|-Game audio articles by Aaron Marks|
- this article originally appeared April 2004 at Gamasutra.com -
GDC 2004 - The Audio Track
by Aaron Marks
Game audio is in good hands. After surviving the non-stop and near sleepless pace of this year's Game Developers Conference, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a multitude of brilliant and talented individuals behind the wheel, driving this particular niche of the market in a positive direction. Not only are the veterans providing the experience and steady hand, but the new bloods as well are contributing with their enthusiasm and eagerness to dream impossible dreams. The music and film industries are also beginning to find their place and all were present in force at this memorable yearly gathering.
After five straight years in attendance, what really struck me most was the immense sense of community we have in game audio and in the games industry as a whole. Despite the quiet, yet fierce competition between companies and individuals, you'd never know it by the camaraderie this corner of the industry shares. I'm happy to include many of the guys I compete with as friends and not surprisingly, most others feel the same way.
Rod Abernathy, of Red Note Audio shares his observation: "There were lots of new faces! It's great to see new sound designers and composers at the conference, it really shows that we're growing."
This year's audio sessions seemed to be a bit of déjà vu for most of us, but that didn't stop the crowds from packing in, hungry for new information. The GDC organizers, realizing the growing popularity of the audio track, kindly accommodated us in the Hilton's roomy Almaden Ballroom where we still managed standing-room-only crowds for many of the sessions. Kudos to GDC for their foresight. And, just when I was beginning to know my way around lovely San Jose, the organizers announced that next year's conference will be held in San Francisco, due to the lack of hotel space in the area. (I hope they remember to give us a big room in the new digs.)
Session overlap was minimal, but there were a couple of tough choices to make when planning the days activities. Luckily, most of the audio track was recorded and is available for a mere $99 here on the Gamasutra site--the next best thing to being there and a great refresher for those of us who were.
Erik Kraber's audio keynote address, "Sound Design Methodology of Medal of Honor", was an excellent session covering the process for creating sound effects for this award winning series. The scope of this type of project can easily become a nightmare, yet Erik made it sound completely manageable with his experienced approach. Alexander Brandon, Audio Director at Midway, summed it up. "My favorite session was definitely Erik Kraber's keynote. It provided insight to some of the best sound work done in games and gave a lot of information away, using excellent examples of how things were mixed."
A GDC highlight for me was the live orchestral panel discussion. This particular subject has been included at GDC in each of the past several years, but this year's panel was one of the best. The lineup included some real heavy hitters--Steve Schnur, WW Executive of Music for Electronic Arts; Chuck Doud, Audio Director at Sony Entertainment Corp. of America; Simon Pressey, Audio Director for UbiSoft Corporation; Scott Cuthbertson, former Tolkien Senior Producer at Vivendi-Universal Games; and celebrated composers Jack Wall and Chance Thomas. Discussion centered on such topics as the relative strengths and weaknesses of orchestras in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Europe, and of budgeting concerns.
Steve Schnur told the story of getting a bill for $600 worth of chicken delivered for the orchestra on the first day of recording Medal of Honor in LA. (He said he made sure they got "carrot sticks" the next day.) Chuck Doud discussed the trade-off between the flexibility and control in recording sectional stems, versus recording an entire orchestra playing together which can "really make the room hum." Simon Pressey discussed the need for a strong conductor, emphasizing that the players have to absolutely "respect the stick," otherwise they will look to the principal violinist for session direction. Scott Cuthbertson talked about the importance of setting the bar high, and related the tale of selling his "leather-bound edition" vision for the Lord of the Rings music to executives.
Jack Wall and Chance Thomas played examples of their live orchestral work for Wrath Unleashed and Lord of the Rings, respectively, and answered questions about challenges unique to writing and producing live orchestral sessions. Highlights included Jack's endorsement of multiple passes with a small number of professional voices for a tight choir sound, and Chance's discussion of tonal sweet spots and range-related limitations particular to various instruments in the orchestra. All in all, it was quite an event.
