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Game Audio: A GDC 2003 Wrap-Up

The 2003 Game Developers Conference increased its focus on game audio, thanks in large part to the active community of game audio professionals and their new member organization, G.A.N.G. Here's a wrap-up of audio events and news from the GDC, including the winners of the first ever G.A.N.G. awards.

If I was paying any attention, I would have realized the sunshine and clear skies on my annual drive up from San Diego were setting the mood for a Game Developers Conference to remember. There was initially a bit of concern that the current state of world affairs would dampen attendee participation, but developers came, and they came in force.

Game audio, it seems, continues to gain attention -- and what was once a relatively non-existent GDC topic a few years ago now plays out to large, standing-room-only crowds in a very conspicuous way. From the outgrown conference rooms to the many entertaining side shows, game audio is gathering steam as a force in the video game industry.

"I was surprised to see such a huge turnout of audio people, especially amateurs trying to get into the industry," said composer Shane Kneip, in response to my question about his impression of the show. "I know that I had lengthy talks with a few people who came up to me and started asking questions, and I'm sure other audio pros handed out tons of advice as well."

I personally met at least two-dozen composers examining our industry, from an established composer who's worked in TV and Broadway to students with genuine aspirations to write music for games. I witnessed many veteran game audio folks offering a hand to help make it a reality for them, even if it was just a simple offer to listen to their demo. I also noticed several new female faces this year, which composer Burke Trieschmann summed up this way: "I would like to give a shout out to any of the women who attended the audio track. They are few and far between and deserve much applause for hanging in a mostly testosterone filled industry."

Sessions, We've Got Your Sessions.

The audio track was quite popular this year. The many lectures, panels, roundtables and sponsored sessions were well received, and the minimal overlap freed folks from tough scheduling decisions. The general trends seemed to focus on interactive audio, scoring using live orchestras, surround sound and the overall increase in sound quality and presentation within the game. These topics are definitely fresh and reflect the current interests within an industry which has realized the importance of good audio.

Sessions covered a broad spectrum of audio issues, from hiring and directing voice talent to audio coding and everything in between. The top five, according to a completely unscientific poll I conducted on anyone who would listen, seemed to be the following:

1. Rich Goldman's "Audio Business Issues" roundtable. This roundtable gains considerable popularity with each passing year. I remember attending this one three years ago with moderate participation from conference goers, but as everyone begins to realize that being good at composing and creating sound effects isn't always enough to be successful, the room becomes more crowded. Business savvy is a must, and Rich delivered progressive views and often-stimulating conversation on the subject. Composer Jack Wall agreed, saying "This year's panel was incredibly productive. It has put into motion another subject G.A.N.G. [Game Audio Network Guild, http://www.audiogang.org/] is going to tackle in the coming months: protections from publishers using our music in the future for libraries, TV and film without any further compensation. This is definitely a very important topic!"

2. Chuck Doud's "Composing, Producing and Implementing an Interactive Music Soundtrack for Games". This was an informative lecture on a very relevant topic. Game music is constantly reinventing itself and this presentation was rich with audio demonstrations to back up the term "interactive". Composers were able to actually hear what Chuck was discussing, enabling them to gain skills to work in this growing adaptation and to maintain their competitive edge. The producers in the audience were able to hear the creative possibilities and take ideas back to their camps for further discussion. All in all, a great "how-to" session for everyone.

3. Rod Abernathy and Dave Adams' panel, "Does Melody Matter?" Panelists included Marty O'Donnell, Bill Brown, Chance Thomas and Chris Vrenna all expressed their views on the subject, the consensus being a resounding "YES!" The study included many examples of what a good melody can do for the identity of a product, from commercials to TV to films to video games. The montage Rod played at the start of the panel made this point in a hurry. The rest of the session was spent talking strategy about how to go about doing it successfully. Despite the trouble with the audio equipment, the show went on, Marty singing his melody examples much to the delight of the crowd who weren't expecting the live performance. "We are Flintstone kids, ten million strong, and growing." (Luckily, Marty was the composer for that one, so there weren't any legal issues involved.)

