John Seguin

Techy | Musician | Info Geek

The Indie Game Developer's Guide to Working with a Composer

Greetings everyone --I've been trolling around GG since about April of this year and have really had a great time following many a .plan here. It's really great to be here over a matter of months and see projects come to completion.

One thing I've noticed, however, is that most of the folks who post their .plans are either programmers or artists. Not there is anything wrong with this, of course -- but I thought I'd chip in as a resident sound designer and composer. To lend some credibility to my statements, I should mention that I've worked on a few GG projects, including Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa and Basic Bob.

What I'm going to try to do, over the course of a few .plans is to lay out the process of working with a composer in getting original music created for your game. I welcome your comments and feedback!

Step 1: Do you need original music?
Well? Do you? Although this seems crazy for me to say, especially since I'm in this business, going with original music is not always the smartest move. For example, if you consider yourself to be incredibly picky and are terrified of the unknown and demand absolute control, you should probably skip on original music. You should also skip if you are extremely tight on funds. However, that rule comes with a caveat. There are many composers out there who may gladly score your game for next to nothing (or maybe nothing). I have seen many folks, including those in the forums here at GG, attest that those who are doing things for free are probably not worth paying, and thus can only work for free. Although this may certainly be true for some, for others, they may be experienced composers, but are just trying to get started. After all, you can produce x, y, and z, but if you have no credits it is hard to get that initial gig.

Given this, it might be worth taking a chance on these folks, especially if they are willing to offer you a free, speculative demo with no strings attached. In other words, "here's my demo, try and do an in-game level music". They come back to you and it, well, sucks.

At this point, you could bow out and say, thanks but no, and off you go. Some folks may be willing to do this for you. Those who really want to work with you will do this gladly, especially if it looks like you have a great project.

So, you're not overly controlling and you have some money (or are willing to take on someone with little or no experience for next to nothing). Now what?

Step 2: The Rates
"You charge HOW?"
This is by far my most commonly asked question. The most common way in the professional industry is to charge by the finished minute. What does this mean?

By finished, I mean just that -- done. All edits, changes, modifications, rounded up to the nearest minute, usually with a one minute minimum. This price, of course, can range anywhere from $150-$1,500+. No composer will quote you a flat rate (unless its very high already) as there is room for negotiation in most cases. Possible negotiating points include:
- Total amount of music
- How attractive your game looks to the composer (not really your call -- but the composer WILL figure this in, just the same)
- Royalties
- Non-exclusive rights

This last point is worth some explaining. In most cases, the composer will only license their music to you, NOT sell it outright. What this means is that you can only use this music for the purposes established in your contract. Nothing more. The composer may grant you exclusive use for this format. (i.e. "game") Common examples of this include using it for SKU's related to Mac and PC versions of this game. This protects a composer's interests if, for example, your game is a HUGE hit and you get a console deal on it. You will need to renegotiate with the composer for the console title as well.

Some composers will offer to sell you non-exclusive rights, which should be cheaper. This means, that you can use it in your game, but they will add the music to a library CD they might be creating and 2 years from now the music in YOUR game may end up in someone else's as well! Depending on where you are with a particular project, your career, etc., you may or may not care about this.

Tune in next .plan as we continue the saga!
We'll cover topics such as "how to decide about placement" for music and sound effects and how to determine track length, style and other hard-to-discuss-with-your-composer decisions.


This is part II of a guide that I am writing in serial about working with a composer and how to make this relationship successful for both parties. I will be discussing various issues and facets of this that hopefully many of you will find interesting. If you have any other questions regarding things posted here, please feel free to start a discussion below or send me an email directly. (

First though, if you haven't read my first post on this issue, please take a look at it here.

As promised, today's big topics are placement and style.

When a movie is shot, many times the director has an idea in their head about where music should go. When they are shooting an action scene, they may have cool techno racing through the action ala Matrix, or a big orchestral score like in Star Wars. However, they typically might be thinking ahead -- for effect -- "hmm... it would be super cool if this was a sound fx ONLY shot..."

As a producer/director of a game, you may be doing the same thing. You may have a thought such as: "It would be great if there was music that started IMMEDIATELY" to set the mood of the game. (Such as in Pocket Watch Game's Wildlife Tycoon, which I worked on.) Because there are several "intro screens", such as for Garage Games, the company logo, etc., the music starting right away can set the mood of the action and feel for the game. This is usually a great place to put music in.

But where else? A lot of folks think a good place for music is during a "level" (if this applies to your style of game). Your character is running around some sort of map; sure, this is a great place for music. It can really help to immerse a player into the game. But what else could you do? Is there a loading screen? What about during a pause menu or configuration screen. Should this music be the same? Different?

Will your music be triggered by gameplay events? Perhaps your character is racing around the map and then suddenly starts to fight an evil doer. The music might change suddenly to reflect this change. If you've played the PS2 Baldur's Gate series, you have a good idea of how effectively this can be done. Good composers can design their music to accomodate for this, so that one track can easily slide into another without an abrupt switch in timbre and feel. However, it is very important to plan such things ahead of time as it is far more difficult for the composer to work this in at a later time, depending on what was written initially as the "main track".

