Sci-fi and Synth Pads

Here’s another I did in a series of XCOM music replacement videos. I tried going very minimal with this music, choosing largely to support the images on screen with mostly synth pads. Sci-fi film has long been married to synth pads, and it’s become ubiquitous in sci-fi media. Done right, pads works fine; but there are several things composers sometimes do that make them wrong.

In terms of the pad’s texture, less is more. Synth designers and composers sometimes go a little overboard with pad design. Where the instrument should unobtrusively augment gameplay, designing pads can be an immersive, complex, and highly technical task, so it’s easy to get carried away and lose sight of its original purpose. In my sample libraries, there are countless pads with far too much fluff. They’re not good for much except for electronic music, which is fine, but I’d rather my libraries were tuned for something cinematic. Getting into the guts of the instrument and stripping it down is the answer, assuming I have the time to do so. For the music in this video, I chose some of the most basic yet functional pads I could find in the shortest amount of time. My goal was to crank out this music as quickly as possible while achieving high quality.

Another thing that plagues pad-based game music are dissonant intervals. Sometimes composers attempt to illustrate eeriness by using distasteful melodic leaps. I usually always notice this and it removes me from the moment. An untrained ear may not consciously perceive these types of ill-conceived musical devices, but I would wager it affects them in other ways, like a modicum of patience loss. Eerie scenes don’t need cliche dissonances. Yes, they’re easy and quick to write, but tacky.

Often, pads are paired with repetitive percussion. Pads in themselves are atmospheric and can easily become boring. When the situation calls for percussion, composers should augment the pad with a variety of atmospheric percussion, keeping the ear from picking out repetitive figures. If the music calls for a constant pulse, an evolving rhythmic line works best. Variation is key.

In this video, augmenting the melodic pad are various atmospheric percussion elements. In retrospect, I would have added more of a pulse in the first half of the video in order to marry the action with the music. However, for this particular video, I was determined to make it work using the least amount of musical elements. I also wanted a strong musical contrast for when the player completed their primary objective of defusing the bomb. You’ll notice that once the bomb is defused, the music changes pace, morphing into a cool and confident vibe. It illustrates a satisfactory shift in gameplay, coupling a positive event with rewarding music. It’s my favorite part.