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nsmadsen

Starting your career as a composer-sound designer (FAQ and answers)

58 posts in this topic

Awesome post nate! Ya know, i had an alcoholic friend named nathan that i used to record "i have to take a crap" songs with. I used to do a segment on a radio show where i take ideas for a stupid song and i write and record it to play on the next week. My favorite song was called "strip go-fish". so i know exactly you come from.
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another helpful article, glad you are so willing to spend your time helping those in the beginning like myself!
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That was brilliant, I can't say enough about how grateful I am for that post.

That will help me alot, I am looking up about The Complete Guide to Game Audio now.

I will also begin to focus on sound effects a bit more also, and perhaps incorporate them into my composing also.

Thanks again, if I run into any questions I will post them here as your answers are much more clear and straight forward then alot I have came across on the internet.
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Having a degree in music will never hurt you! Trust me, it becomes highly apparent who has training and who doesn't when working with other composers. What I've seen is those that are better trained tend to work faster. It tends to take longer for those with less training to create a pro level sounding song. Is it possible? Sure! Is this true for everyone? Of course not. I've also met some highly talented (and rare) composers that have practically no training- just a severe level of talent. I kill them on sight. :) Only kidding! If you can write good music, then you don't need to go back to school. In fact even if you feel you're music should get better- I wouldn't go back for more musical training. You can improve yourself outside of school if your foundation is good enough. I would focus on learning about audio, mastering audio, working with virtual instruments, sound design and all of the ins and outs related to all of this. Depending on your aptitude, you can either do this on your own or back at school. I did it on my own- but started back in 2000 during college.


Also don't forget that experience is in and of itself training. Most of what you'll gain in school that will help you write faster is, actually, experience.

For those of you who are just entering school for the first time, please, please, please don't be afraid to explore OTHER artistic mediums to suppliment your understanding of aesthetics and to bring something extra to the table. There's more to music than music.

Finally, there isn't anything you can learn in school that can't be read in a book between 50 and 300 years old (unless it's a music tech program) and many music tech programs are behind the curve when it comes to technology unless they just upgraded that year (usually their equipment is 5+ years old).

And just as a last little bit:

Listening should be an active part of your life. When you play some music, LISTEN ACTIVELY, analyze, break it apart, look at sound as closely and deeply as you can, never stop trying to understand how a song or soundscape you like works. Imagine how you would construct that, always ask yourself, "how can I do that?"

When you actively listen on principle, you will eventually be able to write what you hear and hopefully learn to write anything you hear (in your head).

What's the deal with actively listening? Going to school can be good, you can learn a lot of techniques and brush up on your speed transposing--but school isn't worth CRAP unless you take school with you when you leave.

That means always being a critical thinker, in craft as much as in life.

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Danthr is exactly right: Listen listen listen!!! Thanks for chiming in bud! To follow up on what he said- experience is training in itself. I tell music students in college to take part in as many musical ensembles as possible. When I was in college I was in:

*All Male Chorus (TTBB)
*Mixed Choir (SATB)
*Band (Symphonic and Wind Symphony)
*Jazz Combo
*Jazz Band
*Saxophone Quartet
*Cover Band (student led)

I've also helped out with orchestras in the past- but not as much as I'd like. Because of this I was exposed to a wide range of ensembles and literature. I was in almost as many groups during graduate school too. I was also really into all kinds of music just for listening purposes and really liked films (US and international) so I paid close attention to alot of film music. I use these experiences in my pieces daily.
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I just figured out that my MBox does multitrack editing, in addition to being a great beverage coaster.
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Original post by Matt2East2007
I just figured out that my MBox does multitrack editing, in addition to being a great beverage coaster.


It's also a great paper weight! ;)
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Nathan, KILLER thread. Great info.

Is there anyway you could stickie this thread? It certainly deserves it as the information inside is absolutely essential to composers starting out, getting going and staying on top of things.

Thanks for the in-depth information.
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Hey man, no problem! It's clear you have a lot of insight into music-making and getting your foot in the door for music making opportunities. I find that kind of information a lot more relevant to composers than a stickied thread that hasn't been updated, literally, in years. ;)

I just don't want this thread to disappear into internet limbo.

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Great tips, I was wondering which books about composing/arranging theory you would recommend.

I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".

