When I was composing for Carmen Sandiego, we knew we wanted a sort of spy theme. It boiled down to two different types: the Henry Mancini Pink Panther’s cartoony and almost goofy approach, or something a bit more modern and action-packed, such as Mission Impossible or the latest James Bond. What we ended up with was somewhat a mix of the two, but leaning more towards the Mancini style to fit the overall art, design, and target audience.
While there’s a lot more than these two paths forward for the audio design of a Spy/Sleuth/Intrigue game, in this entry I will be comparing and contrasting two different approaches to a possible soundtrack.
Tools of the Trade
There are a lot of differences between these two approaches to spy music. An important differentiating factor is the orchestration. A cartoony approach will have a very different set of instruments than a modern, movie-esque song showcasing power and action. The instruments of a good Mancini spy song make great use of brass ensemble. Trumpets, saxophone, trombones, come together and play off each other to great effect. You will also hear flutes, electric guitar and bass, piano, xylophones and vibrophones, triangles, and interesting percussion elements all set to a jazz drumkit.
Something a bit more modern and for a Mission Impossible will sound full of drama and tension, intrigue and action. This comes across in the music by the driving factor in the percussion and bass, with stinger sounds of string effects, orchestral hits, wind riffs and perhaps even explosive sounds to accent the percussion. It will likely be in a minor key, with the bass note repeating often on the tonic. This differs from a more laid back and cartoony spy song such as Pink Panther, not just in the orchestration but in how the music plays out. It will be more laid back and swing, with a definite jazz vibe. The music will have more melody than in the action-filled theme, swinging with syncopation, almost charming in its musicality. It will be less serious than its counterpart, which is an important distinction. It’s not that music will make fun of itself or be overly comedic, but tongue-in-cheek is definitely important. This can be accomplished by a variety of methods, but the rhythm and syncopation, cliffhangers, and instruments such as slide whistles, xylophones, and triangles are very important considerations.
Spy music has a lot of different settings necessary to be diverse. There’s the sleuthing intrigue, there’s the gadgets, gambling, romance, discovery, and action. The instrument choices will largely determine the emotions and mood of the moments, by expanding and contracting the amount used. However, the rhythm and tempo are great clues in determining these moments. For the undercover spy, simple cymbal hits in a quarter note, dotted eighth note – sixteenth note patterns is used all over the place in media. Add to this a solo acoustic or electronic bass and a dawdling piano and you’re set. For a spy hunter theme – the big chase – lose the swing and keep constant eighth notes. Inject quick brass or string stingers to keep up the action. These can be quick dah-dah brass notes in augmented triads.
Parting thoughts… as this message will self-destruct
There’s a lot of different ways to go about creating spy music. The choice of instruments, the composition of chord sequences, where to accent the beats. Since there’s such a variety in themes and styles, narrow down what works best for your game by listening to the various styles while you peruse the art design doc or play a prototype build if it’s available. Have discussions with the leads about your opinions, and always keep your target audience in mind. The best advice is to find which style is going to work best for the game and listen to a bunch of different tracks from similar sources. Hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources.
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.