AUDIO FOR GAMES & DVD
For some studios that handle audio post, game and DVD titles represent a significant portion of their workload. And for others that find themselves doing sound for commercials and films, games and DVD projects represent a welcome form of new business — one that they’d like to see grow.
DVDs might require restoration services or offer the opportunity to create unique content, giving studios the chance to truly partner with a client and pitch original ideas. Games also offer creative opportunities, as well as management challenges that come from the huge number of audio cues that make up a soundtrack.
Here’s a look at a hand-full of audio post houses that regularly work on both.
NEW WAVE ENTERTAINMENT
The content development and production division at New Wave Entertainment (www.studio-nwe.com) in Burbank produces DVD special features and direct-to-DVD work, as well as new media and interactive projects. The studio is home to six Digidesign Pro Tools-based audio suites, including a commentary production suite that hosts talent when creating bonus content for DVD and Blu-ray releases.
The commentary room can be used to record eight or more people as they view material from any of the room’s four monitors. The studio is equipped with Sennheiser 416 microphones and a Pro Tools|HD workstation. New Wave uses Fairlight consoles for mixing and manages assets via Avid’s ISIS solution.
According to executive director of interactive media Andrew Carlson, the studio has seen an increase in the 5.1 and 7.1 soundtrack work that’s being linked to bonus content. “Back in the [standard definition] days, a lot of those things — they would not have taken the money and resources to have done that,” says Carlson, of the more elaborate soundtracks.
The commentary sessions the studio handles goes beyond a typical in-studio recording session. “With Blu-ray we’ve been doing a lot of visual commentary, so the commentary is moving outside of the commentary room and is becoming fully produced video pieces. We’re placing them in a secondary video, on top of picture. Sometimes they are just a talking head of the filmmaker or somebody that can speak on the film. If it’s comic book based, we might have the original illustrators along with the director and production designers all sharing their experiences.”
New Wave regularly works with Warner Bros., Universal, Fox and Sony. They are also seeing growth in work from Paramount and Disney. At any given time, as many as 100 projects can be in the works at the studio — some for as little as a few months, and others, much longer.
“The Dark Knight was in here for over a year,” Carlson recalls. “The studio asked us to start coming up with our best ideas [because they expected] it to be really large.”
One unique piece of bonus content focused on sound design and the work of Richard King, who was recognized with an Oscar for his work on the film.
Other recent projects include the Bourne Trilogy box set, Wanted and Get Smart, along with a steady stream of catalog releases from studios such as Warner Bros.
Constantine Nasr is a DVD producer in the home entertainment division of New Wave and has been putting his love for classic features to work on releases for Warner Bros and MGM in recent years.
Over the last six years, Nasr has provided restoration services as well as created bonus content for six Looney Tunes box sets, three Popeye collections and a classic animated Superman release.
“We try to create special features that bring anything we can find from the archives into the open for fans, and to promote these classic films,” says Nasr.
One example of New Wave’s special feature work is what Nasr has done for Looney Tunes; he’s restored scores from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and matched them to the visuals, creating music-only soundtracks.
“It takes a lot of time — not only to make sure they are in sync,”’ he says. “We would recreate these music-only scores as well as music and sound effects tracks, because the sound effects on these cartoons were very, very extensive. It would take days to line up a six-minute score. We worked with a number of restoration houses outside of New Wave, and did a lot of the clean up here to make it sound as pristine as possible.”
These catalog titles are particularly challenging when it comes to creating commentary because many of the directors and animators originally involved are no longer living.
“We find historians to do commentary and have found interview bites — vintage videotaped interviews from the ‘80s — incorporated it, cleaned it up and did some inter-cutting just to get the actual voices of the people who did the production. That’s a key for us and a lot of work goes into it too. That’s really something that I pride myself in: getting the people that made [the originals]. We clean those old tapes up — things that no one ever thought they were going to use. You are hearing them for perhaps the only time.”
Nasr worked on a more recent title with director Terry Gilliam for the 2008 Blu-ray release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
“There were 20 pages of script that were cut from the original film and never shot,” notes Nasr, “so I asked Terry and his co-star to perform an audio track of the deleted scenes. Not only did they read the script, they improvised with sound effects and songs that he made up while we were recording, and we visualized that with storyboards, which he provided.”
Another new title features the Tom and Jerry collection, with bonus content that includes interviews with the now deceased Chuck Jones.
“Somebody happened to have it and let me use it, so it’s in there,” says Nasr of the Jones audio. “Maybe you put in a little subtitle because it is so poor, but you have to take it for what it is. At least it’s the opportunity to hear the artist talking about his own work.”
