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Level Up: A Guide for Young Music Producers Breaking into the Game Music Industry
16 Jan '2024
Interested in breaking into the world’s biggest form of entertainment? Here’s our potted guide to getting started in game sound design.
How to break into the sound designer space 1920x1080

It would be fair to assume that the music industry is considerably bigger than the gaming industry, right? EVERYONE consumes music, and it’s always been the case that some musicians reach household name status, or become key cultural characters. In reality, the gaming industry dwarfs the music industry, and by quite a way.

 

 

In 2020, the global gaming market was valued at $159.3 Billion, while the music industry was valued at $19.1 Billion. Of course, not all of the gaming market’s value is in audio, but it remains one of the key components of any highly immersive and successful game. Even players who aren’t music-heads know when they’re playing a game with great sound design or a stellar soundtrack.

 

Much like commercial music, there are a plethora of styles and genres of game music, and of course, there are overlaps between commercial music, game music, and even music for film and TV. Hans Zimmer composed the official soundtrack for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for example. In this article, we take a look at the role of a game music composer and point out a few key considerations for anyone looking to breach the world of music for games.

 

What to expect: the role of a game composer

A game audio sound designer’s role can vary greatly depending on the practitioner’s specific niche and of course the project’s needs. There are companies that specialise in recording firearms, extreme weather or vehicles to make the end-users gaming experience as realistic as possible. For example, the Forza Motorsport franchise invests a huge amount of time into meticulously recording every vehicle in the game.

 

 

There are also Foley specialists, who record and edit audio to accompany smaller in-game actions such as footsteps, doors closing, reloading weapons, and so on. There are sound design specialists who create noises for less realistic in-game entities; spaceships, aliens, lasers, and lightsabers all fall into this category. Then of course you have composers who sit in a studio and write compelling soundtracks for every stage of a game: from the trailer and menu music, through to cut scenes and end credits.

 

Aside from the audio itself, the level of involvement can differ between projects, too. In some instances, a game composer might be required to simply compose a number of tracks across a given timeframe, in a particular style or with a particular mood. The game developer can then implement the music how they see fit.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, and particularly when it comes to AAA games, a game audio composer is likely to be much more involved in the overall creative process. The role of a game audio composer would be considered to be equally as important as a visual designer, and would be involved in the overall aesthetic and artistic direction of the game.

 

 

Like pretty much any other creative job, becoming a composer for games can be a challenging but rewarding journey. Due to the game industry being a well-established and competitive market, it can be a tough sector to break into. However being able to apply your compositional and production skills to a project greater than the audio itself is a hugely rewarding feat, with scope to venture into various specialisms in the future.

 

Getting the technical know-how

As with any music production, each composer will have a different set of preferred tools that they look to for specific tasks. Some of these will be relevant to music production in the traditional sense, and some are specific to composing music for games.

 

In terms of creating and managing compositional projects, a DAW such as Logic Pro, Ableton Live or Pro Tools is pretty much a given, but you might also need some dedicated audio editing software such as Adobe Audition. Within your DAW, you might wish to use virtual or sampled instrument VSTs to actually generate audio, along with effect plugins for further sound design and audio processing. You’ll likely want to use some samples too, especially in instances where you need very unique instruments or sound effects. Loopcloud has a huge range of high quality and royalty-free instrument, effect and foley samples, suitable for a range of applications.

 

 

Game music is usually a lot more dynamic than ‘a piece of music’. Often, the music will change parts and transition once certain landmarks or milestones are reached during the game. Other dynamic changes could include new layers being added or removed when something happens on-screen, like Super Mario World’s soundtrack adding bongos when Mario gets onto Yoshi, but a far more advanced version. 

 

Fortunately, it’s rarely the composer’s job to actually implement those layers and transitions into the game’s code, but you’ll have to compose and produce music with these factors in mind, and export files and stems that can be implemented by someone else.

 

Another thing to consider is that your musical changes shouldn’t involve changes in effects. In your DAW and in a live set, you can automate a plugin’s parameters at will, but for a game composer, the plugin in question won’t be available to a player of the finished game. If you want to, say, automate the level of reverb as a character changes their location, this will either have to be implemented using processors of the destination console or through adding or removing layers of audio.

 

All of these factors – and a lot more – represent a huge creative challenge for game composers, but these sorts of challenges have led to incredible results in the past.

 

Networking and portfolio

Whether you’re looking to become a game audio composer on a freelance basis or for an in-house company, a portfolio is the primary way to showcase your skills and abilities. 

 

But how can you build a portfolio if you haven’t completed your first project yet? Creating a demonstrative showreel is a great way to give developers an idea of what you are capable of. Try taking a cutscene from a game, and rescoring it in a way you feel best demonstrates your technical abilities. You could also write a short description of what approach you’ve taken, and some of the creative choices you’ve made, as this will help to show that you understand the game audio compositional process as a whole.

 

 

There is an ongoing discourse within the creative community about whether anyone should ever work for free, and that’s something you may want to consider carefully. Financially, you might not be in a position to commit a month of your time to a project that bears no relevance to your long-term career aspirations. However, if your dream developer offers you a few days of unpaid work with the opportunity to develop your portfolio, network, and skillset in the process, you might decide that your time is worth that alone. You can make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately, you have the final say on whether or not you wish to complete any work for free.

 

Networking is another popular topic within the creative world, and its importance cannot be overestimated. Having a strong, relevant network might be your key to lining up your first project. If there’s a local game development community or conference, go to that and meet like-minded people, introduce yourself, and get stuck in. It’s somewhat of a cliche, but great opportunities will not simply land on your lap, you need to put yourself out there as a professional in your field and make yourself the go-to for great quality game audio composition within your chosen niche.

 

 

If there are no local game development communities, fear not. The internet has made networking easier than ever before, particularly after the global pandemic which forced communities to figure out ways to network and collaborate with one another remotely. There are countless groups on Facebook, Reddit, and various forums that are teeming with people from around the world who need the skills that you possess. Your job is to find them and let them know how you can help them with their project.  Here is a list of the top 43 game companies you need to know.

 

Tips for becoming a game composer

A quick summary of what’s needed to make it as a composer for games.

 

Perfect Your Production Skills

You can have all the right ideas and the strongest network in the world, but the proof is in the pudding, and ultimately you will get hired (or not hired) on your merit as a composer and producer.

 

Learn the Tools of the Trade

Knowing your DAW inside out is just one piece of the puzzle. You’ll also want to brush up on audio editing and game engines if you want to stand out from the competitors and demonstrate the most value to potential employers.

 

Network, Network, Network!

Once you’ve got your production and compositional skills nailed, it’s time to take them to the masses. Try to get in front of as many people as possible, you never know when they might need a soundtrack for their next project.

 

Establish a Specialism

It’s great to be an all-rounder, particularly when starting out as this can open up more opportunities at a junior level. Over time, though, you’ll want to figure out what you want your niche to be, and position yourself as the go-to person in that area.

 

FAQs

How much do video game music composers make?

Fees and salaries vary between project, console, and developer. Freelancers might make a higher hourly rate than in-house composers, but the work is likely to be less consistent.

 

What does a game music composer do?

A game music composer composes and produces musical scores for video games; creates music for games for consoles, PCs, phones, or browsers; and sometimes implements audio into game engines such as Unreal Engine or Unity

 

Do you need a degree to be a game music composer?

A degree is not essential to becoming a game music composer. Many game music composers are able to build successful careers with great compositional and production skills and effective networking. A degree in music production, composition, or music for games might help to build up the necessary skills and network to have a successful career as a game music composer.