Game Theory: A-list Game composer Andy Brick
Molly Sheridan: I just heard a statistic that 100 percent of this year’s graduating college students have played a video game, but I think we might have this perception, especially among people who don’t play video games or haven’t in along time, that the scores are very ping-pong, well, like Pong, and it’s pretty stunning when you hear these full orchestral scores coming out of someone’s state of the art home stereo speakers.
Andy Brick: And there are some amazing soundtracks out there. One of the really interesting things also about game music is that it acts very differently than any other music. A lot of film composers, and I being one when I started, thought, “OK, well, I can score for film which is an image, so I will be able to score for a game, which is an image,” but it’s a very different thing. Film composing is linear—you start at the beginning of the movie and you go to the end, but a game is not linear in nature. You start at the beginning and then when you’re in the middle, you can either go backwards or forwards, or if you’re towards the end you might jump back to somewhere in the middle, or the outcome of some action that you take might lead you in a different direction with different scenery, but from that same exact point if you pick a different action, it lead you top a completely different environment. So you get this situation where you don’t necessarily know as a composer what’s going to happen in the game play, and you have to plan accordingly.
Molly Sheridan: Is that artistically inspiring or hindering?
Andy Brick: Oh, it’s inspiring. I think it’s just a challenge. It’s another way of thinking about the way that music evolves. It’s not a new way of thinking—I mean, classical composers would do something like this [demonstrates] as a way of drawing out something that would otherwise be very short [demonstrates]. What they do is they basically create this little cadence or, in this case, a false cadence, which allows you to keep moving on. And in the type of situation where you’re faced with a point in time as a composer where you must be able to go to a number of different environments in the music, you essentially create your own types of cadences—all sorts of ways that you can come to a point that sounds like you’re about to arrive at someplace and then go someplace different. It’s really important. I studied a lot of Wagner to figure that out, because to me Wagner was just the king of that. If you’ve ever taken the enormous amount of time to listen to the Ring cycle, there are times when he just goes for literally days without actually coming to a conclusion. He leads you up to this point, and then right when you think you’re going to take a left turn, you turn right, and that’s critical—that kind of composing.
Molly Sheridan: And depending on what a character does, too, you won’t know how long this particular music will be going on.
Andy Brick: And that’s a good point actually. In a lot of game music there are different types of requirement for writing, especially when you’re working with a series of loops where the music has to be able to endlessly repeat. If you think about a situation where a character comes to a decision-making point and they’re faced with these choices on a menu, and the player says, “Okay, I have to make this choice, but I’m going to go get a soda first and throw some French fries in the oven,” and so for ten minutes, there’s this screen and things have stopped, yet there’s got to be some kind of dynamic element to even that that keeps the game in motion, and when the screen is stopped, the only dynamic element is music. But you don’t know if the person is going to be gone for 30 seconds because the kitchen is right next door, or whether he’s going to be gone for 10 minutes because he’s actually going to go bake a pizza.
Molly Sheridan: But for those ten minutes the whole family may be listening to your music!
So, because of your skill set, you have had the opportunity to work with orchestras and groups of live musicians quite often in addition to using synths. How much of that is your decision?
Andy Brick: The chances of getting a live orchestra vs. using MIDI? Well, it’s changing.
Molly Sheridan: And in terms of just what you like to use for this medium as well. I mean, sometimes an electronic sound is what you’re looking for…
Andy Brick: It’s a good question. It’s a deep question, probably a much deeper question than you realize. Boy, where do I begin? Let me start by saying this: The role of MIDI, of synthesizers is changing. It used to be that synthesizers, at least in the game world, somebody who could really massage the synths, really make them sing, would be able to do a production that was good, good enough, and sound great for a game. That’s no longer really acceptable. In the A-list games with orchestral music, it really needs to be live. The audience is too sophisticated and their expectations are too high now. I mean, we’re not talking about a 14-year-old who’s used to listening to Top 40 radio or pop and rap anymore. The kids who started in the early days of games are my age, they’re in their thirties, and they’ve evolved musically. These blip and bleeps of the synthesizer, no matter how well they were done, the audience can tell. The imperfections of the orchestra in a live recording are precisely what makes it real and what makes it wonderful. With a synthesizer everything is perfectly tuned, always, and it sounds strange. It doesn’t sound bad; it’s just not real. So I think the audience is demanding that we have real, live orchestras.
Molly Sheridan: I also don’t want to discredit the fact that the technology is developing rapidly and your options are huge. But from your perspective, what has the evolution been and how is that playing out today. You might be in a slightly unusual position in that you get to use orchestras, but what are your preferences in different situations.
Andy Brick: For me the evolution of MIDI and live orchestra has not only been from the use of MIDI vs. live orchestra, but how it’s being implemented and what can be done. I think with an orchestra, at least for me, there’s an element of time that comes into the picture here. You’re up against these just ridiculous time restrictions, and if you’re a composer who likes to think, and likes to have a very solid mental foundation for what’s going on, you’ve got to watch your time. MIDI takes huge amounts of time to make it sound good enough to put in a final production. Huge amounts. Way more time than it does to get in front of an orchestra and do four or five takes of the cue and move on.
As a matter of fact, a year or two ago I wrote an article for Game Developer magazine about the financial cost of MIDI synthesizers vs. a live orchestra, and I actually showed that, in certain situations, it’s cheaper to go to a live orchestra than it is to do a full MIDI production. If you think about a 70-piece orchestra, if you’re going to do that with a synthesizer, you’re going to have 50 or 60 tracks, and you’re going to have to play in each part, and then you’ll have to sit there and massage the data. You record the line you’re going to use and then you play it back and you record this knob doing that to give you just the right amount of diminuendo, and then you want a little bit of a crescendo here so you have to use this knob, and then you’re going to have a little bit more vibrato here so you use this knob…and half an hour later you’ve now recorded ten seconds of your flute line. Well, five days later you’ve now got a two-minute MIDI production, which is presentable as a final product. It sounds great, but it took you five eight-hour days. Get yourself in front of a 50 piece orchestra and do that same two-minute piece in 45 minutes and you’ve just spent exactly the same amount of money. You’ve got either one guy doing 50 hours or 50 guys doing one hour. It doesn’t matter, so why not do it live? That’s not true in all cases, but it’s true in more cases that you’d think.
The one place where I see MIDI really helping is that it does give the decision-making people an idea of what is going to happen when they invest this $150,000 to have your music realized by an orchestra. The other thing is that once you get good at it, it makes the process of preparing the materials for an orchestra extremely fast. Once the piece is written I can take a three-minute cue and generate all the parts and the score for it in about half a day. It has facilitated that process greatly. And also, when you’re first learning how to orchestrate, it’s amazing because you can try things and hear that this works or this combination doesn’t work. It can be a great aid that way.