Music Composition: The First Stanza

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High-definition 3-D graphics might get the glory, but effective use of audio can often make the difference between a ho-hum game and a gem. Put some time and effort into your music - your players' ears will be grateful!

  • Video game music is usually most effective when it feels like it's "going someplace." The most memorable video game songs typically boast catchy tunes and strong beats. Level themes are best when they're long enough to avoid becoming excessively repetitive.
  • Songs should match the mood of the environments where they're played. A fast-paced song with blazing horns and sizzling electric guitars might make sense for a boss fight, but probably not for a relaxed underwater level or cavern where the focus is on exploration. Likewise, character themes should give players a hint about the character's personality.
  • Always make sure that songs loop cleanly, regardless of the audio format you choose. If your songs include an introduction that prevents proper looping, many audio plugins allow a portion of the song to play only once while the rest of the song loops.
  • Avoid extreme panning. After all, nearly everybody owns a pair of earbuds or headphones with only one working ear. Even on fully operational sound systems, overly extreme panning is a bad practice.
  • Use common sense when selecting instruments. I've seen MIDIs where the tuba part is higher-pitched than the trumpets - and unless you're trying to achieve an unusual effect, that's not exactly recommended. MIDI tracks should do the same things its physical counterparts could do, and shouldn't do things that would be impossible in real life.
  • When composing MIDIs, consider applying better soundfonts or VSTs and converting your MIDIs to Ogg Vorbis or MP3 format. MIDIs are small in size and widely compatible, but you'll get a much richer sound if you use better soundfonts. Better yet, many soundfonts and VSTs can be downloaded for free.
  • That said, don't use fancy soundfonts and VSTs as an attempt to conceal bad music theory. A lousy song is a lousy song, no matter what fancy effects you use.
  • Unless you own professional-quality equipment (and your players are listening on top-of-the-line sound cards and speakers), there's nothing to be gained by using near-lossless compression ratios like 320 kbps. On the other hand, compression ratios below 64-96 kbps or so will usually result in noticeable degradation in sound quality. Experiment to find a compression ratio that delivers acceptable sound quality without generating unreasonably large file sizes.
  • It's possible to compose high-quality music directly in a sound editor, but if you really want to get into music composition, consider investing in a decent-quality keyboard.
  • If you're skilled with an instrument, don't be afraid to record your performances and use them in your games.
  • Even when making fangames, incorporating original compositions or remixes can greatly add to the experience.
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