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5 Game Audio Power-Ups I Gained from Electronic Music Midwest Festival

Participating in an electronic music festival led to some insights that can improve our composition and sound design for any kind of game audio.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Electronic Music Midwest Festival (EMM), with an audiovisual composition of mine on the program. While I did meet some people with an interest in games, the festival is not geared towards game audio, and it gave me the opportunity to think about how elements in other music and sound design genres can really level up our game audio chops.

Performance, Gesture, and Showmanship

Whether a composer was diffusing a piece around the venue at the mixer, or musicians were performing on stage, EMM is a performance showcase. Watching the performers onstage made me realize how much I approach music through my DAW, composing and then re-humanizing the MIDI.

What struck me was the performers' movements and expressions. The way they took the stage. The shoes they wore. The way they moved--or didn't--as they performed. These gestures have a huge effect on the perceived tone of the piece.

Now, it is probably rare that when you underscore a scene or write a background track, you'll have a performer on-screen in your game. But what if we imagine the performers as we compose? Do they stand still and stoic, looking straight ahead? Maybe they swagger to their instrument and play with grandiose flourishes.  Visualizing how your piece is being physically performed will make a fantastic guide for your automations of MIDI expressions.

The Physical Process

A number of pieces were created live on stage, with various amounts of specificity in the scores, never to be created quite the same way again. The way these pieces were created varied. Some were played on acoustic instruments, with our without live processing. Others emanated from touch screens, game controllers, and code.

Watching these performances in particular got me thinking about a particular aspect of the creative process--the physical act. In music or sound design, think about your sound. Does it come from a gentle tap? A heavy, stretching, reaching, gesture?  What would it feel like to physically create the sound?  Try it; record it!

Seeing these performers create sound in real-time gave me another way to think about sound design, applicable from the recording stage through to the editing and processing.

Memorable Moments

One of my Music Technology and Composition professors talks about "memorable moments," in compositions, and I'm stealing her phrase here. EMM presents two days of concerts, and that's a good amount of music! After the concerts, I tried to reflect on the pieces I had just heard. As with any form of art, some resonated with me more and I found them easily memorable.

When I thought back on the pieces that will remain my secret favorites, I found I thought of the beginning, I thought of the end, and at least one moment during the piece where I thought, "Wow!" The Wow! can come from suprise, dynamic changes, resolution (or the maddening lack thereof), an emergent pleasing sound palette, the feeling of chaos falling into order--often a combination or these kinds of elements. 

Sometimes game audio takes the spotlight and sometimes it needs to settle behind other elements. When we need to draw attention, and create a lasting memory with the player, we need to have some kind of memorable moments that will not blur away. The topic of memorable moments is probably a series of blogs in and of itself, but it's worth mentioning here.

Play Other Platforms

"What do you use?" was a common question I both asked and answered in conversation with other composers. Everyone had their DAWs, of course. But where it got particularly interesting was when we got to each other's bags of tricks. Some people were coders, and I was excited to talk to some CSound and Arduino enthusiasts. Others had created complex live processing in MAX/MSP. There were animators. There were people who repurposed existing technology--phones and game controllers and hats!--into instruments and effects items.

Even if you don't end up needing these tools to compose for your next project, trying another "platform" might be the way to give yourself other ways to think about sound design and composition. You can't have too many tricks in your bag.

People

It stands true from my experience at GameSoundCon. People, friendships, mentors, connections--these are so invaluable, no matter what kind of audio thing you are up to. One of the most powerful things to witness at EMM was seeing people talk to each other with genuine enthusiasm and love and respect for the works and each other. 

I met so many people who I can't wait to see what they do next. And, if I ever have a question about trumpet mutes, I now know an awesome composer who's bound to know the answer. Next time I'm banging my head against the wall over some CSound code, I might be able to get a few ideas from some very successful coders. And when others come to me, I will do my best to help them, or refer them to someone the growing network of knowledgeable, creative people I have been fortunate to meet.

We're working in an amazing field!

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