Hello Composers, Mike here! =)
Today I have the great opportunity to share an interview I did with Brian Freeland (in the picture), who is a composer for TV, media, and *drum roll*…video games!
In this interview, Brian shares his background, experience and journey towards becoming a professional composer for video games.
First: Listen to the music he made for the game “Rolling Sky 2”:
1. It seems that every composer wants to get into video game music today. What’s your story and journey that got you into this field?
My introduction to video game music is probably similar to many others. I grew up playing game boy, Nintendo 64, and PC games. The music was something I never really paid attention to until The Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time.
Music is such an integral part of that game, and greatly enhances the overall experience. However, due to the limited technology available during those early years of gaming, we as gamers never really got to experience a “Hollywood” style score with a full symphony orchestra.
There was one moment I remember very clearly in my childhood, that was a defining moment in shaping my musical tastes and also my career path.
The game was Metal Gear Solid 2 on my brand new PlayStation 2. The intro movie to that game featured the most iconic and fully orchestrated theme I had ever heard in a video game, and it simply blew me away.
I was in awe and watched the intro cinematic probably at least 3 times before I even played the game. I was probably in 6th grade and I never even had an interest in orchestral music in any way.
This was a defining moment because it showed me that, as a medium, video games and the music behind them could be just as powerful and emotional, if not more so, than a big budget Hollywood movie. It also instilled in me a deep fascination with orchestral music as a whole that stayed with me up to this very day.
Flash forward many years later. I come from a background of playing guitar and writing EDM, Hip Hop, and rock music, and besides playing saxophone in the school band, I have zero formal musical training. I play everything by ear.
In some ways I felt this held me back and I wouldn’t be able to really write detailed orchestral arrangements without any “training”. I had used FL Studio for many, many years, but often saw that DAW simply dismissed when it came to writing cinematic music (it’s just as capable as any other DAW, ignore the elitists).
A few years ago, after learning more about the amount of realism available from sample libraries, I went out and bought Komplete Ultimate, and I began to finally follow my dream of writing big, orchestral, cinematic music instead of the more mainstream styles I had done up until then, taking inspiration from Hans Zimmer’s Masterclass and learning from people in forums just like this :)!
I heard about various freelance marketing platforms that were available online. I had zero professional gigs and had not made a cent off my music, and really figured I had nothing to lose.
I made a profile on a popular website that a friend told me about, showcased my best work, and just sat back and hoped for the best. A few months later I had received a message from an indie developer, then named “Rage Monster Games”, who wanted to hire me to write some music for a game called “Teddy Terror”.
I got paid about 50 dollars a song I believe, but of course, I took the gig without hesitation, I was just too excited to contribute to a real project. I wrote two tracks very quickly, and this began an ongoing relationship contributing tracks for three separate games from the developer.
The tracks I wrote for Teddy Terror were for a remaster of sorts, which still has not been released. Sometimes this happens with small indie developers, but the experience and relationship building is immensely valuable. Once you have one gig, no matter how big or small it is, you begin to build momentum from that.
The third game we worked on together was a simple point and click shooter called After Legend, done during a Game Jam, which is a common event/learning tool in the indie game world, during which the developers have 24-72 hours to produce the best game they can.
This certain Game Jam (Apocalypse Jam from late 2017) was sponsored by DreamHack, a fairly large and popular gaming community/convention, and the games were to be judged and voted on, with the top 5 games to be featured at the DreamHack convention.
After Legend ended up winning the competition and being showcased at DreamHack Denver. Now, I was so stoked and excited when I heard this. “Oh man this is gonna be showcased and everyone is gonna see it, everyone will hear the music, wow I can’t wait”.
In reality, it was just a teeny tiny booth in a massive convention and didn’t really mean much, except possibly sounding cool when I mention it to people. Haha. Lesson: expect a lot and always be disappointed, or expect nothing and always be pleasantly surprised.
