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The Game Audio Explosion – A Guide to Great Game Sound Part I: Pre-production and Sound Design
I. FAR BEYOND BLEEPS AND LOOPS
The new console era is upon us. It has been met by developers everywhere with
great anticipation, promise, …and yet, reluctance. Programmers have spent a
large portion of the past decade squeezing every last bit of potential from our
PS2s, Xbox’s and Gamecubes.
Now, after tricking these machines into performing beyond their expectations,
the shackles of technology have been lifted yet again. But will the next
generation consoles guarantee better audio?
No. We can certainly expect more audio due to an increase in available
memory, and the ability to add additional content within BD-ROM and dual
layer DVD-ROM formats. But what makes audio sound good doesn’t
necessarily have anything to do with performance and delivery specs. Surely,
our ability to manipulate audio will improve, but it will mean nothing if the
content doesn’t deliver. This article focuses on sound creation, and will enable
you to pave the way for effective and successful interactive game sound.
You have the ability to put the creative spark in motion regardless of which
game format you are developing. Knowing and preparing your sound team as
well as understanding the processes through which they work, will ultimately
help you to keep the audio on track, both artistically and financially.
II. THE AUDIO TEAM
A few years back, I was scoring a short animated film. One of the animators for
this film held a day job at a well-known entertainment company that had just
released a CG movie about dinosaurs. I asked him what he did on that project,
to which he replied, “I did all the toenails.”
I couldn’t help but think of the army of people responsible for the teeth, eyes,
scales, and so on. None-the-less, I saw the movie and it was visually stunning.
Realistically, game budgets will not allow for such an extravagant audio team,
but it does illustrate a good principle; that your audio personnel have well-
defined roles with which to focus their efforts. Collectively, your audio will be
that much better for it.
Game budgets once mandated that production costs stay low, so it wasn’t
unusual to find that one or two people produced all of a game’s audio. Today,
the stakes are much higher, and so are the budgets. Consumer expectations
have grown, requiring a movie-like experience within the confines of their
homes. The interactive market has become a battlefield for franchise
superiority. Bland, over-used audio must not be the exposed link in the armor
of any publisher or developer.
Whether you are using an in-house audio department or outsourcing the audio
completely, it is important that individuals have well-defined roles that do not
cross over into the other aspects of sound production. If the Audio Director is
splitting time as the Sound Designer, and the Sound Designer is also the
Composer, you can be sure that none of these shared jobs will get the proper
attention they require. It is important to obtain a list of your entire audio team
that breaks down the responsibilities of each member. Use your sound budget
to fortify any areas in sound production that need particular emphasis. We will
discuss more on budgets later, but for now let’s start at the beginning.
III. COMMUNICATING THE VISION: PRE-PRODUCTION
A. EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE WORM
By their very nature, creative people are passionate about what they do. You
shouldn’t have difficulty finding the enthusiasm amongst your sound team. Yet
this inherent motivation is not something to be left without guidance. You will
be doing your budget as well as your team’s morale, a disservice by letting
your sound team simply “have at it”. When it comes time to add sound, the
sound designers have both an advantage and a disadvantage compared to the
other production team members.
The advantage is, that by the time the game is ready for audio creation, the
game has taken real shape and personality. This helps to guide the direction of
the sound effects design. The disadvantage is, that since the sound design is
one of the last stages to be developed, previously fallen deadlines become the
responsibility of the sound design team to make up. By bringing your sound
designers up to speed early, you can avoid costly third and fourth revisions.
B. THE DOCUMENTS, PLEASE!
Giving the sound team the most recent build to play, only gives them a partial
picture of the artistic direction of the game. The sound team, like the art
department, must understand the metamorphosis of the game’s characters and
To do this, compile a book or digital archive that chronologically depicts the
artwork, from the earliest sketches to the final in-game representations.
Arrange an in-depth meeting between the sound designers, composer and the
Art Director to discuss the game’s development from an artistic standpoint.
This will help your audio team create the proper palette of sounds in much the
same way an artist creates a palette of colors.
For story-driven games, distributing copies of the script will be necessary to
illustrate the motivation and goal of the game. While this is critical for
composers, the sound designers will benefit by the added sense of immersion
into the game.
Perhaps the best form of communicating the vision will come from the Game
Designer. The game designer works tirelessly in his pursuit to create “the best
game ever”. He is never short of words when describing the intent of the game.
