Using a Live Orchestra in Game Soundtracks

The only reason to use a live orchestra in a game soundtrack would be to make the game better than if you had not used an orchestra; to make the game more immersive, more engaging, more fun than if it didn't include the orchestra. And on the business side, it would be helpful if you could sell enough units to pay for it. That's it, basically - the rest is just commentary. But, then you might say: "Of course a live orchestra would make our game better, but we can't afford it!" In order to make a game that would truly be better thanks to using an orchestra, can you really afford not to use one?

The paper is directed toward producers, designers and executives in the video game industry. Therefore, this article is not going to be about orchestration techniques, doublings, notation for today's orchestras, and so on. It's about why to use an orchestra in first place. What will it do for your game and probably most importantly, for your production process?

Jack Wall conducting the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle, WA for the Myst III: Exile score.

The only reason to use a live orchestra in a game soundtrack would be to make the game better than if you had not used an orchestra; to make the game more immersive, more engaging, more fun than if it didn't include the orchestra. And on the business side, it would be helpful if you could sell enough units to pay for it. That's it, basically - the rest will just be commentary. But, then you might say: "Of course a live orchestra would make our game better, but we can't afford it!" Well, my goal by the end of this paper is to communicate just one thing: In order to make a game that would truly be better due to using an orchestra, can you really afford not to use one?

Composition, and the Sound of the Orchestra

I am a composer. I compose music that goes along with a mood, a visual. I help to drive the action or drama along. But composing the music, which is arguably the most important part of the music production process, is not the only element of the music that matters. There is the sound of the music itself. How the sounds are made is worth quite a bit to the overall value of a piece. I have always had to pay attention to the sounds in a composition, because my first job in music was as a recording/mix engineer. I was fortunate to start my music production career that way, as it has allowed me the opportunity to really study the elements of a particular musical mix in great detail. Thus, I learned how to understand the processes of making a musical piece sound better. Unless, you understand these processes and how they affect the music, it's hard to see the worth of them. And so I write this paper.

But, whether you are an engineer or not, you can still hear a distinct difference between a given composer playing every instrument in their composition, and an orchestra full of virtuosi adding their individual, distinct flavors, coloring the sound of the music. Yes, Maria, the hills are, indeed, alive!

The added value of the live orchestra in a game soundtrack, then, comes primarily from its sonic and dynamic benefits. Of course there is more. Orchestras can do things that no sample can do or even imitate. The orchestra becomes a wonderful tool for the composer. In composing for an orchestra and not orchestral samples, there is really nothing in the way to halt creativity. A side benefit is that it puts loads of pressure on the composer to do extraordinary work (pressure, by the way, that the composer will always welcome!). And, it excites the entire game production team, as they all know there will be very little difference, if any, between the quality of the sound of the music in their game title, and that of the blockbuster playing at their local megaplex down the street.

So what about the pros and cons of recording a live orchestra for your video game title? Well, of course, you have to make sure that you don't screw up. Imagine blowing a session with 50 to 75 people who are going to get paid whether your music is playable or not. Ouch. Fortunately, this doesn't happen too often. You can imagine why. It's important to put the right team of people together to make the sessions successful.

What orchestral recording options are available? What are the various costs in putting together a budget? Where are the orchestras? I will touch on all of these aspects of using a live orchestra in a game soundtrack. But, the essential point I would want to make here is that the live orchestra is a viable option for today's best games.


Conductor score for Myst III: Exile.

Why Use an Orchestra? (Or "Why should I spend that kind of money on music?")

The Technology is Ripe
So we are all on the same page, let me define a few terms. Digital music is the linearly played-back music we are all used to listening to. It comes on CDs, MP3 files and streamed over the internet, etc. Midi music consists of Midi commands (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that trigger General Midi or DLS sounds. General Midi sounds are a set of 127 instruments that are included as a standard in various devices that playback music - Quicktime, Winamp, Microsoft Media Player all have general midi sound banks included within their software. DLS sounds enable the user to be able to load custom instruments into General Midi sound banks which can subjectively improve the quality of the sounds. For all intents and purposes, digital music sounds markedly better in almost every case because the composer goes from a palette of127 instruments to an infinite supply of instruments in the production process.

