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Technical Considerations

October 28, 2010

The technical issues of gaming platforms add a whole layer of contextual considerations for a games composer, sometimes putting physical constraints on what they can or can’t do. There are many different gaming platforms to contend with, and it’s vital for a composer to know the technical limitations of the platform they are working with before they begin to write any music.

“It is important that you, the composer, know that system the game will play on as far advance as possible – for many obvious reasons. A Nintendo is not a Playstation is not a DVD-Rom game. They are all completely different systems with different constraints and different methods of addressing audio issues. If I were doing a cell-phone title, I wouldn’t go out and hire musicians or a full orchestra. That would be insane! I might though, for a Playstation 3 or DVD-Rom game because the chances of using direct or streaming audio are good.” – Aaron Marks, The Complete Guide to Game Audio

Will the system’s playback be mono, stereo or have full surround sound support? This will have a profound impact when it comes to the mix-down and delivery of the final music.

Does the platform have it’s own internal sound bank? If it does, the composer will be limited to the capabilities and instruments of the sound bank:

“A predetermined set of sounds will greatly limit the tools in a composers arsenal and may force you into unfamiliar territory. If orchestral music is your specialty, a game platform with only a drum/percussion, piano, bass and synth patch will limit your abilities to do a piece the way you want – the same way a sound bank with only strings, brass and timpani will prevent you from composing anything techno or rockish.” – Aaron Marks

There are also file space considerations. Composing music for an iPhone game will force the composer to compress the music heavily:

“You don’t want your music and audio to leave a footprint larger than 1 or 2MB as a whole for the typical 10MB iPhone games…. it’s just bad form.” – Rich vs the Games Industry

This is important information to know because when you begin to compress audio files heavily you loose a lot of quality and clarity at certain frequency ranges:

“As you down-sample, the high frequency range shrinks and instruments like hi hats, cymbals, and acoustic guitar begin to disappear. What noise floor will you have to stay above? As the resolution is dropped, quieter passages of music won’t cover up the quantization noise introduced by lower-resolution values.” – Aaron Marks

If you knew beforehand that your were writing music that needed to be compressed heavily at the final stages of delivery, you probably wouldn’t want to write a score that used a lot of acoustic guitar for example, as already mentioned, high frequency’s loose their definition and quality. But perhaps the composer feels a guitar would be perfect for the score he wants to write, maybe it’s a game set in the Wild West, which nearly demands the inclusion of some guitar.

It is these kinds of contextual issues that need to be addressed before a composer begins to work on a project. Issues that will greatly influence the outcome and success of the final score for its intended gaming system and context.

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