Though his work is creative, his methods are mostly technical. No one
understands the abilities of the characters in such detail as the game designer,
as the great number of technical documents he produces will attest. These
documents are invaluable to the audio team. By thoroughly examining level
overviews and enemy specs, both sound designers and composers can create
complimentary aural depictions. Bosses that are slow but powerful, or enemies
that are stealthy will be revealed in great detail within these documents,
providing the backdrop from which the sound designers can create.
C. THE DEMOS – GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE
Once the above preproduction steps have been completed, it’s time for the
sound design team and composer to begin creating demos from game capture.
Create three to four movies 60 to 90 seconds in length from different levels in
the game. Be sure to include the ambient portion prior to the action in order
to hear the game shift from low to high levels of activity. However, this may
not be possible for some arcade style games.
Once the sound design and music are complete, a mix of all the audio content
should be performed by the Sound Lead or Audio Director in either stereo,
surround or both, and exported with the movies for review.
It is important to have in place a team of reviewers that appropriately represent
those who have creative input. These might include, but are not limited to, the
Developing Producer, Publishing Producer, Executive Producer, Associate
Producer, Game Designer, Art Director, Audio Director and a franchise
representative if applicable. A robust review team will help generate an
accurate and collective review. If changes in the demonstration audio are
required and then subsequently agreed upon, your audio is ready for
IV. SOUND DESIGN PRODUCTION
A. EMOTIONAL RESPONSE TO SOUND
From the beginning we have been programmed to respond to sound.
A mother’s voice, a church bell, or police sirens conjure an emotional
response. Sounds help us to decipher the world around us. They warn us of
danger, call us to action and bring peace and tranquility to our lives. The more
expressive the sound is, the greater our emotional response to it. Sound
effects correctly placed in a game should evoke this response while defining
the environment, circumstance and personas on screen. Due to the random
nature by which sounds are triggered in a game, they must effectively co-exist
without losing definition or character when multiple sounds occur in close
proximity to each other. Let us examine some general observations in game
B. BEWARE OF SONIC SLUDGE!
There is a finite amount of sound data that the ear can properly interpret
before fatigue sets in. It is the role of the sound programmer or director to
prioritize which sounds are most important and at what times they are
important. The sound designer on the other hand, must always create content
that will be effective, regardless of the circumstances that exist at the time a
sound is played. Good sound effects should work well alone and in
combination with many other sounds. This is a challenging task, but careful
forethought and planning will produce a rich, dynamic and satisfying
The key to preventing sonic fatigue is to create sound effects that vary in
volume and frequency in relation to each other. A single sound effect that is
loud and contains equal amounts of low, middle and high frequencies may be
effective when played alone, but if all the sound effects are loud and contain a
similar frequency spectrum, it becomes difficult to decipher one sound from
In most cases, the sound designer delivers the sounds at a reasonably loud
volume, to allow the audio director or programmer to appropriately mix those
sounds into the game, setting the playback volume for each sound. However, it
is the job of the sound designer to emphasize different frequencies according
to the requirements of each sound. To do this, the designer must know which
sounds are likely to be played together at any given time, then selectively
decide which sounds will emphasize specific frequencies. Higher frequencies
provide detail. Upper middle frequencies provide presence, while lower
frequencies depict power or energy. Too much emphasis on high and upper-
middle frequencies will lead to fatigue, while too many sounds containing
lower or sub frequencies, will become muddy and detract from the overall
detail of the sound design. The goal is to create individual sounds that do not
compete, but compliment. With this in mind, the sound designer must
appropriately focus on the frequencies that will best suit each sound effect.
This process essentially carves out any unnecessary sound space to allow
additional room for other sound effects to be heard. When volumes and
frequencies are selectively assigned, the sound effects will breathe and
compliment each other regardless of when they play.
C. PACING – BUILDING TOWARD CLIMACTIC MOMENTS
Now let’s examine the sound design from the “Big Picture” perspective. Game
and level design documents will provide the structure of the game in terms of
moments of emphasis. Generally, these structures take the form of peaks and
valleys that convey changes in difficulty as the game progresses. Usually, the
peaks represent a boss fight, though not necessarily so. When examined as a
whole, the sound design should appropriately compliment these arching
structures, and allow, from a sound perspective, a sense of building toward
these peak moments. If the sound designer has examined the enemies and
situations thoroughly, the overall sound design will naturally fall into place,
appropriately following the peaks and valleys within the game. However, if for
example, minions sound as powerful as bosses, some adjustment will be
necessary to bring down the emphasis of these weaker and less difficult
enemies. By not doing so will result in sound design that does not match the
arching pattern of the game. To put it simply, there can be “too much of a
good thing”. Let’s now look at the specific areas of game sound design.
