Monday, July 30, 2018

Guest post: Student Andrew Lipian attends GDC on a GANG scholarship

I'm delighted to have my first guest post on my blog!  The below is written by my first ever one-on-one game audio student, Andrew Lipian.  Andrew won a student scholarship from the Game Audio Network Guild to attend GDC in March and I ask him to document his experience.  I thought it'd be cool to hear about the conference from the viewpoint an attendee who is both very interested in the field, a young up-comer in the area, and who went to GDC on scholarship.  Also, a great chance for him to synthesize all the notes he took there and his overall experience.  Andrew will have a second post upcoming soon as well where he describes his recent experience at NYU Steinhardt's Video Game Scoring Workshop.  

Four months have passed since the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Fransisco, where droves of video game industry elites gather annually to discuss the mechanics and business of gaming. I recall a large, imposing map of the world in one of the conference halls with the words “where are you from,” scribed above it. The map was bathed in little red dots indicating where attendees hailed from; not even Siberia was without a few. As I squinted between the chicken pox markers to find my home in Ohio, I began to reflect on the awesome conditions that brought me to this remarkable conference; how, exactly, did I get here?

Why, studying video game music with Matthew Thompson, of course! His guidance helped make my secret passion for game audio a not-so-secret passion by having me apply for a longshot scholarship to the Game Audio Network Guild. This award included an All Access pass to GDC with a personal industry mentor in game audio. I submitted a 1-minute RPG-style battle track I wrote under Thompson's supervision, a narrative with some letters of recommendation, and I was elated to see I was selected for the award! The University of Michigan School of Music Theater and Dance (SMTD) even paid for my flight! 

What would follow? A whirlwind of corporate convention constructs the size of circus tents, endless panels and seminars on all aspects of game development; industry titans roaming about like average Joes, and a bevy of indie video game stations ready for play. 

The Moscone Center, host of GDC, was a veritable sea of people. The complex is broken into three massive buildings (North, East, and West), the former two with sprawling convention expos in each basement (if you can call something the size of a NASA Space Silo a basement). Throngs of video game journalists, voice actors, narrative writers, graphics artists, directors, CEOs, programmers, and game designers painted the halls and courtyards. While I enjoyed these diverse people and their ideas, what I was really there for was the Game Audio. 

I would soon be greeted by my assigned mentor, Adam Gubman. CEO and founder of Moonwalk Audio, who has written music for hundreds of clients such as Disney, Zynga, Storm8, Sony, PlayFirst, GSN, GameHouse, NBC Today, and Warner-Chappell – to name a few. We met at one of the many meet-and-greet tables on the third floor of Moscone West, where I would get acquainted with one of the most motivated people I have ever met. With a forward, engaged posture and a surveying glance, Gubman was a dodecahedra-tattooed, spikey haired mensch; intense and cool, with a quick wit and boundless passion for music. He also had a no-nonsense approach to success: if you want this, work hard every day, don't burn bridges, absorb all you can, and persist. I've seen men of his intensity in successful musicians like Tommy Tallarico and Tom Salta and have come to identify it as the flagship trait that makes these men so successful. Their time is precious, they waste precious little of it, and tackle every task with speed and abandon. 

Adam would prove an impactful mentor, spending a great deal of time with me despite a very busy schedule of his own. Explaining a personal story of how a demo song of his won a Golden Globe, Gubman said you never know what each opportunity could bring. Demonstrating loyalty and compassion, he tells me, creates a “halo effect,” building rapport and camaraderie with potential clients. Trust and Loyalty, Adam believes, set you apart from other composers and earn you respect. He advised I take on GDC as a sponge, absorbing all I could, and give my time to every opportunity, even if the upshot for involvement wasn’t clear yet; I decided to run with his advice.