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The "Interactive Mixing" panel.
(Photo credit: George Sanger.)

4. The "Interactive Mixing" panel, moderated by Alexander Brandon, with Brian Schmidt, Thomas Engel, Scott Gershin and Buzz Burrowes as panelists. There is always a lot to be learned when you get these guys together in one room. The panel discussed how to apply interactivity using the available tools and resources for the various consoles, how to form a strategy to make it work in the game, what the benefits are to the game player, and what skill sets are needed by content providers. More and more games are taking advantage of this interactive mixing, and those providing the audio need to keep up or they'll fall by the wayside. Just hearing these guys talk about their passion for game audio was worth the price of admission.

Composer Clint Bajakian agreed, telling me that "This had to be the quintessential assembly of the leading minds in game audio. While Alex struggled and ultimately succeeded in corralling them towards the common topic of interactive mixing, they still managed to break free and wax both practical and philosophic about the art and craft of interactive audio production for games, basically handing the audience their collective body of experience in just under 60 minutes."

5. The "Producing Orchestral Scores for Games" panel moderated by Tommy Tallarico. This was one of the most anticipated audio topics at the GDC, and recipient of the "Most Pre-show Hype" award. Composers and producers were literally crammed on stage to discuss both sides of this subject: how to convince producers to use a live orchestra, and how composers can actually get the job done. We discovered that the price isn't as high as we thought, and that there are already people in place who specialize in making this a reality for any composer. Bill Brown, Jack Wall and Clint Bajakian shared their experiences composing, hiring and recording in this exciting medium while Dan Irish, Simon Pressey and Jim Tso discussed their thoughts for going that extra mile. Everyone walked out of the session invigorated and ready to tackle the task for their next project.

Shane Kneip related his thoughts on the panel: "Over the course of the next 24 months I'm going to try like hell to use live orchestra in a game, and the talk they gave really made me feel at ease about the whole process. When you attempt something like that you really have to have all your "ducks in a row", so to speak, because for every second you're standing in front of an 80-piece orchestra (plus the 5 other staff members there to assist you) and you aren't doing something, you're losing money -- serious money! That has always made me a bit uneasy to attempt it. They covered this topic pretty extensively and reassured the audience that we aren't supposed to do this alone. You basically need a small army to get this done, and they are willing to point us in the right direction so our first orchestral sessions don't become a financial disaster."


And The Award Goes To…

The GDC was the perfect backdrop for the many awards and recognitions which were bestowed upon the audio scene this year. Terraformers, by the Swedish team Pin Interactive, won the "Innovation in Audio" award at the Independent Games Festival for their adaptation of an auditory feedback system which allows a blind player to navigate through a 3D world. It was refreshing to see the award go to this type of application and was definitely well deserved. The Game Developers Choice Awards "Excellence in Audio" was presented by last year's recipient, Marty O'Donnell, for sound effects in EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The deserving team of Jack Grillo, Rebecca Hanck, Erik Kraber and Yuan Liu should be proud of their efforts in this incredible game - it is indeed an example for all of us to follow.

The Game Audio Network Guild took the place by storm with the first-annual G.A.N.G. Awards ceremony, held Friday night at the Fairmont Hotel. Close to 500 people packed the Regency II ballroom in an incredible celebration honoring the many hard working and often under-recognized game audio artisans. In between the 30 award category presentations made by the officers of the guild -- Tommy Tallarico, Clint Bajakian and Jack Wall -- live musical interludes competed with the overly amplified band in the next room to a very enthusiastic crowd. There were performances by LoudLouderLoudest ( which performed a entertaining retro video game music montage via clarinet, xylophone and standup bass), Orpheus Hanley (singing his "Kill the Dragon" from Dragon's Lair 3D), The Slackmates (previewing their new music from The Hobbit, with some other oddly familiar music mixed in), and The Ex Lucas Arts Boys + 1 Fatman, which performed music from The Outlaws and Super Mario Bros. The musical highlight of the evening came from an impromptu but somehow magical moment by The Fatman (George Sanger) on trumpet, Peter McConnell on violin and Michael Land on bass -- who offered the theme to Medal of Honor in tribute to multiple award winner and to composer Michael Giacchino who was in the audience.

marks1.jpg

Mark Miller proudly displays his G.A.N.G "Lifetime Achievement Award".
(Photo credit: Clint Bajakian.)

