Music for Games

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM


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We've moved from MIDI to audio files, from 22kHz mono playback to 44.1 stereo, and from repetitive bursts of loops to full scoring and interactive transitions — in key. Files once sent to programmers on DAT are now delivered as sessions or .AIFF or .WAV files. We've even reached the point where songs are making their way into the gaming experience, breaking new artists and resuscitating older, genre-based stars (see “Licensing,” page 66).

Any way you look at it, music has upped the profile of sound in the game experience. While it's easy, and not always accurate, to say that creation of score for video games rivals that of a feature film, the two mediums do share the demands that a composer must work in grand themes and short snippets. Here we profile two musicians-turned-composers — one a guitar slinger, one a keyboardist and trumpeter — and find out how they entered the world of video games.

Guitar Ace Turned Game Composer
By Bryan Reesman

After beginning his musical career as a Sunset Strip glam-rocker, composer and musician Bob Daspit has evolved during the course of 17 years to become a session player for film scores, a record producer and video game composer, becoming known for soundtracks to such games as Spy Hunter, Terminator: Dawn of Fate and the new Mission:Impossible — Operation Surma.

In the mid-'80s, Daspit fronted an L.A. hair band, and his six-string playing scorched such clubs as The Roxy and Whisky A-Go-Go. After the group broke up, he went on to UCLA and graduated in 1990 with a B.S. in Philosophy. Soon after, on the recommendation of Eric Persing (now head of Spectrasonics), he was hired by Roland R&D. “This was when the S-770 was coming out,” he recalls, “so I was brought in to work on their sample libraries. I was with them for the next five years.” He recalls working with an SE 20 when Macs were smaller. He also remembers how long it took to loop a sample.

Musicians who knew sampling were in high demand with film compsers at the time, and Daspit landed a gig with renowned Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer. It would last for a decade, and he would occasionally do session work as a guitarist, keyboardist or sampler for most of the prominent Los Angeles — based film composers. His first movie was Toys, to which he contributed guitar work. He has since performed on more than 65 movie soundtracks.

While session work on films kept him busy, it did not offer much in the way of career advancement. When an old business associate hooked Daspit up with a gig scoring the Duck Dodgers video game (Paradigm Entertainment, for the original Playstation), it was a welcome and refreshing challenge.

“I not only had to write the music, but I had to create the sound set for it,” Daspit recalls. “They used to hire a bunch of different people: One guy would do the music, another guy would encode the sound set and another guy would integrate that into the game. They liked me because I could do the sound set [and the music]. I had to take a full orchestra and cram it down to [approximately] 2 MB. Then the score was played back via MIDI. As far as interactivity, there was a lot more control over what could be done, but the sound was horrible. It's amazing how far things have come since then. The way that games are scored now, it's basically just with audio. You do a full piece of music as you would for a film and they just place it in there. That's it. There's not a lot of control. That's the trade off, but I wouldn't go back. It just sounds better this way.”

Since scoring Duck Dodgers, Daspit has gone on to do several more games for Paradigm, which is now part of Atari. All three of Daspit's recent forays are for titles linked to famous franchises: Spy Hunter, which incorporates Henry Mancini's famous “Peter Gunn Theme”; Terminator: Dawn of Fate; and the new Mission:Impossible — Operation Surma, with its instantly recognizable theme.

Mission: Impossible was great because I really love that theme,” Daspit acknowledges. “It's pretty involved and I can sink my teeth into it. You've probably heard the Limp Bizkit version and the U2 version and Danny Elfman's version. I listened to all the versions, and I've got the original. Those guys had all kinds of resources, and I'm trying to do it on a laptop, so I try to do little rhythmic tricks or use the melody in a different way to do something fresh with it.” Listening to the composer's work on M:I — OS, it is obvious he tried many different approaches, from ambient atmospheres to heavy metal mayhem.

After years in Tinseltown, Daspit and his wife relocated to Northern California, where he constructed a home studio by converting half of his garage to a 10×13-foot control room with an adjoining 4×6-foot vocal booth. It's a modest setup used to maximum effect, and thanks to the Internet, he can work where he wants.

