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November 2014
Issue: March 1, 2010

INTERACTIVE AUDIO

By: Ken McGorry
Games lovers, always looking for a more immersive experience, appreciate great audio. Even when they don’t know it — they’ve come to expect 5.1 surround and the satisfaction derived from earning access to bigger, deadlier, louder weapons. Remember the audio pro who urges you to “watch Jurassic Park with the sound off” in order to appreciate good sound? Don’t play one of today’s new videogames in silence — one key thing you’ll miss is the voices.

Dallas Audio Post Group was founded in 1994 by creative director/supervising sound editor Roy Machado, who positioned the facility as a well-rounded shop offering services in feature film, television, commercials, corporate and something fairly nichy — voice recording for games. DAPG (www.dallasaudiopost.com) furnishes all manner of 5.1 audio post and scoring services for game developers but it’s the voice production category, often including casting, that has been hot of late. The lead sound designer at DAPG (www.dallasaudiopost.com), Rene Coronado, displays a lot of versatility. Besides his focus on broadcast and in-game presentations for local heroes the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers and his work as ADR recordist for Fox TV, Warner Brothers and Sony Pictures, Coronado leads the voice recording efforts on such games as Brothers in Arms, Dragonball Z and the new Borderlands.

Unlike posting linear entertainment, Coronado says, “In a videogame you have to cover all the contingencies and you have to read a lot of lines out of context because you’re never sure what the context is. Borderlands, from Gearbox Software, is a first-person shooter (FPS) that offers a cooperative multiplayer experience involving characters rendered in a blend of CG and hand-drawn/painted styles. The game required “tens of thousands of audio files,” all processed in Digidesign Pro Tools, and has about 20 characters running around, Coronado says, needing thousands of files just to cover their various utterances. 

“In Borderlands, all the bad guys talk to you,” Coronado says, beyond the usual grunts that come with their attempts to kill you. Given the various scenarios, “you’ll catch five or six different phrases per mode of each individual character. The game itself will randomly pick one based on the mode that character’s in.”

Coronado himself voiced one of the bandits in the game but most of the characters are voiced by actors experienced in game production. “A lot of what makes Borderlands work is bringing good-quality voice acting into it,” Coronado says. “We help with the casting and the direction.” He uses Audio-Technica 4050 mics in a proprietary set-up that covers the characters’ wide dynamic range of expression. DAPG conducted their own mic-shootout a while back to determine the best mic for translating between “whispering and yelling.”
Coronado says, “A lot of the perspective shifts that happen in games happen in software so we try to catch everything as on-mic and as true as possible so that when all that post-processing happens inside the programmers’ game engine they’ve got the best signal to work with. We do compress [signals] a little bit, we EQ them a little bit — without crushing them, we kind of fatten them up a little bit. Inside the [developers’] game engine is where all the mixing happens.”

The big game makers like EA have all their production facilities, including audio, in-house. Gearbox has its own audio facilities for Foley, mixing and sound design but “will outsource the recording of the voices to people that they trust,” Coronado says. “They come to us for the voice production, help with casting, help with directing — to help with the sheer manpower and muscle needed in recording and editing all of these thousands of files.

“It’s a different mindset and a different workflow — they’re asking for different deliverables. It’s tough for a videogame production company to build a level of trust with a film audio post house. A lot of film guys have trouble wrapping their heads around the interactive media.” Along with company head Machado, Coronado works with DAPG’s Jeremiah Gray, Brad Dale and Brandon Weatherred.

Audio always seems the last thing in any project, “It’s always [a] rush, so we’re set up to turn around stuff quickly and keep the level of quality up. We have lots of competent people with lots of capable gear in front of them.”