Having said that I'm looking for some music for my project [grin] <evil laugh>.
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Original post by ndatxcod
Great tips, I was wondering which books about composing/arranging theory you would recommend.

I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".

Having said that I'm looking for some music for my project [grin] <evil laugh>.


These are great tips, however, I do think that the common fallacy that most music composers is that as soon as they think they have the ability to make music, they want to be in the industries. Hopefully I don't offend anyone, but there are people with years of professional experience but still create terrible material. Experience doesn't mean everything. Even before trying to "work for free", composers should really spend some time just learning and building that custom trademark sound. Really, I'd hate to see good games with low budgets ruined with poor music production values. Most established composers today (people like... Jeremy Soule, Jesper Kyd, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Trevor Rabin, etc) have their signature style. Unless you're just doing it for the money, then disregard that point.

I'm not remotely a professional music arranger (I refrain from calling myself a composer because I believe that's only reserved for the people who are the real deal) but so far, I've never really had to sell myself, if you have some sort of profile up somewhere (soundclick, ctgmusic, myspace, etc...) people will generally discover you. I've had quite a bit of people requesting music for various projects. What have I learned from this? I prefer making my personal music tracks... because it's more flexible and creative, and you learn better. Most projects have certain requirements on the type of music you create, which limits you to that freedom. If I can work with a project, it's great, but I prefer ones without the tight deadlines. I like to think that ever track I do, I'm making progress towards my custom sound.

People are usually worried about building up those "credits" section in their portfolio or resume and just getting their names in projects as opposed to actually making some good music. If you're a director for a movie or game, and you're looking to hire some musician, you'll probably be more concerned about the person's style rather than what the person "can" do. For instance, I certainly don't think someone like Hans Zimmer would ever do a space sci-fi movie or a western cowboy film (although those would be interesting).

Composers probably won't like my post very much since my opinion may insult or challenge people's abilities... but to my defense, this is simply a matter of opinion. I have no intention of becoming a full-time composer (not anytime soon anyway) so my ideals probably only work for me.

[Edited by - Kaiyoti on September 10, 2008 7:00:11 AM]
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Kaiyoti- VERY good point! I should stress that before I even made my first sound for a game I went through this music training:

*Choir- was a singing in choir (both church and school) from 1st grade through Senior year in college.

*Band- played in a band from 6th grade through my first year of graduate school.

*Jazz Band- played in a jazz band from 7th grade through my last year of graduate school.

*Marching Band- played in one my entire HS career.

*Taught trombone, percussion, clarinet, flute, saxophone and piano. (Teaching is one of the best ways to strengthen your own understanding.)

*Taught K through 12th grade music (choir and band). Directing an ensemble yourself really stretches you as you attempt to educate and rehearse others on a piece of music.

Also was a music major for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. So, inherently, I had a ton of musical experience and training before even trying to score for video games. Each person is different, but Kaiyoti is right. It takes most years to develop the musical knowledge and skills to create superior music, then even after that you need to have the ears and instincts to produce your work at a high level. So finally:

I messed around with Sonar (and other software) for five full years before even starting music or sound for video games. Before that, it was just for my (and friends and family) own enjoyment.

Some people are so severely talented that they can start up something like this and be very professional soon after. Others take longer. You may need as much prior experience as me, or might need less. Each person is different. A great exercise is to:

Select some audio from one of your favorite games, TV shows, commercials or films. Compare and contrast your music and sound production to those assets. Are you on par? Below? Above the audio that is already out there? If so, you're ready. If not, you need more work.

Final note on this topic: Don't let this discourage you. I'm constantly learning new aspects and techniques in audio. Becoming an audio doesn't mean you know everything about audio. But it does mean you need to produce at a certain level.

Quote:
I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".


The problem with this is it becomes perpetual. Let's face it, most folks with take something free over paying for it any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It's just human nature. I understand most young projects have little to no money, but working for free makes it hard for both the composer and the developer to break away. The developer will likely either want to keep using the composer on the next projects at a free rate, or move on to the next free composer. Meanwhile, composers that work for free face resistance from developers once they start charging. It brings down the entire music-composition realm. People argue that what a "noob" does shouldn't influence or affect me or other pros at all. It does. Sometimes indirectly, other times directly. I've been told that my music is spot on and perfect but they didn't want to pay for it. So I don't get used and the developer scopes out another composer starving for credits but not requiring payment.

