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8 bits in 4/4 time

Workshop gives students opportunity to experiment with composing for video games.

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March 9, 2015

By Tiffany Clements

Whether it’s the effervescent calypso chords of 1985’s “Super Mario Bros.” or the more contemporary stylings of “Grand Theft Auto’s” resident DJ Lazlow, music and sound are crucial elements of the video gaming experience. 

Designing that audio experience was the topic of a recent three-session workshop hosted by the Music Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. The sessions gave CSB and SJU students a chance to study the techniques and try out the tools used to digitally compose soundtracks and design sound effects for video games.

SJU junior Sean Deal, a computer science major and music minor from Lake Crystal, Minnesota, said as a musician and video game player, he thinks he’ll see — and hear — games in a new way.

“I think I will listen to music differently when I play video games in the future,” Deal said. “Just thinking about the music, how the music is influencing what I’m feeling about the game and whether or not the music is helping with the experience of the game.”

Charlie McCarron, a 2008 Saint John’s University graduate and composer, facilitated the workshops. In addition to hosting “Composer Quest,” a podcast on the topic of composing music, McCarron composes scores for video games.

He said he was impressed with how quickly students in the workshop were able to pick up his lessons and start experimenting to produce their own creations.

“It’s fun for me to see what these students are coming up with,” McCarron said. “We went from not really having any mixing experience in the first class to the next week, doing some mixing.”

As a final project for the workshop, the half-dozen participants created their own scores for a game designed by McCarron’s colleagues—and fellow Johnnies Ethan Calabria ’11 and Will Tice ‘11. Students presented their score for a custom-designed mini-game called “Colorado John and the Quest for the Forbidden Princess.”

This series, funded by the Steve Noack Program in Pop Music and Jazz, ended up being something of a full-circle moment for McCarron. While studying at SJU, he attended a songwriter’s workshop funded through the same program.

According to music professor and Saint John’s University President Emeritus Fr. Bob Koopmann, OSB, the Noack program allows the department to offer courses and workshops that may not otherwise fit within its curriculum.

“Video game music is so big,” Koopmann said. “It’s so big but it’s not offered at colleges and universities at all.” 

View a photo gallery from the February 25, 2015 workshop

See, play levels, and compare student compositions:

Download and play Sean Deal's project(.zip file)

View gameplay from Sean's level

Download and play Zachary Gibbs' project (.zip file)

View gameplay from Zachary's level