The Art & Music of Sound for Games

Published on in Industry Announcements / Events

GDC Session with speaker Rod Abernathy, Rednote Audio.

Rod Abernethy is known throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas for his cutting-edge approach to music composition for video games, television and film. Credits include: Sound Dead Space, Rage, Wheelman, Alpha protocol, Hobbit, King Arthur and Transformers, Madagascar 3, and more! Rod’s music has also been featured in programming for major networks including ABC, CBS, Discovery Channel, ESPN, Fox, G4, HBO, Nickelodeon, TLC and PBS.

As a signed artist he has recorded in major studios around the world for record industry giants Warner Bros., Elektra, Atlantic, and MCA Records and collaborated with legendary producers Paul Rothchild (The Doors, Bonnie Raitt), John Anthony (Roxy Music, Queen) and David Lord (Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Tears for Fears, The Pretenders). 

Definition of ART: quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more of more than ordinary significance.

While it was Rod’s 13th year at GDC, he learns something new each time. He loves talking shop and his goal of the session was to empower you to think more outside the box, outside the limits, knowing you are reaching people around the globe with your work. It would be great if composing for games came with more money (or more days before beta). 

The underlying rule used to be that music had to be invisible – it couldn’t take away from gameplay. But games have evolved; now music is a vital part of game production. Sometimes so visible it can earn a Grammy nomination.

After graduating with a music degree, Rod was in a rock band with some legendary producers. After he tired of it, he thought, “why don’t I try composing?” 

He composed for TV and film for many years and  never doubted he was making art, until commercials in 90s (jingles).

It paid the bills but left me empty inside. That’s when I found video games. Temujin was a game by south peak interactive where they shot cinematic themes with live actors, like a movie. I was asked to write music interactive with gameplay. Once I got into it, it turned a switch in me.

I wanted more. Made hundreds of calls, didn’t know where to go. So I went to GDC. Saw potential and wanted to be a part of it. Made friends in the industry, and have since been lucky enough to work on 70 games since that first GDC. Helped others start careers in video games and fortunate to work with some of the best composers in world.

Art fulfills a cultural need

Art is what the cultural collective agrees is art

Tech is not an art but

Using technology can create new forms of art that started as entertainment.

Cinema is a form of art, right?

Sure, but it didn’t start out that way. Just like video games today, they started to intrigue people in new & revolutionary way. From the time photographs became popular in 1950s, people wanted to make them move! 

First came the Kinetiscope creators – the early motion picture exhibition device 119 years ago, 25 cents could get you in to watch moving picture (silent). Since there was no soundtrack, in small towns you would have a piano player improvising along the way or using classical music ( which was an accepted form of art now married to this new form of entertainment). This improvisation by the performer musician was the first form of interactive music.  

The music was always instrumental though —- excuse the pun. ;-)  

On feature film sets, live musicians would physically come play on the sets. But it wasn’t recorded, it was just for the actors to get into the mood of the scene. Kinda like a real life Pandora following you around! In the hype of silent era, those were the most popular ways to make money with professional music in the industry.  

Then The Jazz Singer came – first of the “talkies.” 

How does this relate to games being art? Let’s discuss the parallels.

In 1969, two forward-thinking entrepreneurs created “computer space” (still looks cool!). They even went a pinball repair route to fund this thing, but it kinda was a bomb. However, their next invention was wildly successful — PONG. That spawned the first “music” / sound for video game. Now recognizable to most with the sharp “bleeps,” but that is how it all started! 

Throughout the years, the ability to make better games grew; and with it, so did the technology to make better sound for games. No longer strapped with pricy budgets, analog tape or expensive studios, now people can make incredible sounds from their own home. Home studio and its potential have grown by leaps and bounds. Rod explains, “What an amazing time to be a composer. We are only limited by our imaginations to be on par with modern cinematic sound artists.” 

It’s true, video game music rivals that of cinema – the one major difference is that it’s interactive. Unlike a film soundtrack, it has the freedom and magic of adapting to a player’s action. 

Film in all its sophistication has been accepted and now called “cinema.” When it comes to games, from pong to Mario to halo to journey, we’ve come amazing bounds with sound effects and live orchestral soundtracks. 

So, are video games art? Over 100,000 of those who make them would say ‘yes.’ And the millions who spend money on them each year would agree. But yet the debate is ongoing.  View the Roger Ebert article on how he’s convinced it could never be art: 

Rod’s favorite comment from the article was: “if you don’t see it, it’s your loss and I am sorry you are missing so much beauty.” 

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. hosted an “art of video games” exhibition, which brought great deal of public awareness. 240 games were selected, based on a variety of criteria: VFX, creative use of technology, and how game fit into narrative of exhibit and how they have impacted subsequent games. The playable games were Pac-ManSuper Mario BrothersThe Secret of Monkey IslandMyst, and Flower. 

“it has never been a question that VGs would be in an art museum; it was at what point we would see them” - Chris Melissinos.

Rod explains further:

For a better future in this industry, know what is expected and how to deliver cutting-edge sound design to propel game into new experiences.

We deserve recognition that we are the best at what we do. How do you think in your daily routine? How do you kick your muse creating powerful audio day in and day out?

What is out of the box? Not logical or technical – more spontaneous. Sometimes you think you’re just a cog in a wheel, invisible, doing dictated or trickled down from above. Somebody else’s vision. But you can come up with something to be proud of. Seek out other like-minded individuals to work with and surround yourself with. 

When Rod was working on Dead Space project with the EA audio director Don Veca, they realized the game needed to give feeling of true horror and intensity. They wanted to do what had never been done, and not linear scores. They wanted an orchestral score, then multiple scores of layers of intensity, never heard the same way twice. After this game was release, the method seems kinda obvious but at the time, it was a new / fresh, out of ordinary experience. It was a broad stretch from the normal process.

Last few words of wisdom:

  • Always look for opportunities to work with people who think like that. Reaching beyond your limits will always pay off.
  • The public is very sophisticated. Don’t ever estimate that the general buying public cannot recognize great art; they can. The ‘powers that be’ in this industry know that also, they just need to be reminded every once in a while and keep standards up.
  • You don’t need to spend tons of money to make great artistic anything (why some low budgets look better then some of the bigger budgets).
  • Perhaps most important of all….What you create for gamers DOES make a difference. Remember that in your cubicle. People are listening.  Example: Russel from Blizzard spoke up and shared a heartwarming story:

I’d like to amplify that you might not know who you are reaching. As part of the Make a Wish foundation, there was a whole generation who wanted to meet game developers and had the, same light in their eyes as some who dreamed to go to Disneyland. This truly speaks to the greater reason of why we do what we do. To move other people…it transcends anything expected as to what it means to be successful; [it’s] a humbling, giving perspective.

images courtesy of Google 

ProductionHUB ProductionHUB Logo

Related Blog Posts