My point is make your services worth something. Set up an exchange of services. Charge a realistic but cheap amount when first starting up. Note: this goes for mainly indie teams seeking a commercial release of their game. Pure hobbyists should remain out of the commercial realm and working for free with them is okay. The problem is, and I've already stated this somewhere in previous posts, most proclaimed "hobbyists" on GD.net express some kind of commercial aspirations for their product. The short and simple version: If anyone stands to get paid, then all should get paid. Sometimes they leave the composer out of this and say "well you got the industry credit." However, we all know not all credits are worth the same thing. What are credits anyway? References of your work. Many in the industry put more stock or weight on credits for established systems, game series or production houses. Why? Because it is a reference that is known. "Oh wow, that game had great audio! You DID this?" If it is a game that very few folks (globally speaking) have heard of or played, then they tend to skip over it. Sure it shows some experience, but since the reference is not known by most, it doesn't get as much respect. It doesn't impress or disappoint them. It just doesn't register that much. (I've been told this first hand by several HR folks at large video game companies) Harsh but true. For this reason, I don't feel that young composers should be willing to work for free on retail-aspiring projects.

[Edited by - nsmadsen on September 10, 2008 8:27:51 AM]
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Original post by nsmadsen
I don't think I have the ability to sticky a thread as a floating mod. I'll see if another mod could do it.
[looksaround]

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While I agree with Nathan, but I think I should throw this out too...

And this is obviously arguable... The main problem with most musicians is that they think too highly of themselves and expect too much. And the problem with film makers and game developers is that they don't understand music enough. Unlike 10 years ago where these music making resources aren't so abundant, anyone today can make music. Nowadays, with the technology, making a full orchestral track in front of your system isn't as difficult. Bedroom-studio composers are popping up everywhere. So musicians shouldn't automatically assume that their service is a rare trade and expect too much out of it. Most of these people can imitate the generic styles without any problem. You're probably not all that special as you may think you are. You need to stand out... be more than enough.

But at the same time, developers shouldn't take advantage of this. The market is tight, that does NOT mean the price should be dropped because of the so many available composers. In the end, it's still a trade. You want something, you pay for it. Time is money. So while developers won't be receiving profit from their projects, time is taken away from composers. So the next time a composer agrees to do custom music for you free of charge, be REALLY REALLY grateful. Make sure that credit page is huge to show your support. Don't just excuse yourself with that "exposure" your project will be getting for the composer. Music plays an important role in how successful the media's end product will be.

[Edited by - Kaiyoti on September 11, 2008 6:54:41 PM]
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Original post by nsmadsen

Quote:
I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".


The problem with this is it becomes perpetual. Let's face it, most folks with take something free over paying for it any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It's just human nature. I understand most young projects have little to no money, but working for free makes it hard for both the composer and the developer to break away. The developer will likely either want to keep using the composer on the next projects at a free rate, or move on to the next free composer.


Also consider what I've seen in the film world with some colleagues who thought that lots of free work was a great way to get a start. More than once I've seen a budding director hire a very cheap or free composer when he had no budget. Once that director moves upward and receives a decent budget, he doesn't hire the cheap composer. Why should he? Now he can afford the expensive composer he really wanted in the first place!

Also, the studio (think developer/publisher) who is putting up the money doesn't want the director to spend all that money on someone it has never heard of and who has no recognizable credits. There is too much money on the line to risk an unknown. ...And no director in that position is going to say, "I have to have this composer or I won't do the project."

Quote:
Original post by Kaiyoti
Unlike 10 years ago where these music making resources aren't so abundant, anyone today can make music. Nowadays, with the technology, making a full orchestral track in front of your system isn't as difficult. Bedroom-studio composers are popping up everywhere. So musicians shouldn't automatically assume that their service is a rare trade and expect too much out of it. Most of these people can imitate the generic styles without any problem. You're probably not all that special as you may think you are. You need to stand out... be more than enough.


This is a good point. Sure anyone can make music in their bedroom, but the truth is that most of it is very bland, ordinary, and sounds like a copy of some well-known music made by someone in a bedroom with no budget and half the skill. Orchestral music is some of the easiest to spot in this case. A trained ear can instantly hear someone's skill and experience when they write orchestral music either on a sequencer or record it live (and it has little to do with the quality of the samples). A non-trained ear may not be as critical, but it can instantly recognize the superior product when two tracks are compared.

