8 Tips When Composing Music & Sound Design For Indie Games

Recently I took on a project with a quick turnaround time.  It was for an indie game in its final stages of development with the release date in sight.  When I say in sight, I mean exactly four weeks later.  Now originally that seemed like plenty of time to score something unique and interesting. 

Well life isn’t always so simple, as I soon seen myself take on more responsibilities, such as sound design, as well as various audio restoration duties.  Now were do my problems start, well after drafting a few musical ideas to get the vision right, all seemed okay, sound design was top priority for the developer, so I put off all music until the sound design was complete… well this is when things start to get interesting, or maybe stressful will be a better word.

When it comes to sound design, I’m very confident in my abilities to create and capture sounds, I take my H4N audio recorder, I record interesting sounds from outdoors and indoors that I feel can be manipulated to serve a purpose, load them onto the computer and into my DAW.  Manipulation begins and things start to move forward.  Three to four days I told myself, that should be enough to finish the sound design. 

Yeah.  About that… before I knew it, two weeks had gone by. 

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After finishing the sound design, I had only two weeks left until game launch, I’m swimming in deep water.  I literally have two weeks to finish the music.  This isn’t your standard run of the mill music tracks either, I have strict guidelines to follow, specific instruments the game director wants to hear, certain emotions that need to be triggered by certain instruments.  When I had four weeks, this seemed like a fun challenge, with two weeks… I can feel the walls closing in.

With that… came many, many late nights.  Working non-stop to produce the required music, loops and variations of the material.  It literally got to the day of the deadline, launch was within 24 hours, and I was uploading all the remaining material onto the servers, making adjustments from feedback, and then re-uploading.  It’s interesting to take a step back, and make a count of  your work.

Below is short breakdown of the projects audio material:

On this project I composed 8 tracks, each with three variations.  All variations loop seamlessly.  24 tracks in total for various uses, such game win, game lose, menus, gameplay and final bout.   

Sound design I created menu sounds, transitions, explosions, impacts, ambience, pick-ups, activations, some dialogue restoration as well as dialogue effects.  In total, there are over 200 unique sounds.  And I assumed this was going to be a simple task.

Never.

Assume!

Music and sound effects all mastered to the same standard for consistent game audio.  All sounds labelled and organised into folders, accompanied by a notes document for easy navigation throughout the folders. 

The entire project basically broke down into two weeks of sound design, and two weeks of music scoring, mixing and mastering.  It’s not ideal to try and compose this many tracks in such a short amount of time.  I had to heavily rely on music theory techniques to progress though the songs, when I would have much preferred to spend more time experimenting and coming up with something more unique.  The game director and team were happy with the final results, which in the end is all that matters, you’re not writing for yourself, but for the client, and it’s all too easy to forget that. 

If you read this far, thanks for staying with me, here are some tips that can help you with your next project, and prevent some of the dilemmas I created for myself. This advice will help you sleep better at night.

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Time Management

Set out a plan, do you expect to write a song every day, every two days, or one a week.  Make sure this fits into the timescale, especially before accepting other work, ask yourself will something else suffer, you want to be able to give 100% to all tasks. 


Extra Duties

Before taking on extra duties, find out exactly what’s required in order to effectively manage your time.  For example a common request a can be “Can you take care of the sound design?”.  For all you know, you could be taking on a month’s workload, do you have the time?  However, it may also be simple tasks that can completed within a couple of hours, so don’t jump the gun and decline out right, make sure you ask the question before you decline, find out exactly what you need to do.  It’s okay to take some time to consider, just don’t take too long, you should know if it’s feasible within the day.


File Management

I often fall victim to this crime.  Uploading material to the server in the beginning is fine, just a few tracks and clips.  This however is a bad habit that quickly escalates into fifteen clips or more, and the director or supervisor has no idea what the purpose of each clip is.  If you do this already you know what know what to expect.  Expect a grumpy or confused client.  There are multiple ways to compile the folders, such as mood, loops, gameplay and menu etc.  Don’t forget to add a notes document, with a short description of each track or effect, and what purposes it may serve, or even your own suggestion towards it’s usage.  Clients  tend to find these titbits of information helpful, while some find it necessary.  It can’t hurt.   


Mock Up

Please.  Please.  Please do some mock ups, even one is fine.  Don’t disappear for three weeks working on multiple tracks.  You may get lucky, but usually after sharing your mock-up track, you’ll find that you need to adjust and make some changes.  It’s learning from these changes that let you know exactly how to compose to the taste of your client.  Making it much easier to score the rest of the music.  The same goes for sound design, if it’s a small indie game they might be happy with simple recordings and processes.  Others prefer very highly detailed and layered sounds, which takes more time, but again you know what to expect in order to meet your clients expectations.    


Unused Tracks

Never underestimate the power of unfinished tracks.  Tracks that you started, or possibly finished, but thought, no, this is the wrong direction.  I recommend bouncing it down, and create a folder on the server named “ideas” or “possibilities”, something to that effect.  Add some notes explaining that the tracks will remain unfinished unless there is something they are interested in.  On my last project, one of the binned tracks came back to be the main theme of the game, it’s definitely worth it, you never know.  Sometimes the client doesn’t know what they want until they hear it themselves.


Communication

Make a point to contact your client at least once a week with an update, even if you have made have no progress, this is your time to build a rapport, ask how they are getting on? Are they planning updates after the release?  Are they meeting the release date schedule? Are they planning DLC?  It’s up to you, there are a ton of questions you can ask to stay engaged with your client. 


Patience

Game developers are busy, and have a lot to contend with, If you don’t get a response within a week or two, don’t go off the rails and send an angry message.  It’s easy to get frustrated, but this isn’t going to help anyone, least of all yourself.  It will probably lead to you never hearing from the developers, and before you know it, you have been replaced.  Instead send a friendly message advising you need some assistance.  If for some reason you still have not heard anything from anyone for two weeks, chances are someone is probably ill, and no one is checking the back log of emails.  Try sending another friendly message wishing good well-being, and ask if the project is still running to schedule.  If for some reason, three have gone by, and you still have not heard anything, I would recommend putting the project on hold, send one more final message advising you have placed the project on hold, and that you will wait for further instruction, and that you look forward to continuing the project and working together.  Lastly if a month goes by, I would keep the material, I’m sure another similar project will appear, and this project folder will give you a jump start.    

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Expectations

Manage your clients expectations, sure you have to sell yourself, but don’t overdo it and sell yourself short in the long run.  Depending on the budget you may need to use samples, and depending on your sample libraries this can affect the quality of your work.  A lot of developers do not understand the difference between sample libraries, samples and orchestrating it live.  Don’t expect a big budget, but normally you may be able to convince the game director for something like a £500 budget for the hire of some sessions musicians and some studio time.  This will dramatically increase the dynamics and realism when layered with sample instruments, so they be willing to spare some extra cash in exchange for a higher level of detail. 

Hopefully this serves as a good insight, and helps you plan and organise for your next project.  As you can probably tell, all points can be easily tied together, as well as proving to be as equally important as the creative side itself.      

Until next time thanks for stopping by.