Tommy Tallarico's, "How to Budget Audio" session was also a favorite amongst the audio crowd. It can be a lot more complicated than simply having some music and sound contracted and thrown into a game. This list of items to consider when budgeting seemed endless but Tommy got us all thinking on the same page. "The session was a comprehensive look at every aspect of the audio budget. As a composer, it is easy to forget about funds needed outside of the realm of your creative fee. Tommy pointed out other line items to include, such as studio time, music contractors, mastering engineers, orchestrators, conductors, and a multitude of other line items. "Notes from this session will be invaluable when I bid on my next project.", echoed Chris Rickwood of Rickwood Music. Rob Cairns, of Associated Production Music, continues, "This was my favorite session. Tommy was very direct and open about his methods, philosophies and experiences with many publishers. His personality and presentation skills keep people's attention much more so than some other people, like myself, who need to read their speech verbatim."
An interesting straight audio panel was "The Virtual And Mixed Media Orchestra for Game Music.", moderated by Doyle Donehoo. This panel detailed some of the ways that multiple PCs can be used to constitute the core of a modern composition studio.
For some time now, composers have been using PCs running applications such as Gigastudio to replace racks of hardware samplers. But now it is possible to do distributed processing using FX Teleport and Steinberg VST System Link, for example. This allows you to have a main digital audio workstation, with one audio interface, and then have other PCs sharing some of the processor load for running software synthesizers and samplers. The key is that these PCs don't need their own audio and MIDI interfaces anymore; they just need to be networked to the main DAW, simplifying the studio design.
Other highlights of the panel included noted game composers Bill Brown and Jeremy Soule explaining their methods when using a virtual mixed media orchestra to score their latest projects, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield and Neverwinter Nights. "This technology is about leveling the playing field," Jeremy Soule said, "and about getting young people really into symphonic music."
Martin Wilde, after missing last year's event, commented that it was good to reconnect and was happy to be a part of the growing mobile scene. "I found a number of the GDC Mobile sessions very interesting. From multiplayer games to sales and marketing to new distribution models and different development strategies, this burgeoning area of the game industry will definitely continue to grow over the coming years. I would have liked to see it more incorporated into the mainstream of the show, but perhaps that'll happen next year."
The "Audio for Mobile" session included panelists Thomas Dolby Robertson of RetroRingtones LLC, Ted Cohen from EMI Music, Brian Wolkenberg from Motorola and Leslie Chard, an attorney and business consultant in San Francisco specializing in content development and licensing. Questions were answered on topics ranging from ringtone content creation to distribution, game development and selection, content pricing deals and technology, digital rights management and file sharing. The panelists' insight and diverse experience in each of these areas made for a compelling and interesting session.
Another important session, "Cross-Platform Audio using Interactive XMF" was billed as an intermediate lecture with Chris Grigg from Beatnik, George Sanger and Martin Wilde as presenters. The creation and implementation of interactive audio elements is frequently frustrating and stressful. Programmers often wind up making decisions the content creators should be making, and worse, the content creators can wind up programming. Interactive XMF is an emerging standard that will greatly facilitate the creation and implementation of game audio. It is designed to allow all creative control to be put into the hands of the audio artists by means of an intuitive interface and simple scripting language.
Many proprietary interactive audio systems have been developed over the years, but have never been disseminated to the larger game audio community. This new file format is non-proprietary and platform and language agnostic. It is also envisioned that the runtime engine will run on any and all systems, from PCs and game consoles to PDA's and cellphones, using a platform-specific Adapter Layer to access the individual audio services of each device. "This is still a work in progress and there is ample opportunity for those interested to contribute to and provide feedback on the specification as we finalize it's formation and adoption. We packed the place with over 70 attendees, the vast majority of whom signed up for IXMF updates and/or IASIG IXWG membership.", reflected Martin Wilde.
