Game soundtracks can be inspiring, frightening, invigorating, or calming. The right song at the right moment can create a lasting impact on a player. How many times have you hummed a battle theme from an old RPG or the title track from a favorite game?
Not every game needs a full, orchestrated soundtrack, of course. The Zachtronics puzzle title TIS-100 benefits from having no music at all, while other games survive on a few royalty-free songs played at just the right moments.
Music is a huge consideration, but so is your budget. In the article below we’ll cover the where, when, and how of finding music for your game without severely impacting costs.
The rule of thumb for many content decisions boils down to this: good, fast, or cheap — pick two. For music, this means you can get good songs fast but they won’t be cheap, good songs cheap but they won’t arrive fast, and so on. What you go with will ultimately depend on your budget and time constraints, but you can usually find the right balance that suits your game.
Let’s take a closer look at where these circles overlap:
Where do you sit in this decision matrix? Look at your budget and time constraints, then consult the sections below for more information about moving forward.
Royalty-free music means you either find public domain content online or hire someone to create songs and pay them once, upfront, then never again. A caveat to this method is certain pieces may carry usage clauses you must abide by. You might have to credit the artist in a certain way, for example, or tracks may only be used in non-commercial products. Be absolutely certain you stick with those guidelines when using royalty-free songs.
These pieces are usually cheap or free and are available instantly. This avenue is perfect if all you need is a generic backing track for a menu screen or a particular level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find suitable royalty-free music for your entire game.
This option is also fast. Apart from finding a track you like, there’s no waiting involved, no cumbersome back-and-forth communications with a contractor, and no negotiation. You choose a track, pay a small fee (if there is one), and you’re on your way.
You have no control over what a royalty-free track sounds like. These free and public tracks are usually generic and might not fit the feel of your game.
Since they are publicly available, these tracks might also have been used in other games, films, or commercials. This could negatively impact the reception of your game, signaling to players that you didn’t put much thought or time into your soundtrack. It could also ruin the immersion of your game, create a bad first impression, and be an overall stain on your reputation.
The Unity Asset Store has a huge selection of game-centered music packs. There are tons of free or paid collections for almost every genre of game.
Incompetech has been an amazing provider of royalty-free music for years. You may have heard their music in videos online, short films, and even games. They recently bundled songs into kits specifically for different game genres, as well.
Bensound is another great resource. Similar to Incompetech, they provide royalty-free music at no cost. You’ve definitely heard their work before in films and videos.
Partnersinrhyme.com is another site with dozens of songs ready for free use.
Purple-planet.com also provides numerous tracks across many genres.
If the generic nature of public tracks just won’t cut it, hiring a freelance musician might be an option. Freelancers can provide a great balance of speed and quality, giving you a customized yet affordable soundtrack.
When looking for freelancers, make sure you check their work history and portfolio. You’ll want someone who has experience composing soundtracks for games, as these pieces are fundamentally different from music for other genres.
Freelancers either charge a flat rate per track or an hourly rate for their services. This makes their price predictable and manageable and will easily fit within your budget without many surprises.
Video game music freelancers will be able to craft a soundtrack that’s perfectly suited for your game. By asking design related questions they’ll be able to better tweak their soundtrack, ensuring your music will blend with both your game’s style and feel.
Freelancers’ services can become expensive. Depending on your requirements, prices can climb higher than expected, and rush work can increase the bill even more.
Unlike royalty-free assets, you won’t know how the music will sound until they send you demos or a final track. The music might be exactly what you want, but you also might have changes you want made. Freelancers often charge for these adjustments.
Working with freelancers will take more time than finding the tracks on your own. You’ll have to maintain communication with them to prevent delays. You also may need to check up on them from time to time.
You will also want to watch out for the legitimacy of your hired contractor. They may have good reviews, but that doesn’t guarantee they won’t disappear with your money or overcharge you. Some sites offer buyer protection for this very reason. Even if you are protected, going through the process of resolving these issues will take valuable time away from other work.
You will want to make sure your delivered product isn’t just taken from somewhere else and passed off as original work. You’ll have to double check that instruments or samples used are all ethically sourced, and that the whole piece isn’t someone else’s work entirely. While rare, this is worth looking into to keep your studio’s reputation intact.
