Updated: Aug 16
Because producing your own music can be just as important as composing it.
Welcome to the year 2020. We have global health pandemics, murder hornets, and millions of cicadas emerging from a nearly decades-long slumber to make very loud love to each other and then die. And, if you’re a video game music composer then that means in 2020 you probably also need to know how to produce your own music as well as write it. But, why?
Video game music composers are in-the-box creatures. We’re all scoring our games on our laptops and workstations. Our DAWs have become as much a part of our compositional practice as anything else. The resonance of a sweeping lowpass filter carries as much artistic weight as the phrasing and articulation of a cello line. Composition is production and production is composition. Even though the line between production and composition is the weakest and blurriest it has ever been, the idea of practicing production is still a bit of an abstract sentiment. This is no doubt in part because production covers a number of specialized skill sets.
Take, for example, the very high-quality graphic at the top of this article called, The Soup. It features a very general list of the skills needed to create a finished piece of music. For a lot of video game music composers, the trajectory is something like this:
You have your initial idea
You compose the music
You get it into your DAW (if it isn’t there already)
You mix it
You master it.
For most of us, the last three steps kind of generally quantify as “production.” If that is your mental model then it makes it difficult to understand what to practice if you’re trying to practice production. The point that I’m trying to make with the graphic at the top of this blog post is that “composition” and “production” aren’t separate things but instead a big soup full of overlapping elements that comprise the entire composition process. And these different elements need to be practiced if you want to improve.
So here are five different exercises you can do to improve your production skills. These exercises are meant to target specific areas of the production process and help you approach practicing them meaningfully. Some are direct, others are abstract. Hopefully, all of them are useful to you. Like always, this list isn’t exhaustive. If you have any video game music production tips or exercises that you want to share with the rest of us, leave a comment below or share them on social media using the hashtag #vgmProductionTips. If we have enough, I’ll compile them all into an article in the near future. So, let’s dive in:
1. Practice your sound design:
This exercise can be approached in a number of ways and each of them would be valuable to you as a video game music composer. First, you can practice video game sound design. You should be learning from sound designers whenever you can. In essence, we both have the same task: organize sound in a meaningful way for a specific purpose. However, we both approach the job very differently and each discipline has a rich body of theory all its own. Practicing sound design gets you into the mindset of thinking about the characteristics of a sound on its own and not its role within a harmonic framework. It also teaches you a great deal about layering and what a sound could be beyond what it is at face value. When you hear bones breaking in a game or movie, you’re most likely hearing some combination of vegetables getting utterly destroyed. Take this practice back into your music productions. Beyond the notes your violin track is playing; think about the sound of the violin itself. What can you do to it to make it another instrument entirely without actually changing the instrument? This kind of approach will result in new directions for your music that you might not have uncovered otherwise.
The other way to practice sound design as a video game music composer is to reverse engineer a sound you’ve heard in a piece of music that you love. This could be the sound of a synth pad, a particular snare or kick drum, or even trying to replicate the room a piece of music is in through reverb. Reverse engineering the sounds you hear within a piece of music is an excellent way to train your ears to hear specific production techniques and a great way to better learn the tools available to you in your DAW.
2. Practice your Orchestration:
I know this one sounds like it should be a composition exercise -- and it is -- but it is most definitely a production exercise as well. It’s a skill to be able to take your musical ideas and flesh them out for full orchestra in Dorico or MuseScore but it is an entirely separate skill to be able to take your fully-orchestrated piece and make it sound as convincing as possible with software instruments in your DAW. It’s something that takes practice.
There are multiple ways you can practice orchestral production in your DAW. If this is a new area for you, start with only a few instruments. Play with articulations, MIDI note placements, velocities, and other parameters and see how close you can come to convincing yourself that a real person is performing the music. If you come from an electronic music background this might be a great exercise for you. Many drum machines, synths, and sequencers let you dial in swing, and often times removing quantization isn’t always an option. By getting into the nitty-gritty of the MIDI (you heard that one here first, folks) you can really explore how to add more “humanity” to your music -- which is the name of the game when it comes to acoustic instruments.
If you want a larger challenge, practice laying out a piece of music for full orchestra in your DAW and try to make it sound as convincing as possible. This exercise is great if you don’t have the fanciest orchestral libraries with a wide range of articulations available to you. Many of my friends who are working composers of orchestral music have said largely the same thing: proper doubling of parts and instrument placement can do more to make your orchestral music sound more convincing than a library that’s $200 more than the one you already have. When you get to this scale, your time isn’t necessarily best spent tweaking the relationship between 12 violin performances. Instead, it’s about the strings in relation to the woodwinds, in relation to the brass, and in relation to the percussion.
