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A Lot Of Noise About Nothing In Particular...

This article reflects on the last 17 years of the author's audio development experience and asks whether we should be taking a step back to consider how we got here, and where we should go from here.

Raymond Usher

July 14, 2009

7 Min Read

Well it's taken a while, but for some unknown reason I suddenly have the urge to write my first article.  Possibly an opportunity to reflect on the last 17 or so years of my career, or perhaps the beginnings of an early mid life crisis, who knows?  But I've started now, so feel compelled to see it through, and hope that by the time I've finished it has been a worthwhile experience, provoking meaningful discussion, developing new ideas, or even just hoping that someone manages to read the entire article agreeing with what I have to say along the way (no, not the bit about the mid life crisis).  OK, even the agreeing part is optional.


Well here we are in 2009.  Seems like only yesterday that I was loading up my copy of MED sound studio, ripping sounds from other Amiga games, and beginning to create my first tunes.  It really couldn't get much better - four channels of 8 bit sound rocked!  Way better than what those PC folk had to endure with their FM synthesis (if they were "lucky" enough to have one of those ADLib sound cards).  And of course I felt I made the right decision buying an Amiga rather than an ST with its MIDI interface, much to the disappointment of my music teacher.


Step forward a few years and how things have changed.  Potentially hundreds of channels, 16 bit resolution, surround sound, considerably more processing power and memory.  Today it's not unrealistic to expect 20-30% of the available resources to be allocated exclusively for audio.  OK, speaking as an audio guy we could always use more, but I'm certainly reaching the stage where I'm thinking that we need to take a step back and consider that more is no longer necessarily better.  To coin a phrase, it's what you do with it that counts, and I think we're arriving at the stage where the limiting factor is no longer the technology.


Of course we all know how much our contribution helps bind everything together to create an experience that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  In the right situation the correct sound has the power to grab you by the proverbials, something which even the most advanced tilt-shifter-shader-doobry-whatsit can only aspire to.  Audio has a greater power of suggestion and can be more effective in certain situations that a purely visual representation, and it's the use of audio rather than the technology that is the major contributing factor here.


I certainly agree with Jason Page's comments made in his AGDC 2008 "Next Gen Audio - Is That It?" talk where he cites the (over)use of footsteps in games and that "maybe we don't need to play everything all the time".  I'll even admit that I've been guilty of this myself, and upon reflection I believe part of the reason for this is because it's become the expectation that we "need" footsteps.  Can you imagine the reaction from the team if you said that you were omitting footsteps, or even that you were focusing less effort in that area, possibly only highlighting the important ones and creating an illusion for the rest of them?  You'd be cast aside and thrown into a sound proofed room - oh yeah, you're probably already there, so hey, you've got nothing to lose!  


Yet this is exactly the approach taken by Walter Murch when adding the footsteps to George Lucas's THX-1138 when he realised that our minds are able to track one or two people's footsteps without a problem, but are unable to keep track of any more, instead comprehending these group of footsteps as a single sound source (http://www.transom.org/guests/review/200504.review.murch.html).  And of course restricted use of sound can be a powerful tool - imagine how much more impact the scene of a SWAT team bursting out of the back of a van becomes when a sudden explosion of footsteps is added to the mix that was previously without any.


Then there's the desire to make the audio as realistic as possible which again may be fuelled by expectation rather than pure creative sound design.  I'm longing for the day when I get the opportunity to create a totally off the wall, surreal gaming audio experience where nothing uses "real" sound effects, or being able to use silence to provide a juxtaposition with a highly active scene.  I want to be able to recreate that feeling as a kid when I was playing with my toy cars, planes, trains, etc, making all the sounds with my own voice. 


It's possible that we've been there already in the early days of game audio where synthesis rather than sampling was used, but imagine what levels of expression could be achieved with today's technology and resources?  I remember an experiment that we carried out a number of years ago when I was at DMA Design working on Wild Metal Country where we replaced the "real" sound effects with recordings created using only our voices.  It started out as a bit of fun, but we soon realised that it worked on a completely different level.  It also re-enforced our stance that the implementation of the audio was as important as the audio assets themselves.  


Perhaps this is one direction "next gen audio" should be heading, or at least a branch of it rather than becoming obsessed with creating the ultimate realistic gun sound, infinite palette of material specific footsteps, believable dialogue, etc.  As we approach the days of almost limitless audio resources maybe we should be considering constraining ourselves to help focus on the most important thing - the actual audio design, rather than focusing on producing assets to fit with the contents of an Excel spreadsheet.


This "expectation" also exists in other areas of audio design.  For example, given today's audio technology and resources is there really still a need for separate music and sound effects volume sliders?  Aren't these legacy items from the days of potentially "repetitive" chip music?  Not that some of this music wasn't awesome (I still enjoy listening to it today), it's just that it slowly began to lose its awesomeness after the 459th iteration. 


Correct me if I'm wrong, but are we not creating a single audio experience rather than two distinct music and sound effects experiences?  You can't adjust the music and sound effects volumes for a film, so why would you for a game?  If you feel that you need to provide these volume controls does that not suggest that you perhaps are not confident enough with your mix and that it possibly needs further work? 


On the subject of game music, I have to admit that I was bitterly disappointed at the inclusion of the system music player on the Xbox 360 which could override the in-game music.  To me this was a big step backwards for game audio and demonstrated a lack of understanding with regards to the role of music from the people making those sorts of decisions.  I'm speculating here, but I feel that it is most likely that these decisions were probably made by those not directly involved in audio development and were based on the findings of a number of focus groups. 


But then you have to ask yourself, do you want to create your audio experience based on the results of a focus group or a page full of emotionless statistics, or are you brave enough to believe in "your" audio vision (is there a non-visual equivalent of audio vision - audiosion?)?   The risk with these focus groups is that we could end up with every game sounding a different shade of magnolia.  Be brave I say, create something unique, and believe in your vision even when those around you are unable to comprehend it.  There's a reason why you do what you do and they don't.

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Raymond Usher


Raymond Usher is a veteran of the interactive audio sector, with over 20 years of experience working with video games. Raymond's first role in games audio was as an audio programmer at the legendary DMA Design/Rockstar North, working on several games in the GTA series (Grand Theft Auto, GTA 2, GTA 3, GTA: Vice City) before joining Realtime Worlds as Director of Audio and working on the open world sandbox title Crackdown. Crackdown went on to win two BAFTAs, including the Best Use of Audio award, as well as critical praise from media worldwide. In 2011, Raymond set up Euphonious, a dedicated audio specialist, focusing on creating high quality audio solutions for the new generation of game developers and emerging technologies such as smartphones, tablets and non-dedicated devices, as well as triple-A console titles. Since then, Raymond has launched the AudioSkins service, offering an 'off the shelf' professional audio service for teams working on smaller casual, mobile, social or indie games. He has also been awarded a grant from the Prototype fund, administered by Abertay University, to create a mobile audio middleware solution for the new generation of games. Raymond was chosen as a member of the BAFTA Audio jury, choosing the winners for the BAFTA Videogames awards in 2010 and 2012.

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