There was no shortage of sessions to enjoy in game audio. From a seminar in VR audio, featuring Winnifred Phillips as lecturer, we analyzed how special positioning for music can be more immersive than stereo in this medium, using 3D elements to implement a 2D score into the VR world. Music could even transition from 2D to 3D for dramatic effect, citing how she used 3D sound effects in the game “fail factory,” to accent the 2D musical score, creating several sounds in the “VR space.” One example was the loud “clang,” of a factory mallet dropping as the downbeat to a soundtrack for a stage. Analyzing “Shadows of Mordor,” with Nathan Grigg and Garry Schyman, they discussed how the tribal identity of various tribes in the game informed the musical themes. Using a tribe’s unique armor types, appearance and function of forts, enabled them to use the music to accent these properties. For example, the “Machine Tribe Fort Theme,” is comprised of billowing smokestacks, so he created a “non-melodic, plodding rhythmic theme with odd sets of industrial sounds to blend together and bring the orchestra in, underneath. Also, in a post-mortem on the “Call of Duty WWII,” sound track, Will Roget –who took home almost every award at the 2018 G.A.N.G. awards – described his embrace of a “modern,” sound through expanding on tradition and not limiting oneself to “genre expectation.” For example, to create the “WW II vibe,” he decided upon string quartet and solo cello over big drums and high winds or overt brass. This enabled him to focus on a modern presentation, with an early focus on the “in-game mix,” such as using trumpets only for doubling horns (instrumental EQ), and expanded low winds and brass into a “synth tuba.” He peppered his music with signature sounds, like the “echo horns,” in the piece “Memory of War,” or air raid sounds in the piece, “Haze of War.” Roget even used extended playing techniques, such as aleatoric orchestral techniques and “overpressure” in the strings. 

There was so much to absorb, I haven’t space in this post to include it all! 

When not at the many seminars, I met developers seeking music for their games, attended a G.A.N.G town hall where I pitched an idea to head up a student committee, volunteered at an IASIG meetup to run their slack channel, and got to present an award at the 2018 G.A.N.G Audio Awards ceremony as one of the 4 scholars at GDC. To top it off, I even got to meet “The Fat Man.”

GDC was an unforgettable experience, where endless paths crisscross into an intricate network to produce the pixelated art and sonic beauty keeping our hands glued to a controller. Whether I was examining the music of “Middle Earth: Shadow of War,” having my music played and critiqued before a panel of game composers at the “Demo Derby,” (where it was well received), or making new friends and colleagues, GDC provided an invaluable foot in the door for what I love to do. 

As I left my friends, boarded my flight, and scribbled notes on contacts from the handfulls of cards I obtained, the words of Adam Gubman pushed me forward faster than the jet I sat on. “You gotta be fast, you gotta work hard to deliver for your client; you have to push and persist every day.” 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour 2018 (Detroit): A Review

Saturday July 14, 2018, Vince and I attended the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. As I have historically done when attending game music performances, I wanted to write a review of the concert while the event is still fresh in my mind.  And while I’m tougher on these events than most fans, I’m also more fair than the reviewers who immediately disdain these performances because they aren’t Beethoven.  Before I go further, here’s my usual caveat that I’m not the normal concert goer for this kind of event.  The audience for these events seems to average even younger in age than I am, and many seem to be inexperienced with attending a concert with classical origins like this.  I’m a professor of music with a doctorate in performance.  This was the third game music concert I’ve attended, and if you’re interested, you can read my other reviews of A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy and Symphony of the Goddess, both of which I’ve attended in the last couple of years in Southeast Michigan. 

This KH Orchestra shared many of the same features as the other game music performances I’ve seen: a young and enthusiastic audience that many classical or jazz concerts would kill for (an usher told us the concert was 80% presold), attendees in costumes— though notably few compared to the other game music concerts I’ve seen— with elaborate hairstyles, tee shirts, and game memorabilia in hand, particularly keyblades. Drinks and snacks were allowed into the venue; I saw numerous beers in adult sippy cups as we watched the performance.  And, of course, there was the largest, snaking line ever to get to merchandise, "merch" to this crowd, before the show, at intermission, and after.  In fact, the show start was held for at least 10 minutes, no doubt to allow as many patrons as possible to make their purchases. 

One difference between this and the other game music concerts I’ve seen stood out immediately: the orchestra was not onstage warming up.  Instead, they walked out at 8:10, tuned, and began the concert promptly. The pianist walked out with the conductor for a solo bow, similar to how Benyamin Nuss was featured at A New World, though the piano never played a solo number at this event. But Simomura’s writing often features piano and oboe, so I was glad to see the pianist receive recognition.  I did think the pianist was quite expressive and one of the best players in the orchestra. (As a side note, considering how much piano is featured in this music, the piano could’ve been tuned much better, especially in the upper register.) Both the pianist and conductor put their earpieces in to hear the click track and the concert began.  