DARKSIDERS

With his 15 years of experience, award-winning composer Michael Reagan has credits in feature film and television. But the last thing devotees of such FPS games as God of War and now Darksiders would suspect is that the talent behind the pulse-pounding scores for these epic adventures also won awards for shows like Elmo in Grouchland and Nick Jr.’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!
As with God of War, Reagan worked with fellow composer Cris Velasco on THQ’s Darksiders. Created by Vigil Games and Joe Madureira, Darksiders depicts a post-apocalyptic struggle between good and evil. Very evil. Players adopt the main character, War, who must face a hellish array of demons.
The Darksiders’ score features 60 minutes of high-intensity combat tracks using heavy percussion to convey power and danger. Reagan and Velasco composed the epic main theme together, setting the tone for what the two proceeded to score individually (to make deadline). The main theme prominently features a full choir they recorded at Skywalker Sound. The bulk of the theme’s instrumentation — foreboding percussion and orchestration — is convincingly derived from samples.
Reagan usually works in his own studio in Santa Clarita, near LA. His studio runs multiple MacBook  Pros powering various hosts for samples, and it all gets recorded into a Pro Tools 3 Accel system. His main sequencer is Apple’s Logic.
Reagan (www.mikereaganmusic.com) has also used live percussionists frequently, as on God of War. “When you approach a game project you think about what live elements you can bring to it that will give it a different sound than samples — although the samples do sound fantastic.” He adds, “Working with people inspires composers to write and produce differently — just because of the energy of the people in the room.” However, Reagan says, “What I thought was really cool on Darksiders was, for the main theme, which Cris and I wrote together, we added a lot of our own sampling sessions into the mix.” One such notable sound is an exhaled breath recorded with the mic passing the mouth very quickly. Reagan created another unusual sound by tapping pencils on the strings of Velasco’s classical guitar. “Little nuances, when added together, really added something fresh and exciting to the mix.”
Completing Darksiders’ numerous tracks separately did not pose a problem. “We both have a similar style so, when you hear our tracks together, they complement each other,” Reagan says. Victor Rodriguez is the head of audio at THQ and Jeremy Robbins is audio director at Vigil.
Each of the biggest, baddest demons in Darksiders have their own sonic identity — not necessarily melodic; it may be rhythmic or a weird sound effect. “We tried to blend the darkness of a particular [demon] with the main theme,” Reagan says.
“Usually you just want to end the cue that you’ve been listening to while battling that [demon] — so special endings get triggered in time with the music. The gaming engine knows, ‘I’m going to play this final animation because you’ve killed this guy.’”
Reagan and Velasco successfully lobbied for the live choir. Recording the singers at Skywalker “just brought it to a whole different level — it really brought out the darkness we were looking for in the score.” Skywalker’s recording/mixing engineer, multi-Grammy-winner Leslie Ann Jones, was “a big reason why the sound’s so great — she’s an incredible recording engineer.” The team tried to avoid aural trickery: “In most cases the voices just sounded so fantastic on their own.”
One boy soprano Reagan conducted, Zachary Weisberg, was “awesome.” His mournful vocal plays when you boot up the game’s menu screen.

FIFA SOCCER 2010

What’s the biggest game in the world? Soccer. And EA Sports is all over it — 500 international teams competing on three different levels, all represented in a single videogame recreated each year for fans. A lot of teams; a lot of players; a lot of games; a lot of audio. EA Audio director Jeff MacPherson is in charge of all that can be heard on the current FIFA 10.
Not only are FIFA 10’s teams, matches and players different — the commentators are different, as are their 13 languages. And then there are the crowds — different nationalities cheer or boo differently and react differently to events on the field. They also employ different crowds’ sing-song chants  and fling their own curse words at referees and players. All this must be monitored and controlled. FIFA videogames must be realistic and commentary needs to be fresh-sounding and knowledgeable about a given player’s or team’s prospects, milestones, performance and stats, etc. Otherwise you risk taking the player out of the game.
Add to this the vocal interaction among players and managers on the field, as well as their nonverbal grunts and exertions, and you’ve got a virtual world of sound.
MacPherson and company essentially travel the world recording the (fictionalized) game play commentary of established soccer broadcasters. “For all of our games we have the real guys,” MacPherson says, “as high-profile as we can get. It helps sell boxes, but it [conveys] the authenticity of the product itself. The commentator is giving you the narrative. They’re the voice of the game; they’re analyzing the play; they’re providing an emotional score for you; it’s really key for a sports game.”
Authentic-sounding crowd noise is what puts you in the game. Any given team’s fans can have a large number of songs they sing; add to that the different hecklers and shout-outs that MacPherson and company call “salt and pepper.” 
For crowd sounds, “We want to get the most robust, biggest texture we can — we create really nice 5.1 soundscapes with our crowds.” This often involves using a Holophone mic at the match to capture a true 5.1 recording. “For our main crowd beds in every major territory we go to matches and set up arrays of microphones around the stadium.” Except in the US — EA has a deal with ESPN to use their 5.1 HD crowd sounds.
Around the world crowds sound different and behave differently. “The chants are the single biggest emotional element,” MacPherson says, and fans should hear the same chants at home that they do in the stadium. The problem is foul language. “We’ve got a large group of people who are native-language speakers who review every single file multiple times to make sure there’s no swearing. We leave about 70 percent of the content on the cutting room floor.” Numerous different chants may be sung to tunes like “Hot, Hot, Hot” and “Guantanamera” so EA has to license those songs.
It all gets mixed together to achieve a convincing crowd in England, Germany or Italy, etc. Tyler Berrie is the mix supervisor, working with two additional audio editors and three engineers.
“The challenge of videogames is the nonlinear aspect of interactive media,” says MacPherson. “With a sport like soccer, where it’s free-flowing, it’s extra challenging. You’ve got to keep up with it and come across as intelligent. With commentary on a game, I’ve got over 25,000 samples on the disc. The challenge is to play them back in a natural way that sounds realistic, with emotional intensity and analyzing the play that can’t be predetermined.”
Soccer broadcasters are not actors but they are experts and encouraged to use their own words, MacPherson stresses. “They’re absolute pros when it comes to their sport.” MacPherson comes to recording sessions with scenarios rather than scripts. “I’ll describe to them a ‘context’ and I’ll need a certain number of variations on that context depending on how often we expect it to happen.” 
MacPherson uses two commentators for each game and English-speaking versions of FIFA 10 feature the foremost British broadcasters, recorded in London. All commentators for all languages use the same mics they’re familiar with on television. They work in tandem, developing their banter as on TV. Many use Sennheiser headset mics and the British favor Lip mics — so the game sounds like the TV broadcast.
“I’ve made a stylistic decision to not do ‘stitching,’” MacPherson says of the short cut of cutting a player’s name into a line like “Nice goal by…”
“It still does not sound natural. Even if your stitch sounds wrong only once, the user’s like, ‘Oh, I see your trick!’ and all that good work you did goes down the drain.” With the amount of teams they deal with, EA is looking at some developing technology that will allow a subtler version of stitching in the future.
EA Sports (www.easports.com) uses Digidesign Pro Tools and Waves plug-ins, but they have developed their own audio post tools for actual implementation and realtime DSP including realtime IR (impulse response) reverb.
MacPherson leaves an “open window at the very end” of the production cycle to get “last-minute stuff,” such as a late roster change, a new rule change, or the rise of a new player. FIFA 10 offers 500 teams and 20,000 players around the world. “It’s by far the largest in scope.”