Additionally, "The State of Non-Linear Audio for Interactive Media" panel, moderated by Todd Fay; Andrew Boyd's "Audio Director to the Rescue" lecture; Rich Goldman's "Audio Business Issues Roundtable" and "The Hobbit, A Case Study" panel where also talked about as worthwhile events. " I must tell the truth, my favorite session was our panel about The Hobbit because we had such a good time doing it. Thanks to everyone who came to our talk." said Rod Abernathy.
Not all of the audio business was being discussed on the audio track. Peeking in on the 'Production' and 'Business and Legal' tracks, found some gems waiting to be picked for those adventurous enough to try something a little off the beaten path.
"What I did see was a good lecture off the audio track. Alex Brandon's lecture on asset management and how programmers should work with audio people was quite enlightening.", notes Jamie Lendino. "The Interface: How to Create an Effective Audio Schedule", featured in the Production Track, provided a great outline for producers and composers to follow when laying out a project from pre-production through its final completion. Alex advocated getting started early by posing the question, "How do you get people to hear what you're trying to accomplish and get them excited about it?" This is a fundamental problem with audio, since, unlike the art department, you can't just "prototype" sound the way you can do art mockups--you have to basically produce a finished product to show someone what it sounds like. He also gave tips on asset management and budgeting along the way.
Marty O'Donnell, audio director at Bungie, talked about his favorite off-track event. "My favorite session was John Carmack's keynote address. He told us that audio for games was basically "done" if only we apply all the processing power we have for graphics to the audio instead. As soon as that day comes I'm going to take a long vacation."
Catching up with Tommy Tallarico after our return to sunny southern California, the "Music Publishing: A Primer for Game Developers and Composers" panel had him the most excited. "BMI and ASCAP are collecting money for game music which appears on things like TV, movies, even radio. But, because these songs aren't registered with them, they don't have anyone to give it to. What game publishers need to do is create their own publishing companies, register their music and collect this free money. UbiSoft has their own publishing company. EA and Squaresoft have another company do it for them. These guys know the value and are willing to take the steps to make it happen. This panel was a great eye-opener for the industry and I hope to see others take advantage of it."
Rickwood was seen wandering the halls far from his comfort zone in the
audio track: "As a freelance composer, there was a session that
really interested me on the Business & Legal Track. 'The Well-Fed
Freelancer: A Survival Guide In 24 Easy Lessons,' reminded me of how
to be a better consultant and also introduced some tips I had not thought
about. Francois Dominic Laramee's experience, quirky humor, and organized
presentation provided an entertaining and informative lesson. While
the audio track does provide the 'Business Roundtable,' I think a session
like 'The Well-Fed
Eric Doggett, of Doggett Studios echoes this last sentiment: "I think we may start to see an introduction of audio sessions at future conferences which relate more to the beginner/intermediate game composer, rather than the multi-million-dollar-production composer." There is definitely a growing need for this level of information--stay tuned.
As budgets grow, so does the quality of game music, sound effects and voice overs. And so does the difficulty in choosing the best game audio of the year. The bar is so incredibly high at this point, and there is a mass of games hitting it solidly, we can all be proud of our contributions.
The 4th Annual Game Developer's Choice Awards, the "Excellence in Audio" award was presented Wednesday evening (by EA's Chris Cross and Halo composer Marty O'Donnell) to Chuck Russom for sound effects in Call of Duty. On an interesting audio side note, the First Penguin Award, which recognizes "valorous developers who test the water, sink or swim" was awarded to Masaya Matsuura who pioneered beat-rhythm games, with groundbreaking titles like Parappa the Rapper and Um Jammer Lammy. You can't argue with their choices.
The 6th Annual Independent Games Festival was also in full bloom, with 110 submissions, the organizers divided them into categories for better representation of the independent game making populace. Consequently, there were two winners of the "Innovation in Audio Award", Anito: Defend a Land Enraged in the "Open" category and Dr. Blob's Organism in the "Web/Downloadable" group. They were both quite worthy and you can see for yourself at www.aninoentertainment.com and www.digital-eel.com/organism, respectively. Did you know one of the other winners in the open category had a 1.5 million dollar budget? Wow! The independent games segment has taken an interesting twist indeed.
