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Game Audio Instrumentation: The Paradox of Choice

Hello, world! This is a retrospective about Shuriken, a Super NES style original soundtrack for a hypothetical action platforming game released on 25 September 2017. Today we’ll talk about choosing instruments for a game soundtrack, and how this affected my experience with Shuriken. These ideas also apply to developing an album regardless of genre.

Note that today, I’m talking about traditional game audio, the kind of music that loops without variation. Modern tools allow for infinite variation in how to handle loops and stems, including adaptive and reactive music. Those are out of the scope of what Shuriken was attempting to accomplish, a classic soundtrack that would have been released alongside a Super NES game in the mid-1990’s.

Electronic Music and the Paradox of Choice

A difficulty electronic musicians face is the overwhelming amount of instrumentation available. Nothing can stop an electronic musician from making a song with guitar recordings alongside a breakbeat sample, virtual synth, and sounds from old Nintendo consoles. This can be a double-edged sword. While it’s great to have such flexibility and this combination might result in a cool sound, the number of choices makes it difficult to come to a firm decision on what instruments to use throughout a project in order to remain consistent.

Historically, music has been rigid with instrumentation. There were set kinds of orchestras with a set number of each instrument. These were all common, well-known instruments from the period and location. Mozart wouldn’t throw in a didgeridoo because it was unknown to the western world.

Even with the choices available to an electronic musician, it’s important to have an end goal in mind when choosing instrumentation. If breakbeat electronic guitar chiptune is the target genre for your album, go for it. No one can stop you.

The key here is that it’s a conscious choice. Heading into an album with a plan to make synth-rock then turning around and ending up with breakbeat electronic guitar chiptune can only result in a confused mess. The work might be salvageable, but it would require a lot of reworking, especially for earlier things which were meant to be more traditional synth-rock. At the very least, the work would need a new focus on this new genre, otherwise it will continue to shift forever.

When I started Shuriken, I made the conscious decision to produce a somewhat authentic Super NES sound. That meant focusing n the technical specs of the Super NES’s audio capabilities, using sampled instruments from the console. This limited what I could do, but still left my with a lot of choices for instruments.

Super Audio Cart, the Kontakt-driven sample bank I used for samples from the Super NES, has hundreds of options for base recorded sounds. Beyond that, it offers several options to tweak sounds and create new combinations.

Most modern ROMplers and samplers work this way. Not only do you have loads of possible sounds, you can also change the sounds to your liking, resulting in a near-infinite amount of sounds for you to choose from. So, choosing Super NES wasn’t enough. Choosing Super Audio Cart wasn’t enough. I had to keep working to find a focus.

Games and Genre

A fascinating thing about game music is that it rarely sticks to a known genre, unless it’s (again) a conscious choice like Jet Set Radio or Dance Dance Revolution. Most larger projects require a plethora of emotional experiences brought on by different genres. Final Fantasy IX includes operatic orchestral, organs, rock, a bit of classical guitar, and even some electronic undertones at times.

Because of this, I didn’t want to limit Shuriken by genre. I knew the battle themes needed to be intense rock-inspired pieces, the cutscenes would be more cinematic, and the levels somewhere between, ranging from mellow to intense. Still, I needed limitations. I couldn’t jump into a full game soundtrack with the only idea being to make it sound like a Super NES game.

The best limitation I could come up with was to select a small number of instruments. Granted, I made a huge mistake in not using motif as much as I should have, but the common instrumentation was a good step in the right direction.

I made a spreadsheet to show myself which levels had which instruments. Then, I went to consolidating that list. When there were two similar instruments (such as STRINGS Section 1A and STRINGS Section 1B) I chose one of the available options and converted everything to that choice. It didn’t make sense to have two different string sections, two different clarinets, two different electric basses, and so on. This greatly reduced the number of instruments used through the soundtrack.


The Google spreadsheet I used to track data about Shuriken, including instrumentation


Every time I went through the soundtrack, I had fewer instruments. I’d ask myself if a sound was different enough to merit a unique instrument for that track, and for the most part the answer was no. Sure, Organ B3 had a certain darkness that sounded great for a certain cutscene out of context, but introducing the Drawbar Organ that would be prominent in later tracks made more of an impact.

Seeking Connections

The effect of a game soundtrack happens over a long period of time. The player hears several tracks repeat in a traditional game soundtrack, which breeds familiarity with the sound of that one loop. This makes it even more jarring when music comes along that doesn’t fit the mold they’ve come to expect.

Granted, there are times you want a jarring effect, when you want to say to the player, This is where things change or This is where things get serious. But overall, the best soundtracks are those where you hear a random song and instantly think back to the experience you had. Few people familiar with the games will hear Earthbound or Mega Man X and wonder what game it might be from.

The smallest callbacks can sometimes make the biggest difference. The exact combination and reverb of electric guitars prevalent in Mega Man X or the unique sound effects riddled throughout Earthbound bring them a special character. Mega Man X is especially in strong in its limited palette of instrumentation for each installment, although the soundtracks never get old because of variation in style, rhythm, and arrangement.

Shuriken, on the whole, failed a bit in this regard, as the small connections in instrumentation were the only connection running through the soundtrack. In retrospect, I should have spent more time creating a consistent palette of sound that would run throughout the game, even with extreme variations. As the project went on, the instrumentation got away from me and introduced too many different sounds, creating a disconnect throughout the overall soundtrack.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. I hope you found the information useful. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

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Happy composing!