There was no printed program, and especially disappointing, no list of performing musicians, but pieces were announced on the projection screen as they began.  The program from the evening follows: 

Hikari Orchestral Version
Dearly Beloved KH 2 Version
Organization XIII
Traverse Town
Treasured Memories
The World of Kingdom Hearts (medley)
-Spoken cutscene-
Fate of the Unknown
Threats of the Land: Battle Medley
(45 minutes)

Intermission (20 minutes)

Heroes and Heroines: Characters’ Medley
Lazy Afternoons... at dusk I will think of you 
Vector to the Heavens 
Wave of Darkness
Daybreak Town: The Heart of X
-Spoken cutscene-
The Other Promise
Let Darkness Assemble: Final Boss Medley
Passion - Kingdom Hearts Orchestra Version
(50 minutes)

Toy Story Medley from Kingdom Hearts III
Fantasia Alla Marcia for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra (credits)
(10 minutes)

There were also some differences in this game music concert and the others I’ve been to. The most notable was that there was no speaking from stage, no MC to address the audience. An audience member beside us said she’d seen the concert in New York last year and that Yoko Shimomura came on stage and thanked people for attending and supporting her music. I didn’t expect that to happen in Detroit, but hoped for some spoken interaction from someone involved in the project, even a video message as Koji Kondo had in Symphony of the Goddess.  While I did appreciate the focus solely on the music, as Vince said when we were leaving, this made the event feel “cold.” It feels unusual to me for a concert these days to have no speaking to the audience, and I, too, felt the disconnect Vince referenced. Aside from two cutscenes with Japanese dialogue and English subtitles, there was no speaking at this event.  There were no lighting changes and the projection was always of scenes from the game, rather than ever focusing a live camera on the orchestra members and highlighting them on the big screen.  The micing was also very subtle and I never noticed that there were any sound effects from the game used.  

Another difference is that unlike the Video Games Live or Symphony of the Goddess model, where the creative team travels and “rents” a local orchestra to play the event, the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra is a touring group of musicians that travels playing together regularly. I thought this would lead to a better rehearsed sound and more passionate playing, but that wasn’t the case, at least not tonight. The brass was especially weak, missing notes often in the battle themes where they should’ve been the most climatic.  The choir was also very out of tune, particularly in Fate of the Unknown, and the micing of the choir was very off at the beginning of the concert, giving an unsuspecting tenor a near solo. While the conductor was commanding in his physical presence, the tempi in medleys took a while to settle from section to section, and the balance issues— drums often too loud throughout, cellos too soft at times when they had the melody— were never addressed. Of course, there’s a mixing team working live in the event, so the players onstage may be unaware of the sound in the auditorium; in this case those amplifying the sound should know better what to raise and lower. Aside from crouching down for some soft moments, since there was no addressing the audience, and only bows at the end of the first and second acts, Vince wondered why the concert had a conductor at all instead of just a click track; in essence, he was a metronome. The arrangements were either short themes or extended medleys; the former felt too abrupt and the latter dragged on at times. 

We were told by audience members beside us that the Traverse Town selection was a new addition to the concert from what they’d seen last year in New York. I knew as well to expect music from Kingdom Hearts III, and was incredibly disappointed that the footage was just edited down from the same D23 clip released a year ago.  My understanding was that one of the unique things about the Kingdom Hearts concert versus the Distant Worlds or Video Games Live! concerts is that there would be new music premiered from the upcoming game.  How disappointing then to see the same scene I’d already watched several times on social media promos in a shortened version for this “premiere” clip!