The 2nd Annual G.A.N.G. Awards were presented Thursday evening in the Regency Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, to a packed house. 600 plus people were on hand to see the G.A.N.G. officers, Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall, and Clint Bajakian hand out awards to some incredibly deserving talent. It was a monstrous event, filling two and a half hours with award presentations, recognitions and some great musical entertainment to liven the place up. Performances by Steve Kirk and the Voodoo Vince band playing some cool music from the game Voodoo Vince, LoudLouderLoudest! showcasing version 2.0 of their video game classics montage, the OneUp Mushrooms and their tasty rendition of classic video game tunes, the Rockin' Hobbit Band and a performance of their Hobbit score, Alexander Brandon and his standup impression routine, and game audio's newest friend, Dweezil Zappa, ripping (that's a good thing, by the way) a game music version of Van Halen's "Eruption" like you've never heard it before.
Rob Cairns, of APM, gave his take on this year's event. "I took particular notice to the incredible production that it was compared to last year. And I was hoping people didn't actually think the voting was rigged for Clint or Tommy. I can actually say that Indiana Jones and the Emporer's Tomb is by far my favorite console video game of all time. The engine is the easiest to control, the music is absolutely top-notch and interactive as you play. I think that it is natural that many of the very talented people who created the awards program ended up winners, because they are just that, very talented. As the years go by, I expect that more and more people will join G.A.N.G., more people will vote, and the system will be more refined. I truly see the awards show becoming more and more important for the industry. I'm honored to have been a part of it."
The G.A.N.G. Awards recognize achievement and excellence in game audio from the past year as voted on by members of the Game Audio Network Guild. Membership is not required to be nominated or to win. The following is the complete list of awards presented and their recipients from the 2nd Annual G.A.N.G. Awards.
of the Year
Audio - Other
of the Year
Live Performance Recording
Original Instrumental Song
Original Vocal Song - Pop
Original Vocal Song - Choral
Use of Licensed Music
Original Soundtrack Album
Arrangement of a Non-Original Score
Design of the Year
Sound Design in a Sports Or Driving Game
Use of Multi-Channel Surround In a Game
Commentary in a Sports Game
New Audio Technology
of the Year
Warner Best Audio Programming Award
Innovative Use of Audio
Game Audio Article, Publication or Broadcast
There didn't seem to be a great amount of new audio technologies, applications or other related offerings to check out this year but there were a couple noteworthy items of interest.
Associated Production Music (APM), which offers more than 175,000 tracks for use in film, television, radio, advertising, and new media production, announced the APM Modular Music Library, an innovative collection of music tracks that allow game developers to use music modules of varying styles and intensities to create customized scores for video games. At the same time, APM has unveiled IMI, its new modular interactive music interface for electronic game developers and sound editors, which makes it easy to mix and match intro, loop and end music modules to create almost limitless versions of different musical themes within the same composition.
I spent some time with Mars Lasar, an incredibly gifted composer, as he demonstrated the possibilities which exist with IMI, mixing intros, various verses and ending cues for a practically seamless soundtrack. It sounded great and I was completely comfortable with the interface in just a few minutes. Rob Cairns was happy with other reactions he received during the expo, "Tom White from MIDI came by and said it definitely has some possibilities with IXMF and will be in touch with us soon. Keith Charley from Creative Labs said that APM was definitely "paying attention" and expressed getting together to talk about some synergies of working together." Not a bad first showing for the folks at APM.
Eric Doggett had his favorite. "Libraries like Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra and the Garritan Personal Orchestra, both of which were unavailable a year ago, are providing exceptional sounding capabilities at a price point which makes new composers very competitive. New techniques for integrating them and providing the best audio quality will be developed and shared."
Martin Wilde's new book, Audio Programming for Interactive Games made its show premier at the Morgan Kaufman/Focal Press booth. His latest effort demonstrates how the game programmer can create a software system which enables the audio content provider to maintain direct control over musical compositions and presentation of an interactive soundtrack. Be sure to check it out.
