Tech's Files: Start Your Engines

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 PM, by Eddie Ciletti and Damian Kastbauer



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Meet Your New Manager

Hundreds of simultaneous sound voices may be requested during any given frame or moment of game play. To make traffic flow smoothly and avoid pileups, it's necessary to establish memory limits and priorities based on the target platform. A sound may either be loaded into Random Access Memory (RAM) in full, or streamed on demand from the DVD or HDD (if available). Through the use of a streaming buffer, only a small part of the sound needs to be loaded so it can start playing on demand when requested. In the background, the rest of the sound file is in the cue, ready to be “streamed” from the media. Multiple on-demand variations (or instances) of sounds may be loaded into RAM to ensure proper playback. All of these requirements can add up to serious issues with memory management.

Welcome to the Jungle

Imagine mixing an action scene in Pro Tools and being limited to six mono tracks. We're talking explosions, multiple vehicles, crowds screaming and, by the way, no bouncing tracks! There are a couple of ways to prioritize important sounds in the scene to avoid traffic jams and mud.

You can take a broad brush and prioritize based on sound categories using a scale of 0 to 100. We might decide that it's more important to hear weapons as opposed to footsteps (or a voice instead of explosions), which may further lead to separating an important voice from grunts and groans. These priorities are applied to the metadata of the sounds being played back and are then used to prioritize the sounds, based on the maximum number of voices allowable at a given time. Priorities can be dynamically adjusted or modified based on the distance, or amplitude, of the sound from the position of the “listener.”

Party Like It's 1999

One of the emerging trends vying for our valuable processing resources concerns the availability of DSP plug-ins that have been commonplace in pro audio since the mid-'90s. Recently, companies including Waves, WaveArts and McDSP have developed cross-platform-compatible versions of some of the popular effects that are CPU-efficient enough to run on today's consoles.

The developer has the ability to process sound in games at run time and maintain a similar level of quality heard across other media types. So during gameplay, effects can be applied to modify their playback based on values coming from the game engine. For example, applying distortion and EQ to a critical voice file, depending on whether it's being delivered in person or via headset communicator, is something that could change based on whether the player decides to stick around while being barked at by the mission guide.

Real-time effects also allow developers to adjust output dynamics, in essence “mastering” the final mix to optimize dynamics so they can, for example, avoid clipping during a pileup of sounds and ensure that quiet sounds are heard across different playback devices. Available in music production for years, it has remained on the fringe of game audio due to a lack of processing power, embedded workflow and authoring. Because most game consoles on the market can also play back movies and music, audio quality comparisons are inevitable. Initiatives like these will continue to help raise the bar for interactive audio.

Wrap It Up, I'll Take It

This is just a simple overview of the many challenges and techniques that affect the creative and technical sound design process for games. Each new generation is delivering a more pleasing and realistically represented soundtrack while any technical decisions (and limitations) are transparent to the user; things sound as expected, with no distractions. Applying several strategies for memory management and optimization can not only guarantee sounds are heard when needed, but also allows room to cram in more sound and features to suit the gameplay, style and scope of the project.

Damian Kastbauer is a freelance technical sound designer working with the Bay Area Sound Department. His contributions to the art of game audio implementation can be heard in Conan, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and The Saboteur, among others. Eddie Ciletti is learning to translate Italian and gamer geek speak at

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