Composing Music for Sensory Processing Disorder

Many people like to enjoy different kinds of music. You might like the deep rumbling beats of a drum and bass song bumping through your whole body. Perhaps you’re more into the complex twangs of a single guitar. What about the music and sounds you don’t like? For some, there are sounds they simply can’t enjoy.

I sat down with composer, hot sauce lover, and technical sound designer Marc Straight to discuss the music he’s creating for an upcoming game called Velumortis. Marc is crafting two versions of the game’s soundtrack: one through his normal composing process and another designed to reduce the impact for those suffering from a sensory processing disorder related to sounds and music. Disclosure: I have known Marc as a friend for some years prior to this interview.

Image Source: Velumortis title splash screen by RNG Studios pulled from Twitter.

For those who don’t know, sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a very wide-reaching term to describe an over-response or under-response to one or more of your senses. There are many potential triggers and many different responses. Someone may not be able to think straight when in contact with a rough texture or may need words to be repeated if there is a specific noise in the background.

Marc’s interest in this accessibility effort was sparked while playing God of War (2018). He has a type of colorblindness that made it difficult for him to discern health and item pickups, which made the Give me God of War difficulty virtually impossible for him. During GDC 2019, Marc opened up channels to take on feedback related to SPD-related auditory triggers and received feedback from about 50 people, with some extra help from Adriane Kuzminski in streamlining a process to tackle the effort.

Velumortis is described by its developer, RNG Studios, to be about a soul trapped between life & death, attempting to escape an unfamiliar land featuring shadowbox visuals and underworld themes. Marc explains that he’s able to tap into his background in developing horror music, like those found in horror games or seasonal haunted houses, but have a bit of fun with it. Being able to draw on that experience and excitement is helping motivate Marc for this two soundtrack method. RNG Studios confirmed that the plans for the two different soundtracks is that players will be able to switch between them like any other Options menu item a game might have.

Image Source: Kai Pilger via Pexels free stock image source. Link

I’m a bit lacking when it comes to the technical side of making music, so I asked Marc to share some of the details of his process. Marc describes the soundtrack to be something of a dark orchestra, but notes that the Velumortis score is a bit lighter and more playful. The alternate soundtrack keeps that style, but has many changes for SPD-friendly intentions. The alternate soundtrack has fewer instruments with a piano doing most, if not all, of the legwork of the removed ones. Marc explains that, in summary, he’s avoiding anything C6 or above. That’s the C note two octaves up from the common middle C on a piano, usually associated with the soprano singing range. According to the info Marc received from people, that’s a very common range where audio SPD triggers occur.

Marc offered up some additional insight into some of the guidelines he’s drawn up that do, in part, apply to the Velumortis soundtrack. Avoiding high-velocity notes, like when you hit a piano key rather hard, is a good one he says he’s using in the few instances where those C6 or higher notes do come into the soundtrack. He did want to highlight that the instantaneous force is likely the most common trigger among those who provided him feedback. Marc also wants to make sure low frequency sounds have a lot of room in the composition to fill out the feel, and that any high frequency sounds should be sparse and flowy.

When asked about compensation for both soundtracks Marc says, “I chose to do this.” He explains that because this is some new territory, he’s biting the bullet with his own time and effort, and is only charging for one version of the soundtrack. If it all works out, he’ll have some supporting documentation and proof for this approach towards audio accessibility and he’d like to share that value and insight so more people can benefit from it. A goal would be coming up with an equalizer that can be applied to soundtracks that help ease the offending sounds.

If it wasn’t evident up to this point, Marc really wants this to lead to a positive experience for everyone. Games are complex and accessibility within them comes in many forms. Is Marc’s work interesting or applies to you? He’s open to outreach and feedback, welcoming readers to find him as @MarcStraight on Twitter or to contact through his website. Additionally, if you want to check out some of his other work, you can find Marc on Bandcamp, Spotify, and YouTube.

Kevin is a games & tech industry marketing nerd with an affinity for duct tape and playing an orc in every game he can. You absolutely should @ him on Twitter @norumu.