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  • Adaptive Audio: A Beginner's Guide to Making Sounds for Video Games

    [01.27.09]
    - Dan Carter and Michael Worth

  • Title box: Adaptive Audio Pre-Production
    Pre-production work on a video game's musical score is necessary because as the audio specialists are composing, they need to be able to anticipate which part of the score they will want to break up into smaller but complementary components. Good communication with the rest of the game development team is paramount in order to be clear about what will be needed from the score. And throughout all of this, the audio specialists must adhere to a logical and consistent naming scheme for all the cues.

    One of the most common and egregious errors that audio designers make is not having a way of knowing which take is which of a particular cue -- or for that matter, not being able to tell which cue is which at all! If neither the audio designer nor the game development team can tell which files relate to which sounds, the audio work is nearly useless.

    One thing we do is to make our own time stamp on a file so we know when the cue was done. The file name "cue1_010809" shows the date January 8, 2009 for cue1. Whatever naming conventions are used, the most important consideration is that it be consistent. It doesn't help anyone if the naming and dating conventions change from day to day.

    Being organized to this degree is crucial when handing off a project to the development team regardless of how big or small the project is.

    And again, another make-it-or-break-it point of organization is for work to always be backed up. This can't be stressed enough. Again, we recommend backing up to two different locations on a daily basis -- a hard drive and a DVD, or an online storage space and a server. This may seem like overkill but the last thing anyone wants is for two weeks of work disappear without a trace. And it does happen!

    Sound Libraries
    Game audio designers who are just starting out with orchestral scores will undoubtedly be doing them with one or a combination of the many sample libraries currently available. Some of these include Vienna Symphonic Library, East West Quantum Symphonic Library, Sonic Implants, Garritan, and ProjectSam Symphobia.

    For percussion, Stylus RMX is another virtual instrument that's used (some might say overused) by many composers for percussion loops and for those big booms that are heard throughout so many trailers as well as games themselves. Both East West Storm Drum2 and ProjectSAM True Strike are reliable. As with any tool, it takes a little time to learn how to manipulate them in order to make them sound as realistic as possible.

    One of the most important tricks audio designers can learn is to use either controller 7 (volume) or 11 (expression) to shape the attack and release of the instruments in a score. For example, a legato string line should swell into the line as well as fade, rather than abruptly begin and end. This behavior can be modified by judicial use of controllers 7 and 11 in DAW.

    Another trick of experienced game audio designers is that they become intimately familiar with all the articulations at their disposal. Rather than use one legato string patch for all string lines, and experienced audio professional will listen to how different articulations are used in the different instruments for greater effect in orchestral writing.

    What's Yours Is Mine
    Audio pros aren't shy about co-opting another composer's gestures (yes, I mean stealing). Sites like Audio G.A.N.G. and I.A.S.I.G., as well as the sites of individual composers, offer samples; I highly recommend that both professionals and aspiring audio designers go to these sites and listen to what other composers are doing and how they are doing it.

    Finally, good game audio designers take the time to mix their work as well as they possibly can. Less experienced people who don't have the inclination or ability should let someone else who is capable mix it for them. However, our advice to aspiring audio designers is to learn how to mix well. It is its own reward. Having music mixed well is as important, or nearly so, as the writing.

    Comparing their mixes to other composers' lets audio designers hear how well they are emulating sounds and emotional responses. It's perfectly acceptable to use other people's tricks and ideas. They probably stole it from someone else themselves!

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