Overall, Vince and I enjoyed the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour the least of the game concerts we’ve attended. I can partially chalk this up from his viewpoint to his unfamiliarity with the music; KH is a series I’ve played extensively and he’s only watched part of my playthroughs. But honestly, the lack of dialogue with the audience was a big part of our feeling this way too. Also many of the arrangements felt simplistic and didn’t seem to have the same emotional range that the Symphony of the Goddess concert did. That said, most people don’t have the viewpoint I’m coming from and aren’t listening and expecting the same sound my critical ear is. And bringing in a new audience to an event like this is great outreach, even if only a small portion attend another concert.  If you follow any internet comments about this event, the fans loved this evening. So my bottom line is as usual: if you’re a fan of the series and its music, check out the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra when it comes to a place near you. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Video Game Music: Live Performances

I recently saw the video below of Tina Guo playing a medley of Final Fantasy VII pieces.  This is part of her album Game On! which has recently released on Sony.  There are links saying that she'll tour in performances of this this year, but on her website there aren't any tour dates listed.  Other game music fans may know videos that Tina made of The Legend of Zelda (the one I've seen before) or a massively popular Skyrim video she made with nearly 4 million views as of writing.  I didn't know this particular arrangement, but all my readers know I'm a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII and its music.  The production value with this video is really impressive and probably my favorite visual part is when she plays in the train station in an homage to the Midgar train system.  I love how much attention video game music covers are getting these days and the complexity of their production.  Check it out.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Review

Last night my partner and I had front row seats for the DSO's sold out performance of The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses.  This morning while it's still fresh on my mind, I wanted to write a review of the concert.  I've mentioned before that I find reviews of these types of game audio concerts lacking.  If they are covered, reviewers either have extreme disdain for the music being performed in the first place, or else they are super game enthusiast fans who love anything that has to do with that game franchise and often don't know much about music.  I suppose I'm somewhere in between.  It was only my second time in the DSO audience; most visits, I've been onstage performing as part of the pre-concert music.  The other time I attended a concert here, I was seeing Kathleen Battle perform Previn's Honey and Rue, and that was at least a decade ago.

The first thing I was struck by even as I entered the hall was the audience; most classical concerts can only wish for the diversity of patron that this concert had.  The audience was primarily young, I'd guess many close to my age or under, though there were also some blue hairs to be seen as well.  I saw folks of so many ethnicities and races as well; being from a mixed household, that kind of feeling walking into a concert is so uplifting for me.  And of course, folks were in costumes: I saw a few Kokiri outfits, a couple Zeldas, and even a King of Hyrule.  The audience enthusiasm was visible even just entering the hall.  Once inside, crowds overwhelmed tables with various Zelda merchandise.  (I bought a piano collection for some research I'm working on.)  I don't know how the DSO usually handles drinks in the concert hall, but I saw a number of audience members with beers and mixed drinks during the concert, so the atmosphere was definitely relaxed.  When you can sit in your chair and have a drink as you listen to the orchestra, that's my kind of concert!

The program consisted of the following movements, and this was given out as a printed page:

Overture 2017
Majora's Mask Medley
Breath of the Wild
Ocarina of Time
The Wind Waker


Temple of Time Intermezzo
The Twilight Princess
Time of the Falling Rain
Ballad of the Windfish
Gordon City Medley

The first half was about 50 minutes, intermission around 20, and I was walking out the door of the concert hall at 9:24, so the whole event was just less than an hour.

My favorite movement by far was the Time of the Falling Rain arrangement, which was a medley from A Link to the Past.  The LttP music ended with the credit music from the game-- something I show in my Video Game Music class most semesters-- and that connection was really powerful for me.  This was one of the best arrangements in the evening and acted as a natural end piece to the concert before two printed "encores."  The Goron City Medley at the end of the program really showcased the brass sections of the orchestra and the players gave all the character that the trombone and tuba can have as they play these themes.  Really awesome and the whole orchestra sounded great at parts like this!  I also very much enjoyed the Breath of the Wild material from early in the show.  I think that arrangement may have been literally from the game.  Although BotW was too short of a movement, perhaps to avoid spoilers?, I think that going forward actually playing direct music from cutscenes in games may be a better way to go than so many of these arrangements.  The arrangements depend so much on the quality of the orchestration and the skill of the arranger in stitching together various themes or making a theme have a different feel than one might expect.  That simply doesn't always translate well.  Now that game audio can be fully orchestrated, there's no substitute for hearing the original audio in much the same way as a film concert.