The G.A.N.G. Awards recognize achievement and excellence in game audio from the past year as voted on by members of the Game Audio Network Guild. Membership is not required to be nominated or to win. The following is the complete list of awards presented and their recipients from the G.A.N.G. awards.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD:
Mark Miller

AUDIO OF THE YEAR:
Medal of Honor: Frontline
Michael Giacchino, Jack Grillo, Jeremy Hall, Rebecca Hanck, Yuan Liu, Eric Shemkovitz

MUSIC OF THE YEAR:
Medal of Honor: Frontline
Michael Giacchino

SOUND DESIGN OF THE YEAR:
Medal of Honor: Frontline
Erik Kraber, Jack Grillo, Jeremy Hall, Rebecca Hanck, Yuan Liu, Eric Shemkovitz

marks4.jpg

Jack Grillo, Rebecca Hanck, Erik Kraber and Yuan Liu took top audio honors at the Game Developers Choice Awards for their work on EA's Medal Of Honor:
Allied Assault
.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:
Shane Kneip

BEST COMMENTARY IN A SPORTS GAME:
Madden NFL 2003

BEST DIALOGUE:
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Dan Houser, Jamie King

MOST INNOVATIVE USE OF AUDIO:
SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals
Seth Luisi, Dave Korus, Buzz Burrowes, Nate Brenholdt

BEST SOUND DESIGN IN A SPORTS OR DRIVING GAME:
FIFA World Cup 2002
Jesse Lyon, Michael Gordon

BEST ARRANGEMENT OF A NON-ORIGINAL SCORE:
007: Nightfire
Jeff Tymoschuk (Driving)
Steve Duckworth (FPS)

BEST USE OF LICENSED MUSIC:
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Rockstar Games - Dan Houser

BEST CINEMATIC/CUT-SCENE AUDIO:
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Glenn Stafford, Jason Hayes, Derek Duke, Brian Farr, Tracy Bush, Tami Harrison

BEST INTERACTIVE SCORE:
007: Nightfire
Jeff Tymoschuk & Jennifer Lewis (Driving)
Steve Duckworth (FPS)

BEST ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK ALBUM:
The Best of LucasArts
Clint Bajakian, Michael Land, Peter McConnell, Mark Griskey, David Levison

BEST ORIGINAL INSTRUMENTAL SONG:
"Allied Assault Main Theme"
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
Michael Giacchino

BEST ORIGINAL VOCAL SONG - POP:
"Kingdom"
Kingdom Hearts
Utada Hikaru

BEST ORIGINAL VOCAL SONG - CHORAL:
"Memoro de la Santono"
Final Fantasy XI
Nobuo Uematsu

BEST LIVE PERFORMANCE RECORDING:
"Op. Market Garden"
Medal of Honor: Frontline
Michael Giacchino

BEST HANDHELD AUDIO:
Alienators: Evolution Continues
Allister Brimble

BEST EDUTAINMENT/CHILDREN AUDIO:
Disney/Pixar Learning 2nd/3rd Grade
Billy Martin

BEST USE OF MULTI-CHANNEL SURROUND IN A GAME:
007: Nightfire
Jennifer Lewis (EAC audio team)
Neil Baldwin (Eurocom)
Scott Gershin (Soundelux)

BEST WEBSITE AUDIO:
www.audiogang.org
Blitz Digital Studios

BEST AUDIO - OTHER:
Leap Frog Imagination Desk Reading Games & Fisher Price Pixter Pro Base
Don Diekneite, Brad Fuller (Sonaural) & Barry Leitch