“Right now, I have a three-computer setup,” explains Daspit. “I have a Pro Tools setup, which I mainly use on my record projects or if I need to record live instruments for video games. I have a PC, which is pretty much dedicated for Ableton Live and I use it as a loop machine. Then my main rig is my Titanium G4 running Logic. That's really where I do the bulk of my work for the video games. It's kind of nice, because I can pull it in or out of the studio. I can work on it literally anywhere.”

Daspit runs his Pro Tools|Mix 3 system on a G4/867 running OS 9.2.2. His hardware interfaces include an ADAT Bridge and an 888|24. He runs his Ableton Live rig on an HP Pentium 4 1.8GHz PC running Windows XP Home with RME Digiface. His Logic rig is on a Titanium G4/1 GHz running both OS 10.2.6 and OS 10.3, with a MOTU 896 audio interface clocked via a Rosendahl Nanosync. The 896 and Digiface feed the Pro Tools rig via Lightpipe to the ADAT Bridge. His mic preamps, compressors, the 888|24 and headphone feed all appear on a TT patchbay.

“When composing for video games, I almost exclusively use just the Logic rig, usually just the laptop ‘untethered’ from the rest of the setup,” Daspit remarks. He uses Logic Audio Platinum 6 as his sequencer, and his plug-ins are Emagic's EXS-24, and Stylus, Atmosphere and Trilogy from Spectrasonics. “In fact, I scored all of Mission:Impossible with just these four plug-ins.”

Although he uses samplers and sample playback to create the majority of his scores, Daspit does not use many synthesizers. In fact, he currently doesn't own any synths. “I used to have racks and racks of gear back when I was with Roland,” he remarks. “I had all the products I worked on, from the JD-800 all the way through the JV-1080. Because I'm a guitar player too, I wanted to make a conscious effort to keep my scores as acoustic as possible. So I try to stick to using samplers and sample playback plug-ins, and anything else that I do I'll go to a studio or I'll record something here and get human beings to play on top.”

The composer records his guitars in his home studio. He has a good selection of amps — including various Fenders and a Dr. Z Route 66 that he really likes — and his vocal booth is just big enough to place a cabinet. He also owns a fair collection of guitars, including Les Pauls, Stratocasters and Telecasters, although he says he's playing a lot of acoustic these days.

He observes that his best vocal mic is the Neumann M148, but he tends to favor the Brauner VM-1. He also owns RØDE NT2s, Neumann KM194s and Shure 57s, and he loves the Royer Labs SF-12 stereo ribbon mic: “That thing is just amazing,” he declares. “I haven't heard it sound bad on anything.” Additionally, he owns Manley mic preamps, a Vox Box and a Variable-MU compressor.

Daspit mixes in Pro Tools with a HUI controller, while he has Logic Conrol for his Logic rig. “Oftentimes, I don't even have to take it to Pro Tools,” he says. “I'll just listen straight out of Logic. I have a MOTU 896 audio interface. A lot of times, I'll just be monitoring two channels out of my laptop, and that'll be the finished product.

“One interesting thing that I do is to use the same D/A converters for all of my gear,” Daspit reveals. “The Digiface, MOTU and 888 analog outputs all sound vastly different, so I feed a pair of Lucid D/A 9624s digitally from each of the three audio interfaces and only listen to the analog outputs of the Lucid converters. That way, my D/A conversion is consistent, and I can really tell what I'm listening to from rig to rig.”

In spite of all this technology at his fingertips, Daspit will continue to reduce the size of his digital arsenal. He says it feels great to own less stuff. “Before the next video game, I'll probably sell as much of this stuff as I can and probably get a G5 and call it a day,” he divulges. “I don't even think I'll be using the Pro Tools rig as much for the next game. I've just heard good things about people being able to record audio into the G5 with pretty low latency, and that's finally starting to come together.”