Now, what do I mean by the technology being ripe for orchestra then? First of all, right now the latest platforms and technology support it. Digital music can now be played back in interactive ways never before imagined. When I first got into the game industry six years ago, many otherwise smart people were adamantly arguing in favor of MIDI files as opposed to digital music in games to allow greater interactivity. The main problem I had with this wasn't even the quality of the sound of Midi music (although this has always been a problem). It was the fact that the composer would be creatively hampered by the fact that he had so small a palette to with which to compose and create. Stifled creativity. Yuck. I wanted no part of it. Most composers want their sonic palette left wide open so that they don't have to compromise their vision of what the music should be. Using the orchestra is the epitome of this freedom, especially since today it's fairly straightforward to combine electronic instruments with the orchestra - you can have the best of both worlds, often within the same piece of music. Contrast that with a general MIDI file. Now that's freedom! I don't want to give the impression that there is anything wrong with electronic scores. On the contrary. My studio is full of electronic gear with lots of great sounds and music production tools. I have scored many a game within those four walls just fine. But my orchestral music recorded with full orchestra sounds better. And it always will, because of its…

Dramatic Effect

There have been many fine electronic scores done for video games and movies for that matter. But when you bring warm bodies into the recording studio and you hand them their parts and they begin to play, it always sounds better than the electronic demo of the same music. It has that "X" factor. It feels real; it feels fresh and alive. The players bring something new and multidimensional to the music that one person simply cannot originate on his or her own. The composer is the visionary, but the players become the conduit to the sublime. Once you watch and listen to the players in the studio, and then hear the final mix, it's hard to justify making music any other way. Not that electronic instruments aren't extremely useful and many times desired. I just think it's important to use the best of both the electronic world and the real-musician-playing world to get the finest results.

After the first hour of the Myst III: Exile session, the producers, the designer, and every associate from the publisher and developer came up to me individually and said how they never imagined how intensely awesome this was going to be. You could see it in their eyes. It changed them. It changed their perspective on music for games. It gave the entire production a major shot in the arm which carried all of us through until we went to gold master. We all realized at that session that it's possible to make games in the future that are state-of-the-art in every facet of their production, including music.

Sellable Commodity as a Soundtrack CD
The argument has to be made that it is rapidly becoming time to create the music for games market. The soundtrack CD needs to be sold and marketed. But not by the gaming industry. Rather, the game soundtrack CDs should be marketed and sold by the established music industry at the launch of the game. Strategic partnerships need to be created in order to accomplish this. The game publishers are not in the music business; the record companies are. And the record companies are interested. They want to tap into the 8+ billion dollar video game industry pie. The main question then, is: Where is the added value? Where does added value on a soundtrack CD come from? A live orchestra is one way. Perhaps a major label artist tied to the CD might be another. In both cases, a label would have to be involved to bridge the gap between the game world and the music world. This would certainly help foster new markets for the game world. Of course, this is an entire separate subject, but the point I want to make is that a soundtrack album needs to have serious music on it. The music has to live on it's own, apart from the game. This brings new audiences to games by letting other markets know there is quality in gamedom. Recording an orchestra goes a long way to ensuring that people unfamiliar with gaming begin to see that games are a serious form of entertainment.

The Main Reason You Should Have Your Composer Score with a Live Orchestra

Of course, not every project warrants using a live orchestra. It's expensive, it takes real planning and design, and it takes a serious coordinated effort between producer, designer, audio programmer and composer (not to mention the "team" that I will talk about shortly) in order to make it worth it. Many smaller projects not only don't have the budget for an orchestra, but they also don't have the time to maximize its use and implementation into the game. But, I'd like to put forth the idea that any project with a production budget of $3 million US, where appropriate, should have at least some of the score recorded with an orchestra. The main reason is that there are enough recording options in and out of North America that a 3 percent allocation of budget funds to music would, with proper planning, allow an orchestral score to be part of your production.

But still you might ask: How will this make my game better? This really is the important question. Everyone knows that when you have something of intrinsic value -- like a nice car -- you are inclined to take better care of it. The same goes for recording an orchestral score for your game. It has a greater value to everyone involved in the making of the game. They will care about the music, and therefore the game, that much more. And because of that value, you will make sure there is real planning and design for the implementation of this music in your game. And, because you're investing your money and, now your planning and design time, you will make sure that the music usage is coordinated well into the game. And guess what? The music not only sounds better, it functions better in the game. And that, my friend, makes a better game.