D. AMBIENCE – DEFINING ENVIROMENTS THROUGH SOUND
Initially, ambient sound should effectively portray the setting, location and time
frame of the game or its various levels. For instance, percussion and double
reed music, a multitude of bartering voices and distant clanking iron would
suggest a medieval marketplace. As the game progresses the role of the
ambient sound is to support the circumstances with which the player is
involved. Does the sound within the environment evoke danger or safety?
Activity or inactivity? Conversely, ambience can be used to deceive the player
through suggesting a false circumstance, such as creating a sense of calm
before an ambush. Under all these conditions, good ambient sound should
portray a living environment.
The psychological impact of ambient sounds can add much to the onscreen
imagery, though not physically present in the scenery. For instance a distant,
sustained cry of an infant suggests vulnerability or insecurity. A broken fence
rattling in the wind of an abandoned city, suggests to the player a previous
traumatic event. These are subtle examples used to arouse awareness in the
player. More obvious sounds should be used to cue the player of his direct
proximity to danger. Dark drones or muffled enemy vocalizations will prepare
the player for fierce combat ahead. Fear, anticipation and anxiety are easily
evoked by the careful placement of ambient sounds.
E. IMPACTS AND DESTRUCTION – BREATHING DEATH INTO THE NON-LIVING
Early on, comic books depicted the sound of the action scenes through the use
of words that sonically mimicked the action. Over time, words like “thud” “pow”
and “zap” lost their effectiveness. Comic book writers had to jog their
imaginations to express sounds in more creative and exciting ways, such as
“Kathwaaap’, “fwuuuhmp” and so on. Similarly, the sound effects in early
games experienced a renaissance as memory increased and streaming
technology allowed for more and varied sounds to be launched under the
animations. However, no increase in playback performance will ensure the
effectiveness of the sound effects, if the sounds are not expressive.
From a sound perspective, impacts and destruction must primarily convey
suffering and submission. These terms apply naturally to the vocal efforts
triggered under an opponent or avatar under attack, but are more abstract
when applied to inanimate objects. Since the human voice is the most
expressive instrument in existence, applying human-like characteristics to the
‘non-living’, will help give the sounds a more life-like and expressive quality.
Twisting, screeching metal, the deep thud and release of broken concrete and
wood that creaks, pops and splinters convey expressive responses to the
forces applied to them, in much the same way a grunt, moan and exhale
expresses human injury.
Additionally, impacts and destruction sounds should proportionately depict the
transference of energy between the weapon and the target. A metallic ping
with a ricochet is an effective response to a bullet on metal, in which the
transfer of energy between a low-mass object at high speed can be observed.
A missile explosion, on the other hand, is more powerful and slower to
develop, therefore requiring an equally proportionate response. The sound of
larger impacts with destruction should develop through three basic phases:
Attack, Sustain and Release.
The Attack is the first and shortest event of the three. It is important to note
that the attack is not the sound of the weapon or projectile. In this case, a
missile, contains it’s own dry explosion sound that is launched under the
animation of the missile explosion. Therefore the attack will be the impact
sound based on the material composition of the target. Since the attack and
the dry explosion of the missile will happen simultaneously, the attack should
have a short period of ‘lead-in’ or silence to allow the peak, or initial part of
the explosion of the missile to be heard uncompromised by the attack of the
Next is the Sustain, which introduces the debris and material breakdown
created by the explosion. Over this phase, detail should be observed. The
sustain should sound less dense than the attack so that the specific details of
the destruction can adequately be heard.
The final phase is the Release, which is a response to the destruction that
should characterize a kind of ‘submission’. This phase of the destruction
should contain lighter falling debris based on the materials destroyed,
movement of dust and earth and perhaps steam.
