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Getting/Making Game Music that Fits - Comparative Music Series - Atmospheric vs Ambient

Tips for new audio designers composing video game music out of their comfort zone. Useful for producers as well, looking to put together design directions for their audio designers.

I consider myself a very melody-inspired composer, meaning I think about music in terms of memorable melodies, harmonies, ABBA sections, you get the idea. But when it comes to it, almost half the tracks I get asked to create are atmospheric and ambient tracks. After all, a game full of complex melodies with no room for the listener’s ears to have a break will be too repetitive and create ear strain.

A little atmosphere

Clients may not know the differences of what an atmospheric soundscape and ambient music is, but as the composer you should. To be fair, the exact terms are a bit loose, but there’s a distinction in the way you approach non-melodic music that should be discussed. Atmospheric "music" isn’t really music at all. It’s really just the sound you hear that plays in between the melodic music tracks of the soundtrack. For example, you’re playing a zombie hunting game, you open the door, a flood of zombies come out screaming for your brains. The music at this point is high-energy, it’s got drums and bass and bits of melody. It’s definitely music. After a bit of zombie-bashing, they’re all dead, and the music fades away. At this point, the soundtrack and ears of the listener need a bit of a break, so we’d opt for some atmosphere. It may be completely environmentally driven, such as sound layers of objects and scenery around you – the hum of florescent lights, the buzzing of flies, a dog barking outside. It could be a carefully composed track of sounds layered together that’s independent of where the character is, such as rumbling, wind, background screams in the distance. In both cases, you are hearing things – it’s definitely not silent.

As a composer it’s important to know what the sounds of your environment are going to be before you create your track. If you’re not doing both the effects and music, or are working in a team, it’s very important to collaborate. For example, a mistake would be to create music cheating towards the low end of frequencies, such as a bass heavy melody, while you’re in an environment focusing as well on the low frequencies such as a volcano or engine room with deep rumbling.

A little ambiance

Ambient music on the other hand is a bit different than an atmospheric soundscape. Firstly, you use actual instruments to build your ambient track, but the goal is to promote an emotion (fear, tension, tranquility, action) while keeping actual melodies to a minimum. Often, sustained notes such as strings just sit, for dozens of seconds at a time. Add and subtract instruments, change the key slightly, mix it up, but don’t overdo it. While you don’t want to bore your listener to tears and want to build and collapse layers of music, you don’t’ want to draw much attention to the music itself. You really want the players to not even “hear” any music at all.

So why have it to begin with? Because silence is much louder! If the player hears nothing, it really pulls them out of the game environment. They may start to think, wait what happened to the sound, did something go wrong? Did my game freeze, are my speakers still working, did the sound cut out due to a bug? Only in very few places, such as a horror game or a real tension builder, do we want to employ silence, and even then, sound effects such as footsteps, water drips, breath/heartbeats might still be used. I personally feel the only time the player should stop hearing things completely is when they pause the game.

Parting thoughts…

Non-music and non-melodic music are often just as important to a soundtrack than the music itself! Most importantly, figure out if you want just atmospheric sounds to make your soundtrack, or if subtle ambient music should be used instead. Often, the type of game you’re creating is the deciding factor. Adventure and exploratory games would benefit more from atmospheric soundscapes, while mobile, casual, and platform games would make better use of ambient music. In both cases, the goal is to give listeners a bit of a break from focusing their ears on complex melodies. Have discussions with the leads about your opinions, and always keep your target audience in mind. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. The end goal is to create a soundtrack that doesn’t get tiring and turned off. Treat players to a well-balanced listening experience!

Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.

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