How To Make Music For Video Games – The Ultimate Guide (2022)

From the arcade machines of the ’80s to the massive open worlds of today, video games are filled with excellent music. Music in video games helps to set out a vibe, create a more immersive gaming experience, and enhance playability. From a composer’s standpoint, it’s also a unique experience.

There are many parallels between creating music for film and TV and creating music for video games. Unlike traditional soundtracks, though, video-game music isn’t composed for a series of predefined scenes. What makes it special is the fact that it depends on the unpredictable actions of the gamers.

This means that music for video games must be synced to certain actions, linked to certain areas of the map, and match the tempo of the game flawlessly. Below, I’ll explore some musical techniques video-game composers apply to achieve this and provide you with some examples from beloved video games.

Note: In this article we’ll be discussing the approach for creating and syncing music for all types of video games, if you’re just looking to figure out how to make old-school style 8-bit or 16-bit video game music then check out our guide on chiptune music makers.

Making music for video games is a challenge, but a musical task nonetheless. While it’s always helpful to know a few things about programming, it’s possible to compose full video-game scores with nothing but creativity, a DAW, and an audio middleware software such as FMOD.

Different types of music for video games

If you want to compose music for video games, it’s important to know exactly what your role is. Video games rely on audio for many things, not just for soundtrack-type purposes. There’s also the song that plays in the menu, the sound effects that get carried in-game, or the game’s main theme, for instance.

In his book “Writing Interactive Music for Video Games: A Composer’s Guide,” the Berklee College of Music game-scoring expert Michael Sweet makes the distinction between three fundamental types of music for video games: underscore, source music, and music as gameplay.

Underscore

Underscore refers to the music that’s added to a video game for purely non-functional reasons. In other words, it’s the soundtrack, the songs that enhance the emotions or atmosphere of certain scenes.

These songs are not indispensable to the game – meaning the game would still make sense without them – but are nonetheless vital. When you listen to the OST of a video game, you’re most likely listening to the video game’s underscore.

Source music

Not to be confused with the sound effects of the game, source music is music that’s played as part of the narrative of the video game.

Imagine that you see a video-game character playing a musical instrument in a certain area of the map; the song played by the character can be defined as source music.

Sound effects don’t belong in this category because they’re not technically considered to be music. However, sound effects are hugely important for video games and include everything from step sounds to ambient noises.

Music as gameplay

Not to be confused with adaptive music (more about that in a second), music as gameplay refers to the music that a player can control in the game.

While not all video games feature music as gameplay, Sweet cites some examples in his book, including most notably “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero.”

Composing the sounds: a few tips and fundamentals

If you know how to compose music, congratulations: you’re qualified to work as a video-game composer. Just like records and films, video games contain audio tracks that can be completed in any DAW. You don’t need to be a computer whiz to collaborate with video-game developers; you just need to know about music.

Still, making music for video games isn’t the same as creating a track for your band or scoring a short movie. There are a few fundamental differences one must grasp before starting to work on a video-game composition.

  • Video-game music must be loopable. Since players are ultimately responsible for the time they spend in a certain area, video-game soundtracks must be loopable, i.e., last for as long as needed.
  • Video-game music must consider transitions. Most video games have moments of stress and moments of calmness, and these are interchangeable according to the players’ actions. For this reason, music for video games must consider transitions between different moments in the game; such as the moment an enemy appears and the moment all enemies die.
  • Video-game music must assist playability. A gamer’s main focus is always going to be the game itself, so video-game music shouldn’t take anything away from this experience. On the other hand, it should assist playability by providing helpful audio clues and helping players to make in-game decisions more quickly.

