Dynamic music and sound techniques for video games

The only aspect of game development I’ve not attempted myself is the music. I mostly use royalty free music of Japanese origin (just because I dig their vibe, man) as in the case of Sparrow Solitaire or Fore! Track or in rare cases I pay friends (like the amazing Jamie Hamshere) to write music specifically for a game as in the case of YOYOZO. Maybe one day that will change, but until then I’m enjoying gaining more understanding and control of the music in my games. Whilst I develop games for Playdate these techniques are general enough to apply anywhere.

The main way I make the music into more than a static track is to apply a dynamic, reactive, or adaptive effect in one way or another. In this blog post I’ll go into how I’ve achieved this. Please note this is by no means an exhaustive list, rather it’s just the ones I have personally used.

Dynamic BPM

I use this method in YOYOZO because it uses “chip tune” music data representing songs composed by my friend Jamie Hamshere using Playdate Pulp. A playback engine for this data, written by Pulp creator Shaun Inman, works beautifully when integrated into games written using Lua and the Playdate SDK. I added hook to allow me to set the BPM at any point to any value. The end result is that the BPM of the music scales from 130 to 135 as your score increases. As you improve at the game you’ll notice the music speed up ever so slightly along with an increase in tension and anxiety.

Of course, it’s possible to do this in a pre-recorded song stored as a digital music file, but it’s much more difficult for that to respond to the what the player does in the game. An example that takes an interesting approach to this is the track “Sunny Day” from the game Vib Ribbon, and indeed the rest of its soundtrack, where tempo changes over the duration of each song.

Infinite Variations

Another technique I use in YOYOZO, again made possible because I can modify the music data and playback parameters in real time. With this one I cycle the values for the instrument voices pseudo-randomly so that the track plays once as it was programmed and then morphs slightly for each subsequent playback. The track is quite minimal and repetitive in Steve Reich, Philip Glass or John Adams sort of way, so there are automated variations wandering around the original arrangement work really well. Perhaps the ultimate implementation of this approach is Wii Play’s Tanks game.

For sound effects, I vary the playback sample rate to change the pitch of sound effects. This prevents the same sound effect becoming monotonous. Two examples might be Lara Croft in the first Tomb Raider game, groaning the same way every time she climbs up a platform compared with the rich variety of sounds when Mario walks on different surfaces.


Another idea I had was to fade or blend two tracks as the player makes progress in the game. But how to find two tracks that can be cross-faded in a way that always makes sense? Of course you can have them composed, but what about in music that already exists? If only there was an easy way to find such tracks!

There is: stereo pairs! You’d be surprised at how different the left and right channels can sound whilst obviously being the same tune. Of course this means that are output audio will be mono but for me on Playdate that’s just fine. I use this method in Fore! Track.

The idea is to adjust the balance of the two parts of the audio, at once point you’re playing just the left audio across both outputs, then you adjust the balance to play a mix of both, at the other end of the scale you’d be playing just the right audio. Unfortunately the Playdate SDK currently has no API to easily adjust balance, so I had to program a method myself. First, I convert to the destination format which is for me ADPCM using adpcm-xq. Once the files are in this format I split the stereo pair into two files, one for the left channel and one for the right channel. Converting to the destination format before splitting ensures that the two are exactly the same length in terms of samples/bytes.

In the game I fade between the two as the score/chain increases, which has the effect of subtly changing the instrumentation of the tune. It’s one of those things that most people wouldn’t notice, but that once you know about it you can’t miss it. Sadly, I don’t have an easy way to demo this in a video or sound file.

For sound effects, you might consider panning to increase immersion and guide the players visual focus through use of audio. In YOYOZO I pan certain sounds relative to the location of the ball, certain other sounds relative to the location of the player, and there are global sound effects that are not panned at all.


Progressive Loops

Digital audio is a different beast. I always try to find a time that fits the game, going so far as to audition many hundreds of tracks and creating playlist of songs far ahead of ever making a game or even having and idea for a game. I try to find tracks that will loop well and not get annoying, which is easier said than done. If I can’t find a track that loops well, there’s another way.

You can use PyMusicLooper to analyse a digital audio track and spit out information about ranges that loop nicely, along with a percentage indicating how good it considers the loop. In other words you can identify and extract a loop from digital audio files that sound like they could loop. Of course, can’t identify loops in tracks that aren’t repetitive or consistent in their structure. You might get PyMusicLooper to split the file into into three sections (intro, loop, outro) or just export the loop information as a text file to use in your game. Which I choose depends on how much of the file I want to use.

For an example, in my game Super ICARUS I’m using a file that gives the vibe I wanted in the game and sounded like it contained some loops even though it was not provided as a looping song. PyMusicLooper reported that it contains tens of possible loops of varying quality.

loop start end duration match
0 3.437 30.755 27.318 94.87%
1 0.023 27.341 27.318 94.79%
2 7.279 34.598 27.319 94.63%
3 6.850 34.168 27.318 93.95%
4 8.127 35.445 27.318 93.92%
5 22.221 52.953 30.732 93.80%
6 25.635 56.366 30.731 93.23%
7 11.970 39.288 27.318 93.17%
8 6.850 35.875 29.025 92.13%
9 6.850 54.660 47.810 91.98%
10 20.515 52.953 32.438 91.54%
11 10.263 37.581 27.318 91.26%
12 22.221 54.660 32.439 91.11%
13 23.928 68.325 44.397 90.92%
14 39.300 70.031 30.731 90.82%
15 12.399 70.449 58.050 90.78%

My goal was to find three loops of increasing length and with a high percentage loop quality. After some experimentation and listening, I decided on loops 0, 9, and 15 (table only shows the top 15 loops from this track, even though their percentage loop match are not 100% they still sound like good loops, so selecting these loops was a case of finding three of suitable length and content. PyMusicLooper will let you audition the loops directly, so there’s no need to use an audio editor.

Using the Playdate SDK I can do setRange() on the audio track to change the playback range and the music will loop between those new points when the playhead reaches the end of the range. For this reason, this method does not provide immediate results so is better used to signify a large change in progress as the delay until the change is noticed will be an unknown amount of time. But when the change does kick in it’s a really nice surprise!

The final result sees the game start by playing loop 1 (synth and drums) and then as the player gets makes some good progress I switch to loop 2 (synth, drums, guitar licks), and finally as they pass a certain threshold I switch to loop 3 (synth, drums, guitar licks into guitar solo). This provides music that sounds very dynamic with little effort. You could even drop back to the shorter loops if the player lost a life, missed a target, and so on. Again, there’s no real way of me demoing this as it’s something that will become apparent through play, and the final result is just one long dynamic song!

For sound effects I use the same approach as above. As an example, in Fore! Track there is a clapping sound effect after the player gets the ball in a hole. This is a long sound effect but I play three increasingly long sections of it as the player’s chain increases (number of successive holes-in-one). It starts off as a short clap, increases to a longer more enthusiastic clap, and finally it begins with a whoop and continues to enthusiastic clap. I have a separate sound effect for the end game cheer that plays over the top of the full clap, resulting in a raucous end of game celebration.

Quantised Sounds

In Super ICARUS created certain game event sounds from small sections of the music track. I then adjust playback rate/speed/pitch. The result is that the sounds appear to be quantised or matched to the music. I’m not sure how to describe this phenomenon accurately in musical/technical terms.

I’d love to hear about other methods of achieving dynamic music and sound in video games. Feel free to reach out to me on social media!

Further reading


Originally published: 2023-12-09
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