In September of 2017, Montréal’s Orchestre Métropolitain played, before an audience of more than 2,000 souls, the Symphonie du jeu vidéo de Montréal (the Montréal Videogame symphony), a multi-media concert presented in collaboration with Alliance numérique. The evening’s program was exclusively comprised of original music composed for videogames designed in Montréal. The event was highly symbolic for the music creators who are thriving, in a city that’s become an economic goldmine of videogame production. As a guide to this unsung trade, we’ve tapped the experience of a major player on the scene: Composer, studio owner and teacher Mathieu Lavoie.

Mathieu Lavoie, François-Xavier Dupras

Mathieu Lavoie and his Vibe Avenue business partner, François-Xavier Dupas. (Photo: Michaëlle Charrette)

First off, is it necessary to be a gamer in order to compose music for video games? Mathieu Lavoie giggles: “Some composers aren’t gamers at all, and got into it by fluke,” says Lavoie. “But most of the ones I know are at least a little gamer. However, when you’re successful in this trade, you become less and less of a gamer… Take me, for example: between my job at the Université de Québec à Montréal [UQAM], teaching composition for film and videogames, my role as the owner of the Vibe Avenue studio, and being a dad to a 19-month-old girl, let’s just say I don’t really have time to game…”

Lavoie is something of a local bigwig in videogame music. In fact, he’ll be sharing his art – and science – during the Sommet musique et technologie conference, presented by the Association des professionnels de l’édition musicale (APEM) at Montréal’s PHI Centre on March 14, 2018. One more thing keeping him away from gaming…

“When I don’t have time to play, I watch videos of people playing to better understand how music is used in games,” says Lavoie. “As a matter of fact, there are probably more people watching other people play videogames than there are people actually playing; the success of the Twitch platform is mind-boggling,” he says of the Amazon-owned, YouTube-like platform that attracts phenomenally huge audiences by specializing in presenting people playing video games, live or recorded.

The art of videogame music is quite different from that of film music,” says Lavoie. “First off, I think composing for videogames automatically makes you a film composer. Generally speaking, a video game has imposed scenes, called ‘cut scenes,’ that are similar to a movie scene, inasmuch as the music has to correspond with the action. They are moments during which the player no longer controls his actions, so that the game can tell its story, and that scene has to be adorned with music – just as in the movies.”

That’s the easy part of videogame composition, which Lavoie compares to a “big jigsaw puzzle.” That’s because when a player acts in the gameplay, and the producers want music to accompany those actions, the composer must create music without knowing how the player will interact with their virtual universe. “It’s totally unpredictable,” says Lavoie. “We don’t know when the player will act a certain way – say, to start combat, or simply to walk around [the game’s environment]. Yet, the music has to be omni-present.”

Lavoie, who holds a doctorate in composition, and who’s also been teaching film and videogame composition for about 15 years, also calls it “modular music.” The composition isn’t linear; instead, it’s made up of a multitude of elements that can be assembled in different ways, to give the impression of a log soundtrack that isn’t redundant.

“So, for example, I’ll compose four-bar blocks that can be played in any order, because I’ve made sure that they’re harmonious,” he says. “The end of each block therefore needs to work with the beginning of all the other blocks. That’s what I call ‘open form.’ The whole idea being that not only do those blocks need to create an environment specific to a moment in the game, a module, but each also has to segue harmoniously to the music of the game’s next moment.”

“It’s logical to me that the videogame composer community took root in Montréal. We not only have a whole industry, but we have the expertise, too.” — Mathieu Lavoie

The other compositional technique that sets videogame music apart from that of cinema is one that Lavoie calls the “variability technique”: “Within a block,” he says, “you can imagine a musical theme, a melody, but in a way that it sounds just as good played by a clarinet or a violin. You can record the melody played by many instruments, and even record different melodies operating on a shared harmonic base, without having to re-compose the base of the module.”

You then instruct the game’s software to pick from the bank of melodies and instruments and assemble them to give the illusion of one long composition. “This way, each time you play the module, there’s a feeling of newness, because there are numerous possible combinations between the instruments and melodies. It allows us to create a lot of music without necessarily having to re-compose everything; in other words, with the same amount of effort, you can achieve three to four more times the quantity of original music by using open form and variability.”

Along with his Vibe Avenue team, Lavoie works on about 12 projects at a time every year. The majority of his clients are independent studios in the Montréal or Québec videogame industry. The community of independents is booming, very dynamic and unique, in that they are grouped in the Guilde des développeurs de jeux vidéo indépendants du Québec. “It’s logical to me that the video game composer’s community took roots in Montréal,” says Lavoie. “We not only have a whole industry, but we have the expertise, too. Take, for example, Audiokinetic, who developed the Wwise software, the tool of choice for the dynamic integration of music in videogames.”