LUCASARTS

“The industry’s really growing up and audio’s just a huge part of that,” says Darragh O’Farrell, senior manager of audio at LucasArts. With 15 years at LucasArts, O’Farrell is amused by how much videogame production has changed. “Now a lot of people from film and television call me every week to try and get in because they see it as such a growth area. There’s a lot of work and the quality bar is so high now.”
Maybe such callers saw Sam Witwer (The Mist, Smallville, Dexter) portray a threatening person of interest in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed — LucasArts’ award-winning 2008 game that’s proved to be the fastest selling title in the catalog.
Saw him? Yes, in recent years LucasArts  has been exploiting its own facial-performance-capture technology to use an actor’s facial expressions as well as his vocalizations for major roles. So you can see as well as hear a likeness of Witwer in Unleashed and in the sequel (www.lucasarts.com/games/theforceunleashed2/) to be released later this year. O’Farrell has a past in directing actors — real ones — so it’s almost as if videogames’ maturing technology is helping him come full circle while making use of the mindboggling effects, animation and 5.1 sound experience available today. Witwer has also provided motion capture and video reference of full-body actions to lend realism to his animated character’s motions.
LucastArts audio pros such as O’Farrell and his cohort, sound supervisor/voice director David Collins, are in business to deliver a compelling experience to users, but they also labor under arguably the greatest legacy in fantasy/action entertainment. “As a game company,” Collins says, “we absolutely hold ourselves to the standards set by Ben Burtt on the sound design front; by George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg on the acting/performance front; and by John Williams — one of the most prolific and well-known composers of the 20th Century.” 
Collins has experienced recording technology’s revolution since he first started in film audio, interning on Skywalker Sound’s scoring stage. He’s worked on big orchestral recordings for games since 2003 and by late 2007, Collins was back on the Skywalker stage helping to record orchestration for The Force Unleashed. “With an orchestra it really allows you to score the action in a much more subtle way.”
The team recorded close to two hours of orchestrations and other musical cues for The Force Unleashed. Even more orchestration serves the action in Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO prequel game currently in the works. A linear movie may be 90 minutes or two hours, but a good game, Collins says, may be played anywhere from eight to 48 hours. With an MMO, played online with countless competitors, “It just never stops! You want as much music as you possibly can to avoid listener fatigue.”
Even with a big orchestral recording O’Farrell and Collins say they sometimes rely on a sample to make an interactive musical piece fit. Collins adds, “Sometimes we’ll do big action cues with 85 pieces all at once, but sometimes we’ll just have brass play a line or just get orchestral elements so we can mix them separately and plug them in interactively at different times.”
Freelancer Mark Griskey composed the “Williamsesque” score for The Force Unleashed and the LucasArts staff includes veteran music supervisor/composer Jesse Harlin; audio lead Brian Tibbets; and sound designers Tom Bible and Aaron Brown.
Of course, gamers need to feel satisfaction for fighting their way to new levels. In the world of Star Wars games, O’Farrell points out, levels are often represented by action on new planets — and new planets require their own combat themes and sound design to complement their visual variety. As the antihero’s character in The Force Unleashed progresses from sinister to a more conventionally heroic, his theme music changes, too.
The sound design also changes, becoming more powerful and impactful as a player “levels up.” The same is true with The Old Republic — progress in sound design and sound effects must intensify toward the highest levels while avoiding coming off as weak at the game’s early stages. “At the end of the game you want [the player] to feel like the most powerful Jedi around,” Collins says.
O’Farrell says in 2009 the LucasArts audio team was amplified by about 17 outside contractors acting as composers, voice editors and sound designers in “audio integration.”
Audio integration is a growing field — cleverly implementing the audio into a game. Within their proprietary audio integration tool and DAWs such as Pro Tools, LucasArts sound designers manipulate audio effects using shrinkwrap software such as Wwise. “I can create my effect, put it in the integration tool, put some realtime properties on it and it can have a slightly different impact every time the player pushes the button,” Collins says.
All must fit into the game’s memory: numerous exotic weapons; characters’ different footsteps, costumes and surfaces — all with different pitches and random volume variation. Increasingly effects, including reverb, take place within the integration process, rather than “hard baking” them in advance. This allows more variation — which feels more live, more interactive and more cool — for less memory overhead. The result is players can do more, it sounds better, and doesn’t sound so repetitive.
An unexpected reward for Darth Vader fans playing The Force Unleashed is the performance by Matt Sloan, the creator, with Aaron Yonda, of the Chad Vader videos. (That’s Darth’s underachieving brother who toils in a present-day American supermarket but is capable of random violence such as remotely strangling a singing Michael McDonald.) The powers that be at LucasArts look favorably upon Sloan and Yonda’s online UGC and O’Farrell hired Sloan to voice Darth —quite effectively, with a few filters — for the game.

