This article is an excerpt of the The Complete Guide to Game Audio. It’s used with permission from Focal Press.
Sound effects are an integral part of any game, equal in importance to artwork, music and game play. Good sound effects create an impact which rounds out the entire gaming experience; without them, that experience would suffer. They are designed to completely absorb the player into a virtual world, making it believable, entertaining and satisfying all at the same time. Continuous ambient sounds keep the player from being distracted by the “real” world, ensuring game silence doesn’t ruin the immersive effect of a game. Foley sounds assure believability. Action effects provide guttural satisfaction.
In this chapter, I won’t pursue the psychological aspects of sound and its effect on the human psyche. For those who are serious about this particular aspect of audio, I do highly recommend pursuing the subject to complete your skill set and increase your design effectiveness. For now, we’ll focus on the creation process for games, how particular sounds are chosen, how they are made and how to make the process less grueling to both the development team and sound designer. I’ve asked fellow sound designers and game producers in the industry to share their experiences, their sound design creation and selection process, and how they came up with particular sounds. We’ll also delve into how to create professional sound effects and prepare them to drop into a game.
9.4 Sound Design in the Production Cycle
Sound design creation can begin at any point in the development. Experience, however, dictates it not be done too hastily. Initial artistic concepts and storyboards can provide a decent advanced look at the intended genre and what sort of sounds may be needed — whether it be general Foley sounds or imaginative, “far out” sounds. But because early concepts of art and gameplay have a tendency to evolve continuously, actual sound design this early is a waste of time.
Joey Kuras, while sound designer for Tommy Tallarico Studios (currently at Epic Games) with personal credits of over 120 games, was given a list of effects needed for the James Bond game, Tomorrow Never Dies, very early in the project. He designed and delivered over 200 sounds per the developer’s request only to have almost 90% of them discarded as the production matured, redoing them later in the project. On another project, he received a list of unspecific and vague sounds. For instance, a request for a “splash” sound had little meaning. Was it a rock, a 400-pound person, a cannonball or a building? Is it in a bathtub, a pond or an ocean? No one could be specific and they ended waiting until later in the project.
This is an easy lesson for all of us. Sound design at the outset of a project is usually not wise. Producers have the difficult task of determining audio needs of a game early in the development cycle, and if a contracted sound designer is used, the producer must find and negotiate with an individual whose skills and credits match those of the game being developed. When a game company is spending $30,000 for sound effects alone, they want to get their money’s worth. If the game will have a wide range of settings and characters, trying to imagine and pinpoint a large bank of effects can be tricky.
It’s important to bring the development team together to begin thinking conceptually about the game audio as early as possible. Planning is key. If they’ve decided on a sound designer, that person should be brought in on discussions and given an opportunity to share their experience. Developers shouldn’t wait on the audio implementation details until later. But starting work on the actual creation of game sound effects too early often leads to major headaches down the line.
If money isn’t a terrible concern, the developer can choose to add rough sound effects to help inspire the team. Putting in placeholder sounds can give life to soundless artwork and open the floodgates of creativity. As the sound designer, don’t do this for free, of course; negotiate fair compensation for your work. And be careful. These “temporary” sounds have a way of becoming final sounds and unless your payment plan is already spelled out ahead of time, you may be out money. As an example, say you get a call to do 10 placeholder sound effects. Your normal rate may be $100 per sound effect, therefore $1,000 in your pocket. But because the developer needs them today, you knock out these rough ideas in eight hours and charge them an hourly fee for your services. As the project progresses, the team gets used to hearing your rough sounds and decides they should stay in the final version. When it comes time for payment, you discover these 10 sounds have been left off the final invoice. The developer reminds you that you have already been paid at an hourly rate for the effects. So, now these 10 sounds bring in only $400 (working at $50 an hour). Don’t naively think a developer doesn’t have some money-saving tricks up their sleeve. Suddenly working on a “per sound effect” rate makes some sense.
Most of the time, a game is far enough along that characters, movements and a defined gameplay model are present before a sound designer ever enters the picture. Being able to meet with the development team, view some rough game levels and perhaps see some animation is crucial to churning out applicable sound ideas.
9.5 Specific Sound Design Questions to Answer
Once the final contract negotiations have taken place and documents are signed, the other details regarding the project are normally released to the sound designer. This is the point where “clear and concise” means the difference between complete audio bliss or a sound disaster. Ask for the specifics in order to make things crystal clear.
What genre of game is this intended to be?