In short, composing for videogames really is like a jigsaw puzzle, one that requires years of labour to complete a single project. Yet to Lavoie, that’s a privilege when compared to scoring films, because composers often have much tighter deadlines. “Generally, when a videogame studio approaches us for their music needs, we’re in charge of the whole gamut of soundscapes for the game,” he says. “From composing the music, to dialogue, to sound design. That’s something that’s missing in the realm of film, since apart from the director, there’s no audio specialist who supervises the whole soundscape of the movie. That gives us much greater control [over the final product] than in movies.”

Times have changed since the golden age of videogame music, and the unforgettable musical themes of Japanese masters of the genre. Like Koji Kondo, composer of the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda themes, or Nobuo Uematsu, the “Beethoven of video game music,” responsible for the musical themes of games such as Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, among many other classics. “They were often one-minute loops that played over and over,” says Lavoie. No wonder those melodies are etched so deeply in our childhood brains.

“Does our work bring a distinct musical signature? We talk about it often, my partner and I,” says Lavoie confirms. “We’re weary of being pigeonholed, in case we get overlooked for certain projects! I think our trademark is the fusion of musical styles that we can offer. In almost every game we work on, we manage to create hybrid musical genres. And we work really hard on coming up with really catchy themes – melodies are important in a videogame, but they need to be used carefully. Our most popular soundtrack was the one for the game, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and its very funky theme. We sold several thousand copies of the soundtrack, and we’ve even played concerts with it!”

Many artists are simultaneously lyricists, music creators, and singers. Yet sometimes the magic happens when separate lyricists, music creators, and singers meet. Such was the case for “Repartir à zéro,” which became a SOCAN Classic in the year 2000 and turns 30 years old in 2018.

One of Jo Bocan’s signature songs, since the launch of her eponymous album in 1988, Repartir à zéro was born of the collaboration between Danièle Faubert (lyrics) and Germain Gauthier (music).

Even in the now-rare instance where the lyricist, music composer, and singer are three distinct people, it’s usually because of a fourth person – the producer, in this case – that all the pieces come together.

Composer and Producer

Gauthier – who had composed music for Nicole Martin, Donald Lautrec, Pierre Létourneau, Renée Claude, Nanette Workman and Diane Dufresne in the ’70s and ’80s – was initially approached to be the producer.

“I’m pretty sure the project was underway when they called me in,” says the man who started his career as a guitarist. “It was Jean-Claude Lespérance who gave me a call to offer me to get on board.

“He said, ‘I want you to do Jo’s album.’ I said, ‘Oh! You know, Jo is quite left-field for me. Do you really think I’m the right person for the job?’ I thought I was more pop than Jo. She’s a very theatrical singer. That’s when he told me, ‘That’s why I’m calling you.’ I told him I wanted to meet Jo before I gave him an answer.

“I didn’t know Jo, but it really clicked between us artistically. There was some kind of magic operating. We launched into artistic discussions, and it was endless. I was amazed by her incredible open-mindedness. By her charisma. And I fell in

love with her voice. Meeting her created beautiful sparks.”

When working on an artistic endeavour, it’s a natural tendency to invite colleagues with whom you’ve worked before. That’s why Gauthier contacted Danièle Faubert. “I met Jo,” remembers Faubert, who’s written for Beau Dommage, Francine Raymond, Pierre Bertrand and… Germain Gauthier. “I can’t remember exactly at

Germain Gauthier

Germain Gauthier

what stage of the album, but it was just a meeting with no specific topic. It’s important for a writer to meet the person for whom we’re writing. We try to understand that person, what they project.

“Writing is meeting chemistry. Part of the song has to resemble the singer. If there’s something they’re not comfortable with, we changed it. But I need to be happy too [laughs].”

Concern for the Environment

Inspiration, whether musical or otherwise, remains most elusive. On “Repartir à zéro,” two elements presented themselves. “I remember stepping outside after a dinner with friends and there was a nice breeze outside,” says Faubert. “There wasn’t a soul on the street. I could hear my footsteps, and I was a little weary. The environment was already a pressing matter back then.”

That how these lyrics ended up in the song:

Who will be the first one to blow the planet up…
Getting clean water and air back, is that a naive dream?…
Not bowing down any more, moving forward fearlessly
Imagining earth as a Garden of Eden

“Actually, if you think about it, it’s still a very relevant song,” says Faubert. “Water, air… Nowadays, with the nuclear menace between North Korea and the U.S… Not to mention Trump turning his back on the Paris Accord… But it’s also a hopeful song.”

“When Danièle showed up with those lyrics, we’d already worked on a few songs in the studio,” says Gauthier. “As the album’s producer, I was partly in charge of giving it a direction, and we’d articulated the album around a specific sound. I read the text and I said, ‘Wow!’ Those lyrics blew me away. It was incredibly beautiful.”

Instinct Above All

So beautiful, indeed, that the accompanying music was born of an instinctive creative process. “The piece of paper with the lyrics on it, I left it on my kitchen table,” says Germain, genuinely moved. “I read it over and over again until I knew it by heart.

“A lot of times when I compose, I’ll get stock a little on certain parts before getting to the point. In this case, I heard the first few chords in my head, no need for a piano or guitar. I almost composed the entire song in my mind. Flashes like that don’t happen often. And at some point, I told myself, ‘Wow! That’s Jo Bocanit.’ That was an intensely joyous moment.”

