Tips for Game Sound Designers

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Nick Peck


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So you're a pro at post or an expert at mixing music CDs. Designing audio for games, however, is a whole different ballgame. You're creating sound for an interactive environment with serious space limitations. Optimize your audio — and your workflow — with these 10 tips.

  1. Learn everything about the target platform: The delivery platform(s) for your game will have a profound impact on your approach to designing the audio. PCs, Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube all have different audio capabilities in terms of sound RAM, DSP power and number of output channels. The Xbox is currently the most powerful console, audio-wise, with Dolby Digital 5.1, a healthy amount of RAM and a built-in hard drive. The market leader, PlayStation 2, is the most challenging current-generation console to develop for, with a paltry 2 MB of audio RAM.

  2. Touch up with a 2-track editor: It can be tempting to bounce finished files out of Pro Tools or Nuendo and ship them directly to the client. Editing each file in a 2-track editor such as Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, Steinberg's WaveLab or HairerSoft's Amadeus II before shipping is critical. You should trim the tops and tails as tight as you can. It is also the best way to create loops, adjust final amplitude and apply any last-minute processing.

  3. Naming convention is critical: Computers are stupid. If you misspell a file name, use an uppercase letter where a lowercase letter is expected or inadvertently add a space to the end, the program will not find the file, and your sound will not play. Moreover, games often have hundreds of individual files in a single directory, so devising a cogent, agreed-upon naming convention is critical. Example: FS_sneaker_mud_walk_01.wav.

  4. Create a RAM budget: Before you start, determine exactly how much RAM you have to work with, and then create a spreadsheet to calculate the expected sizes of your files. Though tedious, this exercise will help you determine the number, duration and sampling rate of files you can fit in memory at any one time. These variables are all inter-related. You want a wide variety of sounds to minimize repetition with sufficient durations to sound smooth and natural, while maintaining the highest sample rate possible. A budget will help you compromise between these conflicting demands.

  5. Roll your own: Every game sound designer owns the same off-the-shelf sound effects libraries. You hear the same effects show up in game after game, so make yours different. Strive for as much custom field recording and Foley as is feasible. A day away from the computer grabbing door slams, footsteps and servo motors from the real world will liven up your project and is loads of fun.

  6. Spice up backgrounds: Backgrounds are crucial for immersive game experiences. The player is often in the same area for long periods of time, so short, repetitive ambiences will be noticed. I try to implement one- or two-minute stereo ambient loops that stream off the hard drive or CD-ROM. These are then spiced up with a half-dozen or so stingers that are short RAM-resident files. They should play back at random, with varied volume, pan position and pitch shift.

  7. Shoot for the highest sampling rate:

    In the game world, RAM-resident files almost never have the luxury of a 44.1kHz sampling rate. Twenty-two kHz is a far more common rate, with 11 kHz and even 8 kHz not unheard of. Try to maximize the sampling rate whenever possible, particularly for sounds rich in upper harmonics. Game consoles can usually process files with different sample rates simultaneously, so I might choose 18 kHz for dialog, 11 kHz for distant explosions and background sounds, and 22 kHz for primary weapon fire or other high-priority sounds. Sounds that stream continuously from a hard drive or CD-ROM, such as music or ambiences, usually have a higher sampling rate.

  8. Don't make everything a brick: There is the temptation to audio-compress the living daylights out of every file, making them the biggest, loudest explosions or gunshots possible. These “crew cut” waveforms may sound loud and punchy, but they can be problematic. You can't tell ahead of time what the final player experience is going to be. A heavy-duty fire fight could trigger a dozen of these sounds simultaneously, overloading the DACs or forcing the audio programmer to set a low default-level threshold to protect against such an eventuality. Hearing such compressed sounds over and over during a long game session leads to ear fatigue and a diminished playing experience.

  9. Design smooth workflow: All too often, audio is an afterthought in games, with files delivered at the last minute, while the programmers are exhausted and up to their elbows in other bugs. You can improve the situation by designing a good workflow with the game producer. When within your control, try to begin your deliveries as early in the process as possible. Determine exactly when and to whom you will be delivering your files. Make them your friend and set up regular communication via phone and e-mail. I tend to deliver one set of files per week, with a detailed e-mail listing the file names, along with notes to their usage.

  10. Delivering the files is only half the battle: Creating the world's greatest sound effect doesn't mean much if it doesn't play back in the game. It is the sound designer's responsibility to make sure that the sounds are playing back as they should within the game. Communicate your thoughts to the other members of your team clearly and regularly. Get regular builds of the game in progress and allocate time to hear how it sounds. Fix as many glaring problems along the way as you can through replacing files, requesting level adjustments and suggesting improvements. Work with the programmers to tweak levels, pans and distance curves. Do a final tweak pass at the end of development to polish your game to a high shine.

Nick Peck is a sound supervisor at LucasArts in San Rafael, Calif.

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