It is important for the music and sound effects to keep within the spirit of the game — whether it’s space, driving, fishing or sports. Get a good, overall “feel” for the game. Find out which current games are similar in tone and investigate them. (This is where buying video games becomes a tax write-off, by the way!) See movies that fall in the genre to look for ideas and set the stage for your creative juices.
Sample rate, resolution, stereo vs. mono?
At some point, the development team will have done all of their homework to determine how much space will be allotted for graphics and sound. This will help decide how high the sound quality can be and what parameters the sounds will be created within. While you should always create sound effects in the highest sample rate and resolution possible, conversion to lower ones will affect sound quality and destroy any subtle nuances you may have added.
Will the sound effects be treated through any software or hardware processors?
Driving games are an example where reverb is used quite frequently. Most of the sounds will have an “echoey” quality as the player drives through a tunnel. This is the kind of information you need to know as the sound designer. Additional processing by a game engine will determine to what extent certain sounds are processed beforehand. You could have a problem if the developer plans on applying reverb to an already processed sound. The developer should decide and communicate as soon as possible if there are plans for this type of processing. That way, you can be sure to not over-process any files on your end.
Are any ambient sounds needed?
Remember, we don’t want the player distracted by silence. While this is more of a content-type question, the creation process is complicated and many details fall through the cracks. By asking this question, you may jog memories or present ideas the developer may not have thought about previously. The sound designer wouldn’t know if they intend to play music instead unless he or she was also the composer. This alleviates a phone call to you late in the production for forgotten ambient sounds or music. If these types of sounds are required, determine if they need to be loopable or will playback as random background sounds. Looping sound effects get monotonous and delicate surgery may be necessary to make them less so.
Will certain effects have priority during playback?
There can be instances during gameplay — such as when a player unlocks a hidden door, stumbles into a trap or is attacked by a villain — when one single sound punctuates the moment. These are the ones you want to have the biggest bang for the buck. Because other sounds won’t be drowning them out or playing over them, you won’t have to make considerations for other effects being heard at the same time. These are the type of sounds you want to take the player’s breath away. Have a developer point to them so you’ll know which ones to pull out all the stops for.
Will there be any voice-overs or speech commands that need to be heard?
As the sound designer, you may be involved with voice recordings and can process them via EQ or volume to ensure they can be heard and understood. This process is similar to having the vocals stand out in a song mix. If you’re not involved directly, you can add that particular service to your list and offer it to the developer.
Is any dialog needed? Background sounds to accompany the narration?
Dialog fits into the sound recording category and generally, anyone capable of sound design can also record narration. If narratives are pre-recorded, you can usually provide the service of transferring to digital files, maximizing the sound, cutting them to length and adding any additional background or Foley sounds. If narratives are to be recorded, you need to know if you will be providing voice talent and budget accordingly. Developers may ask if you have experience directing narrative sessions; if not, the producer may fill that role. Maybe you will be the voice talent. If so, make sure there is appropriate compensation for your efforts.
Any special sound considerations?
Is the game intended to playback in Dolby Surround Sound or DTS, with studio quality speakers or subwoofers? Are they planning to advertise the game’s cinema-quality sound? Ensure your longevity in the business and seek out this tidbit of information so you can pull out all the stops. These higher quality systems demand even better sounds since they have the tendency to reveal every nuance. Conversely, if the sound is being played back through something like the Wii Remote speaker, you won’t need to waste time with subtleties that won’t even be heard.
What platform are the sounds being created for?
This will suggest what type of playback system the consumer will use and the confines the final sound effects. I mix to several playback systems, from “el cheapo,” grocery store, multimedia speakers to high-end studio monitors. The sound effects should work well with them all, but the main focus should be the system the majority will be using.
What type of music, if any, will play as the sounds are triggered?
This will give you an indication of other sonic activity happening during gameplay. If the music is a softer, orchestral score, the sound effects can be geared towards that mood and not sound obtrusive. If a rock soundtrack is to play, then harsher sounds and careful manipulation of effects in the higher and lower frequencies will ensure they stand out. The sounds should all work together to enhance gameplay, not aggressively compete. The last thing we want to do is cause the player to turn the sound off.
Are any sound resources available to the sound designer for licensed materials?
