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October 2014
Issue: March 1, 2012

Game Audio: What it takes

By: Jennifer Walden
Game audio requires the most experience of any industry, says Composer/Sound Designer Gregory Hainer. He has worked on a laundry list of top game titles such as: Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Justice League Heroes, and many more. Hainer owns Scorpio Sound (www.scorpiosound.com) in Hollywood, California. 

To be successful in the game audio industry, you have to understand every aspect of the audio post industry, plus have an understanding of how that audio is implemented into the game. If you are working at a small development company, you may be the only audio person, so the task of handling everything audio falls on you. 

Hainer recommends you know about sound effects and sound design, Foley stages, or at least know the right person to call. He says, "You have to know the difference between a sound designer and a sound editor. Calling someone who does films may not be the answer, since they may not know how to deliver the material for an in-game asset.”



In addition to sound design, there is also music to think about. Hainer says, “You’re like a music director if you’re not writing the music yourself. You have to know how to contact and communicate with composers. You have to know about music licensing. Some of the music could be from a licensing company or you might have to license a song from a band.”

Don’t forget about dialog. Every script needs actors to play the character voices. Hainer says, “To book talent, you may need to hire a casting director, or a voice director. You need to know how many lines, or how many characters, and you have to know the process, be familiar with SAG, the actors union, because we use those in video game voice overs almost 99.9% of the time. You have to book the sessions, maybe book a studio if you don’t have one. You have to get it edited, put it in the game, and possibly go back and do pick-ups.”

Being adept at the audio post process is absolutely necessary. Now, add to that the implementation aspect of the game. Most game companies have a host of proprietary tools they use to get the audio in the game and make it work. There are a few software programs available, like Audiokinetic’s Wwise (www.audiokinetic.com) that can give you a good idea of how to get the game audio into the game. Hainer says, “I tell people who want to get into the industry to learn Wwise. You can download a free PC copy to get familiar with that kind of implementation software. It’s important to learn how to implement sounds into a game because that may be part of your job. Even as an outside sound designer, you should know how to use these tools so that you are giving game companies not only the .wav files but also the patch for that particular implementation tool, which controls how a sound is going to trigger, how it’s going to play back, if it’s going to pitch shift in the game, or that kind of stuff. The sound designer is actually programming that too. You’re part programmer in a way by having to think about how sound works from the ground up. With game audio, it can happen differently every time.”



Mixing game audio is even trickier. There are several approaches depending on the complexity of the game, or what tools a game company has created to handle mixing. Hainer says, “At its most basic, sometimes the mix can happen based on sub-groups, as it would on a console, or be based on priority. I might make sure all the sounds play back well together, that nothing is too soft or loud, before putting it into the sub-group. This allows you to turn an entire category of sounds up and down, and do a general mix overall. The dialog usually sets the loudest point for the whole game.”

Some companies have adapted midi control surfaces to work with mixer-type tools they’ve created. This allows them to go through a game, level by level, or room by room, and so on, to create a mix for that particular environment or situation. Hainer says, “If mixing for a specific room, you might change the levels, change the reverb, or do really cool things like, let’s say there was a gun shot in an alley, and the player is right next to the gun, then I would compress the sound to mimic what would happen to their ears in reality. The sound would be compressed, and the high-end would be rolled off for a period of time until their ‘hearing’ came back.”

Being able to talk to a programmer, to have these types of mixing tools developed for you, is key. Products such Cycling 74’s Max/MSP (www.cycling74.com/products/max) can also help you design your own tools.  Hainer says, “You have to understand enough about programming and acoustics to really be able to get the tools you need to pull off the things you’re trying to do audio-wise. To have all those qualities in one person is pretty rare.”