THE ART OF VIDEO GAME MUSIC: A presentation by Tom Salta

Ron Sadoff, Director of the NYU Film Scoring Program, moderated the evening. Co-sponsored by ASCAP, G.A.N.G. (Game Audio Network Guild), and the SCL (Society of Composers and Lyricists), and attended by an enthusiastic audience of professionals, the event attested to an avid interest in the medium and the vast market share that gaming has garnered – – already surpassing the film industry with projected sales expected to reach $65.9 billion in 2011.

Salta’s engaging presentation noted some major differences between composing music for games and scoring for film and TV, as well as illuminating aspects of composer-producer communications and the field’s emerging business practices. Salta characterized the gaming industry as being in its “teens,” yet it has already managed to forge an extraordinary agreement with the AFofM (American Federation of Musicians). This allows for the recording of union players for the combined use of video and music whereby no backend revenues for musicians are incurred, provided that the recording is initially recorded for and used in a video game. Conversely, the contractual reality for video game composers may include robust up-front creative fees, but invariably lack any backend revenues in terms of writers share or publishing.

Salta devoted the lion’s share of the evening to mapping out creative challenges encountered by composers who create within the “adaptive processes” that define the non-linear world of video games. While a film unfolds in the course of a two-hour linear narrative, a video game may involve 40-80 hours of playing time through a series of non-linear and juxtaposed sequences. Salta further noted, “Video game music is about the act of playing the game as opposed to scoring specific actions within a film.”

Therefore, the music must be designed in such a way that the music may readily shift and utilize pre-composed sections and transitions. A composer must remain keenly aware of tempo, key, and harmonic transitions, in addition to sustaining the musical conventions and codes necessary to convey the appropriate mood, geographic setting, or character. Salta compares the musical mix of elements with keeping track of the balance of ingredients in creating a great recipe. Throughout the evening, he provided numerous graphic demonstrations and musical examples that illustrated his perspective (see photo A). He also gave a live demonstration of F MOD software to show how cues can be controlled in real-time by a video game’s audio engine.

Highlighting Salta’s presentation was his recounting of a successful pitch to a client. This offered insights into the art of game composing as well as how business and art may align in this fledgling field. Without benefit of ever having seeing the ‘game-in-motion’, Salta was provided with only verbal descriptions of the scenes and story, audio “Reference Tracks” (analogous to film’s ‘temp tracks’), and visual stills. Salta then demonstrated his unique musical synthesis that became the game’s musical landscape. He walked the audience through a recreation of his seamless ‘pitch,’ answering to all of the producer’s requirements yet maintaining his individual voice.

– Ron Sadoff (June 2009)