This is propably the most difficult part of the whole process of working with a composer. How do you communicate what you are looking for? Everyone is a know-it-all critic when it comes to music. However, it takes a far more skilled and patient person to describe why we don't like something in particular and communicate that to others. In order to do this, it is important to understand a few common music terms that your composer (if they are worthy of their profession...) will understand.

aka. "speed". Should the piece be fast or slow? This will be largely determined by the pacing of your game. GOOD game composers will play an early demo of your game while listening back to their music to make sure it fits the pace of the action. You may disagree, and want a more "hurried" feel, which is pushed by the music. This is great for still scenes that generate a feel of urgency. Think of all the 007 movies where you just see James Bond looking a bit concerned as fast paced music fires up right before he gets in his car and the action catches up to the pace of the music.

These are important things to discuss with a composer when describing how you'd like the music to sound.

Texture refers to the resulting "sound" of all the instruments playing together. Textures can generally be thick or thin. Some use the term "fat" for a thick sound. An example might be a big band sound being "thick" versus a small Wynton Marsalis quartet being "thin". This applies to all forms of music, whether it be electronic, world, orchestral, jazz -- you name it!

In general, if you have lots of voice over going on, or many KEY sound effects (meaning the sound actually provides information and not just "extra noise"...) thinner texture works better and is less distracting. Big action sequences work well for bigger textures.

Is the tune you are looking for "inspiring"? "Fun"? "Sad?" "Silly?" These are all great descriptions for a composer to get a quick idea of what you are looking for. However, it should not be confused with...

Perhaps a rock ballad? Or a pop tune? Or an 18th century Mozartian waltz? You can easily combine these with your "tone" request. For instance, a "fun jazz quartet sound". Or a "swashbuckling (pirate-like) courageus orchestral piece that feels full and thick with lots of horns". You can also combine genres, of course. How about a jazzy orchestral waltz with an electronica beat underneath. Cool!

Perhaps you have a favorite instrument that you think would fit well instead of something the composer picked. Choosing instrumentation up-front can constrain a composer's sonic pallette, so it is best to avoid dictating this, but it is helpful to say something like "I'd like this to be mostly percussion sounds -- I'm going for a very sparse feel" or "let's stick swith lots of strings" or "very electronic sounding". Also, in the review process (discussed next time) being able to say "I really don't like the beat the drums are playing -- it sounds too calypso and I was thinking more jazzy..." can really help your communication.

Hopefully, these various items can give you some verbage to use with your composer in describing what you are looking for. Next time, I will discuss the dangers and benefits of place holder music as well as possibly getting into the review process. Stay tuned!

PART III: The Dangers of Placeholder Music

This week's topic is about something that if mishandled, can make getting original music in your game very difficult.

Nobody likes to test games that they have written without music. It's much more fun to see the complete picture, right? If you have already made the decision to go with canned library music, then this is no problem. You've picked out the tracks, they're yours to include and play with, you're done!

However, some people take music (sometimes even illegal music that they couldn't use anyways -- like a tune from a favorite CD) and pop it in the game to have something going on with the music side of things. The danger here is that just like smoking and reality TV, habits die hard. Your ears will actually become addicted to that music! (Granted, of course, that you aren't repulsed immediately by it!)

It is a pyschological fact that the more times you are in contact with something, the more you grow to like it. This is why people who might continuously bump into each other have a better chance of being friends, dating, etc. The more times you hear "that song" on the radio, that you might not have ever gone out on your own and grabbed, suddenly its stuck in your head 24/7!

Good songs catch you immediately, but the Best songs are those you can hear over and over, and still find interesting... even if it takes a little more time to get into it.

Now, how does this apply to placeholder music? Well, if you stick one of these tunes in your music with the *intention* of it being a placeholder, like it or not, it will be HARD to give it up when the time comes. Even if your song isn't perfect, that first time you hear the composer's creation you'll think... "hmm... but it wasn't quite what this is that I already have..."

Solutions for placeholder blues

So what's to be done? A couple of options here:

1) Buy good-quality library music and stick with it.
You won't be the first ones, but it will be far easier on you (and your potential composer) in the long-run. I recommend this however, really only if your game has very limited market appeal, or its more of a demo, etc, because of the huge risk of having your music recognized from another source. The one exception to your music being recognized is if this is ON PURPOSE and you've managed to snag the rights to use the next U2 song in your game or something.

2) Give the composer's music more of a chance.
This is a dangerous road that I can't whole-heartedly recommend, but you can TRY to just listen and relisten and test and retest your composer's music (for at least a day or two) before giving them comments back. If they are worthy of their craft, the composer has already done this and has decided that it fits well in your game. Not even taking the time to stick it in your game to play with is doing your game and your composer a disservice.

3) Get a composer involved early on.
This is by FAR your best choice. By arranging terms with a composer early on in the process, so that they are sorta on "retainer" to start work when you need them, you can get music put in your game fast, just when you need it. Really, its silly to have in-game music before there is at least basic playability functionality. Having your character just run around in the world you build is NOT gameplay functionality.