GUITAR HERO

So, you want to be a rock ’n’ roll star. Since 2005 millions like you have picked up their new Fender-shaped controller and worked their way into any number of hit rock bands with help from Activision Blizzard’s Guitar Hero and its subsequent spinoffs and sequels. Hendrix, Bowie, Rush, Ozzy, Ted Nugent, Kiss and Van Halen — there’s a lot of guitar heroism to enjoy. Add to that the new Band Hero series featuring popsters such as Taylor Swift among many more.
Increasingly today, says Clark Wen, audio director at Neversoft, which makes many GH games, players are hearing their favorite band’s original master tracks, remastered for use in the game. The new Guitar Hero 5, out since fall 2009, offers “85 songs by 83 artists.” Add to that 2008’s Guitar Hero: World Tour (incorporating vocals, keyboards and drum tracks) and you’ve got a lot.
Neversoft (www.neversoft.com) has been creating GH games since GH 3. The company specializes in GH games (as do some other GH developers) including character animation. They motion capture certain noteworthy stars such as Ozzy Osbourne (GH: World Tour), who was scanned for a performance of “Crazy Train.” Ted Nugent recorded a song just for GH where the player is challenged to trade licks with a mocap Nugent. Taylor Swift had herself mocapped for Band Hero, which has a wider instrumental focus beyond guitar.
Wen says Guitar Hero’s “Fame,” by David Bowie, is a good example of the new offerings that employ original master tracks. “We get all of our stems from the music labels’ original recordings,” Wen says. With “Fame” (1975) there were no mix notes “so they had to redo the mix to match the original and then print the stems in a format that works with our game.” Once Neversoft verifies that the new version matches the original and all the parts are separated out, “we go through and pick out the parts that we want to assign for each instrument. In a song like Fame there’s a lot of rhythm guitar [riffing] but there’s also some other lead parts. You have to pick out the parts that are not only faithful to the song but also fun to play. They transfer everything over to a digital workstation — generally Pro Tools is what almost everybody is using — and remix it to match the original. We got a breakdown of all the separate instrument stems,” Wen says, “drums, bass, vocals and guitars.”
GH: World Tour features Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” “That was just an amazing sounding recording,” says Wen. “Just being able to get the stems from the label and see all the parts and work that went into making that song work — it’s pretty amazing to have that here at Neversoft.”
You don’t hear “audio always comes last, man,” at Neversoft — here it’s the exact opposite. “It’s kind of backwards,” says Wen. “The music forms the basis of the game, so we’re the first step in the production process. It’s kind of nice, actually.” As such, Wen and his audio staff pick out the high points in songs that they want to play up and communicate that to Neversoft animation and effects pros. However, at this stage, the visual staff knows what’s expected.
“The Spirit of Radio” originally on a 1980 Rush album is an unusual case — Wen and company used an unreleased live recording. With some older songs the studio multitracks are unavailable. The Guitar Hero “Spirit of Radio” has all the instruments separated out — with just a little bit of bleed — live in concert. Since GH specializes in emulating live performances some crowd noise is welcome. “It can be helpful,” Wen says. “In the game we have a stream dedicated to crowd sounds. We took the crowd sounds from the live recording and put that in the game and it sounds really good.”