Thirty years later, the melody of “Repartir à zéro” hasn’t aged a bit. Neither has its subject matter, or video, where images of Jo Bocan as a child and as an adult are cut with images of war, famine and racial struggle. The clip could be re-shot with recent images. “Repartir à zero” is a personal song with universal subject matter.

“I don’t know that I’m trying to be universal when I write, but the text has to be about something that I really care about,” says Faubert. In this instance, the writer (Faubert), the composer (Gauthier) and the singer (Bocan) all benefited from it.

Become a computer nerd and lose all your friends.

That’s the best advice Konrad OldMoney can offer anyone interested in composing music for videogames.

Hard counsel to swallow, but it’s paid off handsomely for OldMoney. To date, he’s composed music for hugely popular videogames like FIFA 17, one of the fastest-selling games ever sold in the U.K.;  Fight Night Champion, which topped the U.K. sales charts; and SSX Deadly Descents, a franchise that was the fifth best-selling game in the U.S. in 2012. All this via EA Sports, an arm of the Electronic Arts videogame production house.

“After years of playing games, and eating Church’s Chicken Number 6 combos with gravy on the side, I met [music director for EA Sports] Ricardo Almeida and [game designer and producer] Freddy Ouano.

They happened to be fans of dancehall music, which is what I was making lots of at the time, and they gave me a shot producing music for SSX Deadly Descents,” he says.

OldMoney says working with Almeida’s and Ouano’s vision allowed him to zero in on what kind of music he needed to make and for which kinds of game players. “When you do your research on the target demographics, and you make authentic music that resonates with their taste, it really pays off,” he says.

“When you do your research on the target demographics, and you make authentic music that resonates with their taste, it really pays off.”

Hearing OldMoney break down his creative process is hugely insightful for someone who’s never played videogames. While announcers in a game like FIFA 17 are talking – “and they’re either talking while you’re winning or losing” – you have to “make music that has room for them, but leaves the player feeling the pressure of being down a few points near the end of the game.

“How do you create that emotional response without overpowering the announcers?” he asks, anticipating the question. “For something like that, I would get rid of drums, ‘cause they’re too distracting, and use synth arpeggiation as a clock instead. Maybe speed everything up by 15 bpm [beats-per-minute] or so over the 30 second clip, to raise the feeling of urgency.”

OldMoney says when making music for games, you have to consider who’s playing them, and what types of sounds will resonate with them.

OldMoney, born Konrad Abramowicz, immigrated to Canada from Poland when he was 10. Coming from one of the most homogenous countries in the world to multi-cultural Canada was eye-opening for young Abramowicz, but getting exposed to diverse sounds was, for him, the biggest thrill.

Aside from dabbling in dancehall and hip-hop, OldMoney has worked with several high-profile artists working in different genres in Asia. The list includes Korean hip-hop superstars Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae. The producer is also working with Dawid Kwiatkowski, who he calls “the Polish Justin Bieber.” We ask OldMoney if it’s challenging for a Canadian producer to approach artists globally and convince them to work with him. “Networking and collaborating is a very important part of the music industry and in the era of the bedroom producer, it’s easy to overlook that,” says OldMoney.

Eight years back, OldMoney produced a song for his old band Smokey Robotic. It got the attention of the two Korean stars, and he began collaborating with them. OldMoney is returning the favour, trying to get Korean artists exposure in North America. His new single, “Undefeated,” which appears on the official UFC3 soundtrack – along with tracks by Cardi B, Snoop Dogg and Future – features Korean emcee Junoflo.  “It’s nice to open markets for artists who have done the same for me,” he says.


  • Zero in on what makes you special over other producers. Like, why would a certain game franchise pick you over the thousands of other applicants?
  • Be prepared for lots of last-minute changes, if you do get assigned a project.
  • Start paying attention to who’s doing what in the game industry, and reach out to them. A great way to start is to talk to some publishing houses and audio library owners, and see if they’ll pick up and shop your catalogue.

OldMoney easily explains the difference between composing for games and for singers. “A game project has usually been really fleshed out by the time it hits my desk,” he says. “There are hundreds of songs, clips, and thousands of sound effects to consider. My value on games lies in being able to understand and deliver exactly what the producer and music director are looking for. Whereas an artist will often come to me in search of something that they can’t really put their finger on, and we go from there.”

OldMoney’s reputation has been growing steadily, with several big-name game companies – the names of which he’s forbidden to disclose – seeking his services. He attributes being in-demand to being reliable, delivering premium content on time, every time, and his attention to detail. In an article in Forbes magazine last year, OldMoney was quoted as saying his clients want “that Konrad sound.”

Here’s how he describes it: “A bold cup of expensive coffee, with a shot of Jameson, first thing in the morning,” he laughs, before getting serious. “I have a strong foundation in hip-hop, that pocket-in-the-drums that makes your neck snap back and makes you want to bang your head. That’s my favourite thing to add to my music, regardless of genre.”