The Process of Writing Music for Video Games, with Tom Salta and Mark Roos

Video games are arguably among the most creative mediums that can offer deep levels of immersion when it comes to entertainment. Gameplay, story mechanics, and graphics work together harmoniously to bring us captivating moments, however, the experience wouldn’t be complete without the addition of original music and compositions.

Tom Salta, a true veteran of video game music production and composition, sat down with us for a couple of minutes and offered some personal insight on the subject. Tom Salta composed music for several Halo games, including Halo: Spartan Assault. Tom says that the soundtrack for the original Halo game was what inspired him to start composing video game scores in the first place. He worked on the soundtracks of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, PUBG, the Tom Clancy Ghost Recon franchise, and more.

“I feel that games are immersive experiences that take you to endless places and endless times, and I just love being immersed in those kind of worlds. It also really connects with me because I’ve been a gamer since the late 70s, so it kind of keeps me young and engaged.”

Tom Salta, composer for several Halo games, PUBGPrince of Persia: Forgotten SandsNFS: U2, and more.

Tom Salta

Video game scores have greatly evolved since the classic 16-bit sound bites found in arcade games. Nowadays, composers work with dozens of instruments and even orchestras in recording studios to capture the overall feel of a game with music. Although video game scores are similar to movie scores, the implementation and recording process are a bit different.

“I see the technology of digital music making it easier and easier to take an idea that’s in your head and turn it into reality. We really have to find new ways to challenge and navigate technology and find the things that inspire creativity to realize our ideas.”

Tom Salta

The process behind creating a video game score

When it comes to music in movies, viewers experience it pretty much in the same, linear way, the only distinguishing aspect being their interpretation. In open-world video games, for example, music is often experienced uniquely, as players can approach an event differently and play through areas with unique playstyles, triggering different types of sounds and music. Stealth approaches can trigger suspenseful music, while a more direct approach can set off an upbeat track.

Mark Roos, one of the co-founders of Cutting Room Music, also worked on a Microsoft game called Links in the early 2000s, and was kind enough to share the entire recording experience with us.

Mark Roos

“When Microsoft approached me to help them compose music for Links back in 2004, the game was almost picture-locked. We had to compose 77 live tracks for different sections of the game, including menus and highlight reels, similar to how music in FIFA and NBA 2k is set up nowadays.

The first demo we sent was actually recorded in one of my friends’ basement, and we recorded it on an analog tape machine because that was the only thing we had. We used live drums, guitars, and bass, and sent it. Their first reaction was: Wow, this has a really garage band feel to it!

For the final cut, we made it sound a little bit cleaner and we also recorded additional tracks in a studio. I finished the writing, mixing, and mastering the 77 tracks, with all the metadata, in three and a half weeks and sent them to Microsoft. They loved it.”

Mark Roos, co-founder of Cutting Room Music and composer for Amazon Prime’s Trending CrimesAmerican PickersCatfishKeeping Up With The KardashiansPixarMicrosoft, and more.

Composers try to come up with different tracks for various scenarios during the recording process, to provide the player with an immersive experience. Recording a video game score involves composers constantly seeing footage of the game’s different areas, as well as being up-to-date with the plot and its characters, and how different scenarios would play out. If composers are brought in really early in the game’s development process, they might be asked to start recording music with only the help of concept art.

Back then, what I did was just a simple stereo mix. Now it’s much more sophisticated and the overall scope is much larger. With the help of AVR, developers can add music and sound effects anywhere and make it change in real-time to sound better on specific devices, including surround systems and headphones. Basically, there are very few limitations, that’s why a lot of people enjoy scoring video games rather than film, because they feel like they’ve got more creative freedom.

Mark Roos

Looking for a team to help you compose music for your video game?

We are a team of highly passionate and dedicated composers that can bring any visual work to life with the help of music, including video games. No project is too large or too small for us, so whether you need an original composition for an indie title, mobile game, or a triple-A project, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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