The conductor was Kelly Corcoran, who is based out of Nashville.  She is a regular conductor of these Symphony of the Goddesses performances and has numerous upcoming dates around the country in the next months.  It was a cool connection to read in her bio that she studied with Leonard Slatkin, currently the conductor of the DSO.  One of my favorite moments of the concert was when she held up -- to cheers and laughter from the audience --  and then conducted with the Windwaker before The Wind Waker movement in the program (although she held it quite awkwardly high, not by the base).  That said, I did wonder exactly what the purpose of the conductor for an event like this is.  Several members of the orchestra had ear pieces, so if everyone is trying to play to the click track, what does the conductor do?  Yes, perhaps someone needs to cue the various entrances of the orchestra, certainly the choir needed babying in tonight's performance.  However, Ms. Corcoran never indicated a musical phrase or shape, always beating very precisely in time and there was never an adjustment to the balance; there were several cases, between the percussion and the wind sections, whether through the arrangement or the overdone amplification of the orchestra, where the melodic theme was buried.  Furthermore, Ms. Corcoran would often grab her earpiece during the loud climatic sections, in what struck me as an homage to Mariah Carey, as she tried to hear how the tempo of the click track was changing.  Whether the audience is aware of it or not, there's nothing less satisfying than seeing a conductor freeze and bend over slightly, pressing an earpiece into her ear during a climatic musical moment instead of standing straight and embodying the sound confidently.  I wish that these concerts were able to tie the multimedia projections to the music instead of slavishly asking the musicians to sync themselves so metronomically to the visuals.  Isn't that the point?: a concert of this type should be a celebration of the audio over the visual.  

By far, the weakest part of the concert was The Community Chorus of Detroit.  They seemed unfamiliar with the music, under rehearsed, musically uncertain, and had terrible intonation and tone.  Think about where chorus is used in game audio: an epic boss battle, an ancient legend unfolding - something that takes the moment over the top.  Now imagine that chorus to be so weak that it actually feels anti-climatic.  Not pleasant.  Vince and I broke out in laughter a few times at the chorus singing.   Disappointing.

These concerts have a lot of things going for them:

  • Lighting changes - for instance, blue during Wind Waker and green during Breath of the Wild
  • Multimedia projections of game footage and the orchestra members playing live 
  • Short spoken statements from the creators of the games and music 
  • Incorporation of prerecorded sounds and sound effects.  
Now, I don't need these things to feel engaged at a concert, but I do appreciate how game audio lends itself quite naturally to a multimedia updating of the traditional symphony concert.  I liked very much being able to see into wind and brass sections of the orchestra from the camera shots.  But for everything there is a flip side, and hearing the piccolo struggle through the Zelda good morning cue is painful enough, much less to watch the player projected on the big screen in a delay.  I do often feel though that the orchestra players aren't fully into the music and there's a lack of excitement at concerts like this.  I think part of that is the arrangements/orchestration aren't always great.  I also think part of it is the players/singers may have a slight disdain for the music.  The average audience member may not notice, but when a section is played double time (as happen with the cellos early in the concert), or a wind cue is in minor instead of major, I'm really taken aback.  I understand mistakes happen and I'm certainly not perfect myself live.  Some of that is undoubtedly unfamiliarity with the material, or perhaps misprinted parts.  Maybe a concert like Distant Worlds or Video Games Live! works better because of the variety of music possible-- after all, how many times can you see an arrangement that progresses through a quiet beginning, a goofy character theme, an epic theme, etc, until a climatic boss battle plays Ganon's theme for the finale?  The same format and music gets tiring as the night progresses.  Whatever causes it, I hate always leaving events like this feeling "something's missing" and that happen again for me with this concert.

I did enjoy myself last night and I know I'm not the typical concert-goer at any musical event, much less this sort of concert.  However, when a concert can fill a 2000 seat house on a Wednesday evening, something is really, really right.  Then again, as I scanned the orchestra, I noticed the concertmaster was away as was the principle cellist.  Several of my UM colleagues were subbing in various sections as well.  If the audience can be this into the music, what can we do to get the top orchestra members to believe in it enough to play it as well instead of taking the night off?  Or should these concerts just be sold electronically, recorded perfectly, mixed, mastered, and synced up precisely to the visuals?  Is there a reason for the "live" aspect of this show?  I can say that for me there's "something missing" and I wish I could put my finger on what it is.  Overall though, I did enjoy myself and most of all, seeing this performance bolstered my desire to organize/perform in an all game audio concert.  

