How to be a game composer / sound designer for games? A beginner’s guide

How to be a game composer / sound designer for games? A beginner’s guide

Since I started doing game audio in 2014, and even before I had proper experience with it, a lot of musicians have approached me asking “How do I become a game composer?”, “How to get into the industry?”, “How did you start doing this?”

Our story is usually quite similar: we have loved games since we were kids, we have been composing for a while and we want to make people feel as good as our favourite game composers make us feel. Curiously, not many people come to me asking about game audio with their minds set on the money, and those few who do tend to move on to other things.

So in this post, I’ll show you how to join this wonderful community based on my experience. Even though many of my colleagues had similar beginnings, take these words with a grain of salt, as your story might be different than mine!

But before we start, and while I have your full attention, make sure to subscribe to my mailing list to get more content like this in the future!

What do I need to start?

Although not a requirement, I’d say passion and persistence are extremely important assets when starting a game audio career. Unless you’re a seasoned composer with tons of credits to your name, it’s likely you’ll spend quite some time building relationships before getting your first game project.

When I started, I had just released my first album, Prototype: Freedom, so I had that to show as portfolio. You don’t need to have released an album, but it certainly is good to have some music (or sound effects, or voice over) to show your prospective clients/partners.

One exercise that will probably result in a great portfolio piece is to grab a gameplay video of a game you enjoy, or find an open-source game project, and do a complete sound re-design. That means removing the original music, sound effects, and voice over, and making something new and fresh to replace them. If your intention is to focus only on one or two aspects of game audio (say, music and sound effects), I’d suggest leaving the other one(s) muted, so your future clients won’t be confused as to what was it that you actually did (yes, even if you write the credits down).

Equipment and software

“What is the essential equipment for a game composer/sound designer?” is a controversial question, as each composer and sound designer and voice actor probably has a slightly different opinion.

From my perspective, what you REALLY can’t go without is a good computer and a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Regarding computers, I’d recommend at least a recent generation Core i5 laptop (or equivalent) with 8GB RAM and 1TB HDD, although of course with more powerful specs you can use more demanding software. But some say (and I agree) it’s better to have fewer options in the beginning, so you can really master what you have… But I digress.

As for your DAW, it really is a matter of preference. I love using REAPER, a cheaper but very powerful DAW that keeps growing its user base amongst sound designers (Ubisoft sound designers use it, for example). I know a bunch of people that prefer Ableton Live or Logic Pro for their friendly UI and great native virtual instruments and effects. My colleagues that came from a sound engineering background usually stick to ProTools. Lots of composers that also do movies and TV praise Cubase as one of the best DAWs. And if you’re short on money you can rely on some pretty powerful free DAWs, like Cakewalk by BandLab (for Windows), GarageBand (for Mac), or Ardour and Qtractor (for Linux).

After some time (or right off the bat, depending on your preferences) you might feel the need to record your own stuff. It is then time to invest in an audio interface, a portable recorder, and some nice virtual instruments and effects (which are frequently referred to as “plugins” and/or VST). Some great starter packs include Native Instruments’ Komplete and EastWest’s Composer Cloud subscription (you can do almost anything with just those two), but you can also do A LOT of good stuff using free plugins (stay tuned, I might do a post on that soon – for now, check the great free stuff on PluginBoutique, VSTBuzz, and Native Instruments).

“I’m a game composer, I don’t do sound effects”

Nobuo Uematsu is a reference in game music. Although he is exclusively a composer (as far as I know), he started in the industry in a different era. Photograph: David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images

Then you will probably have a very hard time starting off. Most of your projects will likely be with indie devs, many of which won’t be able to pay you much (more on that later). If you only do music, they’ll have to look for a sound designer as well. There is A TON of self-proclaimed game composers out there that don’t do sound effects and complain about not getting any work (and also annoy the hell out of game devs with cold emails, DMs, and so on). Those who offer a one-stop-shop are usually a safer and easier bet for devs. If you’re set on doing only music, make sure you have a partner who wants to stick to sound effects so you can both pitch together.

When I started out, I had no idea how to do sound effects and thought it would be boring work. I learned on the go, training my ear, listening to a bunch of references (it’s much like learning to play a song by ear but for non-musical sounds), and researching when I had no idea where to even begin doing a sound. Today I find it a lot of fun to think of a creative solution for each sound effect in a game – and it makes up for most of my work.

Indie devs

“Thiago, you’re talking a lot about ‘indie devs’. I have no idea what those are.”

Bastion is a great example of a successful indie game

Sorry, sorry! Indie dev stands for independent developer. You’re hardly likely to start your game audio career doing AAA games like Final Fantasy or Assassin’s Creed – big companies go to established composers who have worked on a lot of commercial projects before.