The Simpson’s, Alien vs. Predator, Star Trek, and South Park games, for example, are based on film or television properties produced under licensing agreements. If the publisher or developer has secured use of the actual sounds from these works, do you have them at your disposal to manipulate for the game or are you expected to recreate them from scratch? While you may not have an actual hand at creating them, you are equipped to edit and convert them to the proper formats and need to know if this will be part of your tasking.
Are any special file naming conventions required for final delivery of sounds?
If the development team is overly organized or if they waited until late in production to bring you on board, they may already have file names programmed into the code. While renaming files is not a big deal, it may help cut down on confusion when delivery is made if they are already named appropriately. The developer should make this need clear or define an acceptable method. Large game projects demand organization and this will help keep everyone on the same page, especially when a sound the developer renamed needs to be tweaked. You definitely don’t want to spend hours searching through your differently named files for the right one.
When can I expect a build of the game?
The sound designer needs to actually play the game they are creating sounds for, not just so they can have a little fun, but to ensure the sound effects are a good match. Detailed descriptions, artwork and graphics can really only go so far and it isn’t until that moment when you first see and hear everything working together do you know if it’s right. For PC games, this is a relatively easy request – console games are a little tougher unless you have a dev kit. In cases like this, consider obtaining one either through official channels or as a loan from someone. The best case scenario is having the ability to audition sounds within the game, either by simply replacing sounds in the games audio directory or creating your own build, such as you can using XACT and the Xbox 360 dev kit. Sending the sounds off to the developer and waiting for them to make a new build is the other alternative, which may take a little extra time but eventually accomplishes the same thing.
9.7 Creating Original Sound Effects That Fit
It’s been said that those of us who create sound in the video games industry should take a lesson from Hollywood. Bobby Prince, of DOOM fame, presented a paper back in 1996 at the Game Developers Conference, “Tricks and Techniques for Effective Sound Design,” which listed common attributes of movies that had won Academy Awards for best sound effects. The listed commonalities offered a good jumping-off place when thinking about game sound design. These sounds:
- Focused the viewer’s attention,
- Were bigger than life,
- Didn’t get in the way of each other,
- Placed the listener into another “reality,” and
- Always had some sort of background ambience in place as well.
These basic ideas will work just as well in games.
9.7.1 Getting Organized
It’s time to start making some noise! You’ve been hired, your list of questions has been answered and we are off to a good start. If it hasn’t happened already, the developer should assign one or two individuals to act as the liaison to the sound designer. Rather than getting mixed signals from numerous artists, programmers, and so on, the company can assign the producer, creative director, audio director or audio lead the task of communicating the specs and signing off on the work. This ensures clear and effective communications, which I believe is the key to obtaining sounds which match the developer’s vision.
If you are a locally-based contractor, stop by the developer’s site, meet the rest of the creation team and discuss the game’s intention. It’s a good fact-finding mission; become a mental sponge and absorb everything related to the project. If you are unavailable to visit, be sure to obtain copies of artwork, storyboards and any story text as has been mentioned. Now is not the time to have secrets. You are part of the team and on their side.
An alpha version of the game can be delivered with placeholder sound effects already in place. Library sounds or effects taken from other games can be inserted as a way to give life to soundless artwork and to show you where new effects are needed. Placeholders can be words instead of sounds. In a game I worked on, the producer inserted words such as “click,” “bonk,” “explode” or “shot.” As I played the game, every time I heard his voice, I created a sound to match the action. This worked out very well for me and the producer maintains an interesting psychological advantage, his booming voice having a subconscious effect on my psyche.
9.7.2 Creating a Sound Palette
The first order of business is to choose a sound “palette” and organize your computer or sampler files so they are easily called upon, as was also discussed in section 8.5.2. I generally grab sounds I’ve developed or recorded within the genre I will be creating, put them into a computer folder and draw upon them as the work progresses.
Create new directories and start throwing in any sound that might sound like it belongs in the game. If it’s a cartoon-type game, grab your “cartoon” sounds. If it is a war game, grab all the gunshots and explosions you have lying around. You won’t necessarily be using them all, or any of them. You are establishing a theme and a good starting point. You’ll look to this folder for the bits and pieces to form the core of your game sounds.
Why bother with a palette? I too was resistant at first. Why spend extra time preparing to create when I could just jump right in? On a couple of larger games I tried just that, but found I was spending administrative time away from the actual design process looking for ideas anyway. By spending a couple days at the beginning, I only had to break my creative spell a few times now that all of the sounds were handy. You would drive yourself crazy choosing from millions of possible sounds. By narrowing the possibilities down, you
a) naturally build an aural theme based upon the couple hundred or so sounds you’ve chosen,
b) the game sounds will have similar qualities because most are made from elements from your palette, and
c) you will design better, more original sounds by limiting your choices and forcing yourself to be more creative.
