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Women in Video Game Music Celebrated at GameSoundCon But Still Underrepresented

More than 300 of the video game industry's musical standard-bearers gathered at GameSoundCon, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Nov. 3-4, for an exploration of craft that went out of its way to…

Call it “Tamergate.” Less than a week after the latest Gamergate dustup spun out of Austin when SXSW Interactive canceled a panel on harassment in the video game sector, more than 300 of the industry’s musical standard-bearers gathered at GameSoundCon, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Nov. 3-4, for an exploration of craft that went out of its way to celebrate women in the field.

“It’s nice to see equal representation between men and women on this panel,” one audience member shared in Q&A at the closing session — an audio director’s roundtable featuring PopCap Games’ Becky Allen, Riot Games’ Kristen Quebe, Microsoft Game Studios’ Paul Lipson and Blizzard Entertainment’s Russell Brower. 


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Female representation at the conference overall wasn’t quite as neat a split, according to GameSoundCon executive producer Brian Schmidt, who pegged it at about 20 percent. Still, that compares favorably to about 7 percent in the game music sector overall, according to Schmidt’s 2015 Game Audio Industry Survey. “That’s actually better than last year, which was around half that,” Schmidt said.

But what they might have lacked in numbers, the GameSoundCon women made up for in presence. 

“Videogames are what inspired me to write music in the first place,” said attendee Rebecca Larkin, currently earning a master’s degree in composition at the University of Oregon. Larkin cites Kingdom Hearts, in which players become different characters in the Disney kingdom, as one with which she grew up on. 

Composer Laura Karpman’s presentation “Composing Virtually, Sounding Real” was standing room only. A four-time Emmy winner, currently scoring the WGN series Underground, Karpman touched on the various challenges facing game composers, for whom it’s not uncommon to get a request for 15 hours of original music deliverable in 6-8 weeks. When working on a derivative of an established film or TV show, the music has to be different enough to stand on its own while being true to the feel of the original property, while budgets limit the number of live musicians that can be recorded. 

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“There’s no money for an orchestra, but they love Hans Zimmer, so what are you gonna do?” Karpman said. “The key is don’t [limit yourself to] prerecorded sample players. If you do, your music is going to sound like everyone else’s.” 

Sharing excerpts from Kung Fu Panda: The KaBoom of Doom, Everquest and Kinect Disneyland Adventures, Karpman demonstrated how selective use of just a few live strings layered in with MIDI synthetic sounds “can make all the difference” in mitigating digital chill, creating an authentic and unique musical experience. Her emphasis was inserting personality — whether through ideas or performance — into one’s music. Karpman records a lot of live percussion that she creates herself using cymbals, flutes, “plucked instruments” including an Erhu, and even toys, which she had on hand for demonstration purposes. Among her many sample libraries, Karpman identified Spitfire as “my desert island choice.”

In his keynote speech Chance Thomas — composer of scores for the Avatar and Lord of the Rings games — sketched out yardstick fees composer fees in the game industry: $250 a finished minute when starting out, $350-$750 per finished minute for mobile games, $1,000 per minute for mid-tier games and composers who are “somewhat established.” Once a reputation has been built, or for very complicated projects, $1,500 to $2,500 per finished minute is the yardstick, “and when you become a superstar like Danny Elfman it goes up from there.”

There was much discussion about digital audio workshops like Logic, ProTools and Cubase, as well as Steinberg’s Nuendo7 — which generated a lot of excitement as the first traditional pro-audio tool to incorporate game-specific features, working with Wwise. Middleware solutions Wwise and FMOD — which combine game engines with mixing capabilities — had their own dedicated session tracks.

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Binaural 3D audio and the impact it will have on composers and sound designers was a hot topic as the industry anticipates a major consumer rollout of virtual reality game systems in 2016. RealSpace3D Audio, a new developer plug-in, had a demo set up with Oculus Rift that showcased the creative possibilities of dimensional sound — sound that had 360-degree mobility and also changed altitude and tone as a player navigated through a castle, through doors and stairs.

3D audio is something game developers have been dabbling in since the mid-90s and as the entertainment industry transitions to virtual reality. It can look to game companies to lead the way with technologies that will ultimately be applicable for film, TV and other sound and music use. “Dolby has utilized many of the techniques developed by the game industry for its Atmos theater sound system, which supports up to 64 speakers,” GameSoundCon’s Schmidt said.

Virtual reality wasn’t the only 3D space on conference attendees’ minds. Thomas closed the loop, linking women in space and on the recording stage, praising composer Penka Kouneva. 

“Penka Kouneva is really smart. She has a PhD from Duke University. She is an in-demand orchestrator in Hollywood for movies and in gaming as well,” he said. “Penka just released a fantastic album called The Woman Astronaut, to call attention to the fact that more women have gone into space than have scored a studio film.” 

To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, every giant leap is preceded by a series of small steps.