Helpful tips for making music for video games

  • Play the game. It should go without saying that you can’t make a suitable video-game soundtrack without playing the game. You don’t need to be a gaming expert, but you need to understand a player’s mindset to compose music for a specific game.
  • Focus on motifs. Video-game music must consider transitions, and what better way to do so than by focusing on motifs? Motifs are also great for repetition, which makes it easier to create a loopable track. Finally, they’re also excellent for saving you some time while helping to keep everything cohesive.
  • Keep it simple. Keep in mind that players can spend hours in a single area, so it’s important to make sure video-game music isn’t fatiguing. Avoid overcomplicated passages and stick to simple, catchy melodies. Focus on creating excellent arrangements and exploring creative sounds rather than using too many notes or intricate time signatures.
  • Learn from the masters. If you want to create a great rock album, you need to know the best rock artists. The same applies to video-game music. Listen to the soundtracks of artists such as Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, or Jeremy Soule. Explore content dedicated to video-game composition, such as the awesome 8-bit Music Theory YouTube channel.

What’s the best DAW for composing video-game music?

The best DAW for composing video-game music is the DAW you’re most familiar with. There is no particular DAW that’s most suited for video game composers, you can get great results even with a free DAW – it’s all up to your creativity and compositional skills.

Ableton Live is just one DAW that works great when making music for video games.

It’s worth noting that some DAWs are better for creating full tracks than others. Pro Tools contains less creative instruments and sound-generating tools than Ableton Live, for instance. The same could be said about DAWs that are best suited for making electronic music, such as Logic Pro, Bitwig, and the aforementioned Ableton Live.

What about chiptune?

It’s important not to confuse all video-game music with chiptune. Chiptune is a specific music genre that’s associated with old-school video-game soundtracks, from back when video-game scores needed to be developed by programmers and contained numerous limitations in terms of tone, harmonic diversity, and sheer disk storage space.

While chiptune music is still made by many 8-bit enthusiasts, video-game soundtracks now include all genres of music, from classical music to techno.

Adaptive music

In video games, adaptive music is music that changes according to the events that take place in the game. This means that a composition’s rhythm, tempo, volume, or timbre can be dynamically changed when the player performs a certain action, such as stepping into a new area of the map.

There are many types of adaptive music for video games. Some soundtracks are completely developed by composers, who use clever techniques to blend sounds to in-game events. Others are purely algorithmic, meaning they’re automatically generated; LucasArts, for instance, uses an interactive music system known as iMuse.

In video games like “Rez,” the background music blends seamlessly with in-game sound effects. This is relatively uncommon, as most video-game background music tends to be separated from the in-game sound effects.

Clever ways of using adaptive music in video games

  • Same melody, different instruments. In “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword,” the composers Mahito Yokota, Hajime Wakai, and Takeshi Hama use the same melody with interchangeable instruments to reference different areas on the map. This means that when the playable character Link moves from one area to the other, the music changes without stopping.
  • Adding more and more instruments. It’s another great trick extensively used in a few Nintendo games. It’s perfect for levels that include some sort of progressive motion, such as when the character is climbing a set of stairs or going to the top of a mountain. Adding a few instruments at the time while keeping a motif-based loop going is a great way of adding tension and a feeling of climactic achievement to a certain area of the game.
  • Matching the song’s tempo with the game’s tempo. A must for games that involve noticeable speed increases, matching a song’s BPM with the in-game actions is perfect for creating a feeling of cohesion between the soundtrack and the events in the video game.
  • Highlighting specific actions. A good way of creating iconic video-game music is to compose a passage that only plays when the playable character performs a specific action. One of the most classic examples of this happens in “Super Mario World,” as the “Yoshi Bongos” theme plays whenever Mario goes on top of Yoshi (you can hear it below).
  • Crossfading between songs. In some “Mario Kart 8” levels, the game composers cleverly created crossfades between songs to signal different sections of the racetrack. These are activated via invisible, in-game tripwires. To achieve this effect, one must create at least two songs that can be seamlessly cross-faded into one another at any point in time.
  • Dynamic bus effects. In “Portal 2,” the background music is processed by an effect whenever the playable character jumps into the gel. The same happens in numerous video games that include water: when the character dives into a lake, the background music is filtered to simulate the experience of being underwater. This powerful technique can be easily achieved by adding an effect to a track’s master channel. Here are some great bus/aux techniques to get you started.
  • Providing negative and positive feedback. In the detective’s game “L.A. Noire,” the music stops whenever the player has already found all the tips in a certain area. This means that the background music assists the player by providing useful clues that help him or her to make quicker decisions. If the music continues, the player knows he or she must continue looking for missing clues.

