Tales From Video Game Recording Sessions (And Some Tips On Breaking Into The Scene)

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Game on!

I was pleasantly surprised last week to find out that some of the guitar work that I did for a session a while ago made it into the RedLynx Trials Evolution game. You can hear it on the track Come Alive.

I get asked a lot about playing on the first God of War sound track, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experiences playing on video game sessions.  The experiences that I’ve had are unique to me but I’ve provided a few general observations that might help you be prepared if you ever get the session call.

The question is, “Who knows you?”

Personal connection is a large factor in any kind of session work. Music business books often talk about “who you know” but this is, in my experience, somewhat deceptive because it assumes that you are in the driver’s seat for contacting people. I might meet Scott Walker one day (hey it could happen!) and get his contact information but I’m not going to be able to ring him up and try to wrangle my way into a session. I’m only going to get a session with him if he is familiar (or becomes familiar) what I do and that what I do fits into the sound that he’s looking for. In my experience, it’s not who you know – it’s who knows you. If Scott Walker uses me for a session, it’s because he’s in the driver’s seat. (For the record, if Scott Walker happens to be reading this post –  I am available any hour of any day to work with you sir!)

Music Business tip: Never ever ever submit unsolicited tracks to composers or sound designers without their permission. These people are incredibly busy and their time is money. Sending tracks out of the blue and/or obsessive e-mails is the easiest way to get you on their shit list.
Trials Evolution composer (and co-composer on God of War) Mike Reagan is one of my closest friends and our connection goes way back to our undergrad days at Berklee. Mike was very familiar with my playing and with what I do as a musician so while the friendship helped, the sessions simply wouldn’t have come my way if I didn’t have what he was looking for.

You’ve got to have the gear

Mike is one of the most insanely talented people that I know. He plays guitar, bass, drums and keyboards (and he plays any of them better than most people that you probably know) but there are three things that he doesn’t do. He doesn’t play baglama saz (a Turkish lute), fretless guitar or shred. The first two is why I got the God of War call, the third is why I got the Trials call.

You have to be accessible

The first session I ever did for Mike wasn’t God of War. I was first a voice actor on Twisted Metal Black. My wife and I were visiting Mike and his family in LA and he was working on the track and said, “By the way…can you do me a favor and just lay down some crazy threats and screaming for this thing I’m working on?” He knew that I had a theatrical bent and was short on foley and voice actors and so my wife and I filled in by ad libbing a bunch of crazy Honeymooners meets Manson dialog that made it into the game. It was simply a case of the right people being in the right place at the right time.

For God of War, I was going to CalArts and in the vicinity of Mike’s place and he knew that I had done some maqam studies (as a profoundly oversimplified definition – imagine maqam as the Arabic version of modes and scales) and wanted me to lay some stuff down on his tracks. Are there better saz players out there? Absolutely! It was simply that I was available, I had the instruments he needed and I could play what he needed for the gig. And that leads to perhaps the second most important factor.

You’ve got to have the skills.

Having the specialty gear is a step but if you can’t play it doesn’t matter. Forget what misconceptions you have about large name stars going into the studio and laying down crappy performances and some engineer fixing it in Pro Tools. You’re not an A-list celebrity so no one’s going to jump through those hoops for you. As a session player, you need to be able to do it right within a take or two because the expectation is that you’re coming in to lay it down and then it’s done.

The type of skills that you’ll need in a session will depend on the session itself.

You’ll need to have a keen understanding of your electric and acoustic sounds. If you’re playing electric, you’ll need to know your tone and effects inside and out and be able to dial tones in on the spot.   If the composer says something like, “I need it to sound edgier” you need to understand what that means. At a minimum, have a dry clean tone (no reverb of fx) and a dry dirty done ready to go. I’ve been on studio sessions where the engineer had to go and get the tone out of the guitarist’s rig that the guitarist couldn’t figure out (you might not be surprised that It was the last time I saw that guy at a session.)  Bring at least 2 guitars and find out before you get to the session if they want you to bring your rig or use the studio’s set up.  As a related note, make sure your instruments have been set up and are in good working condition.  Bring multiple pick gauges, capos,  your e-bow (I get asked if I have one on almost every session I’ve been on) extra strings and cables.  If you have a tube amp, bring back up fuses as well.  Things break down in studio sessions so you have to be prepared to work around them.  If you question whether or not you should bring it – I generally recommend bringing it if it doesn’t take up too much space (i.e. leave the vintage B-3 and the Leslies at home unless you’re asked to bring them).  It’s better to have something and use it rather than need something that isn’t there.

