Dive, Dive, Dive! Watch that pressure gauge - maximum composing depth reached!
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for underwater themes. A lot of games have some sort of water in them, be it a beach, ocean, lake, or a shallow pool with piranhas and/or treasure in it. But what about a level or stage set completely underneath water? How do we breathe a bit of fresh air in our compositions without going overboard?
Getting a Handle on Water Music
There are a few different ways to approach games featuring a large amount of water. For games that have splashes of water thrown in, such as a Mario platformer where you are in and out, sometimes a simple effect filter on the current background track is all you need. When the character’s underwater, some of the instruments may cut out, or the higher frequencies in the EQ range get cut off. For games that take place almost entirely underwater, these dynamic changes aren’t necessary, so keep the instruments at full sail.
Obviously the type of game will affect the composition.
For exploring around, try composing long sustains with a major chord in the higher frequencies, then an echo of the enharmonic minor in the lower. Take your time and explore echoy, reverb melodies that don’t quite go anywhere. For more action-based games, gliassandos and runs connote a sense of fluidity. Lurking danger about to bite your fins? Keep the register on the low end with sporadic synth strings. Appropriate nod to the Jaws theme is always welcome, as long as it's not the exact notes and rhythm!
Tempo for completely underwater tracks should be loose. If your track is for a completely underwater level, you may not need any rhythm section at all. Anything with a steady beat may not work as well as something more ambient. As water usually connotes a large space, the music can reflect this with a slow and atmospheric track. If your game is only featuring a quick swim into water, be consistent with the rest of your level’s design, but temper the track a bit. Everything moves slower in water and so should your track!
Awash with Instruments
Instruments that work best are those with long sustains and slow releases. Strings (tremolo), chimes, anything that rings out with an echo. Since water distorts not just visuals but sound as well, accentuate this phenomenon with chorus and reverb effects. With reverb, a lot of care must be given. For an underwater theme or dream sequence, larger than normal amounts of reverb are acceptable. But cross the line and the song becomes just a garbled mess of mush.
Parting thoughts… as you test the water.
Water, like space, is open and vast. In reality it connotes healing, the washing away of unpleasantness. Giver of life, purifier of sins. It’s serene, gentle, relaxing. But that’s boring for games so usually there’s sharks and bombs thrown in. As composers we need to meet the design of the game, but always keep in mind our source and reference materials. It’s easier to imagine water music for an exploratory or questing game, but most games with underwater levels feature action and active gameplay. Trickling iconic water-theme instruments and filters into your audio design is the best way to make a big splash.
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.