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Game Composer Winifred Phillips

If composition terms like “horizontal resequencing” or “vertical layering” aren’t familiar, that’s understandable. They’re not necessarily film-composing terms, but they are part of a game composer’s vocabulary.

Composing game scores requires a different way of thinking about music, and how music can support nonlinear storytelling. Award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips, who penned the best-selling reference book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, got her start on God of War, a console game published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. The God of War team desired a big choral sound, but Phillips added a twist, creating the entire choir for her compositions using only her voice. It’s a special skill she’s perfected.

“I wanted to show them that I had that capability, so I sent them choral pieces which were my own voice overdubbed into soprano, alto, tenor and bass,” reveals Phillips, who evidently does this often on her scores. “I ended up doing both full choir and some women’s choir for God of War. I also composed and sang ‘The Siren Song’ for the Desert Sirens—mini-boss characters you follow through the desert. It was fun to actually be a voice in that game.”

Phillips’ vocal abilities also came in handy when composing for Speed Racer (2008), published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Researching the Speed Racer graphic novels and cartoon series, Phillips learned that James Bond’s car was one original inspiration for Speed Racer. While composing for the game, Phillips “was thinking about the romance of a muscle car and what makes it attractive to people. You have the 1950s aesthetic of Speed Racer, but it’s also supposed to feel very futuristic and very eclectic and weird.”

In her score, Phillips fused jazz with speed-metal and added techno and disco elements. She worked with producer Winnie Waldron, who proposed using musical sound effects to suggest speed— synths to simulate fly-bys and screeching wheels, or adding a Doppler to select sounds. “We weren’t using actual sound effects because we didn’t want to interfere with the sound design; we wanted to enhance it with the music,” says Phillips. Phillips also employed a vocoder to add a robotic vocal sound. When combined with the jazzy elements, it bolstered the future-retro vibe.

The concept art for Speed Racer, for which Phillips incorporated her own choral vocals into the score.
Courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

Phillips performed and recorded a choir of her own operatic open vowel sounds to add drama and tension, particularly during the final race. She also sang shout-outs and calls to action, like “faster,” “go” and “drive,” to impart the feeling of participation by a stadium crowd.

“I kept overdubbing my voice, over and over and over again in a crazy amount of tracks, until it started sounding like a large crowd. Then I worked that into the music with sounds of stamping and clapping,” says Phillips. “In a racing game, it’s hard to bring across to the player that there’s a crowd watching. In other sports games, like football or baseball, you can hear the crowd. But as a racer, you’re in the cocoon of your car. I wanted to dissolve that a bit and to have the player feel the crowd rooting them on.”

Speed Racer’s score employs a horizontal resequencing music technique, which according to Phillips’ book means that the music is dynamically pieced together based on the actions of the player. Phillips explains that in Speed Racer, after a player builds up a special meter by performing well, he or she can activate “zone mode,” wherein the character is indestructible and gains a speed boost. The game engine smoothly switches from the current track to the zone mode track by cutting on the beat. “There was a marker with each beat,” explains Phillips. “The game engine used that to switch to the ‘zone mode’ track anywhere in concurrence with the player activating ‘zone mode.’”

“Zone mode” is accompanied by bright neon colors; blurred horizontal lines streak the screen’s periphery. It’s a heightened state of focus and extreme speed. Musically, “zone mode” sounds frenetic and faster than the preceding track, though both tracks are in the same tempo. Phillips achieved this by double-timing the rhythm, adding alarm sounds, and using phase filtering to create sweeps and rises.

To aid the transition, each “zone mode” track started with several kick drum hits that were in tempo with the preceding track. “That allowed a good overlap and synchronization between the two pieces of music,” she says. “Then, there would be a build, a rise that indicated you’re entering a more exciting phase. Next would be a few measures of very frantic music with alarms and double-timing rhythms to give the sense of speed and hyperactivity. When ‘zone mode’ ended, the game engine would switch back to the original track on the beat.”

Because a player can trigger “zone mode” at any time, the music needed to be reactive, but the change couldn’t feel jarring. “They had to correspond with all of the musical genres I was playing with on the Speed Racer score,” notes Phillips. “That was interesting work, especially in trying to create a sense of variety for the ‘zone mode’ tracks.”

Vertical layering is a different approach whereby the music is composed so that it can be split into layers that are played concurrently and in synchronization with each other. Each layer is a separate audio file that can be turned on and off by triggers in the game engine. Ultimately, Phillips says, vertical layering requires a different mentality.

“You have to step away from the philosophy of composing in a linear way by building up a texture and telling a story,” she explains. “Music is essentially a linear narrative. It’s taking you on a journey. You are following it through moments of intensity, and then it settles down and there are hushes and pauses. When you compose that way, you can plan it out and that structure feels very comfortable. But when you start thinking about breaking a song apart into six different layers, then that kind of storytelling has to go out the window. You have to think about the music as an immense puzzle which can be taken apart and then pulled back together at any particular point.”

The layers, she notes, are not simply stems, such as all percussion on one track and the strings on another. It’s more like little ensembles. Each layer has to be able to stand alone and feel like a song.

Phillips, who first experienced this compositional method on an Xbox Live Arcade game called The Maw, admits that it’s very intense. “Working with the Twisted Pixel team, I developed the music design for that project—where the music would trigger and how it would be structured. That was a very illuminating process.” Later, when Phillips met with Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe to work on LittleBigPlanet 2, she showed them the vertical layering design she had developed and shared the philosophy behind the way it’s triggered.

LittleBigPlanet 2’s team had already developed a six-layer system, which was twice the size of the three-layer system used on The Maw. Phillips says, “It’s complicated to take a piece of music and split it into three synchronized sections that worked together but also can work alone. When you take it apart into six layers then it just gets exponentially more headache inducing at that point.”Sony’s latest release, LittleBigPlanet 3, is a platforming game that also provides players with the toolset to create their own levels, including access to all the music layers. This posed an interesting challenge for Phillips. “The LittleBigPlanet team wanted the music to be very satisfying for the player, not just when all six layers play together. That’s because the player could use any one of those layers. They have that choice and we have no idea how they are going to use them,” she says.

Phillips typically composes in Pro Tools 12, using Native Instruments Kontakt as a plug-in. She also has four different satellite computers running Kontakt in standalone mode, giving her access to numerous sample libraries without burdening her main system’s CPU.

In addition to the Native Instruments libraries, Phillips uses several others, including the Vienna Symphonic Library, LA Scoring Strings, EastWest/Quantum Leap (Hollywood Brass), and ProjectSAM’s Symphobia. Phillips also used these libraries extensively on the score for High Voltage’s VR strategy game Dragon Front, which melds the surreal world of fantasy with the oily steel and grit of WW II.

When composing for VR games, Phillips considers how the music will affect the player’s experience. In particular, she’s conscious of not contributing to the problem of VIMS (visually induced motion sickness).

“One sonic issue, in regard to VIMS, is infrasound—low-frequency rumbling that’s just within range of human hearing. Research has shown that people have experienced motion sickness when exposed to infrasound, even though they weren’t moving at all,” explains Phillips. “I’ve been giving the concept of music for virtual reality a lot of thought lately, and I’ve been writing about it quite a bit for my blog.”