ISACT, with its awesome interactive and surround possibilities and GameCODA, which is the first multi-platform audio middleware solution stirred up some interest. Not to mention the new Xbox 5.1 Speaker System with its enthusiastic debut. The gang at Spherex proudly displayed their five speaker and subwoofer system which definitely has to be heard.
GDC is many things to many people. I asked veteran game audio guy, George Sanger, to comment on what he saw. A little food for thought and something of a different flavor to chew on for a moment:
"Is it me, or has this GDC given us an industry split into two camps?", poses George.
"On one hand, I see companies who take as their highest priority their responsibility towards their investors. Clamoring towards the mythical 'safe bet', they talk about using research to determine how to move the largest game playing demographic towards forking over another fifty bucks. Then they talk about using research to determine what other demographics like, and what works with them, so that they can reach out to those consumers. For this camp, the Lesson of the Year is 'You Are Not Your Market', followed closely by 'do your homework', 'this isn't an industry of geeks anymore', 'make room for Hollywood', and 'licensing music for games is fun and easy.' This group is so busy trying to 'Please Daddy' that they are actively abdicating their earned right to be amazingly creative in an industry they built from scratch.
"On the other side, I see the developers who are their market, no matter what market they are shooting for, if any. These are people who take as their highest priority the quality of the game. They can't help it, because they are geeks. These game makers would make games with or without funding, with or without computers, with or without arms and legs, and their presence was signified by talks like Erik Zimmerman's 'Love Story' game design contest between Raph Koster, Will Wright, and Warren Spector, and by Ernest Adams' very earnest talk on the philosophical roots of gaming. Eternal CA Verin Lewis, who launched his game 'Josh's World' from his living room, had a few things to teach all of us about integrity and focus.
"Game makers are Artists. It is the inexplicable mutations called The Sims, Prince of Persia, GTA, Myst, and even Tempest that breathe the Fire of Life into our games. Miraculously, fostering the near-insane mentality of the designers that create these games is the real duty of the game company that is responsible to its investors. Incremental improvements in shading and speed and game size and demographic and price point only waft to us the plastic-tinged breeze of Commercialism disguised as Progress. Let the inevitable commercial and technical expansion come, that will be the river that carries us along. But the Real Gamers, the performers who are their own audience, will be unable to resist building great vehicles that will intensify our intentions, expand our aesthetics, and will bring real riches and satisfaction to those who defy all but the most unconventional Will-Wrightian analysis and research. These truly Great games will be the boats upon which we will ride that polluted river of money."
Moments to Remember
A trade show of this magnitude can still be a personal thing despite the sea of people busily running everywhere. And when a group of such personable and creative people gathers, there can be many moments which stick out making the price of admission seem inconsequential. Here are a few of my personal moments:
Spying a group of several people, wide-eyed, sitting on the expo floor in a school circle, I rounded the corner to find George Sanger as the focus of their attention. He was reading selections from his recently released book, The Fatman on Game Audio, Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness while the crowd hung on every word. "Now, boys and girls, this is a story about ." Priceless, indeed.
Greg O'Conner Read, founder of Music4Games.net, our lively British chap with the propensity to talk "southern", biting his tongue at my approach, swearing that I couldn't get him to do it again this year. Well, he never succumbed but I had a good time trying. Richard Jacques, who was standing close by, knew something humorous was going on but wasn't quite sure what to think of it.
Darryl Duncan's GameBeat Studios, had its big GDC expo premier this year. Darryl and his family turned it into a vacation worth remembering, traveling the highways and byways of the country in their motorhome to and from Chicago. It's great to see this little venture pick up so much steam and to have them in the industry. Plus, Darryl is such a darned nice guy.
I was shattered to learn that Orpheus Hanley and his family recently lost his entire home and studio in the recent San Diego firestorm. It was good to see him and his wife in good spirits despite the incredible devastation--and glad to know he is in the process of rebuilding. Our heart goes out to you, buddy.
