The Gamer’s Soundtrack

Lompoc’s MoonTech Studios Makes the Music for Video Games

by Alastair Bland

When a video-game player races an automobile over a virtual landscape, detonates buildings, and destroys enemies with fantastic weapons, it’s the visual action that provides the bulk of the experience. Yet the soundtrack of a video game, though perhaps secondary to the onscreen action, comprises a powerful dimension of emotional stimuli.

Kyle Johnson, a composer and sound engineer at MoonTech Studios in Lompoc, believes that a good piece of music is able to tell a story on its own. “Even with all the visuals of a video game,” he explained, “when you’re going down cold hallways with creepy sounds and everything, it’s the music that determines how creepy it is, and how cold it is, and what might be around a corner.”

Johnson founded MoonTech in 2000, where he has produced play and film scores for several years. In 2005, Ian Stocker, a native of Santa Barbara who now composes music for a living in San Francisco, heard of Johnson’s work, so he traveled south to Lompoc to meet the man. At that time Stocker had a project — Sims 2 for Nintendo DS — and he commissioned Kyle to help with the project.

“He’d had experience in audio and he’s a really good guitarist,” said Stocker. “One of the things I wanted to push for with Sims 2 was a live guitar sound. So I built the framework using synthesizers, then gave it to Kyle and he put over some chords and lead lines.”

The art of video-game music composition begins when a game company sends the composer an incomplete version of an upcoming release. The musician must play the game and decide what style of sound would best complement the visual scenery and the game’s various characters. The musician may play through a game sample several times while taking notes on the emotions it inspires. Once he has created a rough draft of the score, the musician plugs in, enhances his instruments with an array of effects pedals, and jams to the video game.

Johnson is most prominently a guitar player, but he also plays the cello, bass, double bass, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. Stocker, meanwhile, stations himself at a keyboard or a PC and makes computer-generated sounds. In their year-long partnership, the dynamic pair have combined forces on two successful games — Sims 2 and the car-racing game, Burnout Legends — and they are currently picking up the pace with several more projects, working remotely between San Francisco and Santa Barbara via webcam and AIM.

“Ian gives directions just like he’s sitting in the room with me,” said Johnson. “Sometimes he’ll want me to rewrite the music; sometimes he’ll lay his own tracks afterward.”

A completed game soundtrack may never play out in exactly the same way twice. The music correlates directly to the unpredictable course of the game; themes and motifs arrive and then vanish again while the music slowly advances with the player. The soundtrack balances on the frontier of what the player has just experienced and what he may encounter around the next corner. The music must never give away too much and it must never jar the player’s ears. It is a tricky genre of music-making, and to place high-quality sound on the Nintendo DS — a small hand-held unit — offers particular technical challenges. Yet, Kyle Johnson and Ian Stocker move onward. Gamers can expect more music from the pair on upcoming releases from Amaze Entertainment — but they must listen closely to hear it.

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