When all three of these phases are exhibited, the destructions will sound more
expressive and compliment the weapons by adequately portraying their
For “The Incredible Hulk – Ultimate Destruction” we maximized the detail and
movement of large, explosive forces by dynamically altering the stereo field
throughout the three phases of the destruction. The attack phase was almost
entirely monophonic, while a quickly widening stereo field was applied to the
sustain, finally resting on a wide and fixed stereo field for the release. The
result was destruction that moved rapidly over a wide area, thereby adequately
portraying the Hulk’s enormous power.
F. WEAPONS – KNOW THYSELF, KNOW THY ENEMY!
It is a lesser-known fact that a gunshot at close range, sounds less threatening
than from 40 or even 80 yards away. Since most people have never fired a gun,
their expectations for the sound of gunshots as depicted by the entertainment
media are very high. Therefore, even in games based on historical simulation,
some amount of sonic sweetening will be necessary. In the case of a “period”
war game, multiple recordings of the specific weapon should be blended
together to create a satisfying gunshot. These might include mixing together
the various distances recorded for the gunshot, as well as the dry trigger and
shell discharge sounds for the specific firearm. Sounds created this way will be
sonically interesting while retaining the historical accuracy of the weapon.
For science-fiction or fantasy games, the imagination is the sound designer’s
only limitation. As mentioned previously, the design documents will shed light
on the abilities of the enemies and characters within the game. The weapons
detailed in this document should explain the amount of damage incurred by
each weapon. It is important that these sounds appropriately match the
damage potential, since the player will, to some extent, be judging the amount
of damage from each weapon by the sound it creates. For example, weapons
that contain a charge-up sound before firing, indicates to the player that a
great amount of force is forthcoming. Likewise a weapon that produces a large
discharge noise would produce the same result.
From a stylistic perspective, weapons are an extension of the personalities of
each character and should compliment the character’s physical attributes,
abilities and in some cases, their heritage or history. For instance, the sounds
of swords, knives and shuriken should be as stealthy as the master ninja who
wields them. The character of these sounds should compliment the physical
qualities exhibited by the ninja and reflect the mastery of the ninja tradition.
With this in mind you should expect the sounds to be light but fierce, focused
and evoke quickness of movement.
Since vehicle sounds typically respond to controller movements, and not
animations, they can be difficult to perform in a plausible manner. Developers
for racing games are likely to have robust code for manipulating vehicle
sounds. Since we are focusing on sound production, and not programming,
let’s examine the basic elements that make up vehicle sounds.
In most cases the sound designer will provide four separate engine sounds per
vehicle: an idle loop, acceleration, a steady thrust loop and a deceleration
(engine decompression or braking). The idle will simply indicate that the
vehicle is engaged. The acceleration and deceleration sounds should be
designed to seamlessly crossfade into, and out of the steady thrust loop via
programming. This formula is effective for simple vehicles with a low threshold
of speed in which the vehicle will quickly reach maximum velocity until the
button or trigger is released.
If the visual perspectives of the vehicle can be changed, so too should the
sounds that accompany the vehicle. This will ensure a greater sense of realism.
For instance, if inside and outside perspectives are available, subtle shifts in
the observed engine sounds should be present to support the change in
perspective. An inside perspective will result in a de-emphasis of the higher
frequencies that are present within the engine sounds, giving those sounds the
muffled quality one would expect when listening to the engine from inside.
One way to perform this, is for the sound designer to supply separate versions
of the engine sounds based on the perspective observed. If the sound designer
has access to recordings from the various perspectives, this will be easy to
supply. However if these sound perspectives are not available, or if the vehicle
is fictitious, separate mixes that include changes in equalization should be
performed in order to support the visual perspectives.
For added realism, intermittent sounds can be supplied to add feedback based
on the driving conditions or the state of the vehicle while operating. For
instance, wheel-based vehicles will contain surface noises used to indicate the
terrain (tarmac, gravel etc.). Metallic rattling and scraping is used to indicate
the state of a vehicle that is damaged. The addition of these and other
intermittent sounds add a heightened sense of realism and immersion when
operating the vehicle.
H. MENUS – LESS IS MORE
As games have become more sophisticated, so too have the menus. Player’s
can customize a variety of options as well as view or purchase an array of
unlock-able content. This, of course requires more navigation. In most cases,
sounds will accompany the navigation to provide greater sensory feedback. No
matter how enjoyable these sounds may be, their repetition will soon become
an annoyance. It is always safe to create short and subtle sonic events that are
felt rather than heard.
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