Having the tools to make music doesn't make someone a decent composer any more than buying a hammer and saw makes you a carpenter. Anyone can pound a nail, but I wouldn't want just anyone building my house. As Madsen has stressed there is a lot of skill and learning involved in becoming a good musician. Someone who has put in those years of effort is much less likely to want to work for free, but that person probably won't sound like the free composer either!

Think carefully about what you are offering as a composer. Be critically honest with your abilities. Have the humility to recognize the amount of work it takes to perfect your art and your craft and then do that work. As Madsen has said, being a musician (or any artist) is a never-ending journey of learning.

[Edited by - Muzo72 on September 11, 2008 12:20:10 PM]
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This is a good point. Sure anyone can make music in their bedroom, but the truth is that most of it is very bland, ordinary, and sounds like a copy of some well-known music made by someone in a bedroom with no budget and half the skill. Orchestral music is some of the easiest to spot in this case. A trained ear can instantly hear someone's skill and experience when they write orchestral music either on a sequencer or record it live (and it has little to do with the quality of the samples). A non-trained ear may not be as critical, but it can instantly recognize the superior product when two tracks are compared.

Having the tools to make music doesn't make someone a decent composer any more than buying a hammer and saw makes you a carpenter. Anyone can pound a nail, but I wouldn't want just anyone building my house. As Madsen has stressed there is a lot of skill and learning involved in becoming a good musician. Someone who has put in those years of effort is much less likely to want to work for free, but that person probably won't sound like the free composer either!



When I pointed out the bedroom studios, I should've mentioned that in the current digitally-packed world, being a musician is different then before. If you can still pull off live-recordings, then you're golden. But these days, everyone does music composition on electronic equipments or software. "Composing", is only a minor part to music arrangement. Producing is the major part. It's a common misconception to think that higher quality samples = producing. Like muzo said, samples play very little in producing. Game developers and film directors can only go as far as hearing that high quality sound, as opposed to how well the mix actually is. That means anyone can sound awesome to the director/developers. It's not hard for anyone to run their midi music through these softwares, get a domain, slap on a banner that says [name], composer for TV/Film/Game and "join" this industry. So it doesn't matter if you have 10 years training spent in RCM institute, if you are willing to do digital music composition, then you need to learn how to produce, mix, tweak, master your sound.

Good analogy with the carpentry. Which is why I don't ever call myself a composer, because I think it's an joke/insult to the big guys. A suitable title is a "musician" who composes... It's a silly thing to think but that's how I'll show my respect for them. Not everyone deserves the "composer" title. My analogy had always been that just because you cook doesn't make you a chef. What would the world be when people can call themselves chef just because they can make instant noodles. And no, cooking is not a common knowledge either, some people don't cook at all. I also don't believe in the variant degrees of level like "amateur" or "professional" composer. You're either one or not. Digital music composition is not an art anymore, it's a skill. And it requires more than you can imagine. You do NOT need the "composer" title to be hired to work on projects, what matters the most is the demo's and samples.

I realize how very demotivating my posts can be (rendering the original topic useless)... don't be. They're just subjective opinions and suggestions.

[Edited by - Kaiyoti on September 11, 2008 7:18:35 PM]
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What a great post! There are so many ways to get involved with games. Mine was landing the first gig locally (paying gig) and then going to conferences and speaking about the work in front of small crowds. This led to more work as well as an invite to contribute to a new game audio design textbook!

http://www.target.com/gp/detail.html/601-7083768-8864113?asin=1428318062&afid=yahoosspplp_bmvd&lnm=1428318062|Game_Development_Essentials:_Game_Audio_Development_(Game_Development_Essentials)_:_Books&ref=tgt_adv_XSNG1060

just googled it and Target is selling it!? I was interviewed in the book and also contributed to the sample DVD. I have since worked on coin-op, casual and mobile games. I get my work by attending any and every event that is remotely associated with gaming. I look forward to doing larger scale work as my studio was recently re-located into a 20,000 sq. ft. church built in 1890. If you come to Denver, be sure to contact me for the grand tour! It would be good to talk shop with other composers

cheers
Ben
www.noisebuffet.com
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