Try it both ways and I guarantee you’ll always start the process by forming a sound palette, whether it be computer or sampler-based.
Jamey Scott, former sound designer and composer for the now defunct Presto Studios (developers of Myst III, The Journeyman Project series, Gundam 0078 and others), believes putting together the initial palette is the most important step; finding sounds that will mix well together. He uses a sampler in his sound design process and for each game, develops an entirely new sound palette to keep them original. He finds using a sampler has many advantages over straight computer files and sound editors. “Layering sounds internally in the sampler works very well for me, more so than doing it on a computer. That way, I can save my banks as a palette rather than having sources in various folders all over the computer. They are all looped, EQ’ed, and noise filtered to my specifications. Plus returning to them to make any changes is a simpler task.”
9.7.3 Effective Creation
Most sound guys believe video games are on the level of interactive movies and strive to grab the player’s attention with their sounds. Nothing is more satisfying that having a player remark that the sounds are cool. Either realistic Foley or “over-the-top” sounds can have that impact and we certainly aim to please.
Most sound designers are never satisfied with stock library sound effects. If they use them, they are manipulated several different ways — either pitch-shifted, filtered, layered, textured, reorganized, reversed, inverted, compressed, expanded or cut into smaller elements — anything to give them a new life and make them less recognizable. Nothing is more annoying than hearing the same sound effect used on television, radio, and in other games. It happens more frequently than you probably notice.
I used to have a large German Rottwieler who ran excitedly around the backyard barking at the sky whenever he heard a certain hawk screech sound. I have a Hollywood Edge sample disk which I used to enjoy playing for the neighbors and friends and we would all laugh at the silly dog and his antics. The exact sound is in dozens of TV shows, commercials and video games and, unfortunately, the poor dog ran barking into the backyard several times a week without my help. This experience opened my eyes to how incredibly overused some library sounds really are. Our job is to change that.
As an example, let’s talk about the creation of a different sound effect, using one from a current project. It is a real time strategy game within the “space” genre where units are maneuvered in formation to battle against other players. It is a PC game with final sounds to be delivered as 22 kHz, 16 bit .wav files. This particular sound is a “shield” sound which activates when the unit is fired upon.
I wanted the shield to have an electric quality to it — a controlled surge of energy that might sound as if it was absorbing or deflecting a shot from a laser weapon. I wanted it to be original so I stayed away from the stock library effects and turned instead toward one of my synthesizers for inspiration.
I ultimately settled on a patch (similar to the keyboard sound in Van Halen’s “Jump”) and recorded about four seconds of a three-note chord. I saved it into my audio editing program, Sound Forge, as 44.1 kHz, 16-bit stereo. Experimenting with a few different effects processors, I opted for a nice Doppler effect in another program, Goldwave. I edited an existing effects patch to give it a quick, one second Doppler increase with about three seconds of Doppler decrease. Back in Sound Forge, I pulled up a radio static sound file, ran it through a 1hz stereo flange effect and equalized it to increase the high frequency range. I then cut that file to four seconds to match the manipulated keyboard sound and mixed the two sounds, keeping the static barely perceptible. I gave the new mixed file about a one second fade-in and faded out the last two seconds with a linear fade. Now it was beginning to sound like something. I normalized the file to maximize the sound, adjusted for any abnormal level peaks and finally saved the new file as “shield.wav.”
Later, the producer wanted a dull, metallic clank mixed in to give the player some distinction between a shield hit and a hit to the unit’s space suit. I pulled up a nice clank sound, EQ’ed out most of the highs, and mixed to the shield file. All is well, producer happy.
To convert down to 22 kHz is a simple task. The resample feature in Sound Forge does the trick. Because some of the higher frequency band gets lost in the conversion, I usually add some EQ to compensate; just a slight amount gives it the right touch. Another check on the levels and now the effect is ready for the game. Total amount of work on this one sound effect: two hours, 15 minutes. Lots of manipulation? You bet! You could do this same edit using a multi-track editor.