Later that year I was contacted by a rep for a company called Cheetah Mobile based in Beijing, China. They needed some music written for an upcoming game, and had shown me some of the previous mobile game’s they developed, which were incredibly popular and downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, often charting as the number one downloaded game in their respective categories.
I was incredibly excited for the opportunity, but also quite intimidated. I had only done very small indie games so far, and it was clear to me this would be on a whole new level, as these mobile apps are put in front of a massive, global audience.
I’ll admit, at certain times during the writing process and working with this major company, I would, at times, begin to doubt my own ability to put out music to the standards that they were looking for, as their games are in the Music category and completely depend on the music to drive the gameplay forward.
I pushed myself incredibly hard to deliver for this project, and at times it was exhausting. I pulled many all nighters, did a lot of re-writes and at one point I had completely scrapped an entire song and started from scratch (note: this company was not taking advantage of my time at all, these were just measures I personally took to really deliver something special).
I also had to deal with a difficult language barrier and time zone differences. In the end, it all paid off. The art director and the entire team loved the music, and sent me videos of the whole development team in their huge office, all the way across the world, developing the levels of the game directly around the tracks I had written.
It was an amazing moment, suddenly it was sinking in. The producer of the game told me he was impressed by my work ethic and attention to detail. I signed a contract with Cheetah Mobile to continue working together and get paid quite well to work for hire.
To this day I have a great friendship with the art director of the game and have written music for a few of his other projects as well, and the game, Rolling Sky 2, is currently the number one game in the US App Store in the music category. Bottom line: it was exhausting, a ton of work, but it all paid off and was an eye opening and incredibly powerful experience.
My most recent venture into video game music came from a company called Whitethorn Digital, based in Erie, PA. They reached out to me initially to write the orchestral score for an upcoming JRPG they are developing. I was really impressed by the amount of detail and professionalism this team had put into every aspect of the game and accepted the job.
Since we started working together, Whitethorn Digital has grown substantially, and opened a new office where they not only develop, but also publish indie games from other developers. I guess I just really want to stress the importance of building solid relationships, friendships, and connections in every area that you can.
I began writing for the JRPG, which is their biggest project, but they’ve also asked me to write some music for the other games they are publishing as well.
The most recent game I wrote additional music for is an award winning game called Bombfest, published by Whitethorn Digital, but developed by Sudden Event Studios. Bombfest released January 31st on PC, Switch, PS4, and Xbox, and marked the first time a game I worked on had released on all major gaming consoles (as opposed to just PC or mobile devices).
2. Let’s say you just got a new video game OST gig, how does the actual work process look like?
The work process varies greatly depending on a few different things. Again, remember I mostly work with smaller, indie developers. These developers sometimes come to you with a bare bones budget and just a basic idea of the game, maybe wanting music for a Kickstarter campaign, trailer, or something like that.
Other times they come with full scripts, artwork, cinematic intro videos for scoring, etc. The process starting with an initial email or message from the client, generally describing the type of music they are looking for, possibly a reference track, and sometimes more in depth details such as a script and artwork or screenshots of the gameplay.
I try to have a video conference with the client, or at least a phone call, though some do prefer to communicate strictly through messages or emails. I often ask for simple reference tracks. When it comes to describing music, it can be immensely difficult to get across the right ideas, emotions, tempo, etc, especially when the client has limited knowledge of musical terms and structure.
It’s our job as composers to really deliver the sound in THEIR head, which is difficult because we cant read minds, haha. Reference tracks help steer me in the right direction, as far as the complexity of orchestration, tempo, and overall mood.
For example, if someone asks for “epic” music, what do they want? Movie trailers are epic, and usually right around 90bpm. Action/chase scenes are also epic, and can be around 160bpm, which is significantly faster and alters the entire feel of the song.
There have been many times where the client tells me to “be creative”, and I really work my butt off to deliver music that, to me, embodies every aspect of what they want to hear, only to have it delivered and they don’t like it at all. This is why I prefer to have a phone call or video conference and listen to reference tracks before I really start working.
