Great Interview! I loved the part at the end about music in games being like an old boys club and it being very hard to get a job in. This is quickly turning into my favorite feature on GameSpot.
The "Play. Create. Share." mantra extends to the audio department too in Little Big Planet 2.
GS: How do you find that balance between original music and licensed tracks in the game?
KY: My main concerns have always been to try and have the most appropriate music in our story levels whilst also providing the community with an eclectic mix of tracks to suit as many different applications and tastes as possible. Sometimes those goals pull in different directions, but as long as I don't have two tracks which are essentially doing exactly the same thing (tempo, intensity, emotion, genre), then I know I'm not going to end up shooting myself in the foot and wasting an opportunity to expand the library. So I try and maintain that variety whilst also conforming to the creative brief I've set for each theme in the game. This is heavily influenced by Kareem's (Kareem Ettouney, LBP2 art director) art brief. I'm trying to get the audio to back up the visual aesthetic of a location and the characters that inhabit it. I enjoy bringing it all together, but it's a ton of work, so I'm glad that people are responding well to the end result.
So, to answer the question, if you come at it from the angle of what the game requires, and for LBP2 that is a crazy, left-field mix of tracks, then you naturally end up with a balance skewed towards licensed music. That's how I get the biggest variety of sounds and styles in the soundtrack, because no matter how talented a composer is, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. I will always favor original music over licensed music in an original IP, but the sheer practicality of achieving what I think LBP2 needs gives us a 70/30 split (or whatever it is) in licensed music's favor. There were seven composers working on LBP2 (see here) for similar reasons of variety and playing to each composer's strength, but I couldn't have coped with more than that. It certainly wasn't practical to have 30 composers working on a track each, even if that is the theoretically ideal way of achieving a large, eclectic, high-quality soundtrack.
But, of course, there is also a great deal of things that original music allows you to do that licensed music cannot. I would never have been able to find preexisting music that fitted the brief I gave the composers for LBP2. Renaissance music mashed up against glitchy beats? 1950s electronic sci-fi meets Pathe newsreel via big-band swing? Good luck with that! And then there's the flexibility offered by interactive music…
GS: What was your selection process when it came to finding the right musicians for LBP2?
KY: I need to be familiar enough with their existing work to know that they are capable of writing music to the standard that I expect, but also that they are a likely stylistic match for my brief. Prior interactive audio experience is a must for anyone who's going to be writing interactive music; otherwise, it's going to be a massive time sink for me holding their hand or, worse, poor end results. And, just a simple thing, but it's easy to skip this if you're busy and you're relying on a recommendation, is that it's really important to meet them. If you're going to be working together, then you need to understand each other and you need to respect each other, and the best way to test that out is to get to know each other a bit and find some common ground.
GS: One of the new features in LBP2 is the ability to create your own cinematics, which include themed cinematic music to choose from. Could you describe the process when coming up with the different dramatic themes?
KY: Believe it or not, most of the music tracks were finished long before the cinematics that used them were. Even if it sounds like they are scoring the events happening in a particular cinematic (and I hope that they do!), this was achieved with careful planning, cunning implementation, and a fair bit of tweaking the cinematics to retrospectively match the music. So, props go to Jeremy Mayne, one of my sound designers, for implementing the audio in the cinematics and pulling this off.
This approach is important--it wouldn't have been acceptable for us to score our cinematics like a movie and then hand the assets to the community and expect them to be able to do the same thing with them in their own cinematics. This is a rule we applied to the whole project--for example, all our levels and cinematics are built with the in-game tools, and the vast majority of the art assets were created up front to create a library which the level designers and artists could draw from. So, with the cinematic music, the goal was to create a library of tracks that we could make use of in our story and in doing so demonstrate to the community how the assets and tools could be used.