9.7.4 Creative Forces
Jon Holland, a former game sound designer turned full-time composer, with many game credits, reflects upon a past project. “Combining unexpected sound sources with recognizable sounds or timbres will yield truly original sound effects. I remember a few years ago on Vectorman, I combined the sound of detuned dinosaur steps with the crack of a bullwhip. Then I layered that with a regular thunder sound to get a lashing thunderstorm feel. Even though it was a Sega Genesis game, the sound was very effective and had definition that cut right through. You have to be creative and try things even if you can’t see an obvious correlation immediately. Experimentation should be paramount if you want sounds that are difficult to duplicate.”
Jamey Scott has many tricks up his sleeve too. For a previous Presto project, the game had many machines that required their own personality and uniqueness. He normally starts with stock engine or mechanical sounds but runs them through a fast LFO filter, warbling the pitch and then mixing in what he calls “clunketty-clunk” sounds. For machines that are primitive, he ensures they sound rickety and unpolished on purpose. He will also start completely from scratch on some, preferring to mix low-frequency rumbling sounds, mid-range mechanical noises and on top, some high-frequency whining. He tends to shoot for a full-frequency spectrum sound, massive and very full.
For odd creature sounds, Jamey creates something like an exaggerated insect noise — a high pitched screech but with a very low-frequency sound to make it memorable. He’s been known to use his own mouth noises, or to grab someone walking by in the hall, as interesting touches. After tweaking and layering, you would never know their origin.
Joey Kuras makes good use of the world around him for his sounds. Sometimes there just isn’t a particular sound in any of the libraries he uses, so he ventures out with his portable rig and microphone. A previous “Beavis and Butthead” game required the sound of large gymnasium bleachers opening. So he went to a local school and had the maintenance crew open them while he recorded. Instant sound effect.
The boxing game Knockout used a lot of embellished punching sounds, occasionally punctuated by the sounds of a breaking jawbone. Joey made use of many stalks of celery to add just the right touch of crunching and snapping.
Test Drive 5 and 6 required over-the-top engine and car sounds. His trek led him and his microphone to southern California’s Marconi Auto Museum to record some track-ready muscle cars first hand. Play these games and you’ll agree, the effort was worth it.
Several games’ need for sounds of grenades bouncing led him to a military surplus store for dummy grenades. An quiet afternoon of grenade tossing produced some nice effects.
Assaf Gavron and Oosh Adar, sound designers in Israel who worked on EA’s flight sim, USAF, relayed this interesting method of effects creation. Oosh describes this particular session, “In flight simulations, there is a lot of mid-frequency activity in the cockpit. Most of those sounds are being processed by filters and a bit of distortion. I had to create a “G” effect (heavy breathing in a “over G” situation) that needed to sound like you were hearing yourself over the headphones — the sound being in the same mid-range area. I didn’t want to repeat the same software treatment as in the radio connection because it’s a bit different and it’s better to avoid a crunchy mid-range overload. I decided to record it live.”
“I made a heavy breathing session and listened to it. It sounded oddly like phone sex. Every detail of the breathing was so clear and it was not even sexy; it was dirty, full of “aahhcchhs” and “fifs.” There was nobody else around to replace me except my girlfriend and we all know that fighter pilots are males. Staying away from the mic and the other usual tricks didn’t work either, it was too dynamic no matter what I tried. So, I closed the mic in the closet to imitate claustrophobic air pressure ambience and I brought a long plastic tube (1 12 meters) and connected it to the mic. The plastic tube acts as a natural band pass that creates the illusion of distance. Now, if someone was looking through the window it looked dirty but sounded perfect. The breathing was far away but still close and it sounded filtered but not software generated. The “resample” to 22.5, plus some fine-tuning tricks, made it sound right.”
Experimentation, experience, and the willingness to leave the studios once in awhile can lead to some fantastic sound creations. These guys are at the top and only climbing higher. I can’t wait to hear what they have coming up next.
Have you ever watched a ‘B’ movie and actually liked the sound effects? Occasionally, the amateurish production has some charm to it, but for the most part, they are not that great. Would you buy a ‘B’ video game or even set out to make one? Of course not! With all of the competition for shelf space, we set out from day one to make a product that will be profitable and perhaps even win us a few accolades from our colleagues in the process.
There are no hard and fast rules, no secret formulas, and no prescribed methods for creating the consummate assemblage of sound effects for a game. It takes fluid communication and a firm vision from the development team coupled with a sound designer who shows no bounds to their creativity and patience. The tips and tricks illustrated here should give a solid foundation for you to build upon and thrive in this gratifying industry. Knock ‘em dead.
The Complete Guide to Game Audio is available at Amazon.com.