Layers, Donkey…onions have layers…

When composing for games we must think like our big green friend, Shrek, for he once told his donkey friend that ogres have layers, and we as composers must have layers to our musical personality. When I mention layers I am not making reference to being proficient in different styles of composition (although it helps if you are!), I am suggesting to use a layered method of composition where the track can be broken down into different instruments that supply varied tone-colours to work in-sync with the action of the game and give the end user a unique and enhanced experience. For example: if we were a character in a game, lets say a spaceship in a classic shoot-em-up and we were flying high above the earth and were surrounded by other spaceships and technology, then the music would have to work in unison with the images and be of a modern, electronic type of sound. When we fly down closer to earth and are surrounded by the beauty of green fields and blue oceans then the music can take on more of an organic feel with traditional, ‘human’ instruments.

Due to the non-linear aspect of gaming, each player will have a somewhat unique experience and the fact that they can choose to navigate through the level how they like, presents compositional problems. One way to alleviate this compositional conundrum is to compose in layers. When we compose in layers we not only have the opportunity to keep the same basic melodic ideas and tonality, but the ability change the mood to suit our environment by changing instruments and therefore tone-colour. Another great thing about layering is that you can have some ‘ear-candy’ in the form of a soulful solo or blazing riff that only occurs during special events of the game.

The main thing to think about when composing in layers is to make every part fit in when played all at once but also have enough interest to stand alone and have its own merit when singled out.

I have composed a piece that demonstrates this layering technique (a technique that is common industry practice) and shows how you can maximise the musical information you have without having to chop and change between different pieces of music, making the players experience flow smoothly instead of jarring the gamers ear. Listen out for the changes in instrumentation and how it changes the mood.

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