Beyond video games, another new avenue opened up for Daspit when he was asked to engineer and mix Sammy Hagar's solo release, Ten 13, in 2000. He landed the gig after being recommended by Hagar's son (with whom he had written and recorded music previously) and providing a sample mix of one of the songs. Since then, Daspit produced, engineered and mixed Hagar's Not 4 Sale and produced and mixed his concert release Live — Hallelujah. Additionally, he mixed and mastered Songs of Alan Broadbent by jazz artist Ron Berman.

Out of the Myst Comes Uru
By Blair Jackson

One of the most ambitious and admired fantasy game franchises is the Myst series, created by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller for their company Cyan, originally in conjunction with Marin County's Broderbund Software, now published by UbiSoft. The Myst games combine a slowly unfolding mythic tale set in all sorts of fantastic visual environments/worlds, with a variety of mysterious goings-on and clues and puzzles for the game player to solve to move through the story. The Myst games have sold in the millions and continue to enchant young and old players. The latest entry is called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, which is a single-player adventure that can also be played online with others, a feature increasingly common in the video game universe.

Because the worlds in the Myst series are so unusual and impressionistic, music has always been an important part of the games' feel. The man behind the music and some of the audio for Uru is Tim Larkin, who cut his chops as a keyboardist and trumpeter in various San Francisco Bay Area bands and orchestras before landing a job as composer/sound designer at Broderbund a decade ago. He started out doing audio and music for such kids' games as Carmen San Diego and Playroom/Treehouse, but soon signed on to help work on Riven, and eventually moved to the Northwest to work full-time at Cyan's headquarters in Mead, Wash., outside of Seattle.

According to Larkin, it took about four years to complete Uru, “But that's because we were building an engine at the same time we were building this game. The engine is the platform on which the game runs: You have to put the sound somewhere; you have to put in the animation and the art. Ours was developed in-house and has its own needs built into it. We did an engine redesign about halfway through, which means we had to re-implement the audio and redesign how it worked within the engine itself.”

As for the music, which besides being in the game, is also on a recently released CD. “We wanted to come up with something that was as unique as the game,” Larkin says. “We didn't want to do your typical game score, whether it be orchestral or something you hear that doesn't stand out. So I was very diligent in finding instruments and combinations of instruments that were unique and sounds that were rare. When the game starts out, the setting is in a New Mexico desert, so we begin with this Southwest guitar kind of feel — sort of Native American mixed with dobro. But it takes so many twists and turns from there and you get taken to these other worlds, which we dealt with one at a time and treated differently. We had live musicians come in with guitars and Armenian flute and percussion.”

Larkin's recording setup includes “Pro Tools|Mix Plus, Macintosh G4, Digital Performer for sequencing and MIDI software. I have tons of plug-ins and also lots of Roland gear — two 1080s, one 5080 — plus two Kurzweil samplers and Gigastudio, JB 990 and software samplers. I'm using Kontakt, Atmosphere and a lot of sample libraries. The studio here is probably 12 by 20, and then I also have an 8-by-10 booth. We also have tons of outboard gear. I have a setup at home, as well.”

In composing music for Uru, Larkin says, “I tried to break it up so you're not hearing the same piece of music over and over in these different areas. The ‘ages’ in Uru are relatively large, and as a result, there's a lot more opportunity to have musical variety. And the other thing is you don't have to have music everywhere. Sometimes it's nice to just have an ambience — some subtle wind blowing and birds and crickets, or whatever there might be. There are other cases where an abstract ambience actually crosses over to music. There's an age called Teledahn, which is like a giant mushroom age, essentially — there are 100-foot-tall mushrooms — and within that age there are probably five different pieces of music. Some of them are pretty melodic, underscoring the feel of the space. But there are two or three of them that are bordering on abstract ambience, but still have musical elements to them. Then there are other ages where the music is more rhythmic and active.

“With a level-based game, you have to keep things changing and interesting, and as the levels intensify, the music has to reflect that. You have a template that's based on the game play, and you always have to keep that in mind. It's nice to do music that works apart from the game — as a lot of this does — but as the composer, you always have to remember that the music is part of this larger thing: the game. That's the fun and the challenge.”

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