BEST PRODUCER/DESIGNER:
Dan Irish

BEST AUDIO PROGRAMMER:
Buzz Burrowes

BEST NEW AUDIO TECHNOLOGY:
XACT
Microsoft

BEST AUDIO SOFTWARE:
Steinberg Cubase SX
Steinberg

BEST AUDIO HARDWARE:
Digidesign Digi002
Digidesign

BEST SOUND LIBRARY:
Vienna Symphonic Library Orchestral Cube

BEST GAME AUDIO ARTICLE, PUBLICATION OR BROADCAST:
"The Use and Effectiveness of Audio in HALO: Game Music Evolved"
www.music4games.net
Marty O'Donnell, Aaron Marks, Greg O'Connor-Read

G.A.N.G. RECOGNITION AWARD:
Greg O'Connor-Read
www.music4games.net

G.A.N.G. RECOGNITION AWARD:
Richard Jacques
Headhunter

DISTINGUISHED G.A.N.G. SERVICE AWARDS:
Sach Jobbs, Jay Semerad, Todd Fay, Mike Tallarico

G.A.N.G. Contest winners:
Sam Hulick (songwriting), Rob King (sound design)


New Technologies, Applications and Resources Aplenty

On the GDC expo floor, Dolby showed off its latest surround technology at its booth, complete with several playable game examples. Attendees could slip on a pair of headphones, mute out the noise of the expo floor and immerse themselves in their own personal surround environment while fighting bad guys or crashing cars into each other. "Dolby Headphone" has some obvious applications for late-night gaming and movie watching, and the beauty for game developers and audio providers is there is nothing different we need to do. Dolby Headphone has the ability to decode either Dolby ProLogic II or Dolby Digital encoding, so for those of us who are already used to working with these technologies can breath a sigh of relief. This is yet another reason to produce more games in surround.

Sony unveiled a new sound library for the PlayStation 2 called Scream. Scream is a data-driven audio system designed to put creative control firmly in the hands of the sound designer. Buzz Burrowes, with Sony Computer Entertainment America, demonstrated the tool's features, which include sample conversion to Sony's VAG format and a GUI for building sophisticated sounds out of component "grains."

"A sound in Scream is a parsed list of grains," explained Burrowes. "Each grain can have an associated delay, which allows for the creation of complex sounds that evolve over time. These grains can be waveforms (VAGs) or controls. There is a large collection of control grains, including Random Play, Cycle Play, Random Delay, Looping, etc. This functionality puts an amazing amount of power in the hands of the sound designer while reducing the workload on the game-engine programmer, only having to work with a very simple "PlaySound" API. In addition, Scream provides a plug-in architecture, allowing game teams to create custom functionality should they have a need."

In short, many audio folks were impressed with Scream.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft showed off their new Xbox Audio Creation Tool (XACT). This audio development system for the Xbox console allows the sound designer to access the powerful audio hardware in the Xbox, letting them set filters, mix sounds and define variation parameters for sound effects and music. It also allows the sound designer to easily stream sounds from the Xbox hard drive and game disk, allowing easy access to very large banks of audio data with low latency.

In his GDC Mobile keynote speech, Ilkka Raiskinen, VP of Entertainment for Nokia, showed off his compan's new entry into the gaming world, the N-Gage mobile gaming device. The N-Gage is a phone, organizer, web browser, IM/Chat client and portable game console rolled into one. The good news for audio professionals is that the N-Gage has the full-fledged Beatnik Audio Engine (BAE) built in, which plays MIDI, WAV and RMF files via a fully programmable real-time API. Metroworks announced a Beatnik SDK module for their Symbian OS application development environment, so developers building N-Gage applications can take full advantage of over 70 interactive calls to the BAE to trigger sound effects and voice files, stop and start background music, mute and solo tracks, fade and transpose.

