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A Finished Minute of Music: Things Indie Devs Need to Know Before Commissioning Music for Their Game

Does your Indie Game need Music? Have you decided that you'd like to hire a Composer for a custom score? There are a few things you should know about the process beforehand, so you can accurately budget for your game's music.

Kole Hicks, Blogger

September 14, 2013

11 Min Read

            You’ve invested a lot of time and money into creating your game, contracting Artists to beautifully realize your world and perhaps even collaborating with a few Programmers to make it all run smoothly (if you’re not already doing all of this yourself).  Now it’s come time to enhance the emotion of your game and really bring the “character” of it to life, so you ask yourself a few questions…

Q: Do I want to save as much money as possible and purchase non-exclusive loops from music libraries?

A: Let’s say for the sake of this hypothetical game that you decide, No, you’d rather have a custom score that is unique to your project.

Q: Do I want to hire my buddy’s band to score my game?

A: No, you’ve already paid professionals in other disciplines for their expertise and decide that the music for your game should be created by a Composer with experience in creating music for games.

            So you scour the depths of the internet, get in touch with friends/colleagues, and finally compile a shortlist of potential Composers you’d like to work with.  This is the first time you’ve worked with a professional game Composer though, so you’re a little baffled about the process.  I wrote an article on this situation called “How to Hire an Audio Contractor for Your Game,” so please feel free to read through it if the previous sentence rings true for you.  However, the most pressing thing on your mind at the moment as an Indie Developer (besides the obvious desire for a great musical score) is… how much will this cost?

            Perhaps you have investors to help with the funding of your game, but a lot of indie games are self funded by the developer(s).  As we know, an indie developer could range from a single woman working in her home studio to a team of 20+ people in a comfortable office.  So it’s very important to be aware of everything that goes into a finished minute of music, as that’ll immensely help you create (and stay within) an accurate budget.

            In an effort to help you acquire a phenomenal score for your game while staying within your budget, I will provide and explain in detail three of the most common “options” I’ve used when working with indie developers.

Option #1 – In the Box

            The first and usually most inexpensive option is what I like to refer to as a score that’s all “In the Box.”  This means that the musical score is usually created with samples and electronic sounds all emanating from a computer, so there won’t be any live musicians whatsoever.  A professional Composer should have a solid library of samples to work with, so the quality of the music “shouldn’t” be problematic, even though live musicians will always make the score sound better.

            Even though this may be the most “simple” and inexpensive option, there is no single button you press to spit out a finished minute of music.  Beyond the obvious step of writing the music, there are other roles and/or professionals necessary to bring that music to a finished state that can then be implemented in your game.  I’ll list a few questions and potential situations below that will help you determine what other roles/professionals may be needed for the creation of your game’s music.

1. Will the music for your game be instrumental? 

If not, then a Lyricist may be necessary.  Not all Composers are master Lyricists, so an additional professional may need to be hired.  Furthermore, if your game’s music needs lyrics then you’ll need a vocalist to sing them, so option #2 or 3 may be best for your game’s music needs.

2. Is your Composer also a Mixing/Mastering Engineer?

If so, then his/her rates are probably (and justifiably) a little higher than some of the other bids you’ve received.  If not, then it will be necessary to hire a professional Engineer to mix and master the music for your game.

**Composers will take care of hiring all the additional professionals, the expense of which will be passed on to you.  For me personally, after talking with all of my “go to” people, I’ll submit a quote to the developer for approval before moving ahead with any of these additional costs.  That way the developer knows exactly what it will cost them before it’s done.

**If you’d like to find out more about what a Mixing & Mastering engineer does, then I recommend checking out this quick interview with the highly experienced engineer, Les Brockmann.  HERE.

Option #2 – Frosting on the Cake

            The next level up is actually a pretty large step forward in quality and the amount of work necessary, but tends to make for a more evocative score.  For me, “Frosting on the Cake” refers to a score that’s mostly done “In the Box,” but a few live musicians (or vocalists) are brought into the studio to add a little extra emotion to the music.  This is usually done for either the most important pieces of music in the game (Main Title, Big Boss Battle, Cinematic, etc.), the most important instruments in the score, or both. 

            Whenever possible (and within the developer’s budget), I always recommend this option as the “starting point” because a handful of phenomenal musicians can really make a huge difference in the feel of a score (and thus the game).  The only time I don’t recommend it, is if the score is supposed to be completely electronic in nature.  Just like with the previous option above, I’ll list some questions and situations to consider below.

1.  Can your Composer notate and prepare charts for the musicians?

Not all Composers are fluent in preparing professional charts for session musicians, so a Copyist may be necessary.  However, if he/she is able to notate everything, then that Copyist may not be needed.  Usually the music preparation workload for this option is manageable (assuming there isn’t a very tight deadline), so the Composer could probably take care of this role.  Although you should expect his/her rates to justifiably be a bit higher.

2.  How many musicians will your score need?  Can the Composer take care of calling, scheduling, and hiring all of these additional people?

For this option, your score may only need between one to five musicians, so (again depending on the deadline) the Composer should be able to manage hiring/scheduling all of the Session Musicians.  However, you should expect his/her rate to be a bit higher.  If the deadline is very tight, the musicians needed are very rare/exotic, or if a small ensemble is needed, then it may be necessary to hire a Musician Contractor.  This is something you should talk about with your Composer during the creative discussions. 