CLATTER & DIN
Seattle’s Clatter & Din (www.clatterdin.com) was celebrating its 15th anniversary at press time, as well as the recent opening of its new facility. According to Peter Barnes, who’s a partner at the studio with Vince Werner, the company purchased space in a 100-year-old, six-story, brick and wood warehouse last year, and called on Dallas-based designer Russ Berger to create two high-end 5.1 surround rooms on the floor that it calls home. The building is in the area near Seattle’s new sports stadiums, which is in the early stages of development.
To succeed in the Seattle market, Barnes says Clatter & Din has to keep costs down and be able to do many things. “We’re not LA, where you are able to niche yourself and do ‘mono Foley’ and that’s it,” he jokes.
The studio handles sound design, ADR, independent films and music, and is seeing growth in its audio-for-games services because of the hot-bed of activity taking place in the northwest.
“We decided that it was important for us to take the company to the next level,” says Barnes of the new space, which opened in February. “We set out to build a facility that Seattle did not have. Seattle does not have any good surround rooms, until this place, in my opinion.”
The 5.1 rooms are based around Pro Tools and feature high ceiling as well as a large music room and line-of-sight booths for isolated recording.
The studio is also home to a suite housing its four-year-old editorial division, a full time Web designer and facilities for DVD authoring and encoding. As such, two of its rooms serve a dual purpose, with both Final Cut and Pro Tools available.
The quality of the new sound rooms, says Barnes, has given the studio more confidence in pursuing game work. “While we’ve always had a great reputation for sound design, our previous facility was a little challenged. Our booths were small. It was a facility that we basically had built ourselves — we had a few noise floor issues. This new facility, coupled with the rise in the necessary quality of deliverables, has really got the attention of gamers. I feel so much better now getting the word out because this facility is so well designed for it.”
Clatter & Din sound designer John Buroker says he’s contributed to approximately 15 games for publisher Her Interactive, which specifically creates games targeting female players. The Nancy Drew titles, which are available on Windows PC, Wii and as casual Flash games on the Web, consistently show up on Top 10 lists.
“I record all of the dialogue,” says Buroker. “The [lead actor] — the Nancy Drew character — is in California, but I do all the post production on her voice. I record all of the dialogue and mix in any necessary sound effects — if they are in a cave or under water. I record it all in Seattle and the main character is recorded via phone patch, and then I am sent a giant .WAV file of the entire session. Then I do all the editing and effects for that character as well.”
Buroker says a single game could involve 1,000 cues, so there’s quite a bit to manage. Other character voice performances come from local talent that come into the studio for sessions. “I use a Sennheiser 416 [mic] because by the time you compress everything, you want it to be really clean. The 416 does a good job of keeping room reflections out.”
For the latest release, he recorded a three-piece traditional Irish band that could be heard throughout the game’s castle setting.
“I recorded the band and provided a dry, full mix and a reverb-only split of the band so they could create distance within the game as [players] are walking around the castle.”
Buroker recorded the band performing nine songs that are public domain. He then created :10 and :60 edits to go along with the complete recordings.
When the titles were delivered on CD-ROM, Buroker says file size was somewhat of an issue. “Now the game is delivered on DVD-ROM,” he notes, “and people have such large hard drives. I deliver 16-bit, 44.1kHz files and file size does not seem to be an issue for them anymore.”
That said, he is still careful about not taking up unnecessary space. “I make sure I edit everything tight, so there is no dead space taking up file size.”
Cue sheets, provided by the client, detail the delivery specs. “They have cue sheets with specific file names, so I will create specific files that reflect those names and deliver them 44.1k .WAV files. Usually I post to an FTP, unless it’s really, really big, then I’ll deliver a DVD-ROM.”
Panning and volume is then determined by the programmers working with the game engine.
JET STREAM SOUND
Boutique audio house Jet Stream Sound (www.jetstreamsound.com) opened in Burbank last summer, offering sound design, mixing and music services for film, TV, games and commercials. The studio was formed by supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Rick Larimore and composer/re-recording mixer Steven Cahill, and includes two mixing studios based around Pro Tools set-ups.
Larimore is a former re-recording mixer for 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. His credits include DVD mastering for Prison Break, How I Met Your Mother and The Simpsons. Previously, he served as director of audio services at Elektrofilm in Burbank, where he established the company’s sound department.
Cahill is also the owner of Sticky Notes Music, through which he provides music composition and arrangement services. His TV credits include music for Party of Five, Touched by an Angel, Six Feet Under and ‘Til Death.
Jet Stream’s all-new facility incorporates a tapeless workflow. Studio A features a Digidesign ICON D-Command integrated console in an Argosy Mirage workspace with Pro Tools|HD. Studio B also features Pro Tools|HD with Magma Expansion and range of plug-ins. A mid-size booth allows for voiceover recording and small ensemble sessions.
On the DVD front, Jet Stream offers commentary recording, mastering and restoration services. And in the game arena, the studio has been handling voice tracking for Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Company of Heroes for Relic Entertainment, and Stormrise for Sega.