There are a number of sites that allow you to post short term job requests and browse through freelancers. The more popular sites host professional freelancers and provide better protection plans, while others are home to lower cost newcomers to the industry.
Fiverr has a wealth of freelancers of all kinds. You’ll need to do some digging to find a musician who specializes in games, or you can hire a general composer and hope for the best.
Freelancer.ca is another great site for posting job requests. Users post job descriptions and freelancers apply one by one. The talent comes to you, and you can sort through potential candidates until you find someone who’s right for your game.
Upwork.com is a place where both job postings and talent live in parallel. It’s a healthy ecosystem that lets you search for musicians as well as posts jobs and have musicians come to you.
Twine.fm is a great place to post jobs seeking freelancers. The categories are specific, allowing you to post particular job titles or genres.
Peopleperhour.com is another site to post job listings. You can set your budget, type up a description or project brief, then wait for the applications to come in.
If someone on your team is musically inclined, composing the soundtrack yourself might be an option. Composing in-house is made easier by a number of tools and resources that streamline the process, and you can save money while getting the custom music you need.
A self-composed soundtrack grants you ultimate control over the music. If your game has a deeply personal story, where the soundtrack and gameplay beautifully blend, this might be your only real option.
“I knew that making the music myself adds a deep personal dynamic to the game itself. It was creative control, perfectionism, and the sense of pride that I did it all myself.”
Seth also mentioned that cost was a factor:
“If I was to start a proper studio, I would absolutely hire a proper musician, but even if I was to do that — I’d still direct the composure of the tracks.”
Self-composing is a great way to have complete control over your soundtrack. It will take effort and time, but if done right, you might create a masterpiece.
Self-composing, while perhaps more economical than hiring external help, takes an incredible amount of work. You will spend valuable time away from other duties to work on music. It will also take a mix of talent and ambition to complete, but if you have both, you may want to consider it.
If you aren’t cut out for music creation, self-composing can be a horrible time sink that produces nothing of value. If you can’t produce something better than what you can get for free, then it isn’t worth the investment.
FL Studio is a fan favorite. Used by up-and-coming producers, musicians, and composers, FL Studio’s easy interface and community support make it an obvious choice for most. The free tier lets you export, but not save, files, meaning you’ll have to make a finished track from start to finish without closing the program. Paid tiers remove this restriction.
Lmms.io is a free alternative music making program. With a similar interface to GarageBand, this cross-platform program is a lesser-known tool capable of creating some solid tracks.
Beepbox.co is a basic but easy and quick tool for generating melodies. You probably won’t score your whole game with this program, but it’s one to consider if you need something fast.
Boscaceoil.net is a desktop and web based tool that’s relatively easy to use, and capable of creating simple loops which are perfect for game soundtracks.
If you don’t have the resources to compose yourself, but your game deserves a full, custom soundtrack, you may want to hire a composer. A composer can professionally create perfectly tailored soundtracks or individual songs for your game. As your game changes direction, a composer can adapt and change their music in response.
This is by far the most expensive option. It’s also an involved process with many meetings, briefs, demos, and tweaks that will soak up a substantial amount of time. There is a lot you will need to have prepared before you approach a composer. Before you begin, evaluate if your game needs a composer, if it’s the right time to approach one, how to choose one, and how to work with them.
To be clear, there are freelance composers, so the terms “freelancer” and “composer” do have some overlap. For the sake of this article we use the latter to refer to someone who works alongside you as an exclusive partner to produce music for your game. Where a freelancer might deliver one or two tracks for a flat rate, a composer continues to work with you until their work is finished and perfected.
Taj Wheeler, an indie and AAA games composer and sound designer, perfectly explains the role of a composer:
“Purchasing a track from a freelance composer may be faster and more efficient in some cases, based on your project and scope. This is not a bad option if you are working on a low budget project as this allows you to find great compositions to fit your games theme with a low price. However, If you hire a composer for your project to create content from the ground up internally within the development team, then this allows a more flexible collaboration.”