Bottom line: If you love game audio and The Legend of Zelda, I suggest you see one of these concerts if it comes close to you.  The sense of community is always great at a live event and for any fans of the games, this celebration of the music will be a treat.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I don't actually know that I've written this out on the blog, which is crazy, but the North American Conference on Video Game Music will be at the University of Michigan this January 13-14.  There are still some details that I'm finalizing, but I will be sure to update on here as the process continues.

Of most importance for today is that proposals for either virtual lightning talks and/or in-person papers are due one week from today.  I would love for the panel committee to have a terribly difficult time choosing among a wealth of amazing possibilities.  So please, if you're thinking of applying or know someone who might, share this information with them.

More information and the call for papers is available at the conference website:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Game Music Online: Arnie Roth Reimagines 30 years of Final Fantasy Music

I recently read an interview by Brando Bui, editor in chief for the Gamer Professionals website about Arnie Roth.  I loved how in-depth the interview was and also was excited for the subject material because I have tickets to see Symphony of the Goddesses coming up in Detroit in a few weeks.

My favorite aspects of this interview were reading the history of the Final Fantasy concerts as well as how Arnie got into conducting these concerts.  The other fascinating part for me was thinking of all the behind the scenes collaboration that goes into selecting a piece of music to be part of these concerts.  Definitely enjoyed some unique points in this interview that I hadn't read before.

This interview is part of a promotional plug for upcoming Distant Worlds concerts on September 16th in Chicago.  Nobuo Uematsu is even going to be in attendance!  As I look at the webpage a few days later, I'm surprised that a great interview like this doesn't have more views.  If you're at all interested in live performance of game music, check out this interview and/or a concert in your area if you can.

The interview can be found here.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Game Music Online: 8-bit Music Theory

One of the old series I definitely want to bring back is the "Game Music Online" series where I highlight cool things that are game audio related on the internet.  I tend to like quite specific, in-depth analysis and explanation.  But, I can also like a viral fun video too.  In this case, I'm going with something a bit of both, but probably more in the first category.

Over the summer, YouTube suggested to me a video from a channel called 8-bit Music Theory.  This channel has incredible videos that are beautifully made and that have clear explanations of the musical analysis.  They are artistic and pleasant to watch, with a clear voice over game play as well as examples in western notation.  These videos are really fantastic resources that explain these music theory applications in a straight-forward, engaging manner.  I really wish more educators knew about these videos as resources when teaching.  Not only could they work well in a music appreciation sense, but also they would be great for AP Music Theory classes.  They could even to give ideas for how a college level teacher might incorporate using video game music in the teaching of a particular concept.

The channel isn't even a year old and has already gotten an impressive collection of videos and followers.  Having made some videos to teach musical concepts, I can't imagine the amount of time that it takes to create just one of these videos!  I'm also quite interested in knowing more about whomever is creating these.  I didn't notice a name or link on the YouTube site about the creator.  With a light bit of digging, I only find that the creator is from Canada and goes by "8-bit."  I'd love to know more-- if you do, leave me a comment.

One of the first videos I saw on the channel, and also one of my favorites, is the video on Nonfunctional Harmony in Chrono Trigger.  Chrono is one of my favorite games and I love the discussion of harmony presented here.

I also particularly enjoyed the video on the compositional style of Mega Man II.

There's a series on the music in Breath of the Wild that I enjoyed too.  Here, I link to the last video of the series on the music of Hyrule Castle.  I've planned to highlight the music on Hyrule Castle in my own post on BotW.  What the video misses for me is discussion about why the instrumentation changes between the inside and outside make sense for the player and the information that conveys.  Thankfully, it gives me a point to write about, since the other aspects of the theme are handled so well.  

I look forward to seeing what comes from this channel in the future.  Check it out and subscribe if you find it worthwhile, as I do.