Paul Lipson, music and audio director for Microsoft Studios, discusses making music for Xbox and its first-party games

Heard About: Making music at Microsoft Studios

[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]

Paul Lipson is music and audio director for Microsoft Studios. He is known for his work managing numerous music commissions for key Xbox franchises.

Develop caught up with Lipson at Game Music Connect to discuss what that process involves, and mull over what informs composer choice in the realm of high-level game audio orchestration.

Can you outline your role, and what makes it unique?
I have an interesting role with the Central Media Team at Microsoft Studios, particularly working as both music and audio director. Central Media can be likened to a team of industry veterans sitting at the centre of the wheel, with creative direction and production support that reaches out across our portfolio. It certainly is an exciting challenge for us and a thrill to partner with our internal first-party and third-party development teams to advance the all-up content quality of projects.

Since joining the team at Microsoft, I’ve been keenly focused on advancing our music pipelines, and have been working hard with my colleagues to raise the bar across all of our platforms including Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows 8 PC, tablet, and phone.

This includes all aspects of music creation, from composition and composer management to production pipelines, recording, integration, technology, budgets, and soundtrack releases.

I also work as the Halo publishing audio director, supporting the various audio disciplines across published titles in the Halo universe with our excellent team at 343 Industries. On the audio community side of things, I’m the vice-chairman of the Board of Directors of the Game Audio Network, and participate on board with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammys), and the academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.

How early do you like to get involved on audio projects?
As early as humanly possible. In all seriousness, I’ve been advocating for much earlier involvement with composers and content teams – quite early in pre-production and concept phases. Music is foundational IP for the worlds we are creating, and getting involved early means we can sync with the narrative, design and tech teams to make sure we can best support the stories we want to tell.

Cross-discipline content can often drive systems and narrative choices very early on. It’s amazing to see visual artists working with early music prototypes and seeing first hand how inspiring those results can be. The engines of inspiration can move both ways if everyone commits to working closely, and it almost always leads to stronger results further down the road.

What do you look for in a composer?
I probably get that question asked more than anything else. Let’s start out with the notion of trust and true collaboration. I always look for composers who understand how to build trust, and understand that how they work is just as important as the music they produce. It is certainly a given that our creative bar at Microsoft Studios is extremely high – and that aesthetic excellence and a perfected craft is baseline – but working collaboratively and understanding that making games is essentially a team sport is paramount to the partners we choose. Having an independent vision is also something we look for – that differentiating X-factor.

I often get demo material from young composers trying to do it all, and they set the stage as if it were a shoe sale, looking at all the styles for all occasions. The truth is that as a composer and conservatory-trained musician myself, I’m drawn to chance-takers who know how to enhance narrative. At the end of the day, it’s the ability to enhance a story and create deep IP for a franchise that will win.

It takes a lot of trust to collaborate with someone who is going to materially contribute to huge dollar bets – which games often are. So if you can lead with excellence, a unique identity, service, support, proven capability and experience, then you’ll find yourself in a great position to support long-term partnerships and big game franchises.

How will music in Xbox games develop from here?
We are absolutely bullish about driving innovation and quality that defines the next generation of games. Music for Xbox experiences will certainly be innovative, and we have some new approaches to integration and content development that will be defining the current and future experiences we are creating.

Looking into the crystal ball, I think finding new ways to develop and express quality will become the defining traits of the future. The emotional dynamic range in games is widening, and music is pushing a new era of emotional efficacy in interactivity and storytelling.

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