At his GDC panel, Thomas Dolby Robertson announced a new joint venture between his company, Retro Ringtones LLC (www.retroringtones.co.uk) and two game audio giants, Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. They will be creating a special library of ring tones, music and sound effects using Retro's proprietary production techniques, where custom samples are sequenced, effected and mixed in container files specially designed to play back on the small speaker systems of mobile devices. Retro plans to distribute these new libraries to European, Asian and American mobile operators and content aggregators to allow mobile game developers to take advantage of the Beatnik Audio Engine that is embedded in devices from Nokia, Sony, Ericsson and Siemens.

Sound Ideas (www.sound-ideas.com) announced a number of new sound effects products, including the SFX Kit created by Tommy Tallarico Studios. This specially designed library for the game and interactive entertainment industries is a collection of 20,000 sound files on 7 CDs, across 110 different categories. The most intriguing surprise is that these disks contain WAV files (yes, WAV files!), they are all fully searchable, and configured for use on both PC and Macintosh platforms.

Happenings

marks3.jpg

Tommy Tallarico talks at the G.A.N.G annual meeting at the GDC. The author sits on the far right, foreground.
(Photo credit: George Sanger.)

The Game Audio Network Guild was everywhere. Celebrating their first full year as an organization promoting excellence in interactive audio, they currently stand at a healthy 306 members.

Jack Wall, senior director of G.A.N.G., was happy with the organization's activities at the show.

"The awards show was a great success and the advisory board meeting was extremely productive toward setting up the Grammy Award strategy and getting through the load of upcoming business," Wall said. "There were almost 40 of the 44 board members present, it was phenomenal participation!"

It was announced that video game music took another step closer to securing its own Grammy Awards category. Previous efforts were successful in obtaining a spot in the "Music for Film, Television and Other Visual Media" categories, but competing against the high film musical budgets and composers like John Williams make it virtually impossible to ever be nominated. Final arrangements are currently being made with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to bring enough qualified voting members to NARAS to actually make this a reality. Can you imagine the impact on the industry by having the tag line "Music by Grammy Award-Winning Composer" on the box? Stay tuned for more developments.

Soundelux DMG celebrated its 10th anniversary at its booth on the show floor Thursday night. Scott Gershin, Bill Brown and the rest of the crew were chatting away with visitors while Clint Bajakian was gracious enough to help pass out champagne to everyone. Shane Kneip, Buzz Burrowes, Jay Semerad and Mike Falcone were a few of the many who I saw sharing in the festivities. Personally, I think it was the free champagne.

George Sanger, a.k.a. "The Fat Man", is planning his literary assault on the world with his new book, "The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness". As a trusted confidant, I was presented with a pre-publication galley proof of the books table of contents and first chapter. At the first quiet moment of the show, I planned on quickly thumbing through the pages for a preview, but instead I read. I read and I read, drawn into the magical world of The Fat Man like a moth to a flame, emerging from the bathroom stall only after I'd read every word...twice. I think everyone will also enjoy this game industry icon's perspective on the business and creating audio for games as much as I did. I can't wait to see the rest when George is ready.

Memorable Moments

What's a trade show without some personal highlights? There were many to chose from amongst the attendees. Mine were unexpected and deeply emotional in their own way. It's funny where you find moments which will remain forever engrained in your mind.

