This is an interview with our guest poster for November – Ariel Gross, Audio Director of game development studio Volition Inc, which produces such PC and console titles as the Saint’s Row and Red Faction series. Check out Ariel’s introduction post, and his blog ‘I Feel Like a Fraud and So Can You!‘
Can you tell us a little about how you got into audio, and your audio career in the games industry so far?
My dad brought home a Roland MT-32 in like, 1988. He wanted to hear Sierra games in all their glory, but he also liked to compose music as a hobby. So, we would play Space Quest and then crack open Cakewalk for DOS and compose little songs for fun. I’d been playing piano with him for a long time, and he’d always had a couple of synths, but I remember being blown away at the fidelity and variety of instruments on the MT-32. This is when I started fantasizing in earnest about being a professional musician of some sort. I would play some giant chords with a string patch and then bow for the applause in my head. Just one chord, then a bow. Over and over. I had a pretty good bow by the time I was 10.
ambiances, plural; ambiences, plural
- The character and atmosphere of a place
– the relaxed ambience of the cocktail lounge is popular with guests
- Background noise added to a musical recording to give the impression that it was recorded live
Wherever you may be reading this article, stop whatever you are doing, and listen to your environment. What do you hear? Tempting as it may be to declare ‘nothing’, the complex cacophony of the world around you is being combined, and fused together in your environment to create the sound of a specific location. The sound of your immediate surroundings is being pulled from all manner of sources such as electrical hums, water pipes, passing traffic, neighbours, the weather and even local wildlife. As indistinct these may be from your perspective, these sounds are still making their way, however faint, into your room, heavily filtered and being reverberated around and off your furnishings to distort them beyond recognition and delivered to your ear as a nondescript, intangible ‘room tone’. Its such a slight sound that many people simply don’t hear it. They hear ‘silence’ (Probably because they haven’t tried to make any recordings there!)
Editors note: This series of articles by Ariel were initially planned to be for the ‘Featured Sound Designer’, but due to recent changes to Designing Sound they will simply be posted each Wednesday over the month of November. And now, please allow Ariel Gross, Studio Audio Director at Volition to introduce himself in his own words.
The year is 1991. Ariel Gross is 12 years old. He’s cracking open Scream Tracker for the first time with a Sound Blaster 16. He proceeds to cobble together a terrible arrangement of Spring Yard Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog. This arrangement would never see the light of day but it would set Ariel off on a certain trajectory in his life. Man, the tune to Spring Yard Zone. The little intro before it drops… So rad. The point is, game audio had always been his favorite thing and now he was emulating it. This third person stuff is kind of weird. I’m dropping it.
I got my start in the demoscene after getting pretty comfy with Scream Tracker. I was in a bunch of demo groups and tracker music groups using Stalker as an alias, the most popular probably being a group called Five Musicians. Contacts in the demoscene ended up providing me with my first contract game audio job at the ripe age of 16. I was introduced to the president of Webfoot Games through my friend RaD Man from ACiD Productions. Weird how these things line up. Never stopped doing audio for games since then. Always composing music or designing sounds for some game or another.
Things really blasted off when I joined Volition, though. That was in 2007. I had just wrapped up school at The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. I had a bunch of indie casual games under my belt, but nothing for consoles. Unless you count handheld, because I did compose music and design sounds for Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku for Game Boy Advance. But other than that, no consoles.
Working at Volition was a whole new world, though. This was serious, big budget games. I started as an Audio Designer on Saints Row 2 and then rolled onto Red Faction: Guerrilla after that. Then I was Audio Lead on Saints Row: The Third. I must be doing something right, because now I’m Studio Audio Director at Volition and most of my colleagues seem to find me only mildly annoying 93% of the time. Don’t worry about the other 7%.
It’s crazy to be a featured sound designer among these industry titans here on Designing Sound. When I was asked, I was like, hell yeah! That sounds fun! And then I looked at the other people and I projectile vomited. I’m still projectile vomiting, even as I write this. I don’t know when I’m going to stop.
The issues of loudness and dynamic range are common across all audio/visual media, but recently this conversation has been gaining traction within the game audio community. Following his presentation ‘Fighting the Loudness War’ at the Develop conference in early July, I contacted Sony Computer Entertainment Europe’s Audio Director Garry Taylor to discuss the subject further.
DS: First of all, can you tell us a little about how yourself, and your audio career in the games industry so far?
I left school at 16 and joined a band as a bassist. As well as constant gigging I also taught myself my way around a mixing desk and started engineering live bands at my local venue, The Square in Harlow, UK. After 10 years gigging and engineering bands, both live and in the studio, I bumped into a game developer friend who asked me if I wanted to do some music for a project he was working on. I enjoyed myself on that project and decided I wanted to work on games full time. I offered to work for him for free for a couple of months, and in those two months made myself invaluable, after which he offered me a full-time job. I stayed at Mythos Games (creators of X-Com) for 4 years before joining Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) as a sound designer in 2001. After working at SCEE’s London Studio for 5 years, I moved to Cambridge to manage the audio team there. In the last couple of years I have taken responsibility for audio for SCEE’s London, Cambridge, Liverpool and Evolution Studios.
DS: Could you tell us about where your interest in loudness standards stems from? What issues are being caused by a lack of any kind of standard in games at the moment?
GT: The main problem for me was the complete lack of consistency between different titles on PlayStation, especially the audio that accompanies the icons on the Xross Media Bar (XMB). As a front end, I felt the XMB problem reflected very badly on PlayStation generally and needed to be fixed. But without any official guidance, there was very little that audio developers could do to counter the requests from producers to increase the volume on titles.
With the rise in popularity of sound design, and game audio as a career choice among audio engineers, there is a growing call for formal training and education courses that will prepare prospective professionals accordingly. Last week, I posted this open call for students to enrol in the School of Video Game Audio. The co-founder of the School, Leonard J. Paul, has been kind enough to take some time and answer some questions on the school, and its content and goals.
Can you give us a little background about yourself, and the school?
I’ve been involved in video games off and on since 1994. I originally started out in programming but these days I work on composition, sound design and implementation for video games. I work a bit in film as well and was the composer the “The Corporation” which is the highest-grossing Canadian documentary film in history. For the past ten years I’ve been working on video game audio education while continuing to work in games. For the last few years I’m concentrated on working with indie titles such as Retro City Rampage and Vessel by Strange Loop Games.
The idea of the school has been around for a while from conversations Gordon and I were having a few years back. It seemed that there was a service missing for people that wanted some guidance on learning game audio but didn’t have the time to attend a school or didn’t have any schools available nearby. I enjoy giving lectures internationally and have repeatedly found that there is an amazing growth of the gaming industry around the world but it is often difficult for people to learn from veterans in the field. By making the school online and by trying to keep the costs reasonable it helps make our knowledge available to a large range of students that wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity otherwise.