Apart from beautiful artwork and magical gameplay, the Awakening series is also known for its charming soundtracks. Shazrin Saleh, Sing Ern Lee and Sing Huey Lee from Boomzap are here to talk with us about the behind-the-scenes process of developing music and sound effects for the Awakening series, especially the latest installment, Awakening: The Golden Age.
Please introduce yourselves.
Shaz: I’m Shazrin Saleh from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and I’m a Sound Designer and Composer here in Boomzap. Joining me in the Sound team are Sing Ern Lee and Sing Huey Lee, twin sisters from Singapore, who are both Sound Designers and Composers as well.
How did you first start out composing game music?
Shaz: After completing my Bachelor Degree in Music Technology, I landed my first job as a sound artist for a game company in November 2002. The first three months were mostly about picking up techniques and learning the tools and trades of sound/music creation in game development. After that, I was assigned to my first project, which was a junior baseball game for the Gameboy Advance platform. I had to create both the sounds and music, script and configure them using a Nintendo’s proprietary tool, and make all the audio assets (80 music pieces + sfx) fit within less than 1 MB allocation. It was truly challenging for a first project, but at the same time one heck of a learning experience.
Sing Ern: I started composing game music in 2011 when I was still studying in Lasalle College of the Arts. A game company emailed my school to look for students who are interested in taking up a freelance job to produce both music and sound effect for an iPad game. I managed to be selected for the job and continued composing music after graduating.
Sing Huey: Unlike my sister, I started composing game music after graduating from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2012. I started out working on small student projects to build up my portfolio and composed music whenever I have free time to spare.
What sort of equipment did you use to compose the music in the Awakening series?
Shaz: The music in the Awakening series is produced completely in a digital audio environment by means of virtual instruments, software synthesizers and sample libraries. Each of our digital audio workstations (DAWs) is loaded with an extensive collection of virtual instruments from music software leaders such as Native Instruments, East West, ProjectSAM, Heavyocity and Cinesamples. My own audio setup is Windows PC-based, using Steinberg Cubase 7 as the main platform for music production.
Sing Huey: My sister and I both use a Mac Pro in our audio setup, which has the virtual instruments and sample libraries as mentioned by Shaz. We do composition and arrangement in Apple Logic Pro. We also use Pro Tools, mainly for sound design and editing.
Sound effects or background music, which one do you think was more challenging to compose?
Shaz: For the most part, we find music to be more challenging, mainly due to its subjective nature. A sound effect is an aural cue to accompany an on-screen visual or to communicate an off-screen event. This could be an actual real-world sound (footsteps, door open/close, birds flying, ambience, etc.) or a stylized sound, which is used to add dramatic effect (magic spells, fairies flying, monsters, etc.). There is a certain degree of objectivity in sound design because we are guided by visuals and knowledge of what a particular thing normally sounds like – a footstep is a footstep, birds chirp, a door creaking open most likely will not make a boat engine sound and so on. Even a stylized sound is most likely designed with real-world sound as its base. The challenge in sound design is mainly in getting a sound to sound “right”.
Music, on the other hand, deals with the expression of moods, emotions and feelings. We express ourselves differently, and our expressions are also perceived differently. These variables are what make music creation more challenging than sound design. We go through several phases in music composition – finding the inspiration, planning the composition, selecting the right sounds/instruments, actual songwriting, revising, planning the mix, actual mixing and final editing. In fact, mixing is an integral part of a composition because it is when we shape the right “tone” to achieve the desired effect.
How long did it typically take to compose a soundtrack for the Awakening series?
Sing Ern: On good inspiring days, a piece of music could be done in 2 to 5 days, from pre-production (finding inspiration, planning, selecting sound palette) to finalization (final mix and stereo editing). However, there has been a few situations where a particular piece takes longer than usual, at times up to 2 weeks to get it sounding right.
Sing Huey: Yes, tough days happen when our ears get fatigued from the constant fixing and revising, and thus losing sight of our aim. Sometimes we do feel uninspired and exhausted too. When this happens, we just simply distract ourselves, do something else and get back to it fresh the next morning. A typical soundtrack for an Awakening title would comprise of anywhere between 7 to 10 music tracks. Depending on the schedule, we would complete the entire soundtrack within the timeframe given, normally in 3 - 5 months.
What was your source of creative inspiration to compose music?
Shaz: In general, listening to good film or game music in itself is inspiring. We each have our own favorite composers – Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Nobuo Uematsu, Joe Hisaishi, Danny Elfman, just to name a few. We sometimes emulate their styles in combination with our own in our compositions.
Sing Ern: In composing music for Boomzap games, we draw inspirations from two main resources: the available internal reference for the game we’re working on i.e. the art style, concept illustrations, game references, the actual game build in progress etc. and the external music references, which are our own selection of musical references based on what we understand about the project.
Sing Huey: We mostly find good references from film soundtracks. In Awakening: The Golden Age, for example, Planet of the Apes soundtrack was the inspiration for a couple of the in-game themes that are centered on certain big hairy creatures.
Please introduce us to any signature tracks or the track you are most proud of from the Awakening series.
Shaz: I am particularly proud of the soundtrack I did for Awakening: The Dreamless Castle, which was the first soundtrack I worked on when I first joined Boomzap in 2010. At the time, the HOPA genre was quite new to me. I find the game art style refreshing and inspiring, so I took my time in crafting each piece of music. Listening back to those tracks now, I would say there’s certainly plenty of rooms to improve, but it is the overall positive experiences I had when working on that project that made it memorable.
Sing Ern: As for me, I’ve worked on the soundtracks for three of the Awakening series since I joined Boomzap in late 2012. The one I enjoyed working on the most is actually the latest one, Awakening: The Golden Age. The music direction is the most unique of all the series I think, because while it still retains the “magical” aspect of the title, the overall tone is slightly darker, heavier and more serious than the previous ones. It feels more like a film scoring this time, with broader sound palette, bigger dynamics and more dramatic music instances for the cutscenes.
What other projects have you worked on?
Shaz: I’ve worked on the music soundtrack for two Dana Knightstone games, Otherworld: Spring of Shadows, and Botanica: Into the Unknown. I am basically involved in all Boomzap projects, overseeing and managing the audio side of things. Lately, we’ve been working on a few free-to-play (F2P) titles in the pipeline, such as Super Awesome Quest and Pillage People. These are exciting lightweight projects that emphasize more on the quality of each sound and music piece instead of quantity.
Sing Ern: I worked mostly on music for other Boomzap HOPA titles such as the Dana Knightstone series, Otherworld: Omens of Summer, Botanica: Earthbound and Emberwing: Lost Legacy. I’ve also composed music for Pillage People and Super Awesome Quest.
Sing Huey: I worked quite extensively on the background music for Emberwing and Death and Betrayal in Romania: A Dana Knightstone Novel. Recently I also worked on both the music and sound design for Super Awesome Quest and an upcoming match-3 puzzle game, which will be released very soon. The assets for these titles are constantly polished and updated from time to time as we playtest the game.
If you were to choose only one Boomzap game as your favorite, which would it be and why?
Sing Huey: For me it would be Awakening Kingdoms because it lets me revisit some of the places from Sophia’s adventures and it also includes music from the earlier games, which I find nostalgic.
Anything you would like to say to Boomzap fans?
Shaz: Well, thank you for the continuing support and we hope you continue playing our games, particularly our latest releases Awakening: The Golden Age and the Awakening Kingdoms. Lastly, we humbly ask that you leave the “mute” button alone when playing. Thank you :)