From Chiptune to Orchestration

Full article originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Pan Pipes, newsletter of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

For some, video games are a hobby. It’s something to do on the weekends, or in a rare moment of free time, or known only as a fleeting obsession of teenage children. But for some, like Alyssa Menes, the love of gaming evolves into a career.

Menes is a game composer and sound designer based in New Jersey. She holds a degree in Music Theory and Composition, but it wasn’t during college that she found her career path. It was several years later, while working in an unrelated field simply to pay the bills, that she attended a panel on game audio at the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) in Washington, D.C. The panelists discussed how to break into the gaming industry at the local level through independent game developers or smaller companies. Inspiration hit: This is awesome, she thought. I can do this!

Soon after, she began attending game development events locally. “As a freelancer,” Menes says, “you have to actively build your work. Initially there’s a lot of going to events and growing the network.” She started getting work creating sound effects for many independent games, but her first big project was composing the ending credit scene for an indie game titled Blackwell Epiphany. “Once your name starts to get out there,” she says, “the people start coming to you.” . . . With a background in classical composition, [Menes] uses live recordings and incorporates a lot of woodwinds and strings into her work. But there is also something to be said for the vintage feel of the Atari. “Sometimes a game developer wants to use chiptune,” Menes says, “and I have to simplify.”

Her musical career doesn’t stop there. On top of composition, Menes also offers private music instruction, plays bass guitar for Asphalt Grey—a local rock band—and, her most recent project, founded the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra. “I really wanted to provide a community outlet for musicians who don’t have an opportunity to play,” she says of the orchestra. “Gaming music is very near and dear to me, and I wanted a place where we could come together and have fun.” She brings her composition and teaching background into rehearsals. She encourages the orchestra’s members to arrange music, which gives them a chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to learn. “But it’s a learning experience for everyone,” she says. This is Menes’s first time conducting for a group, and also several of its members are returning to their instruments after years of not playing. The group is preparing for its first concert this summer.

It’s not all work and no play—Menes also makes time to actually play the games, both for fun and for research. She’s currently into Just Cause 3 and Fire Emblem Fates, and is also involved in Smash Brothers competitions. “Not professionally. It’s just for fun.” Then, she added with a laugh, “But for glory.”