Initially, we started out by analyzing the cinematic scripts and sketches/animatics to determine what emotions and dramatic contexts we would be likely to encounter and get an idea of the quantity of music required. Based on these calculations I settled on the target of 30 tracks in the cinematic music library, which turned out to be a pretty good estimate. That allowed me to brief cinematic composer Paul Thomson on the first few bits of music, which were those no-brainer pieces safe from even high-level story changes (such as the "meanies" theme). And so we carried on in that manner, sending Paul briefs for tracks once I thought a piece of music was a "safe" bet. This started to get more and more risky, and we eventually reached a point, somewhere about 50 percent complete, where Paul was asking for more work but the cinematics and story hadn't made enough progress to be able to make any more vaguely safe calls. So, I just bit the bullet, looked at the emotional and dramatic holes in the existing library and asked Paul to write those "missing" themes. If you think that's nuts, you're probably right, but it's a pretty good way of finding out if the library of music you're creating is going to be of any use. Indeed, music is rather malleable stuff, and we ended up using most of these themes in our story cinematics. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing how the community makes use of them.
GS: Another new addition is the music sequencer. How does that work, and what do you hope will come out of it?
KY: The music sequencer was always one of those ideas we had simmering away in the background. Alex (Alex Evans, Media Molecule tech director/cofounder) had included it in the original LBP pitch to Phil Harrison back in 2006 to help demonstrate "creative gaming." But it was never a serious consideration for LBP1 because it's a massive undertaking, essentially a whole app in and of itself, and with the first game we were trying to run before we could sprint. Actually, Sony was pretty keen that we do it as a separate product altogether, and I can certainly understand the thinking behind that, but we like the fact that once you load LBP, it offers you a suite of creative tools all in one place, not to mention that the whole point of the sequencer is to solve the problem of providing music for those millions of community levels.
Alex and I both had pretty strong feelings about how the note editing should work and what features the sequencer should have, so we worked closely together on coming up with something we were both happy with. But then we hit a barrier which was how to make the sequencer work within the confines and established paradigms of POPIT (the game's create UI). Creating a whole other application and UI within LBP was going to be too time consuming to code, so the feature sat in limbo for quite a few months with the threat of it being dropped lingering over our heads. But, certainly within the audio la-la land that is my reality bubble, if there's one feature LBP needed, it was a music sequencer, because it solves a major shortfall of the first game. So, with a bit of backup from Siobhan (Siobhan Reddy, Media Molecule studio director), we managed to keep the concept alive even though no progress was being made and the feature didn't really exist--it was too important to drop even though we were running out of time. But then, like some kind of beardy, ponytailed angel, David Smith (LBP2 tech director) got involved and worked out a way to reuse a whole bunch of existing POPIT code to solve our bottleneck. That's why the music sequencer uses LBP2's circuit board and silicon chip paradigm. Big thanks to Alex, Dave, and Matt for making it all happen. The other important thing which came out of this is the gameplay sequencer (which, truth be told, was the carrot on the stick that got Dave to solve our music sequencer woes). That turned out to be an absolute lifesaver for the cinematics team and level designers who, up until that point, had been relying upon a tangled mess of wires and timers to trigger sequenced events. I love it when a plan comes together!
The workflow for writing a piece of music in LBP2 is this: pop down a blank music sequencer object, select an instrument from POPIT and place it on the music sequencer's circuit board, tweak the instrument, and add some notes to it. Add more instruments with more notes. Job done. Obviously, you need to know how to write music to get the most out of it, but to assist players who want to have fun with it or teach themselves how to write music there are a couple of things that they can do which will help. The first is to look at music that other people have written--naturally, some creators will choose to share their music with you via a prize bubble. So, check out some of the sequenced music you've collected, play about with it, change the instruments around, and tweak the track's settings; perhaps take some elements from one piece of sequence music and throw it against elements from another and see how they fit together. It might sound hideous, or you might have found a cool way to remix or mash up a track which you can then share back with the Little Big Planet community. The second will assist you when writing a piece of music from scratch--but before you get started, change the scale of the instrument to be something other than chromatic (e.g. blues or pentatonic), and you'll find it a lot harder to place a "bum" note. This is a nice way to jam within safe confines!