Taj also touches on the adaptiveness composers bring to the table. As the project changes direction, the composer adjusts their music accordingly to stay in sync with the rest of the team. Being there from the start to the end ensures your soundtrack never strays too far from the core of the game.
You can find some composers on the freelance websites listed above. Your main method will likely be performing more organic searches on Google to find professional composers’ official websites, however. Social media is a good option, as well. You can also research who scored games with soundtracks you admire and reach out to the composers directly.
Be sure the composers you are considering have experience with gaming, as games are fundamentally different from other forms of media. Not only is the composition unique, but video game composers will also be aware of the technical side of development. Taj Wheeler stresses this fact as a crucial perk of game composers:
“Video game composers have knowledge of video game development cycles and pipelines. Most composers also know how to work with middleware audio engines as these engines are very important for structuring how the game’s music will dynamically react to the game’s states and triggers.”
You will have to evaluate if you’re ready to work with a composer. Be sure you have enough of the game’s story figured out in order to give the composers something to work with. Being too far into the process can also be detrimental, as a good composer will contribute ideas and stylistic choices that you can implement into the game. It’s a fine balance of not having too much, making the composition phase rigid and uninspired, or too little, where your soundtrack ends up sounding nothing like the story you decide on.
Taj Wheeler commented on the importance of having a solid art direction in mind when approaching a composer. “The earlier the better, as they need to create and evolve their content based off of your game’s constantly changing world and theme just like an artist would.”
Try to have concept art, a solid game design document, and the foundation of the story down so that the composer can understand your project.
Chevy Ray, creator of Ikenfell, describes working with Ikenfell’s composers Aivi & Surasshu. He reached out to the pair before the game’s Kickstarter campaign, when he only had the guts of Ikenfell figured out. On a break from scoring Steven Universe, they responded with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is important, as it can carry you both through the hard periods of work if they’re excited to work on your game, it’s a good indication that the music will reflect that.
Chevy Ray describes the amount of control he had versus how much he gave to the composers: “No creative/musician wants to be micromanaged, but almost as bad is being given no direction at all. ‘I dunno’, just do whatever you want’ is a red flag”. Ray went on to explain that he used a few of their earlier songs as a starting point, but constant meetings and messages smoothed out both Ikenfell’s writing and music.
Taj Wheeler stresses the importance of having the budget and relevant information prepared when reaching out. He mentions that you should consider whether the composer is capable of creating fitting compositions. It’s important to send details regarding where the game currently sits, when you plan on releasing, how many songs you need, due dates, and the music budget. If you undercut the composer they will likely stop communications with you.
Being at a solid stage in development, passing along the needed information and backing your proposal up with a comfortable budget will allow composers to fully understand the direction of your project and the level of professionalism you and your studio maintain.
Composers are professionals. They will provide immense value to your game, as long as you’re willing and able to receive it. If you plan on having the music play an emotional role in the gameplay or story, you’ll need to be willing to put in the extra work to make sure everything gels.
Jacob Eliett, a composer for games and film, states the importance of having a customized soundtrack. He mentions they should be embraced as early as possible, not inserted as an afterthought. The resulting immersion for a tailored and personal soundtrack grounding you in the game world is a beautiful aspect of video games.
A composer will bring a uniqueness that other avenues just can’t approach. You’ll never get the personality and soul that a composed soundtrack brings with an off-the-shelf song from SoundCloud.
The cost of a composer is not for the faint of heart. It’s one of those things that, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. The costs can vary, too, and much depends on the level of professionalism and involvement you want.
Through programming, middleware, and a talented composer can achieve soundtracks and sound that change based on the environment and gameplay. This can quickly get expensive. Non-linear, dynamic tracks will certainly cost more than basic tracks. The longer the track, the more instruments involved, and the complexity of the arrangement all contribute to the final bill.
The process can also be slow. Chevy Ray reports having worked with Aivi & Surasshu for around four years on various aspects of the game and soundtrack. If you’re not ready for this level of engagement, commitment, and prolonged expense you’re better off going with something else.
To ensure the music is a good fit for your game, follow these steps when planning a soundtrack:
Remember that your soundtrack is determined by what you’re willing to pay for it and what you want out of it in the end. Each avenue has its perks, but some are harder to manage than others.