  • Ever hear an English chap speak with a southern drawl? Greg O'Conner-Read, founder and editor of Music4Games.net, was explaining why he moved to the US from the UK. His current home is in Tennessee of all places and in the middle of the converstation, his British accent suddenly changed to a southern accent like I'd never heard before! The look on his face as I started to howl was priceless. God, it was hilarious!
  • I was moved to tears by Michael Giacchino's acceptance speech for the G.A.N.G. "Music of the Year" award. In a totally unrehearsed speech, he dedicated the music from Medal of Honor to the men who fought and died in World War II, saying that without them he would have had no inspiration. It was an incredible acknowledgement of their sacrifice, one which particularly hits home for me as a composer, veteran and military reservist who could soon answer the call.
  • George Sanger, not often a man of such few words, elegantly summed up his observations like this: "Most fun: GDC jam. But I am certainly biased on this one. Best track session: Brian Schmidt's XACT demo. Most exciting new technology: Creative Labs' ISACT. Funniest line: Buzz Burrowes' definition of game post production as 'shrink wrap'. Best hair: Kris Larson, as always."
  • Peter McConnell, Grim Fandango and Monkey Island IV composer, related his impressions of the conference. "One of the highlights for me was playing with the Fat Man at his anniversary party at the Fairmont. There were a number of folks there who have been doing sound and music for games from the beginning including Dave Javelosa, Michael Land, Clint Bajakian, Larry the O, Burke Trieschmann, Jim Donofrio, Peter Drescher and, of course, Fat himself. It's amazing how the industry started in garages with a square wave and a PC speaker and has come to where it is now, where we work with major budgets and do full orchestral scores. The awards G.A.N.G. ceremony made that all the more clear. It was a great way to start a new era."
  • Burke Trieschmann, with Tiger Woods Golf and 102 Dalmatians to his credits, shared his unique perspective. "A major highlight for me was the G.A.N.G. "Lifetime Achievement Award" given to Mark Miller. I have known Mark for a long time and have seen how his hard work over the years has contributed to a lot of things we all take for granted at GDC. The GDC's audio track, the IA SIG, the interactive comp. working group, the parties (woohoo) -- and even G.A.N.G., in a way. Plus, I had the privilege of being the mole who had Mark's phone number when Tommy approached me about the possibility of giving him this award and needed to track him down."
  • Marty O'Donnell was practically everywhere, either that or there are two of him. Some of his personal highlights he was kind enough to share: "Getting a G.A.N.G. Award for writing words not music. Singing melodies at a session because the sound didn't work. Handing out the Game Developers Choice Award for Audio to the folks who did Medal of Honor. Seeing how G.A.N.G. and the whole game audio community has come of age and totally rules! Hearing some really great live music performed at the G.A.N.G. Awards."

  • The Game Developers Choice Awards provided Shane Kneip's personal moment. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the IGDA gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Gunpei Yokoi. I was especially moved because Yokoi-san has had a huge impact on my life in the gaming world. He was the creator of the Game & Watch, the Nintendo Gameboy, and collaborated with Shigeru Miyamoto to make some of the classics like Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers and Metroid. Metroid is one of my favorite games of all time and one of the games which made me want to work in this industry. The thing that made the award so special, and so emotional, is that, tragically, Gunpei Yokoi was killed in a traffic accident in 1997, and so his son and wife flew in from Japan to accept the award on his behalf." Shane was also visibly surprised when his name was called to accept the G.A.N.G. "Rookie of the Year" award. It was a moment I'm sure he'll remember for years to come, despite the pressure to continue his outstanding work.

And so it was.

Trying to cram a year of innovations, new knowledge and technologies into a few days is nearly impossible, but we sure tried. As George Sanger predicted before the show (I can show you the email), interactive XMF was for the most part overlooked, although it was mentioned briefly in a couple of the sessions and presented at the IA-SIG town hall meeting. "It is likely to wind up being the standard file format that will greatly facilitate cross-platform game audio development and give independent audio contractors access to tools that rival any in-house tools. I hope it can be presented at an audio track session next year."

Overall, the audio side of GDC 2003 was incredibly productive, informative and filled with great friendship and camaraderie. And while some sacrificed much and traveled great distances to be there, none went away disappointed with the outcome of their experience. Audio is a great family within the game industry, one that I'm certainly proud to be a part of.

My thanks to the many individuals who unselfishly assisted in the creation of this article: Rob Abernathy, Clint Bajakian, Buzz Burrowes, George Sanger, Linda Law, Thomas Dolby Robertson, Shane Kneip, Jack Wall, Tommy Tallarico, Peter McConnell, Marty O'Donnell, Burke Trieschmann, Dan Irish and Brian Schmidt.

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