Writing tracks for a video game soundtrack

Explanation by Gianny Abel

Soundtracks in general

When composing for video games, one thing must not be forgotten: You write a soundtrack and not a bunch of individual songs. It is therefore best to have a rough idea of the direction the entire soundtrack should take right from the start. You should think about: How extensive will the soundtrack be? Which tracks should be prioritised? What game genre should it be, am I writing for a jump and run or a truck simulator? Is the game set in the future, in the past, or in a fictional time? The very time chosen can influence the choice of instruments, synthesizers for the future, acoustics for the past. Is the game perhaps set in a specific place? Example: Fire Emblem Fates with the more European Nohr and the Japanese-influenced Hoshido. The soundtracks of the areas rely heavily on sound patterns typical of Europe and Japan respectively.

These preliminary considerations create a rough orientation framework that breaks down the large mountain of tracks into smaller stages and helps you decide which song you want to design and how. Of course, it is impossible to plan the entire soundtrack from start to finish, as spontaneous ideas or changes can arise at any time, but the basic ideas are still of great value for the design idea.

Composing for Elements Destiny

RPGs usually also have more extensive soundtracks due to their particular scope. A multitude of different area themes, character themes, battle themes, mood tracks for dialogue, etc. Here we started to prioritise early on and put the battle themes in first place, as players will sometimes see the battle screen most often. The same priority was given to the character themes of the four main characters. The reason for this is that we work a lot with leitmotifs in the soundtrack (more on this later) and wanted to establish one for each character early on. Since Elements Destiny is a fantasy RPG, we decided to use typical fantasy elements, such as epic tracks and orchestral instrumentation. But since it is also set in a fictional, not clearly defined time, we also had the freedom to use more modern instruments like synths and electric guitars. In addition, you travel to a variety of different places that are based on real-life cultures, which allowed us to explore "location-specific" genres and move away more from the classic basic framework of "fantasy". Among other things, this has the effect that individual tracks stand out more from each other and the soundtrack as a whole seems even more diverse.

Guiding principles

Before I go into the specific track, I would like to say something about leitmotifs, because they are your best friend when creating a soundtrack. A leitmotif is the central idea within a song and a soundtrack, usually a short melody that is taken up and/or varied over and over again. The great advantage of leitmotifs is that they give your soundtrack a (possibly subconscious) sense of unity and togetherness. Especially when, as in ED, several composers are working on the project, they are very helpful, as otherwise there is a danger that the songs will seem disjointed due to the different styles of the composers. We have developed a general leitmotif for the soundtrack that hovers over everything, individual leitmotifs as a distinctive feature for the characters and, similar to Fire Emblem, leitmotifs for areas. Listen to Lia's character theme, for example, and maybe you can pick out the leitmotif?

The track: The idea

Every track starts with an idea. Sometimes it can be a challenge to find this idea or to decide on one. To determine the direction, it is a good idea to listen to songs from the soundtracks of other games for inspiration, which you could well imagine in this situation. Ideally, fans of the respective genre should feel right at home with your soundtrack. Often it also helps to simply "strum for inspiration". Play around on your instrument or in your programme until you find something interesting. If you have already written songs for the soundtrack, this work becomes easier and easier as you can start to pick up ideas and motifs from tracks you have already written. If you find yourself in a creative slump, don't worry! This is perfectly normal and will go away, there are weeks when I write four songs and weeks when I don't get any done.

The approach

Writing tracks is something very individual and therefore I can't give you a silver bullet, but I'll try to describe how I usually create a song from start to finish:

After I have come up with an idea, I first try to embellish it as best as possible, even if the respective part only plays in the middle of the song later on. I start with a lead voice and add drums and bass early on, the foundation of each song. Even if you are still in the idea phase, start "cleaning up" your tracks early! Make sure that unnecessary elements are removed, that everything is within the rhythm, that the volumes are where they should be and so on. This will save you a lot of headaches at the end when you finish and mix the track!

When I am happy with this prototype I start thinking about structure. When in the song should this part I just wrote play? Is it part of the verse or the chorus? Do I want to build this part further or is it perhaps already the climax and in turn needs a preparatory build-up? Then I build up the rest of the song piece by piece from there.

Now I have written down a first demo. I'm just going to listen to it up and down and make (mental) notes about which parts work well and which don't. Feel free to show these demos to other people! Even though they may not be able to give you any concrete tips, you will notice early on through their reaction whether an idea is well received or not and which parts are particularly well received.

After listening to my demos over and over again, it's time for the final tuning. This meanscleaning up the track one last timeand mixing and mastering the whole thing (mixing = mixing the specific song, mastering = making sure that the volume does not differ from the other tracks in the soundtrack). At this point, a consistent order really pays off. The tidier the composition, the easier the mixing. If you're lucky, you'll have a producer like we do who can do the mastering and some of the mixing for you.

Example track: Catacombs of Yangalev

In the following, I will show you the process of creating a piece of music using the example of the area track for the "Catacombs of Yangalev", a fiery dungeon. Let's start with the ...

1. Catacombs of Yangalev - Verse demo

At this stage, the basic vibe is there: slow, carried, fat and warm. But there is no melodic or rhythmic development yet. Overall, a lot is already happening here and the track is still going in various, different directions. Accordingly, this part was later slimmed down and more focused. I took ideas from the B part, like the triplet rhythm at the end of every fourth bar, so that the whole thing sounds more coherent.

2. Catacombs of Yangalev - Chorus demo

The idea for the chorus is also already given: A tempo change, the main gimmick of the track. Compared to the current version, this one is still relatively soft. The idea was to emphasise the contrast between the two parts even more and to make the "chorus" or B-part sound even more aggressive and explosive. Therefore, in the final version, the transition bars are even more subtle, so that the tempo change comes all the more suddenly, and the actual entrance into the B-part occurs much more forcefully and suddenly. In addition, there are now flames and torch special effects (SFX), in keeping with a fire dungeon and the planned gameplay....

3. Catacombs of Yangalev - Demo PreMastering

This is the final version of the track before it was mixed and mastered. You will notice that compared to the finished version, the sound sounds relatively "mashed together". The aim of mixing is to remove this mud and to give the voices more room to "breathe", especially equalisers and compressors are your best friends here. In addition, our producer Andras added a cool stereo effect to the track: This makes it sound as if the track unfolds more spatially in line with the start of the chorus/B-part!

4. Catacombs of Yangalev - Final

And finally, here is the final version of the track. We think it really whets the appetite for a fiery territory!

I hope these insights can help you at least a little bit if you are interested in writing music for video games yourself! In the end, I want to emphasise that every composer has their own approach, because music and writing it is something very individual. So don't be irritated if your way of writing music doesn't match the way other composers might do it. Believe in your ideas and stand by them! And above all, have fun with it!

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