Monday, July 25, 2005

Adaptive music: life is but a video game

Just finished reading's "Gaming Rhapsody", a great ode to video game music. As a huge video game music fan (I own the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack on 3-disc Japanese import and I've been listening non-stop to Stemage, the metal Metroid soundtrack cover band), it got me thinking about the blurred line between video game music and so-called 'real music'.

'Real music' has been featured in games for a few years now, most notably in the Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk series. This trend is not to be discounted, and licensing these tracks is big business, both in terms of fees and promotional opportunities. But these games are celebrations of pop culture and their score could be more accurately described as a 'jukebox' rather than a 'soundtrack'.

I'm talking about blips and bleeps and the composers who spearheaded the idea that a simple synthesizer unit could convey a world of emotion and a depth of feel that would compliment and even define the atmosphere of an interactive experience. Composers like Koji Kondo (Zelda, Mario Bros.), Yuzo Koshiro (Actraiser) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) proved that simple electronic tones could generate 'real music' capable of evoking emotion and creating a mood to compliment the game's visuals, just like a movie soundtrack.

Besides paying homage to the founding fathers of bleep, the article has some interesting sidebar profiles on current composers. In one of these profiles, sound developer Peter McConnell highlights some interesting contrasts between game music and 'real music':

"First, there are technical differences between games and other media. Music for games has to deal effectively with the fact that you never know what the player is going to do. This means taking into account that the player may be able to trigger different kinds of music depending on changes in the action or location in the game. But I think the biggest difference is creative freedom. In the games industry there seems to be, on the whole, more trust in the musician's vision for a score, than in other media industries."

Why the games industry offers more creative freedom than the music industry I can't say for sure. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that music often is a tertiary focus for game developers next to visuals and playability. But the comment about how video game music is a dynamic soundtrack and must react to unpredictable decisions by the player is of utmost interest.

Many games still operate on the simple soundtrack idea of a repeating song looped in the background (Katamari Damacy is one such new game featuring one of the best, most diverse game soundtracks in a long time.) But many advanced games use what's sometimes referred to as 'adaptive audio', or software that changes the music based on the environmental context of the player's character. In other words, a player may hear a pastoral folk tune being played as she walks through a field, only to change to an ominous tremolo string quartet as enemies begin to approach.

So what do video game music and 'adaptive audio' have to do with the future of music? Everything. We live in a technological age where access to all music is feasible, that is, I could listen to any song I want at any time at any place provided I have the right access and equipment. As access becomes more universal and equipment becomes less expensive, one can reason that we will begin to see 'adaptive audio' for 'real music'.

Imagine strapping on your digital music device and going for a jog. A special software program on the device stores an array of songs and samples as well as a program that monitors your heart rate. As your heart beats faster, the software adapts the music to the situation, pumping out quicker tempos and more energetic tunes. As you slow to a walk, the music changes to cool you down with slower tempos and more relaxing tunes. This sort of context-based song shuffling represents the birth of a new way of listening to music, only enabled by advances in digital technology. The heart-rate responsive music technology is already being developed by companies such as VerveLife.

It is likely that as adaptive audio develops, its first applications will use a simple but specific user input (such as heart rate) to define the context in which the music adapts. Truly adaptive music, the type found in video games, is unlikely to be achieved in real life until everything has an RFID tag. At that point, your soundtrack is likely to be comprised of advertisements, though it's possible that certain environments could be set up for novelty listening purposes. A museum using adaptive audio could provide patrons with headphones that play appropriate music and commentary depending on which exhibit the listener was viewing.

Products such as MoodLogic are already hinting at adaptive music, putting songs in context by classifying them with metadata such as 'mood' and 'tempo'. Theoretically, one could come home from a bad day at work and click the 'Angry' button to start a playlist of music to match your mood. However, this still relies on the person telling the software what to do, as opposed to truly adaptive music in which the environment itself interacts with the software. We are a long way from having a computer know exactly what we want, and even further from the computer knowing what we want in the context of a particular environment.

Still, as the promise of a global jukebox grows ever closer, the focus of the music industry will be forced to shift from music ownership to listening experience. A large part of this shift will be adaptive audio, the roots of which are seen today in preference pattern browsing (Amazon) and mood-based browsing (MoodLogic, AllMusicGuide). Look for adaptive music to personalize the listening experience in much the same way that podcasting is personalizing music distribution.


Anonymous Justin Jarvinen said...

Zac -- You're dead on. There's no doubt companies are beginning to understand how to harness the innate experiential characteristics in music. Because music is experienced in context, it can complement and enhance myriad life events and activities. Keep your eyes open for the future of digital music, which is focused on how it makes you feel when you hear it, not how you download it.

12:59 PM  
Blogger drdon said...

Also, check out the Music Genome project:
Sort of relates to the moodLogic idea.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike Csurics said...


There's a book you should read called "Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness". It's by a colleague of mine named George Sanger. This guy is the end all be all of OG game composers. They basically made the Sound Blaster 16 for him to write the score to 7th Guest.

As far as adaptive audio goes you should try to get a hold of some footage from this past year's AES. Simon from dSonic gave a really good lecture on the progression of adaptive audio in conjunction with modern and expanding technology solutions.

5:07 PM  
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