Some things which I hope to see happen with the music sequencer include the establishment of a dedicated sub-community of composers providing work for those people who are better at level design or art and need someone with musical chops to help them out; the fruition of the interesting possibilities offered by the fact that you can put gameplay chips onto a music sequencer circuit board (low bar, flashing lights in time to the music; high bar, a whole level with complex events timed to the music); awesome music videos; people taking their first steps with music composition and going on to do something productive with that (just send me paper money!); and the inevitable "I cannot believe they did that in the music sequencer" moments which will occur over the coming months and years.
GS: Could you tell us about some of the new features that revolve around sound and speech?
KY: The ability to record your own speech via the updated magic mouth tool was driven primarily by the team's desire to have speaking characters in our story. This harks back to our tenet that the community should be able to do the same things that we can. So, it's another powerful tool for user-created audio. I expect some people will use it simply as a method of communicating information in the same way they've been using text to explain and teach things to other members of the community. And there's already a budding cohort of voice actors in the beta promoting their services to people not so confident at recording their own voice.
However, I think it's fair to say that video games are the last place to look for interesting, sophisticated, or subtle uses of voice (which is my passion or, at least, something I wish more games had). So it would really make me happy to see those members of the community who strive to make compelling gameplay experiences not only avoid making the same mistakes that many professional game developers do, such as naively relying on dialogue as a solution to getting players past broken or confusing gameplay, but to actually show us how things should be done. Which relates to Mark Healey's (Media Molecule cofounder) wish that LBP2 empowers someone to create a completely new kind of gameplay experience. That's a beautiful thought.
GS: What advice do you have for others who want to work in video game music or sound design?
KY: For wannabe composers, they've got to know that it's a massive uphill struggle to break into writing music for any medium. It's really hard to get hired without any credible experience to inspire confidence in a client, and clients will go back to the same pool of composers time and again because they've got that trust and established relationship, which is a seemingly impossible chicken and egg situation to crack. Cold calling and pestering people is a mugs game--you've got to get out there and meet people. If you're of a shy or unpleasant disposition, then that's something you need to remedy. It's not just about your musical ability; that's only part of the picture. Consider that writing music is a freelance gig--yes, there are some well-known in-house composers such as Marty O'Donnell and Russell Shaw, but these jobs do not exist, so please don't kid yourself that this is an option open to you. Working freelance means you need business acumen in addition to your musical chops and interpersonal skills.
For wannabe sound designers, I think things are slightly rosier in that there are full-time jobs and there are entry-level positions where you can get your foot in the door and gain training and experience. The option of going freelance is then open to you. But there aren't many of these junior jobs, so the competition is fierce. However, in my experience, there aren't a lot of outstanding junior candidates out there, and most people, even with relevant qualifications, don't show much initiative when it comes to demonstrating their knowledge and passion for interactive audio. So, if you're talented, passionate, and motivated, and you can demonstrate that on your CV/resume and demo reel, then you'll put yourself head and shoulders above the competition. And as with my advice for composers, if you can, meeting people and making a good impression is really important--it won't get you instant results, but it's a small world, and the more people you know in the industry the better. It's much better to be at the forefront of someone's mind and at the top of the job application pile than one of countless, faceless candidates.
Last but not least, if you're a wannabe coder and you have some interest in music or sound, then it's worth exploring audio programming if you haven't already considered specializing in this area. Experienced audio coders are like hens' teeth, which is a desirable job market to try and get into.
Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new and classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here.
I'm interested in creating a story and I don't know if this interview provides any worthwhile information in regards to the sound aspects of the game. But it was a cool interview. It's nice to see an audio lead get some attention. It's well deserved . . .
Top, top-notch professional... Who's not afraid of sharing some valuable info--just like any other top-notch professional he knows he's not appreciated for holding some secret info but for using it well. Awesome blog, Sophia. ;)
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