As soon as you are realisticly ready for them, then you don't have to scramble to find someone at the last minute. You'll have evaluated their work, perhaps they've done a speculative demo for you based on your requests and you approved it, and you are confident in their abilities. You are in good shape at this point, without ever needing to feel the temptation of placeholder music.

PART IV: Providing Useful Feedback

Welcome back to the series. Please remember to view my previous posts if you are just jumping in (use the links following this blog).

Today, we are discussing how to provide useful feedback to your composer.

I say useful because EVERYONE provides feedback, but providing good feedback is far more difficult. A couple of pointers to consider after receiving the first round of tracks from you composer before going back to them with comments.

Listen, and listen again.
And then AGAIN. Play it with the game. Play it in the car. In the shower. Over breakfast. While jogging. Back with the game again.

Sick of it yet? I hope not! Especially if this is your SOLE track (which many money and download-size savvy programmers are using...) you want to be especially sure that you like this tune. And if you don't like it, or a part of it, you need to be sure of what that part is. A quick listen and then "yeah -- that's GREAT!" is not a good idea.

In evaluating music, snap decisions are NOT the way to go. This is not top-40 music (unless you're doing Tony Hawk 9 or whatever they're at now or something similar...) and this a tune that you must live with. People will associate your game with this music. When they boot it up, they will make the conscious decision to turn up the volume, or put on another CD. Which do you want to do?

A great track one should be one that is both instantly accessible and has long-lasting appeal. If immediately you can get into it AND it sticks with you for quite a while, its a good track. Does it play well with the game? When you are debugging you game are you humming the tune or hearing it in your head? These are all GOOD SIGNS that this is going to work out. But what if its not perfect? What if its NOT sticking with you?

No more Mr. Niceguy...

Not every comment that you make needs to be of the "constructive" kind they always told you to give while you were in school. Remember, you are paying this person, and they are professionals. They can take the blow to their ego if you are not happpy with what they are giving you. This does not, of course, give you the license to be NASTY about it, but don't feel that you have to baby your composer and always tell them that everything "sounds great" out of fear of making them angry. A positive working relationship will be formed by you simply being honest with the composer. I would rather hear that this track sucks because of x,y,z then "this is great" and then just never work with me again without giving me a chance to improve it.

Here's what I'd like fixed

Bad news will go over much better if their is a silver lining presented that can save the track.

"Everything is great EXCEPT this part about :40 into it... the transition throws me off when I'd like to stay in this groove..."

Knowing what about a tune you don't like can really go far in helping describe the problem. A simple "I don't like it" is very hard to work from and the composer will be forced to either hang up the towel or start pulling your teeth to get the REASON you don't like something.

If you are having troubld putting your finger on the problem. Try thinking about these common descriptions/problems that might be present. Your beef with the tune probably stems from one of them:

For help with some of these musical terms, visit my earlier post here.

Is the tempo incorrect for the gameplay?
Is the emotion wrong for the scene?
Does the music seem to busy? Is the texture too thick?
Does the music have too much variety? Too little?
Is the instrumentation appropriate?
Is the style appropriate?
Is the production value up to the level that you require/desire?

After running through this checklist, if you see that almost everyone of these is wrong with the track, you should probably FIRST look inwards. What did you ask the composer for in the first place? Did you specify such things? If not, you are really wasting the composers, and your, time. However, if you DID specify these things and they gave you totally the wrong thing you may need to look at...

The Bail-out plan

There are sometimes when your relationship with the composer will have to end before it really begins. This is an unfortunate occurrence, but when it happens, its probably best for everyone involved. If you have given your composer a good description, including reference material, and their track doesn't come anywhere close to what you are asking for, they probably will not be able to deliver, so you should look elsewhere.

However, note that there are many causes of the bail-out that are unjustified. These are probably the most common:
1) Producer does not listen to the track for very long and gives quick feedback before fully letting the track set in. By the time the first fixes are made, the producer has new ideas, and the circle continue to repeat until someone gets irritated and cuts it off. Some patience and careful examination of the first draft could have prevented this.
2) Producer fails to fully explain what he/she is after. This would be partly the composer's fault too, of course, as THEY should be asking lots of questions to make sure they are on the same page as the producer. After a few drafts of getting seemingly nowhere, the producer has to bail on the composer.
3) Producer dumps the composer quickly because the track done does not match the "placeholder track". Note my article about the dangers of this here.
4) Producer dumps composer because of seemingly very low production value. Producers, however, should realize that it is not usually in the composer's best interest to go through the entire mixing and mastering process before a sketch/draft is approved. If you like the track and its perfect for your project but it doesn't seem very "professional sounding" make sure that you ask your composer about this element and give them a chance to explain themselves or improve upon it. However, if they are unable to improve the quality to the standard that you seek, you may have to bail and seek out another composer. Granted, of course, that production value is roughly (and I mean VERY roughly) equivalent to the fees that composers seek. In general, the person who can command $1,500/minute will probably deliver a higher production value than the guy popping out tracks for $20 each!

This ends my series on working with a composer.

I hope that I have been informative in helping explain my end of the craft to all of you!