3. Do a Production Analysis:
Find a piece of video game music that you love. Listen to it and take notes on everything that you notice that isn’t the composition. Try to keep that list in order, chronologically. Then, go back and listen to it a second time and organize your list based on the form the music follows. Now, go into your DAW, and compose a piece of music that follows that production map you just wrote out. Or, if you have a piece of music already composed, re-do the production on it based on your map.
What does this look like? This could be noticing that the cello sits overly dry in the mix when it has the melody and taking note of how much reverb gets added to the cello when it passes the melody off to the Moog. Or perhaps it looks like mapping out a unique panning pattern for a rhythmic synth pad. Or even, how a change in LFO waveform on an auto filter halfway through the piece amps up the tension through rhythmic displacement.
In this exercise, you’re listening to the factors that might unconsciously influence your perception of the music. Other times, what you’re listening to what might be the music. Electronic manipulation of an audio signal has been a valid method of musical composition since Pierre Schaeffer pioneered musique concrète in Paris in the 1940s. It’s legacy, and that of all that has come after it is alive and well in your DAW. By doing a production analysis you’re able to understand the layers of the musical composition that are not necessarily accounted for in notation software.
4. One Composition, Three Production Styles
In this exercise take one of your compositions, and produce it in three different styles. This is easiest for a piece of music that you can break down into a melody and chord progression but if you’re looking for a challenge, take that string quartet you’ve been working on and use that instead. This is a great way to introduce yourself to new styles as well. If you’re used to producing one kind of music only then I would encourage you to start broad. Produce a rock track, an electronic track, and a jazz track. Even the big picture nuances between those genres matter at the production level. You wouldn’t handle a jazz drum kit in the same way that you would a rock kit. And electronic drums are their own bag entirely.
As you get comfortable with these big picture differences in production then move deeper into each style. Don’t just produce a rock track, electronic track, and jazz track. Produce a post-punk track, an Italo disco track, and a hardbop track. Dive deeper into the nuances of these production styles. When producing the early Joy Division records, Martin Hannett would ask Stephen Morris to record each individual drum separately so that there would be no bleed. Explore Italo-disco’s emphasis on vocoders. Hardbop married the sounds of soul to jazz can you emulate that through your production?
By producing a single composition in three different styles, you can focus on how the difference in production choices matter to a particular style of music and spot the minutiae between those styles with greater ease.
5. Four Bars. Three Minutes. Endless entertainment.
In this exercise, take four measures of music and duplicate them on your DAW’s timeline until the music is three minutes in length. Now, without adding any new musical content, use the tools available to you in your DAW to keep the music entertaining the entire time. This exercise is great for thinking about the plugins in your DAW as not just tools for utility, but creativity as well.
This exercise might seem hard at first but you’ll quickly find that there are endless possibilities on how you can achieve the task. Most DAWs have volume, panning, and EQ present in their mixing consoles. You could accomplish this task with just those three alone. The volume could be automated over time from a gentle lull to a fast, rhythmic stutter, the panning could move slowly from left to right with a bandpass filter on the EQ moving in an opposite motion. Already, you’ll be encountering a very different (and most likely very disorienting) sonic experience from the original four bars of music. This isn’t even touching all the cool plugins you have just sitting there either. Reverse the four bars, chop it, drench it in chorus, and slowly bring in a really wet delay. There is much to be done here.
This exercise is helpful for thinking about these tools in a creative way. It’s also useful for thinking about automation and effects in a musical fashion. EQ, for example, shouldn’t always be static. By using it dynamically, you can add an extra dimension of musicality to your compositions. Drench your viola in overdrive and delay. Treat your production tools as part of your compositional process.
Production makes perfect.
Practicing production isn’t a common part of our routine as video game music composers. However, for many of us, it’s a deeply integrated aspect of our process that must be cared for just as much as any of our other skills. Practicing production expands what we’re capable of doing as composers and keeps us nimble when we need to integrate new styles into our repertoire.
Hopefully, you find these exercises fun and engaging. At worst, they’re a slog that helps you stay fresh in some areas that you might be rusty in, and at best they might open you up to new musical possibilities that would’ve been hard to discover otherwise.
As I mentioned before, if you have other production tips, tricks, and exercises you want to share with the rest of us, leave a comment below or use the hashtag #vgmProductionTips on social media. I’m looking forward to reading what y’all have to say.