Creating a Cohesive Soundtrack — Instrumentation (1/4)
Hello. My name is Mike, and I’m both a composer for video games and a web developer. This is my first entry in a series about creating a cohesive video game soundtrack. The topics covered in this series will range from instrumentation and melody to production.
For the purposes of this series, I will be using Starbreeze Studios’ wonderful tale “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”. Brothers already has a beautiful soundtrack written by Gustaf Grefberg, but I’ll be creating a sort of music replacement just to show the process of thinking about and writing a cohesive soundtrack. This project is in no way meant to slight his work, as it is quite possibly the most perfect music to suit the brothers’ journey.
Story. A video game composer’s foremost responsibility is story. The music is an aid to the narrative, as it adds an emotional guide to in-game events. It provides soaring melodies for high points, as well as beds of rhythm and sound suited for adventure, battle, subterfuge, and whatever else may be happening to the player.
One key to creating a cohesive score that accompanies a long narrative is the instrumentation. While different pieces may flex different colors in the palette, having a strong and unwavering core instrumentation will provide the listener with a sense of continuity throughout the journey.
In the case of Brothers, the Nordic inspired environments along with the fantastical elements of the story have helped direct me toward a lightly orchestral palette filled with small pitched-percussion, woodwinds, and a dulcimer. I decided on this combination not only because of the relationship with the region, but also because I like to use members of several orchestral families for the sake of variety.
The instruments themselves aren’t your average orchestral percussion, winds, or strings. I’m using a small bell library called “Noah Bells” by Soundiron, because I’m a huge fan of their versatility as well as the wondrous and evocative sound quality. My winds are going to be several of Embertone’s flutes, because the samples are of incredibly high quality, and the flutes themselves have a frigid tone produced by the material they’ve been constructed with. Finally, I decided on the dulcimer because it’s a characteristic instrument of Scandinavia, and plucked strings have a myriad of practical uses in a soundtrack.
Take note– these are just my core instruments. I will be using synths and sound design to add bass and an ethereal quality to the tracks, as well as strings and some kind of battery to fill out the pieces when necessary.
Below you’ll find some example pairings from a recent piece of mine. It has a very similar palette to what I’ll be using in this series, so I figured it’d be a good way to demonstrate some of its orchestration strengths. I’d like you to see how pairing instruments together can create some complex and beautiful sounds.
Harp, Kalimba, & Noah Bells
This is a rhythm section created with VSL’s harp, Embertone’s kalimba, and Soundiron’s Noah bells. Using pitched percussion is a great way to rearrange what would typically be played by pizzicato or staccato strings. Also, the tinny timbre of the bells feels a bit magical– like the tail end of a spell or dust off of a faerie wing.
Dulcimer & Harp
The dulcimer and harp create a strong and penetrating sound. Like the pitched percussion example above, there’s a bit of a magical quality to this combination, especially because of the harp harmonics. I feel that the dulcimer grounds this sound a bit as well, since it adds more gritty and rugged characteristics that the ethereal harp doesn’t really have.
In this example I’m using one instance of each flute– the Jubal, the Crystal, and the Shire Whistle all from Embertone. I have the Crystal flute playing the upper part in the harmony, and the Jubal the lower. The particular patch I’m using with the Crystal flute is adding lots of rough and breathy articulations that contrast the smoothness of the Jubal. Because they’re both instruments with a similar timbre, I think adding this more abrasive patch gives the harmony more character.
The Shire Whistle is playing an octave higher and much further back in the mix. I’m also using a massive reverb tail (30~ seconds) which adds to its distant sound. For the most part the Shire Whistle cannot be heard, but once the other two flutes’ phrase ends, the shire pierces through with a slight pitch drop.
Flute & Plucked
In another example I wanted to show not only how two completely different timbral layers work together, but also how two melodies can share the same space. For the most part, the plucked melody is playing when the legato ends. They both have the breathing room they need to shine, and arranging them together adds to the lushness of the piece’s climax.
Finally, I added in these instruments to add to the overall mix and weight of the piece. In this collection you’ll hear pizzicato strings, piano, and string harmonics. I added these as a way to reinforce the sounds of the other instruments and also to add some depth to the piece as a whole. Little tidbits like the distant delayed piano give the listener something new to hear each time they listen.
This is the final result of all of these little melodic, instrumental, and arranging decisions. I do have several synths in the final piece that I didn’t mention, most notably several of my own Synplant patches, as well as little snippets of audio that I felt added to the overall mix. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or message me on twitter @mskalandunas.
Whether it be sparse, plentiful, electronic, or a hybrid– these composers have chosen an instrumentation or a set of sounds that carries from one piece to the next. Beyond being examples of instrumental continuity, these are also really good soundtracks.
Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun by Filippo Beck-Peccoz
Fossil Echo by John Robert Matz
Ori and the Blind Forest by Gareth Coker
Deus Ex: Human Revolution by Michael McCann
Hyper Light Drifter by Disasterpeace
I am a composer and audio designer based out of the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Please visit mosaicmusic.io for more information about my projects, services, and works.