Ann Kroeber Special: Sound for Games – Exclusive Interview
Don’t forget to sign up for the live chat with Ann on October 29th.
You’ve contributed to a number of very well known games and franchises in recent years. What’s are some of the similarities and differences you’ve encountered between the game and film industries?
As far as sound in these two industries, both film and game sound brings us into the picture and stirs up our emotions. It also helps make the images come alive. In film as the story evolves the sound is used to back up the story, and helps make us feel a certain way about the images. There are usually longer and more elaborate sequences to take the viewer through a story with film, and with game sound there is a far greater variety of generally short sounds. Unlike films, these sounds elicit an immediate, active, reaction from the player.
I think whereas more time goes into pre-production sound work on games than most films, unfortunately for freelancers, an awful lot of this time can be spent dealing with contracts and legal issues instead of being creative. Though sometimes on high budget films there is a fair bit of legal back and forth that is needed, I find that there are way more contract negations with game companies over licensing.
You’ve mentioned previously that game audio is more complicated than film in some ways. Can you go into a little more detail?
There are far more sounds needed in a game than a film, and many more variations on the same theme. Take for example a film and a game that has monsters in it. In a film a creature dies once and the designer only has to create vocals for that one event. In a game there can be many different possibilities of how and when that creature dies and a variety of subtly different death cries that need to be created. It’s often that way in a game with many many different creatures and emotions that need to be represented. Also, in a game there is more dimension to a scene, like when a player moves and sounds need to change as the image changes.
There are starting to be opportunities for creating new sound styles in 3D movies, but so far I think game sound designers are further ahead in that area.
What types of sounds have you been contracted to provide? And do you provide finished designs/assets, or are you providing component elements for the developers’ sound teams to work with?
With games I’ve been mostly asked to provide creature vocals. I have a huge collection of animal sounds that I, and to some extent my late husband, Alan Splet, recorded over decades. I’ve captured animals that have expressed a panoply of emotions across the globe. Sometimes I’m also asked for nature sounds such as jungle, desert, and arctic backgrounds or city ambiances in exotic locals, but so far not as much as expressive animals. Once in awhile I’ll get contacted for my large collection of vintage cars, planes and weapons.
What are some of the questions you ask when you are approached to work on a game?
After signing an NDA, I try to find out as much information as possible about the nature of the game and what kinds of sounds they are looking for to enhance their project. I tell them about sounds in my library and generally what I have that can help.
My process of coming up with really useful sounds for the game evolves as I talk with the designer, send material, get feedback, and enhance the package as the process progresses. I choose material based on this collaboration and through suggestions of ways that it can be layered in various combinations, or slowed or sped up, and processed to get the effect needed.
Bears, horses, wolves, whales, lions, leopards, monkeys and alligators just to name a few animals that happen to come to mind, can be used in surprising and endless combinations. Sometimes I’ll find material from my library that isn’t an animal but has the right effect. For example, I have some amazing dry ice recordings that David Lynch and Alan created many years ago for Eraserhead. Some of it sounds like wounded or angry animals and can be really useful in sweetening real animal vocals.
What reference materials do you commonly work with from developers?
Stills, video clips from the game and descriptions and explanations from the sound designer.
Are there any particular characteristics that help you define the sonic palette for a game asset? What structural and visual aspects help you connect a specific sound to a given game element?
The more information I can get and visuals I can see, the more I am able to come up with interesting and nuanced varieties of sounds. Sometimes I find sounds that you wouldn’t think of for a particular image but really add an extra flavor or exciting dimension to it.
How does the overall look and tone of the game affect your decisions?
Just as in film the look and tone of the images in a game has a huge effect on what sorts of sounds are needed. For example, the sound needs to create threatening monsters for Hellgate London was very different from the adorable, young cats or bears that the guys working on Kinectimals were wanting.
You provided sounds for Spore, which was a rather unpredictable game. Players designed their creatures/races from the ground up, watching them evolve as the game progressed. I imagine that presented a very unique set of considerations when developing sounds for the game. Care to comment?
Spore is an incredible game! I worked with the local sound developers in the East Bay of San Francisco, for several months on the game. They were a great team and I enjoyed the communication, but I think I could have been much more helpful to them during the initial development if the nature of the game had been more clear. The problem was that they hadn’t received enough information themselves about the look of the creatures. We initially thought that the creatures were much more menacing than they actually were when the first images finally came in. I had helped them develop a whole vocabulary that we had thought would be appropriate given the information we had, but needed to be dramatically different once the images started coming in. It was at that time that a different sound designer took charge, brought in new people, and took the sound in a different direction. I would have loved to be involved in that as well but alas, it wasn’t in the cards.
What is the feedback process like when working with the in-house audio teams?
I tend to get terrific feedback. I develop an understanding and rapport with my clients that evolves over time. I like talking with them on the phone (or Skype) if we’re in different locales. Sometimes I’ll play sounds over a speakerphone just to show them what I’m thinking and that’s an instant way to find out if we’re on the same track or where I need to go.
What’s one of your favorite moments from working on some of these games?
One delightful experience I had was last year when I recorded new animal vocals for Kinectimals. I spent a week at a big cat preserve in the Mojave Desert. I really got to know the kitties while I was there. I fell in love with a magnificent Tiger named Caesar that would come over to me and tell me his woes. He’d look into my eyes and talk right into my microphone. One day he put the back of his head against the fence and wanted me to pet him. I told him I wasn’t allowed and he was very incensed. He like most of cats there seemed to understand that I was trying to capture their voices with those big mics. Once I convinced them not to be afraid, and showed I was interested in what they had to say, they were wonderfully vocal with me. There was an adorable leopard cub that would hiss and snarl at the mic and then pull back, sit and smile at me. I called him “tuff stuff”. He was so proud of showing me how tuff he was. Then there were other cats that would grumble, and chuff, howl, hiss and sing.
One night I went out to capture a primal chuffing sound that the cats do in a group at night. They evidently won’t do this around people so I set my rig up at the edge of Caesar. the tiger’s large compound. hoping that maybe I could capture him making that sound. I turned the recorder on and walked away with my guide. We sat back under the trees and could hear a group of leopards start their chorus and it sounded like Caesar started to chime in. When I listened to the tape, after the leopards provided the background vocals Caesar had walked right up to the mic and like a great jazz singer sang a wonderfully expressive solo. It took everything in me to keep from going over and hugging him.
You come from a very unique background within the audio industry; having worked on some of the most revered soundtracks for film, and now contributing to some of the largest game franchises in existence. Do you have any comments to the game audio industry?
It seems like there is a general feeling that film is where the most creative and serious sound work is being done, but games are now so much more imaginative and sophisticated than what they used to be. There are more resources and development time being put into game sound than there is on an average film, and the innovations being made are well… awesome.