Andrea Pessino on writing music for the interactive medium, part 3

Opinion

This article was first published in the March 2001 issue of Sibelius’s web magazine, Siblings, which is no longer available on the Sibelius web site. It was written by Andrea Pessino, at the time a software engineer and composer working with one of the world leading developers of computer games, Blizzard Entertainment, makers of such blockbuster titles as StarCraft, the Diablo series and the WarCraft series. A native of Italy, Andrea has lived and worked in the US since 1989.

In this, the last of a three-part series, Andrea describes Sibelius’s role in producing realistic-sounding playback from his music. Read part one and part two.

Example of Orchestral Sketches Played by Sibelius

I have provided three MP3 files of sketches I composed with Sibelius a few months back. The files contain recordings of direct Sibelius playback of some ‘research’ pieces for one of the games we are currently working on: WarCraft III.

The playback setup used was completely ‘point and shoot,’ meaning that I would turn on the power, write the music in Sibelius, hit P on the keyboard and record the output; no post-processing, sequencing or MIDI manipulation of any kind was used.

These tracks represent the best sound I could summon by using almost exclusively sound modules; that is: synthesizers and sound generators which use ‘canned sounds’, as opposed to samplers and sample libraries, where the sounds are much more specialized (and much more realistic) recordings of actual instruments. Generally, sound modules provide a finite set of sounds, while samplers can be loaded with a variety of commercially available sample libraries.

I should mention that virtually all sound modules still use instrument samples as the building blocks for their sounds, but they use layers of processing and filtering to make a relatively small sample cover a broad range of instrumental techniques and articulations. This results in versatile sounds, but at the price of greatly reduced realism. Sound modules also tend to be very affordable.

Working with samplers and libraries is a job of an entirely different magnitude, and their monetary and technical demands tend to place them outside of the scope of most non-professional users, even though prices have been steadily decreasing and today most hobbyists and amateur musicians can afford sampling workstations which cost a fortune just a few years back.

For production work, samplers are the only way to go, and in order to get ‘to the next level’ in Sibelius playback I attempted to discard all ‘canned sounds’ and drive a complete sampler based virtual orchestra instead. While I managed to control and trigger all the samplers without technical difficulties (including the amazing software-based sampler workstation GigaStudio), the result was not the dramatic improvement one would expect, simply because I didn’t have enough control.

To be used effectively, sample libraries require much more hands-on tweaking than modules. Because of their specialization, the samples need to be continually switched, adjusted and otherwise manipulated, and doing so from Sibelius ranges from awkward to impossible. One ends up spending as much time trying to coerce Sibelius into doing what it was not designed to do as it would take to sequence the music externally. In conclusion, to use samplers to good effect one needs a sequencer’s ability to fine tune MIDI data.

Yet I was able to use some sampling in the examples for download. In fact, for the technically minded, this is the equipment list used to play back all of the examples:

  • Roland SC-8850, a Yamaha MU128 and a Kurzweil K2500RS with Orchestral ROM are used for the woodwinds and some percussion.
  • An Akai S6000 Studio with 256Mb of memory is used for all of the brass (samples are from the Advanced Orchestra and its Expansion collections, a few samples are from the Quantum Leap Brass library). Almost all brass sounds are layered to get attacks and sustains from different samples.
  • A Roland JV-2080 with both of the available orchestral cards is used for all strings, for the harp and some percussion (bass drum, bells).

All modules output their sounds dry, the result is mixed and then fed to the Akai’s internal effects unit, where a hall reverb and a bit of compression are applied. The result is then recorded and mastered on CD using an Alesis ML 9600 MasterLink without any additional processing.

When listening to the recordings, you will immediately notice how uneven the orchestra sounds. Traditionally, strings and brass have been the most difficult orchestral sections to imitate effectively, and while the brass are acceptable in these examples, the strings are very weak and sound quite artificial. The woodwinds lack expressiveness, and their timbre sounds unnaturally pinched.

Sibelius playback is adequate for the more percussive, ‘pulsating’ lines but it feels mechanical for more lyrical phrases (as should be expected… as smartly designed as it is, Sibelius is still a computer program!).

While the pieces cannot be considered at all to be ‘production quality’, I do believe that they are very close to serving their purpose of communicating an instrumental idea. A few versions of Sibelius into the future, another couple of generations of sample playback technology, and maybe we will achieve that age old ideal of being able to write for the orchestra while having immediate, convincing feedback on what the piece will sound like when performed.

Conclusion

In concluding, I should point out that, while these pieces were originally intended for WarCraft III, they were part of a series of experiments into what the score for the game should feel like. At the end, this wasn’t the kind of sonority or ‘mood’ we were looking for, so they will most likely not be used in the game. As I mentioned before, an essential attribute of a game score is its compatibility with the title as a whole, and in that department these pieces are not quite in the right neighborhood.

But in the past few months, Glenn and I have continued to experiment with new thematic and orchestral ideas, and I am tremendously excited about some of the results that have been emerging. Hopefully, once the game is released, the public will find its soundtrack an effective and engaging tool to help immerse the player into the rich world of WarCraft!

Listen to the music!

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