Recording console in truck. Seattle, WA

And here's the really great part. Your entire music budget, even with the composer's creative fee and orchestra, will still cost you less than any other single element in your production. This can obviously be argued, depending on how fine you break your budget down. But look at it this way: Game design, graphics, art, cinematics, story, technology, interface, level scripting, sound design, music - that's roughly 10 basic categories in a typical production. Assuming they all have equal importance in the game, you might attribute equal amounts of a $3 million project to each facet - each receiving $300,000. Of course we all know that is not how it works. I know of one game project in the history of making games with a music budget this big. Some parts of the production will have hard costs greatly exceeding others - music not being one of them. But, I dare say, you can have a full orchestra in your production for between $80 and $150,000 all in (that means all included).

But, perhaps we should look at this a little differently. Let's call the idea of recording a live orchestra for a video game the epitome; the zenith of music in games. Something that we in the industry will shoot for if we have the budget, the time and the manpower to make full use of it. But, somewhere in between the composer playing all samples and instruments by themselves and recording the full orchestra/choir grand theme and variations - lies the middle ground of where a smaller group of musicians get hired to play on the music tracks for the game. The quality skyrockets while the costs and burdens of the production process remain fairly low. This can make a very high quality music score, still achieving all of your creative objectives in the process.

So, with music having such a pivotal role in the quality of gameplay, your same $3 million project should easily afford some production dollars to the category: "Live Musicians". And, assuming the creative fee is reasonable, you can and should contractually require your composer to hire at least a few musicians for your title ensuring it doesn't go in his/her pocket. This is often a standard point in film music contracts. This serves as a major communication at the beginning of the project to your composer - "We care a lot about what you are doing!". Though that money won't be going into the composer's pocket, they will be grateful, and I guarantee they will work harder on the music. In one fell swoop, you've just guaranteed a higher level of quality for your total game.

When you lowball your composer's fee - an unfortunate fact in the game audio business at this point - you force him/her to play all instruments as well as compose the music. This is typical. I do this on certain projects. But, I can promise better results when I hire live musicians to sweeten the tracks. And I am not talking about an entire orchestra. It can range from a few soloists up to a full orchestra. On several non-orchestral tracks for Myst III: Exile, I would bring in a percussionist or a Duduk player. There's no way I can play the Duduk. People are still talking about the sound of the Duduk in that score. They loved it. It made a big difference in the quality of the score. And the added costs for this leap in quality can be as low as $1000 US for several soloists playing. Peanuts in the budget scope of most games. Here are some guidelines for dealing with various music budgets.

Low Music Budgets
Of course, some projects will barely have enough budget to pay a composer at all. So let's start with the next rung of the audio budget ladder.

Your composer may be a brilliant musician. The trouble is that even a brilliant musician can play no more than a handful of instruments brilliantly. With a few extra dollars, every musician playing on your project can be brilliant, and the quality will show.

In a low music budget project, consider allocating $1,000 to $5,000, over and above the composer's creative fee, for musicians. This will immediately give the composer another serious tool for making the music better. I would say significantly better. He/she will take this into account while composing and perhaps write for instruments not before possible, because they don't have those particular samples at their disposal or they don't play that instrument. It will immediately take away some significant creative roadblocks.

I scored a trailer for E3 where I used nothing but samples. The producers liked it, but I could tell they weren't in love with it. I brought in a french horn player to replace the french horn sample within my score and then gave it back to them. They were completely blown away. One of them even said, "Wow, was that french horn part in your last mix?"! The difference of including just a few extra players can dramatically increase the quality of the music in your game.

Medium Music Budgets
Add $5,000 to $30,000 to the music production budget. Remember, you can specify what this money is to be used for in your music agreement with your composer and hold him to it. This category varies greatly depending on the type of game produced, what kind of music is required, and size of the ensembles playing. But, for this size project, in this range, you can absolutely hire a small orchestra to record your composer's music. It's a question of how much of the music you will be recording (perhaps only the cinematics?), how large the orchestra will be, and where you will be recording. The costs, quality and level of control all seem to go up in relation to one another. But, with careful planning on the part of the composer/music producer, you can get a great bang for the buck here. More on this in the "Orchestral Recording Options" section.