Another alternative is sharing the ideas as they come to you, ie sketches or ideas. Just try to strike a healthy balance between sending a barebones sketch and sending something fully orchestrated with hundreds of tracks.
If the sketch is too minimalist, the client may be confused as to why the track is lacking in depth and instrumentation (I always explain these things, but again this is just the difficulty of translating musical ideas into text descriptions: it just doesn’t always work, especially considering any language barriers. The client just may become frustrated and not understand what you’re trying to convey).
On the other hand, deliver a fully orchestrated piece and they don’t like it, now you’ve wasted hours and hours of working time and have to start over. I find a nice balance is doing piano with basic full ensemble patches: strings, woods, and brass, then some percussion loops. This only takes up about 8 different tracks and gives the client a great idea of what the final song will sound like.
I try to maintain open communication during the entire writing process, and make yourself available. Just be yourself, let your personality show, and deliver the best possible music you can, no matter the size and scope of the project. Knock their socks off!
3. Can you give us some tips on the technical side of making music for video games (for example: the looping aspect)?
Looping is very common especially with video game music. It can be difficult to achieve the perfect balance and ensure the looped track does not get monotonous and boring to the listener.
It’s definitely possible to achieve this, even within the short span of 2-3 minutes. I have a few different approaches: one is a simple, pop music structure: establishing a chord progression or melody, and simply adding new elements every measure, have a chorus or bridge, and then strip it back down, leaving the last measure identical to the first measure.
Wrap the reverb tails and it will loop seamlessly during gameplay. I sometimes implement key changes halfway into a song, to kind of change things up and prevent the song from just droning on in the same key. This works well for background or area music.
Battle themes are usually more simple, as the battle will not go on forever. Sometimes you may need to write a segue or seamless transition from one area or screen to the next. A lot of the smoothness of any transition has to do with reverb tails and letting instruments ring out naturally into the next section.
Say you write a 5 second victory theme which plays directly after a battle. Not letting the instruments from the battle track rig out, and just just cut off abruptly, is jarring and distracting.
Export your tracks to ring out naturally at the end, and the developers will piece them together. Same with intros or loops, just make sure everything sounds natural and the instruments are not cut off during transition.
Another approach is having multiple sub sections within the song, which works well for fast paced, action oriented gameplay. More advanced solutions rely on software such as Wwise or FMOD to write full dynamic music.
4. There are many composers who will read this interview, and would love to get some advice on how to get into video game music. Can you share some personal tips?
Here’s what’s worked for me: work your way up. The market is overly saturated with composers. Many who work for next to nothing. It may hurt but, and this is an unpopular opinion, sometimes I had to swallow my pride and work for slightly lower rates than I desired.
To me, it’s just part of adapting and evolving in todays world. Just like in nature: if you don’t adapt and evolve to your situational surroundings, you will not make it. I still do it to this day if I am genuinely excited and interested in the project.
That being said, I also have zero problems standing firm and declining a gig if it isn’t worth my time. I try to pick and choose projects wisely when the need arises. I do this full time, and try to take any chance I can to prove myself and improve my craft, but I’ve also learned to recognize the important opportunities from someone trying to take advantage of my time.
Because of this I’ve never once regretted working for lower rates. The work you do speaks for itself, and if you have something to offer and put yourself out there, you will greatly increase your chances. If you have not had any professional gigs whatsoever, and someone comes to you and enjoys your music, but offers a lower rate than you asked for (within reason), take it.
If not, that job will go to someone else, and who knows if that will begin a prosperous and ongoing professional relationship. There are a lot of risks involved with any freelance market. Be flexible and be yourself. Be genuine. People want to work with real people with real personalities, people they enjoy being around.
I’ve gotten an immense amount of continuous work from clients simply because I make myself available, and I try to have an open, friendly, and laid back attitude to my work.
That’s the kind of relationship people want to built with a composer for their projects: someone they can depend on 24/7, and someone who is friendly and pleasurable to work with while maintaining professionalism.