Using audio middleware

Audio middleware is software that integrates audio files into a game engine. While audio tracks can be created in a DAW, they can only be linked to specific actions in the game via audio middleware software. The best-known programs of this type are Wwise, FMOD, Elias, and Fabric.

What are the options?

If you don’t know much about programming, FMOD is the easiest audio middleware software you can choose. It’s perfect for musicians because of its familiar, DAW-inspired interface. It even resembles Ableton Live a bit too much! Most video-game composers working on independent projects or with smaller companies tend to use FMOD.

Relatively difficult to navigate, Wwise is the main alternative to FMOD and the audio middleware software most commonly used by massive gaming developers. It’s less limited than FMOD but much harder to learn, especially if you know nothing about programming or producing video games.

Screenshot of www.audiokinetic.com

The two other alternatives are not full-blown programs, but rather third-party tools that can be integrated into well-known game engines such as Unreal or Unity. Elias and Fabric are both designed for creating interactive video-game music and shouldn’t be used as standalone tools. Unlike Elias, Fabric is specifically modeled for Unity.

Screenshot of eliassoftware.com
Screenshot of fabricmc.net

How does audio middleware software work?

To match the events in a game with specific changes to the sound, you first need to load a game-engine project into your audio middleware software of choice. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be explaining how Unity files work in the context of FMOD.

Inside FMOD’s familiar interface, you can link specific in-game events to sounds. FMOD features many automation tools that allow you to create dynamic changes in the music; keep in mind that, unlike traditional DAWs, the tempo in FMOD is set on RPM (revolutions per minute) rather than BPM (beats per minute).

By using the free tool FMOD for Unity, you can then add sounds produced in FMOD to Unity. There are different methods for adding ambient sounds, music (as in the background music), and sounds synced to specific actions.

Screenshot of www.fmod.com

Detailing the precise ins and outs of operating FMOD and loading audio into Unity would take many paragraphs. For a concise guide on this subject, FMOD’s website provides an extremely helpful guide that’s worth checking out.

How much do video game composers make?

Video game composers tend to make anywhere between a few hundred dollars and up to two thousand dollars per track. These values can go up dramatically if a video-game developer is trying to buy a well-known song or wants to employ the services of a well-known artist.

Sadly, video-game composers don’t make much money with music royalties. Since it’s virtually impossible to determine the performance rights of a song used in a video game (since it can be played as many times as the person who bought the game wishes to), tracks used in video games tend to be acquired via buyouts. This means that the video-game developers make a one-time offer to composers.

For this reason, the best way to make money as a video game composer is by working on commissioned projects. This involves being the main composer of the video game, generally hired via a specific fee or even salary by the video-game developers.

How much does it cost to make music for a game?

Video-game developers tend to use as little as 5% and not more than 15% of their budget to pay for music, so it varies from project to project. If a video game has a million-dollar budget, then one can reasonably expect it to invest up to $150K in the game’s soundtrack.

In terms of actually making the sounds, the cost of making music for a game is potentially zero. As long as you have a DAW, you can create a terrific video-game soundtrack for the price of nothing.

How do you get your music into a video game?

Music in video games is selected by dedicated audio directors, A&R supervisors, and, in smaller projects, even by the game’s creators themselves! So, getting your music into a video game takes a lot of networking; in addition to creating solid tracks, you need to have the right connections.

If you have a record label or publishing company, it’s probably better to ask for their help. You can try to contact video-game developers directly and send them samples of your work, but this is not a guaranteed route to success.

Summary

For all of its specifications, making music for video games is something all music composers should try at least once in their lifetime. If making music for film and TV is already a challenging and interesting experience, then making music for video games ups the ante by considering aspects like player unpredictability and negative/positive feedback.

If you’re tired of doing the same old things inside your DAW, trying to come up with a video-game soundtrack (even if it’s just for the fun of it) will allow you to learn new techniques and grow as a musician. For inspiration, I advise you to check some of the best video game scores of all time: Cuphead, Chrono Trigger, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Final Fantasy XV are but a few classic examples.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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