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  • Elliot Callighan

How to Compose and Design Audio for Pinball Machines

If we were to survey the types of games that come to mind when we say "music and sound design," we bet pinball would rank mid to low on the list of responses. Despite this, we know that pinball is a deeply enriching format for sound design that simply requires a unique style of creativity and discipline for both its score and its audio effects.


What sets modern pinball apart is rooted in its fascinating evolution from a purely analog format to the hybrid mechanical & electronic marvels of today. Even purely digital pinball setups commit to recreating the signature sounds of the titular metal ball careening across the playfield, colliding with flippers, bumpers, and spinners all the while. And that's where the challenge of pinball audio design begins.



Cut through the noise


While many pinball machines are now designed primarily for private collectors and home use, we still aim to accommodate the most extreme scenarios where pinball is often played. As sound designers and composers, we need to consider not only the natural noise of the machine we're creating for but also the cacophony of the bar or arcade where our cabinet could ultimately live. This competition to be heard necessitates a sharper approach to the audio design than required for a game played on a screen or with beefed-up sound systems in the comfort of your own home.


The nuances of higher and lower frequencies are likely to get lost in the audible fray, steering our focus toward the core impact of the music and sound effects. Even for a game style that revels in sensory overload, the audio design should be crisp and clear so as not to become buried in the mix.


Pinball may be one of those projects that demands all the bells, whistles, and even the proverbial kitchen sink, but your audio had better be stark and well-defined to be able to stand out and connect with your player.



Keep your objectives and assets organized


Speaking of including all the bells and whistles, pinball machines demand an immense library's worth of music and sound effects. When working with large quantities of assets, it's essential to keep track of your requests, your edits, and your completed files for handoff.


One machine could require hundreds of sounds ranging from short chimes, fanfares and cues to a sweeping cinematic score. Organization is an audio team's best defense against intimidation when asked to create a massive suite of sounds such as this.


We recommend establishing a system to manage incoming requests throughout development and to track the status of your audio assets' creation, approval and delivery to make sure no file slips through the cracks. (Your implementation partners who later program the audio into the machine will thank you.)


A strong approach to organization will also provide you with the means to champion strong creative cohesion across your full audio package, making sure each sound builds off the next while delivering on the thematic needs of your completed machine.



Know your game flow


Despite the seemingly chaotic nature of pinball gameplay, machines do have clear systems of progression and even storylines to unveil by accomplishing challenges and objectives across the playfield. By honing in on specific game modes or series of objectives, you can design a sound profile that communicates to the player what they are working toward and if they are on the right track.


The excitement of pinball relies on the unstoppable momentum of keeping your ball in play. And with each challenge completed or another piece of the story unlocked, your audio cues can affirm for players that progress is being made, more than just by racking up points. By ramping up the energy of a specific motif or the escalation of a familiar cadence at each step of a challenge, designers can help connect key dots, providing players the shorthand ability to play in part by ear.


To strengthen the cohesion of your audio, it's important to understand each distinct series of objectives and aim to propel the players toward their goal, culminating in a rewarding fanfare that keeps the energy going. These strings of sounds are often iterative, helping you break down the large number of assets into smaller, smarter bundles, as long as your aforementioned organization is in check.


You can see all this methodology in action in new gameplay footage captured of the recent Toy Story 4 pinball machine by Jersey Jack Pinball which we provided complete audio for.



Original music, sound, and story come together in this Toy Story 4 pinball gameplay by Jersey Jack Pinball.


Respect your source material


As shown above, one of the great things about pinball is how often it's built around familiar and celebrated properties, like Toy Story 4. These new licenses give fans yet another way to enjoy the characters and entertainment franchises they love. Working around these storied properties with massive appeal presents both exciting challenges and opportunities alike.


Bringing Toy Story 4 to life in pinball form was an exercise in expanding on preexisting storylines and protecting the integrity of Disney/Pixar's beloved creations. The appearance of the carnival in the movie presented a natural opportunity to expand on the scene and play alongside our favorite talking toys outside of the narrative of the film, all while still feeling it is part of the original adventure.


Since music and sound samples from the actual source material are often limited in these instances, we as audio pros need to recreate the familiar feeling of the Toy Story 4 soundscape from scratch. This boils down to studying the minute audible characteristics of the film and creating all new tracks and stems that build on its musical language in a way that captures everything that makes Toy Story sound like Toy Story.


In effect, we approached this as if we were writing a brand new scene to the movie, resulting in a new score that delivers on the iconic orchestral style, chords and melodic figures we already know and love—rife with playful horns and woodwinds. All this upfront work to treat your source material with care goes a long way when seeking a rights holder's approval, speeding your collaboration along to its new home alongside other great examples of playful pinball wizardry whether it's in a bustling bar or private home arcade.


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..better composing doesn't depend on owning the most expensive programs, equipment, or having years upon years of instrumental experience..