There has been a huge advance in audio production quality and game development capability over the last decade. We’ve heard the spine tingling results in some breathtaking audio production for game soundtracks in many popular titles. Sure, a few duds left us wondering what the developers were thinking, but the clear superstars are doing it right, with audio production studio software. Giving it the Hollywood treatment, here’s ten of the best soundtracks from the last decade of gaming.
Max Payne 3
The Max Payne Theme is moody, atmospheric, and has a noire feel to the environment. In 2012, L.A based band Health took inspiration from Brazilian influence and instrumentals, and combined several stems to create a synthesized ambience that fits well in the world of Max Payne.
The track entitled ‘Tears’ is where the creativity of Health shines through in audio production. The track adds beautiful electrifying vocals that taunt your emotions. Synthetic, industrial, and well scored. The album is available from Rockstar and iTunes.
Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar are known not just for their amazing game development, but also superb soundtrack audio production in all their titles. The soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption is no exception. Mostly composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson. Of particular note is the track by José González called “Far Away – immediately conjuring images of the Wild West as you listen to the vocals and masterful score.
The entire soundtrack is produced at 130 beats per minute in A minor. The innovative audio production process involved the use of modern instruments played in an unusual manor to fit perfectly within the game’s Western theme. The daunting task of the soundtrack was to set the ambience using 5 minute loops that interacted with the player’s actions, really pushing the boundaries of stellar sound production in games.
Red Dead Redemption was critically acclaimed for its soundtrack, and went on to win Best Original Score at the Spike Video Game Awards, and José González won Best Song in a game for “Far Away”.
World of Warcraft Cataclysm
David Arkenstone is one of a large team of composers who created orchestral music for the WoW franchise, including Cataclysm. Creating a masterful soundtrack for a large open world mmorpg is no easy task. Each zone has its own theme developed from inception and then the orchestral music is composed around it in line with the theme. Every song in each zon
e is telling a story, matching the theme. Inspiration came from exploring artwork of the old world, and the new revamped environment introduced in Cataclysm to create an epic ambience throughout a vast online world.
Creating the soundtrack required composition of tracks in such a manner that mood could easily transition into other tracks as players crossed zones and left environments behind. David Arkenstone states that artwork and sound effects best helped him choose the right instrument to score with for each zone. Some of the most recognized titles and skillfully composed rendition include Nightsong, along with vocals by Laurie Ann Haus, and orchestral performance by Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra, and let’s not ignore the Night Elves theme from Mount Hyjal.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Skyrim soundtrack is inspiring, evocative and uses beautiful orchestral compositions with draconic chants, and haunting primal vocals throughout. The Dragon language developed entirely for the game’s development features heavily in the audio production, as the theme in multiple areas of the game, and in several musical scores.
To provide orchestral and majestic themes, Jeremy Soule used a Nordic choir and primal drum beats to immediately set the mood with visions of barbaric heroes, vast wild landscapes and treacherous dragons and Viking hunters. The theme continues throughout the game as the tempo increases during mounting tension and interactive gameplay.
Dragonborn is a prime example of how game design and soundtrack production should be done by aspiring game artists. The Elder Scrolls V soundtrack features 4 CDs with 53 tracks, and is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Final Fantasy X
The acclaimed Final Fantasy franchise and OST won many fans the world over. It is open to debate and highly contested between many gamers over the best soundtrack of the entire franchise, there are so many to choose from and all have merit, being composed skillfully.
Nobuo Uematsu composed the original soundtrack for FFX using piano, flute and violin arrangements in 2001. Each piece of music was created by studying artwork of each location to develop emotional attachments and tell a story. The same approach was used to create themes and scores for rich character backgrounds. The soundtrack was made available by EA in late 2004 to early 2005. The soundtrack for Final Fantasy 10 was re-mastered in 2014 and dramatically altered with the use of synthesized music, electronically enhanced with modern day music production software studios.
This departed from the classical piano and violin composition so many loved about the original. Nobuo Uematsu’s original score remains one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time. The four disc album features over 80 tracks, including Yuna’s theme, Besaid, and To Zanarkand.
Mike Morasky, lead composer of the Portal 2 music soundtrack created a truly spectacular dynamic soundtrack that reacts to the players actions like never before.
By designing the music into the interactive mechanics of the environment itself, players experience positional music relative to their movement and objectives. Morasky implemented both musical sound effects and scored music into the game’s audio production for unique experiences different in each individual player’s session. Indie game developers and aspiring music composers really should take note to step up their game, as Portal 2 has set the benchmark incredibly high.
Music from the soundtrack was created to suggest dramatic and cinematic themes that match a puzzle environment perfectly. Both melodic and synthesized electro-pop genres play heavily throughout the game soundtrack.
Dragon Age: Origins
The title track I am The One, written by Inon Zur and performed by Aubrey Ashburn won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for the “Best Original Song: Video Game” category in 2009. There are two soundtracks available, the Lelianna’s song 8 track DLC soundtrack, and the Official Soundtrack album featuring 35 tracks.
Inon Zur captured the essence of the entire game by using soothing string music, accordion compositions, and captivating vocal accompaniments to compliment the mood of gameplay. If a game designer wants to learn music composition within gaming, they simply must study each of the tracks from this esoteric compilation.
Shadow Of The Colossus
In 2005 Kow Otani composed this orchestral soundtrack that was purely poetic and moving. Kow Otani sets the mood during gameplay perfectly by composing a variety of slow melodies that meander throughout the game as a character wanders, and skillfully weaving transitions into speedy battle encounters so smoothly that your emotions react before you do.
Nothing speaks more powerfully than the fast tempo of Kow Otani’s orchestral production of the Battle Theme. It appropriately matches the mighty awe inspiring and yet terrifying battle against a huge colossus, urging the player to think and act fast, as well as instilling fear and urgency within the listener. The soundtrack is a perfect example of matching gameplay mechanics with musical scores.
This is like drizzling yourself in honey while you explore your favorite open world. The fact this composition was nominated for a grammy illustrates how intricately woven into gaming music soundtracks have become, and how intensely they affect emotion and experience just as much as any motion picture cinematic release. Journey delivered recognition for gaming soundtracks and drove innovation forward. Austin Wintory composes profound music for the game using flutes, harps and cellos across 18 tracks of somber, ethereal and lonely pieces that match the theme of Journey well. The music tells a story beautifully, subtly hinting that it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. Journey won awards for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and won Best Original Score at the Spike TV Video Game Awards.
An actual Grammy win for Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu goes one step further than Austin Wintory’s Journey composition. Christopher Tin composed Baba Yetu originally and exclusively for Civilization IV. Several years later it won recognition through inclusion on a compilation release, to win a grammy for best instrumental arrangements accompanying vocalists. Technically it was an indirect win, but I’m sure any gamer would agree, this was a win for a song created solely for a game environment. It worked well thanks to Tin’s choice to use a gospel choir to sing through the rise and fall of settlements and civilizations, the score is operatic, inspiring, and humble at the same time.
What’s your favorite video game soundtrack of the last decade? Got questions about audio production? Let us know in the comments.