The look on Alexander Brandon's face was hilarious when I walked up to him out of the blue, put my dripping wet hand on his arm and asked, "Can you teach me how to pee?" And people say I have "dry" humor.
A few other game audio personalities shared their experiences:
Bob Rice - "I was in the back of the Regency Ballroom during the G.A.N.G. awards. Looking at the stage, I saw numerous logos of the sponsors center-stage, and to the left and to the right I saw huge screens and speakers. I saw cameramen taping the show, I saw bands performing and I saw Alex Brandon doing his wonderful imitations. I saw tons of people mixing, talking, laughing and just flat out having a great time. I saw executives from BMI, EMI, ASCAP, American Federation of Musicians, Warner Bros., Vivendi Universal, Disney, Sony, Dolby, DTS and the like. I saw Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall and Clint Bajakian announce the nominees and the winners. I saw the winners accept their awards and give thanks to all that contributed to the winners success. I saw people that were proud to be a professional in the world of music, voices and sound for the largest segment of the entertainment industry."
While I saw all of this, I wondered if this is what Tommy Tallarico saw when he created G.A.N.G. I think he did; no, I know he did. To this I say; when dreams become reality, people tend to forget the dreamers. Let none of us ever forget that Tommy had this dream, the courage to pursue it and busted his ass (and Clints', and Jacks' et al.) to make it a reality."
Rob Cairns--"Memorable personal moment? Oh, too many! But I guess I'd have to say it was when the exhibit doors opened for the first time on Wednesday and the crowd rushed in, and the APM booth was mobbed by G.A.N.G. members, including Tommy, garnishing our booth with the very noticeable G.A.N.G. logo sign which we immediately hung up for display with pride. I also loved seeing The Fatman's live reading as onlookers sat on the floor in front of him listening to his gospel."
Rod Abernathy--"I kept seeing Bob Rice in three places at one time, the hardest-working man in show business. Oh, and I fell out of my chair laughing watching Alex Brandon impersonate Jack Buser at the G.A.N.G. Awards!"
Marty O'Donnell--"I loved being at GDC this year. No other group of people in the game industry have as tight knit a community as the audio folks--long live G.A.N.G. and all it represents! My favorite moment was on Friday afternoon back at the Fairmont bar observing an intimate moment between Bob Rice and Clint Bajakian. Bob was showing Clint something about improving his skills interacting with women, I think."
Alexander Brandon--"My memorable personal moments? When you told me the joke about teaching someone how to 'pee' by not wiping their hands enough after washing them. The Fatman's jam session at the Fairmont. A really successful IA-SIG meeting at which I finally met the great Brad Fuller who did the music for Marble Madness. A great G.A.N.G. awards show and an excellent Xbox party with a terrific theme. Observation: This was a great year--the best yet!"
And so it ends
While knee-deep in the show, I remember wandering around, bleary eyed, wondering what my take on this years gathering would be when the dust finally settled. At the time I remember thinking that it was overwhelming, too much to see and do, too many people I wanted to meet with and say hi to, I stood frozen with too many decisions. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks--where else in the world do we have this excuse to gather for the opportunities to do just that? GDC makes it all happen and without it, we would all shrivel up and die.
There were many, many new faces this year and I applaud everyone of you for making the sometimes extreme effort to be there. I sincerely hope you walked away excited and fully recharged - ready to take on the world. And if you didn't, let me offer some words of advice. You get out of it what you put into it. My friend, Todd Fay, listened to this advice and it has propelled him into the stratosphere. I watched, literally amazed, at his first GDC last year, enthusiastically walking up to every person sitting in every audio session and introducing himself. He walked away with hundreds of contacts and out of the blue, became the guy who knows everyone. He didn't just pay his money to attend the conference then sit in the back and wonder why no one coming up to him. He got out there and made his own destiny - and GDC was the place that made it happen for him. I hope that you made it happen for you as well.
See everyone next year!
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