However, indie devs are people who, like you, love games so much they have decided to make games themselves, either as hobbyists in their spare time or as part of a fully-fledged professional team. Many do the projects they are passionate about, or, if they’re starting out, make simple games to learn the ropes and have the experience of finishing and publishing a game (which can be much harder than it seems).

Well, since you’re also learning the ropes of game audio (even if you’re making music since you were 4), why not partner up with programmers and artists who are starting out as well? My first game, Staroids: The Odyssey, was made with that spirit and I think we did something pretty cool with the little experience we had 🙂

I particularly love working with indie devs and playing indie games to this day. Indies many times have more freedom to experiment than big companies, and that is usually very refreshing.

Where do I find my first game audio projects?

There are two great ways to get your first projects and gather experience: game jams and networking events. I recommend you do both.

Game jams are short-term game-making marathons. Most of them happen over one weekend (48 hours straight), and the goal is to have a complete small game by the end. Usually, every participant makes their game based on a common theme, and it’s very interesting to see the many different interpretations that come off of it.

There are loads of online game jams happening frequently. If you have the opportunity to attend a game jam in a physical site (such as the annual Global Game Jam), definitely do that – you’ll have a greater chance of joining one or more teams, you’ll make a bunch of contacts (and hopefully friends!), and you’ll have at least one game to show as a portfolio.

Networking events are social gatherings aimed at the game development community (which are not happening by the time of writing due to COVID-19, unfortunately). First off, check if your city, or a nearby one, has any regular events – in Toronto, for example, there’s Friends Play Games, Dirty Rectangles, Bonus Stage, The Indie Mixer, and the audio favourite The Breakfast Game Audio Club; in Sao Paulo there’s SPIN, BIG Festival and the Brazil Game Show. Those are the ones I’ve attended or usually go to!

When attending an event, resist the urge to start a conversation with “I’m a game composer, do you need music for your game?”. As the popular Brazilian saying goes, “hit a tree and hundreds of game composers will fall off of it”. Devs are tired of hearing this. Instead, try to actually show some genuine interest in their games and mention your role when/if you see appropriate – if they are in need of music, or think they will be soon, they are likely to take an interest in your work and ask for your business card.

Should I work for free to get experience/portfolio?

No.

The idea is: you are working, so you should get some compensation for it. It might not be money, it might not be upfront, but the idea here is that if someone is making money from the project, so should you.

You probably won’t get this much money with game audio… But it’s worth it!

If everyone is doing the game for experience and it’s going to be released for free, then yes, it’s fair that you work only for the experience.

If the dev team doesn’t have the money to pay you upfront but intends on earning profit from the game, you can always devise a revenue share contract. This way, if the game is profitable, you’ll be paid an honest percentage for it, and if it doesn’t, you’ll get the experience AND the peace of mind.

If someone asks you to do it “for exposure”, run away. If they had such a great following in order to really get you worthwhile exposure, they’d likely be conscious that the work you’re putting in deserves proper compensation.

When in doubt, for whatever proposition, always think: “is this fair?”

What’s the difference between game music, film music, and songwriting?

There’s a lot to be said in that regard, but so as not to extrapolate this already long post, I’ll leave you with a few topics for research:

The audio for the indie game Celeste was implemented using FMOD, an audio middleware
  • Games are an interactive media, so they require interactive/dynamic audio.
  • That can be as simple as looping a music track to last as long as one’s gameplay session, and as complex as creating arrangement layers and resequencing the music depending on the player’s actions.
  • Interactive audio can be programmed directly in the game’s code, but depending on the complexity of the audio behaviour it is usually better for everyone to use audio middleware such as FMOD, Wwise, Elias, or Fabric.
  • You’ve got to be extra organized when working with games. Check out my organization and documentation guide (with templates!) to start on the right foot!

So, that’s that. Did I forget anything? Do you have any questions? Get in touch and I’ll supplement this post! And remember, if you want to get posts like this as soon as they come out, subscribe to my newsletter 🙂

Thiago Schiefer

Thiago Schiefer is a composer, sound designer, and voice over professional. Mainly focused on game music scores and sound design since 2014, he has worked on over 80 projects, including games, animation, and film. He is also a singer-songwriter, having released the albums Prototype: Freedom (2013) and Living Room Sessions (2015), and the single Augmented Limbs (2019). In the educational field, he maintains a music theory course focused on composing skills and a blog/YouTube Channel at Academia de Composição ("Composer’s Academy"; content in Portuguese).
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