If you really want to write music strictly for video games, and nothing else, I’d advise to approach it with a more open mind. I love gaming and I love video game music, but I do freelance composing for all media, video games are just one aspect of the wider picture.
5. Let’s talk gear: what are your go-to VST instruments, effects and tools as a composer?
Oh boy. I could go on for years about gear. I’ll mention a few of the Kontakt libraries and plugins I use most frequently:
- Audio Imperia’s Jaeger and Talos Low Brass
- 8dio Century Strings and Brass
- Signal by Output
- Strezov Sampling Afflatus Strings
- Orbit by Wide Blue Sound
- Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds
- 8dio Epic Percussion (Taikos, Toms, Frame Drums)
- Orchestral Tools TIME Macro and Berlin Inspire, and occasionally Metropolis Ark 1.
- EW Hollywood Choirs
- Audio Bro Genesis Children’s Choir
- Komplete Ultimate (Damage, Action Strikes, Studio Drummer, The Grandeur, etc)
- Oceania Choir by Performance Samples
- Invictus Guitar
- Keepforest Evolution Atlantica
- Heavyocity Gravity
- Soundyeti Collision FX
- Auddict Angel Strings
- Sample Logic Cinemorphx and more recently, Drum Fury
- Ozone 8
- Sonible Smart EQ2
- Valhalla Room Reverb
- Eventide Black Hole Reverb
- Ohmicide distortion
- WA Productions – Pumper 2, Puncher, Sphere Comp, and Sphere Delay
- Dmitry Sches Tantra
- Kilohearts Reverser
Yamaha mx49 synth, NI Komplete Kontrol s25 controller, and various guitars and pedals (real instruments add so much to a track, if a track calls for guitar work, I try to record the live audio as opposed to midi, although of course deadlines don’t always allow for that!
6. What are your future goals regarding your career in music?
I plan to continue running my business, freelance composing for clients, helping others, writing articles and reviews, and just continuing this journey in every way I can. One day a time 🙂
You never know where you may end up until you take that first step.
7. Anything else you want to add, words of wisdom and motivation perhaps?
I’m just a person like any of you, deeply passionate about music. I just want to stress this: you do not need a formal musical education, ridiculously fancy studio equipment, or even the ability to read music to get paid work in today’s market.
I run my business out of my basement studio in my house. I got my first paid gigs literally living in my parents basement until I moved. You do not need a background in classical music theory to write orchestral cinematic music.
I grew up playing metal and producing beats and EDM. All you need is a true passion for what you do, and the drive to make it happen. I absolutely LOVE what I do and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Seek out opportunities and seek an audience who want what you have to offer. Never write anything off, be open minded about the kind of music you’re willing to write, try to learn and expand your craft every day.
Take advantage of the internet and online freelance markets. There are websites that cater to this exact thing with millions of clients looking for music every day. You just need to put yourself out there.
I was able to start a business strictly from income I earned from Fiverr. Yes, you read that right. The website that so many people dismiss because “it’s not worth my time”. Just avoid negativity and adapt to your surroundings.
Don’t spam your music on facebook or worry about how many plays you get. Chase your dream and squash the self doubts, if you have something to offer, there are people out there who want it and are willing to pay for it, guaranteed.
I’m an open book. Anyone can message me with questions and I’ll be happy to share more. I know this was a long winded interview but I feel there are some important things to be said that aren’t always mentioned, composing is not some elite club where you get a handwritten invitation and then you’ve suddenly made it.
We all have high and low points, we all struggle, and often times we naturally don’t want others to know about it. It’s okay to take a small, simple job for 100 dollars when your last one was $3,000; basically don’t let it go to your head.
It’s highly independent work that we need to constantly work hard at in many aspects. That being said, also remember to take a break from music every now and then. Take care of yourself so you don’t get burnt out (been there, done that, haha)
Thank you Mike for the interview, I am humbled and grateful! This forum is an amazing place to learn and grow, which is a lifelong process. I try to learn something new every day and will always share my experience freely.
8. What’s your website, social media etc?