This feeds into the larger area of being able to adapt to the situation. There may be charts. If there are, you better be able to read them down. They might decide that they want an acoustic sound rather than electric (or vice-versa). They might really like an amp in the studio that you don’t dig the tone of at all. They might want a solo over a set of changes you’ve never heard before. You need to be able to wrap your head around these things and deal with them with a minimal amount of stress.

People skills are just as important as instrument ability. Studio sessions can be very stressful – particularly when money is involved (and money is always involved a professional studio session). Typically if things go well they’ll spend more time dialing in the tones that they want than you’ll spend doing the take. In my experience, things go south when time is eaten up and nothing useable has been tracked. That could be because of technical problems, or because they’re unsure of what they want. You need to be thick skinned in those situations and not add to the general tension in the room. If you’re freaking out over some aspect of what you’re doing it’s not helping anyone else.

You should realize that it’s as much about you as it is not about you. When working on video games, I’ve typically layed down a track or two of what I think will work. Then Mike will have me approach it from 4-5 different ways. Then he’ll mix various versions of the track and the video game company will have some notes and he’ll make further revisions. On the Come Alive track for example, Mike had me lay down maybe 20 minutes of shred guitar over multiple takes, but only 10-15 seconds of it made it to the game. That’s no personal reflection on my playing it’s just that at the end of the day 10 – 15 seconds was what fit the context of the game the best instead of what just fit the track. I tracked some fretless nylon string on God of War (my response to “Can you get an oud type of sound”) that Mike and I both initially thought was cool but ultimately got cut when it  didn’t fit into the final arrangement and orchestration.

So what do you do if you want to break in?

I have a couple of suggestions in this area  but since this isn’t work that I actively pursue you should take what I’m telling you with a grain of salt.

1. You need to either know what kind of player you are or decide on what kind of player you want to be. Studio guitarists are either called because they play a lot of styles seamlessly and/or because they have a specific sound that people are looking for. Ultimately, you’ll need to be able to do both of these on some level  but you should put your main focus on one or the other.  No one’s calling Buckethead to do a Bossa Nova session.  He has a distinct sound and when people collaborate with him they do so because they’re seeking his sound.

2. You need to get your skills and your sounds together. Put on instrumental tracks that you’ve never heard before and imagine that you’re being asked to lay down a rhythm track or a solo. Record this and listen back to it. When you get to the point that you can consistently track something that sounds good without overdubbing you’re on your way. Also start working on paying attention to your tones when you’re recording yourself and work on trying to dial in other people’s sounds. If someone says “I want a Pantera thing” or “I want a Ritchie Blackmore thing” or “I want a Dave Matthews thing” you’ll need to know how to get those sounds in the ballpark quickly.

3. You need to get your name out there and showcase what you do. This suggestion comes from the silent film accompaniment work that I do. If I’m working on a silent film score I’ll buy a copy of the film on DVD, convert it to QuickTime and then practice playing along with it in Logic and record the results. I have excerpts of some of these experiments up on line so that  when I tell people I accompany films they can get an immediate idea of what I do. Working off of this idea you should consider making a demo reel. Get a video capture of some video game walk throughs and try putting your own score on top of it. The point isn’t to showcase compositional chops (but who knows maybe it’ll translate to a gig at some point) but instead to show off instrumental flexibility. You will learn a LOT about your playing and scoring for video games in this way and it will immediately become apparent what works and what doesn’t.

(Note: there are definitive copyright issues with selling or distributing any video game footage but companies seem to be viewing online postings of walk throughs as free promotion for the product. Be respectful of other people’s work and be advised that if you post it online, you may be asked to take it down so don’t get too attached to anything you post.)

4. Be hungry. Get involved. Go to video game conferences. Get on forums and street teams. Seek out internships at video game companies and or recording studios. People sense insincerity and users a mile away. So go with the intent of having fun and meeting people with the possible benefit that maybe somewhere down the road something might happen. This is part of getting your name out there and making those personal connections authentically and legitimately.

5. These things all take time. Work hard and work often. Always put your best foot forward and always be honest and sincere. You’ll need to make your own opportunities in this instance and the people who learn the skills, and the industry and the people are going to be the one’s you’re reading about 5 years from now. Hopefully that person will be you.


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Scott Collins

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, <i>The GuitArchitect’s Guide To:</i> and several e-book titles that include: <i>An Indie Musician Wake Up Call</i> and <i>Selling It Versus Selling Out</i>. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.

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10 years ago

Nice article! I once got a gig on a session simply because I had a lap steel guitar… didn’t really know how to play it, but I had it! As I recall, the session wasn’t very “comfortable”…

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