Cahill says he’s partnered with Voiceworks Productions (www.voiceworksproductions.com) on a number of titles. “They do a lot of voice casting for major games. The first game I did for them was Dawn of War. [Another], Company of Heros 2, is just being released this week. It’s quite a production. We spent a couple of weeks on it. There’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of dialogue in these games.”
“It’s more than any feature that you’d ever work on as far as ADR and VO goes, with the exception of an animated feature,” adds Larimore.
“I tracked two solid weeks of dialogue for this game last April,” Cahill recalls. “All of the games that we’ve done have slightly different delivery requirements. Some want the dialogue almost mastered, ready to go, and others want the very raw track.”
Larimore most often chooses a Neumann U87 for voice recording. “It really depends on which character is coming in and what they are doing,” he notes. “We generally like the U87 mic. We’re pretty old school in that way. And we also have the Sennheiser 416.”
Talent is recorded separately, but to create a group walla, they will each ad lib at some point in the session, and those tracks will later be combined into a group performance. For Dawn of War, each voice talent sang their own version of a fight song. Larimore says he later combined the collective tracks into one. “It was supposed to sound sloppy and comaraderie-like, but it was a fun challenge.”
Elements are typically delivered via an FTP site, either as a Pro Tools session or as one large, merged file from the entire day.
Voiceworks’ Doug Carrigan produces the sessions and keeps track of the cues.
STUDIO X LABS
Paul Ruskay founded Vancouver’s Studio X Labs (www.studioxlabs.com) 10 years ago, after working at Radical Entertainment as an audio lead for more than four years. A shake up at Radical gave him the chance to take what he learned there and put it to use at his own shop. In fact, many former Radical employees set up their own independent studios, and Ruskay and team — fellow sound designers and engineers Greg Sabtiz and Rob Plotnikoff — have worked with them on a range of game titles in recent years.
Audio for games makes up 80 percent of Studio X Labs’ work, and Ruskay says Vancouver is an active location for production in that genre. His studio is located just a few blocks from where he worked while with Radical, and he estimates that seven or eight developers are within walking distance of the audio house.
“I was looking to get out of Radical, and I always had a desire to be independent,” he notes. “I didn’t really know how to start a studio or run a studio, but being at Radical, we built theirs. That was sort of my fledgling experience with building a studio.”
Today Studio X Labs has three production studios, one of which serves as a voiceover room and an integration room with a surround set-up. A fourth room is used for tracking. Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic are their tools of choice, along with Yamaha 02R consoles for mixing.
In the past year, Studio X Labs contributed to a number of games. Ruskay recalls two Nintendo DS titles, one Wii project, the Xbox 360 game Damnation, and logos and surround sound for the three EA sports products.
“When you are this small, you have to be nimble. You have to be a jack of all trades,” says Ruskay. “When we did Damnation, the parent company [Blue Omega] was out of Maryland, and they completely outsourced all components of the game. All of the art was done in Portland by Liquid Studios, and cinematics were being done in LA by Velvet Elvis. And we did all the music, sound design, speech and integration. It’s what we had been working toward for a number of years, which is being given the entirety of the production and doing it remotely with three other studios in two different time zones.”
For games such as Damnation or Turok: Rebirth, which is another title Studio X worked on, Ruskay says the studio really needs “10 months to do it properly. And that includes integration as well.”
Turok: Rebirth, Ruskay recalls, “had a neat interactive music engine. “We had to figure out how to use the tool in order for the music to react to the player-driven action. As the player moves through the environment, their actions influence the soundtrack. Ruskay recalls having three stems — low, medium, and high — in terms of intensity. The ambient layer played as a background, strings would come on as the action increases, and a full on orchestra, with intense percussion, marked the most intense action.
Surprisingly, file sizes are still something that must be carefully managed, despite the increased capacity of the media, such as Blu-ray, which is used for many releases.
“It depends also on what hardware you are working on,” says Ruskay. “On a Nintendo DS game — a track of music with the instruments would be, on average, 300k. I’ve done three DS games now and there is not a lot of space for audio. The way that you make sound and music for a DS title is very similar to the original Super Nintendo.”
As a solution, he will create a small palette instruments and compose with just those instruments, which helps keeps file size small.
On the other hand, Damnation required a 300-style soundtrack, so Ruskay worked with a live guitar player to get the heavy guitar feel and then combined the live track with sequenced orchestral GigaStudio samples.
And for Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld 2, Ruskay recorded a 15-piece string section at the Armory Studios. The game used the track in more of a traditional film style, where the in-game music is just streamed, rather than connected to specific player cues.
At press time, Studio X Labs was working on an “attract” video for Electronic Arts. These pieces can run around two minutes in length and are designed as marketing material that triggers when a game console is sitting idle.