High Music Budgets
Here the budgets go from $30,000 on up -- again, over and above the creative fees. This will get you everything from a full orchestra in Prague on up to the London Symphony Orchestra and a Los Angeles contract orchestra.


Studer A827 24-track analog recorder.

Orchestral Recording Options

Today, perhaps as a result of the globalization of the world's collective economies, we have many options when recording an orchestra for film, television and in our case, game soundtracks. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but represents a solid menu of options to suit many budgets, schedules and tastes. These are listed from lowest budget to highest.

Recording in Eastern Europe
Through a service in Santa Monica, CA called Forte Music , you can teleconference with various orchestral recording groups throughout Eastern Europe, including Prague and Budapest. To record a 50-piece orchestra, it will cost $1500/hour of studio time with the musicians. This includes the orchestra, studio, recording engineer, conductor and session supervisor. Orchestration (tailoring the composition for individual instrumental parts in the orchestra), copying (extracting and printing individual instrument parts) and Midi transcription (transcribing a composer's Midi score into an orchestration) fees are additional. For this price in this situation, you can reasonably expect to get 3 minutes of music recorded per hour. So if you have a 30 minute score, it would take about 10 hours of recording time and cost about $15,000 with orchestration and copying being additional.

Pros: This is a very economical way to record your score. With careful planning and good orchestration and copying, you can get good results. The recordings are complete buyouts, with no residual payments or reuse fees. This option has had quality issues in the past. However, over time it is improving at a steady pace and is becoming a viable option for recording orchestral music at very reasonable rates.

Cons: The session is remote. There is a language barrier, although the score supervisor and/or the conductor speaks English. The players are sometimes marginal. Won't get quite as much music recorded per hour of session time as other options. Check with session supervisor to see if players will be able to play your complex passages.

Recording in Seattle, Salt Lake City and San Diego
These three cities offer services that are comparable to one another. The sessions are charged much differently than in Eastern Europe for economic reasons. Players run an average of $55/hour of session time, with studio costs, conductor, engineer, session supervisor, orchestator and copyist adding extra fees. In comparison to Eastern Europe, it boils down to about $3500 per hour of session time (again, orchestration and copying are extra). Although it sounds expensive in relation to the same thing in Eastern Europe, it's really quite a bargain when you consider the exchange rates between the US and Eastern Europe, and that because of the ability of the players and direct communication, you can record 4 to 5 minutes of music per hour. So for a 30 minute score, it would cost in the vicinity of $21,000 to $26,000.

Pros: Excellent musicians. Players can play fairly complex music the 2nd or 3rd time through. Good communication with musicians and contractor. Results can sound as good as most film scores. Complete buyout, no license or reuse fees. Large selection of rooms to record in.

Cons: Most will have to travel to location. Orchestration and copying fees will be more substantial than in Eastern Europe. Studio costs vary greatly.

Recording in London
World-class musicians, recording facilities such as Air Studios and Abbey Road Studios, and credits such as Episode 1: The Phantom Menace are the hallmarks of quality that recording orchestral music in London brings to the table. Recording in London is governed by the British Musician's Union. They set the rates for recording and reuse rights. A buyout is available, but costs significantly more than their standard rates, making this option mainly for high budget projects.

Pros: World-class musicians. Buyout fee available. Great technical staff at all major recording facilities ensuring a pristine recording. World-class recording rooms. Up to 8 minutes of recorded music per hour. Players can handle very hard passages of music.

Cons: Significant added expenses for travel and accommodations for all but native Londoners. Studio costs vary greatly. Fairly complex union/ payment agreements. Buyouts can be pricey.

Recording in Los Angeles
This is the pinnacle of recording orchestral music in the world. Because of the studio film and television production business located in Los Angeles, the finest recording musicians in the world are located there. The musicians in LA can play passages that most musicians would label "impossible". Their sight-reading ability is astonishing and breathtaking. The recording facilities are the best of the best -- although some in London are comparable. The technical staff are unsurpassed and the results are guaranteed to be excellent for all these reasons.

Pros: World-class musicians. The best sight-readers in the world. The best technical staff. The best of the best are in LA. It is possible to negotiate with the Recording Musician's Association (RMA) for a special multimedia deal that results in a buyout as these projects would be considered low budget.

