Michael Elman, the creative director of audio group Wave Generation, explores the issue

The (un)importance of orchestras in game scoring

In the game audio world, we constantly use Hollywood as a benchmark for quality. Be it in mixing, sound design, or music scoring, producers and audio directors are frequently referencing movies as a way of inspiring game audio artists.

I do not disagree with this practice; Movies have been around a lot longer, and the film industry – particularly Hollywood – has mastered a lot of the processes required for delivering entertainment to its audience. The music and sound departments are most definitely part of that mastery.

There are of course, fundamental differences between the two products, and I think it is very important to understand where we can borrow from Hollywood’s processes and ideas, and where we must take a different path. In this post, I will focus on the subject of using live musicians and orchestras in game scoring.

To that end, I make the following observation: While using live players and orchestras in film scoring is widely considered to be an important step, in game scoring it is not crucial to take the same approach.

For example, when our lead composer at Wave Generation, Nicolas Marquis, started work on the soon-to-be released MySims SkyHeroes for EA (developed in Montreal by A2M), I asked him what live instruments we would need to record, based on the music style. Working closely with A2M audio director Jean-Frederic Vachon, we had determined that the score would have an action/adventure feel, featuring rock, orchestral, and electronic music. Nicolas’ answer was quick and didn’t require too much thought: “Only the guitars,” he said.

The deadlines were reasonable, and Nicolas could have chosen to use more live musicians if he wanted to. In the end, his priority was to deliver a powerful score that supported the gameplay, and that could be delivered in a variety of splits should the developers need different mixes for dynamic changes in the music.

He knew he could successfully carry the score with a string section and support it rhythmically with electronic beats by using predominantly digital instruments. At the same time, he could give the sound an edge with a real electric guitar.

So in the case of this particular project, it just wasn’t important to record the score live, and this has been true for many of our productions. Let me be clear – it sometimes sounds better to record a game’s score live with an orchestra, band and soloists than to rely on digital sampling. However, this is only true in the following cases:

• The score is orchestral and has tons of linear cinematics or music cues.
• The score is for a music game that requires very realistic sounding performances, as in Guitar Hero.
• The composer is using instruments in his score that he (or perhaps anyone) cannot properly recreate with sampling and sequencing. For example, it is difficult to digitally replicate acoustic and electric guitars, so it’s better to use the real instruments in this situation.

On the other hand, digital orchestral scores sometimes sound better than live recordings. I once had a client call and say they preferred the composer’s digitally sequenced demo tracks over the live orchestral recordings they had done elsewhere with a major US symphonic orchestra.

This was probably due to a variety of factors, such as the recordings may not have been properly mixed and mastered or the performance (that was a one-day session) was not executed as well as the composer had originally "performed" it while sequencing. In any case, a recording of a one-day live orchestra session may not sound as good as a one-day digital session.

Aside from sound quality, there are a host of other benefits associated with digital sequencing:
• It’s cost efficient. This means that there is more budget to deliver a greater quantity of music or spend more time on the project in the pre-production phase.
• It’s much easier to work with. Live recordings can be done in segments and parts, but it still does not give the flexibility that MIDI sequences have. In an "all sequenced" environment, you can make last minute changes to tempo, instrumentation, and of course, the composition itself. You can also export any combination you need of split tracks for interactive and dynamic music systems.

Sometimes we will get a request for recording a live orchestra, and for the reasons I mentioned earlier, it is a great idea and we are happy to get it done. But sometimes it feels like the producers who are requesting a live orchestra are really trying to say: "go the extra mile for us.”

We certainly appreciate their passion for what the music brings to their game. When we get this type of request, I like to brainstorm with them on what else we can or should do to hit it out of the park, and that usually leads us down a different path.

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