitar for a couple of minutes, and leaving us with one of his favorite quotes, “God is in the detail of the arts.”

AVATAR Score Postmortem: High Stakes, Challenges, and Universal Takeaways
Chance Thomas (HUGESound)

AVATAR: The Game: The Soundtrack: The Postmortem. Even if you are as uninterested in AVATAR: The Game as I am, this was still the best panel of the year. Chance Thomas not only proved himself to be an amazing public speaker, controlling the pace of the session and driving audience participation, but he’s also somebody who really cares about helping the next generation of composers get on their feet. Some interesting bits: the game featured 267 minutes of music that had to be written in 70 days. He worked about 108 hours per week during this time. He discussed at length how he got the gig, and how he was originally selected as a part of a team of composers, but wrote a letter explaining why he thought he should score the game single-handedly (“Be bold,” he commented). He talked about the game’s interactive music system and also joked about the fact that after working in James Horner’s theme from the movie into the game, he got a call from the developers asking where the melody came from, and insisted he remove it from the game because they didn’t like it. Last thing: Seattle string players aren’t very friendly.

Where it All Began: Lessons That Can Be Learned From ‘First Generation’ Music
Rod Abernethy, Alexander Brandon, Brian Schmidt, Brad Fuller, Tommy Tallarico

This is one of the panels I was most excited about. How did it come to be? Well, Rod Abernethy recently scored Eat.Lead, which required an 8-bit theme, so he really got into the style and wanted to talk about it at GDC. The panel opened with a video created by Alexander Brandon featuring 8-bit games and their updated counterparts, showing the original source and inspiration for these modern re-imaginings in terms of visual and musical direction. The talk itself focused on each panelist’s remembrances of oldschool game audio, and what lessons they came away with from the experience.

Alexander Brandon talked about writing with a tool that was developed by Factor 5 and Chris Huelsbeck that I thought was cool, and Brad Fuller talked about his experiences programming music during the coin-op era, which was a rare insight into just what writing music on those platforms entailed. Tommy discussed a system his programmers made that allowed him to plug a MIDI keyboard directly into the sound chip on the NES in order to write music, and Brian Schmidt recalled making errors when programming notes and coming up with awesome stuff by accident, which got a chuckle from the crowd. As far as lessons, everyone agreed on the importance of melody and developing a hook, and noted that an orchestra is not always the answer. Alexander Brandon gave a shoutout to both Katamari Damacy and Rez, and Brad Fuller said he missed being the sole person responsible for a game’s entire audio, which he feels made the game’s audio more cohesive.

The Musical Recipe of Emotion
Paul Lipson, Laura Karpman, Marty O’Donnell, Chance Thomas, Tom Salta

This was an fun panel that I guess you would have been there to appreciate. The group talked about tips to use when trying to generate various moods, then went on to take requests from the audience. Laura Karpman played some excellent musical accompaniments that embodied whatever random moods the audience came up with, and she did it on the fly.

Scoring Hell: How We Created the Score for EA’s Dante’s Inferno from Inception to Final Implementation
Garry Schyman, Paul Gorman

We had a great time talking to Garry Schyman about this score last month. The panel focused on their inspirations for the various pieces of music along with lots of samples of the music in the game. Some interesting tidbits were that the audio team thought of Hell as the main character, and there was very little reused music. 111 pieces of music were written for the game, averaging 12 unique minutes of music for each circle, and the recording took place in Abbey Road as well as Los Angeles. The language they used was Enochian, which is supposedly the language of the angels (Lucifer was a fallen angel, and therefore would speak this language), although Schyman noted several times that he took a lot of liberties with the language, and modified it to his needs. They showed a funny photo of the original Donkey Kong upside down, and noted that Dante’s Inferno is basically a Donkey Kong level upside down. Lastly, they tried to license “St. Matthew’s Passion” and were turned down by the copyright holder, and the team specifically tried to avoid sounding too much like God of War.

From Metroid to Tomodachi Collection to WarioWare: Different Approaches for Different Audiences
Yoshio Sakamoto (Nintendo)

This was not an audio panel, but Sakamoto noted while mentioning the various studios that Nintendo collaborated with on Metroid: Other M that Kuniaki Haishima is doing the music and that it will be orchestrated. I don’t know he was referring to the entire game or the cutscenes (he had been talking about the video team who handled the trailer), or whether or not orchestrated means orchestral samples or live orchestra, but we’ll be working hard to find out!

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