3. Does your Composer play an instrument that is part of the score?

For example, if your Composer plays the flute and he/she has written a few pieces of music for your game that feature the flute, is their performance fee separate from or included in their Composing fee?  Depending on the difficulty of the written passages and the amount of flute needed, the Composer may require compensation as both a Composer and a Session Musician.

4. Is your Composer a Recording Engineer?  Does he/she have his/her own studio?

Most professional game Composers have a small home studio that would be suitable to record a single session musician, but some instruments (like drums) and larger ensembles require a proper recording studio.  So it’s important to factor in the potential cost of a studio if your game’s music requires one.  Furthermore, even if the Composer can take over the Recording Engineer role, a Producer may be needed in the studio to help monitor each take.  Again, if the Composer is using his/her studio and he/she is also the Recording Engineer, then expect their rates to be slightly higher.

**Mixing/Mastering Engineer still applies from Option #1.

**If you’d like to find out more about what a Session Musician brings to the score, then I recommend checking out this quick interview with the very talented violinist and vocalist, Lucine Fyelon.  HERE

Option #3 – It’s “All-Live!”

Last but not least we’re to Option #3… the best yet most time consuming and most expensive, but also the most emotionally satiating option of all.  I’ll be straightforward with you right now and tell you that most of the indie developers I’ve worked with have tended to allot a percentage of their budget that only one of the first two options could work within.  Since Option #3 requires all the instruments to be live, then this assumes that it needs a lot of session musicians involved.  Thus it requires a lot of time, a lot of professionals, and usually a solid chunk of change from the developer to cover all of these costs.

However, it is still most definitely possible and financially feasible for indies with a little bit more funding to have a live orchestra, jazz band, or some other ensemble record their game’s music.  I’ll list a few additional questions below that may help you gauge just how many additional professionals your music budget will need to account for.

1.  Does your Game’s music require Orchestra, Big Band, or some other large ensemble?

If so, then an Orchestrator may be necessary.  This professional is responsible for taking the midi data (or sketches) from a Composer and assigning all the little black dots (music notes) to various instruments in the ensemble.  This is a very time consuming task, so the Composer may not have the time or knowledge to do this properly; especially seeing as a professional Orchestrator is a master of knowing what sounds great on every instrument.  So they can make suggestions to slightly alter parts that save time (and thus money) in the studio.  A professional Copyist is absolutely necessary for larger ensembles.  Also a Musician Contractor would be necessary for hiring everyone and scheduling the session, as the Composer will most likely be busy writing the music.

2. Does Game’s score require a Conductor?

Some Composers can conduct, but if they’re inside the room with all of the other musicians then they can’t simultaneously be in the control room listening with their “Quality Control” hat on.  So, either a professional Conductor who has trained for years to get the best performances out of musicians is necessary, or a Producer is needed to sit in the control room while the Composer is conducting.  Rock Bands and other Pop/Modern ensembles may not need a Conductor.

3. After this initial recording session what task will your Composer take on?

If they’re required to continue writing the score then a Music Editor is necessary.  This professional (possibly the Composer’s assistant) will go through all of the recordings from the session and edit/organize them so the session can easily be passed off to the Mixing Engineer.  If all of the music has been recorded at this previous session, then the Composer may have time to edit and prepare all of the files for the Mixing session.

**Mixing/Mastering Engineer still applies from Option #1.

**Contractor, Recording Engineer, & Composer as a performer still apply from Option #2.

**I failed to mention it above, but expect a Composer’s fee to be a bit higher if they are asked to fill any of the additional roles in Option #3.  (Conductor, Music Editor, or Orchestrator)

**If you’d like to find out more about what an Orchestrator and Copyist adds to the music, then I recommend checking out this quick interview with the multi-talented, Jason Poss.  HERE


            The specific rate for a Composer and all of the various professionals that may be involved vary greatly from person to person.  It’s safe to say though, that someone with a lot of experience will probably (and justifiably) charge more than a recent graduate and Option #1 will cost less than #3.  Hopefully this article has helped give you a bit of insight into the process of finishing a minute of music and allowed you to more accurately determine just how many additional professionals will be necessary to bring your game’s music to life.  Thanks for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your game!

P.S. If you’d like to read through a brief description of all the various professionals involved in bringing a single minute of music to life, then please click HERE.

P.S.S. Many colleagues (myself included) are BIG proponents of getting a Composer involved as early as possible in the project.  They may have wonderful ideas and useful feedback throughout the collaborative process, not to mention it gives them more time to define an identifiable score that “screams” your game.


About the Author: Kole Hicks (dba Kole Audio Solutions) is a Composer and Sound Designer with a focus in Games.  He's created Music and Sound for popular mobile titles like: "Bag it!", "Braindex", the social game "Cities of Legend" based on the NY Times Bestseller "Legend" from author Marie Lu, and two well-known WIP Indie Games, "Jeklynn Heights" & "Kenshi."  In addition to his work for Games, Kole is a published columnist at sites like: Ultimate-Guitar.com, Shockwave-Sound.com, and many more.

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