Cons: Generally the most pricey option. Reuse fees for other media (soundtrack album, TV, etc.) are a must as well as royalty payments based on sales in excess of 50,000 and 100,000 units.

Author's Example: Myst III: Exile

For the Myst III: Exile score, we recorded in Seattle, with Simon James' Northwest Sinfonia. At the time, this was our best option as it fit the music budget and the quality was absolutely fantastic. The sessions were remarkably professional thanks in large part to my team: Engineer, Steve Smith, Music Coordinator Audrey DeRoche, Orchestrator Steve Zuckerman, and of course my contractor, Simon James.

When recording a full orchestral recording session, much is at stake. You only have 3-4 hours per session. The musicians will get paid whether the session is successful or not. Beyond the obvious necessary skills of the composer, the team is crucial to making the day a success. Experience and ability to work under extreme pressure, while keeping cool, are a must.

The Team

Besides the composer, the team that will be needed to record an orchestral score are:

  • Orchestrator. The person who lays out the score from the basic composer's written or computerized musical sketch. Basic orchestration rates are in the vicinity of $50/page of conductor score. About $10/page more for Midi transcription services. These fees are normally negotiable. The faster the tempo the higher the number of pages because there will be more measures of music per minute of music. In my case, the orchestrator serves as a second pair of ears at the recording - what we call the "Booth Person".
  • Conductor. The person who stands before the orchestra and directs them. Conductor's fees are double to triple musician fee scale. Can also be done by the composer in some cases. Included with Eastern European package.
  • Booth Person. The composer will and should have another pair of ears while the music is being recorded. This helps ensure that any mistakes are rectified immediately and not found later - after it's too late. Price for this service is negotiable.
  • Engineer. The person who is responsible for the physical recording on tape or hard disk. They also address all technical issues during the session. Anywhere from $50-$100/hour in the US and London. More for superstars. Included in Eastern European package.
  • Contractor. A contractor is the person who actually hires the orchestra. Contractors go from double or triple scale of the musician fee for union orchestras or 10% of all musicians fees for non-union orchestras. Included with Eastern European package.
  • Music/Session Supervisor. This is the person who monitors the progress of the session and makes sure that by the end of the session you have reached your goals. They keep the conductor on track by pacing him. Roughly $75/hour of session time, plus a fee of $2,500-$5,000 to assist composer with booking, negotiation of all money deals, organizing travel and accommodations, etc. This person can pay for themselves in North America, and make all go very smoothly since they have long standing relationships with all team members. Included with Eastern European package.
  • Copyist. The person who takes the conductor's score from the orchestrator and extracts all the musician's parts for the session. This is roughly about $50/page of score.


The main reason to use an orchestra in a game soundtrack would be to improve the game in general. First, the game would have to benefit by having an orchestral score and second, it would have to benefit by recording a live orchestra for that score. It gives added value to the music that can then be sold as a standalone soundtrack CD and cross-marketing tool for the game. By recording a living, breathing acoustical environment with virtuosi musicians, you indeed add dimension and depth to the music; qualities that are almost impossible to describe, yet readily discernable in how that sound affects the listener, or in our case, the player. It's the difference between prose and poetry, scales and music, Midi files or orchestral grandeur: no reaction or goosebumps.

Where appropriate, orchestral music can give your project momentum and a real shot in the arm. This comes from giving the production team a sense of quality that comes from knowing that the designers and producers of the game are thinking intimately about every facet of the project. Collectively, the team becomes aware that this is going to be a great project. One that will withstand the test of time.

With the latest game platforms, we are entering a new era of electronic entertainment. One in which the sky is the limit on quality, because the quality is built into the technology. Music in games can now rival the cinematic effects of movie music. We don't have to figure out how to play those Midi files back in the game to save space. In fact, no one really wants them anyway - they just don't sound as good.

We're on a crusade for better music. For a while, we will have to resist the current thinking that music in games is cheap and unimportant. Because better music means better games. Because the best games have a story, the best games are immersive. In the best games, the player gets lost and can't seem to put the controller down to get a few Z's. Great music composition and great musical sound are a part of the best games that keep players awake at night and keep them coming back for more.

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