Arranging for Games: Vertical Layers (by @winphillips) | #gameaudio

There’s something that every music composer / producer starting on working with games notice: it’s a completely different skill. Besides composing for a linear and synced image, you have to start thinking about how your music can adapt to the players action and gameplay. It’s a different way of creating, and a new mindset.

One of the techniques that can enhance and easy the job is the vertical layering composition. And to explain how it works, who better than Winifred Phillips (a great game music composer, and writer of the book “A Composer’s Guide to Game Music“). She is writing a series of three posts on her blog at GamaSutra, explaining the better practices for arranging music for dynamic systems in games.

The first two of three posts are already out, and after read them, I wanted to bring you some of the insights and their links, so you could read them too.

In the first post, Winifred starts discussing what is arrangement, in a simple and easy way:

When we talk about music, we often discuss the “melody” and the “accompaniment.” The melody typically occupies the forefront of our attention, while the accompaniment supplies a chord structure and a series of musical events that embellish and support the foreground content. Both melody and accompaniment are expressed by musical instruments chosen to compliment each other when combined, or contrast with each other in the most desirable way. While the underlying melody and chord structure of a piece of music can be considered the essential skeleton of the piece, the creativity with which these structural elements are expressed by musical instruments is the true flesh-and-blood of the composition. This creative expression of music through musical instrumentation is known as the arrangement.

Then starts to explain about vertical layering and the arranging techniques that best suite it, always referring to her work in the LitteBigPlanet game series.

So, first, let’s see what she says about vertical layering:

In a vertical layering music system, the music is not captured in a single audio recording. Instead, several audio recordings play in sync with one other. Each layer of musical sound features unique content. Each of the layers represents a certain percentage of the entire musical composition. Played all together, we hear the full mix embodying the entire musical composition. Played separately, we hear submixes that are still satisfying and entertaining for their own sake. The music system can play all the layers either together or separately, or can combine the layers into different sets that represent a portion of the whole mix.

When implemented into gameplay, layers are often activated when the player moves into a new area. This helps the music to feel responsive to the player’s actions. The music seems to acknowledge the player’s progress throughout the game. It’s important to think about the way in which individual layers may be activated, and the functions that the layers may be called upon to serve during the course of the game.

If you are a mixing engineer, you are probably familiar with creating stems for your projects. In vertical layering you create arrangement steams that can be used together or not (getting toggled on/off by the game’s system), so you create a sensation of movement and ever-changing music on the player.

This video that Phillips’ shared on the original post gives us a nice idea on how this actually works when someone is playing a game

As you can see, the layers work in all different combinations, and also by themselves. It’s a pretty interesting technique that can make a song sound and feel different depending on the layers that are playing, giving the game the possibility of having an evolving and ever-changing soundtrack.

After, she starts to discuss the relationship between the fundamentals of arrangement (what are the most effective os ineffective techniques), vertical layering, and the melody of a song. Things like step-wise movement (the art of structuring a succession of notes so that they flow from one to another with an impression of natural progression), instrumental motion, frequency range isolation, doubling, etc.

In the second post of the series, she starts to talk about the countermelody, and how to make it work by itself, not depending on the main melody:

A countermelody is a second melody playing simultaneously with the main melodic line.  Usually, the countermelody is perceived as subordinate to the foreground melody of the composition, but when we give it lots of love and attention, the countermelody can be as memorable and pleasing as the main melody of the piece. Not only does this make the overall composition stronger, but it works beautifully with the Vertical Layering construct of the LittleBigPlanet dynamic music system.  When we create a countermelody for an interactive track, it’s always best for us to keep in mind that this melody should be strong enough to stand on its own… because it may have to do just that.

She also makes the same correlation between the countermelody and the most/less effective arrangement techniques techniques when using vertical layering: polythematic / polyrhythmic motion (music structured around multiple melodies/the juxtaposition of two contrasting time signatures), polyphonic motion, the baseline countermelody, antiphonal style ( the melodic structure in which a melody is split into phrases: one of these phrases creates a questioning tension, while the subsequent phrase releases that tension with a sense of welcome resolve), etc.

As you can see, both posts are extremely interesting and helpful for those who compose and produce soundtracks for games. It’s a must read, bookmark, and understand each and every concept of them.

Waiting for the final post of the series. As soon as it’s out, I’ll post it here.

Hope you enjoyed it! 🙂

Mauricio Ruiz –


One thought on “Arranging for Games: Vertical Layers (by @winphillips) | #gameaudio

  1. Pingback: Arranging for Games: Vertical Layers – Part 3 (by @winphillips) | #gameaudio | Audio & Music

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