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What Theater Can Teach Game Audio

When I first started working in audio, I didn’t have much to do with the game industry. In fact, even to this day, the bulk of my paid work is still in live audio, specifically live theater, spanning from mixing musicals to designing sound for local theaters. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve begun working in game audio in earnest. That being said, I know that the majority of you are likely game audio professionals, or intend to be one some day.

With that in mind, I’ve examined my experience in theatrical sound design for useful techniques or approaches that could contribute to game audio work. While the two fields really have much more in common with each other than not (I’d argue they have more in common than film and game audio, in some ways), there are some significant differences in the fields, and I think there are some things from theater that can inform game audio:

Mic technique is everythingWhen working in a live setting, there’s no breathing room for mistakes. You don’t have tools like iZotope RX to work their audio restoration magic, and even EQs can only help so much. In particular, you’re usually limited to EQ cuts rather than boosts due to concerns about feedback. On top of that, cut too many offending frequencies, and you’re left with a low-gain signal, which you need to boost– thereby exposing that many more offending frequencies. While this is occasionally a dance you have to step through in a live setting, the easier solution is to simply put the right mic in the right place. I’ve let this mindset guide me when I do foley recording; I’ll often try multiple mics and placements before I really decide on what will be the best fit. Sometimes the difference between a flat, dull foley performance and one full of character and usable material is the matter of a half an inch. Experiment whenever possible, and you’ll come to learn the unique quality of your own mic locker (or drawer, or… pouch).

It should be noted, though, that this doesn’t mean “put the most expensive mic in the right place.” A lot of my work as a sound technician is at a multi-million dollar theater facility, boasting a mic locker full of excellent Neumanns, Lautens, Coles ribbon mics, and other beautiful feats of audio engineering. But if you were to take a look at the drum kit for the current musical, what would you see on the snare? A Shure SM57. Sometimes the right mic is the right mic, no matter what the sticker price.

Embrace less. When designing for theater, the goal is to be as inconspicuous in your contributions as you can be. If you draw attention to the sound, you’ve effectively undermined your own design (unless done intentionally! More on this in a future post, perhaps…). I admit, though, that I’m guilty of wanting to put in every sonic element and ambience I can wedge into a design. As a result I frequently spend the tech process on shows carving out elements until I’m left with something that serves it purpose in the most efficient manner possible.

Of course, games are different in a big and significant way: there’s no audio there that we, personally, don’t put in ourselves. Theater lives and breathes based on the human performances, and sound functions as support to what the actors are doing. Games don’t have that luxury. And while coverage (that is, providing sound for every element in the game that needs it) is absolutely essential, I think there may be some creative mileage in asking yourself what the game may not need later in the process. Try experimenting with muting layers, or bringing down elements in the game mix, and see what your gut emotional response is to the different balance. It may be that nothing changes, or doesn’t change for the better; but it could be easily extrapolated that the less sound there is in a game, the more importance the remaining sounds take on. As with anything in the world of sound, this is a game of compromises, but experimentation can yield interesting results.

Follow the arc of the experience. In theater, we often talk about the arc of a show, referring to the overall emotional experience of the show, and how the prevailing mood changes over time. It’s essential to acknowledge and enhance the arcing mood of a show to create an energy that drives a show forward. This often means that if you played back sonic elements from the beginning of the show next to one at the end of a show, you’ll notice a shift in mood that is sometimes drastic. This is natural, and in the course of a performance, will track with what the audience is experiencing, if done right.

While this kind of technique may only apply to narrative-based games, I think there’s some fodder in this idea of an “emotional arc” for games. Some sonic elements we never really want to change for the sake of consistency in player experience (UI and player actions come to mind), but why not experiment in other ways? As a character becomes more powerful, or more heroic, why not enhance the sonic elements that reflect their actions? Or if the mood of a game shifts from one of a prosaic beginning to a dark, ominous midgame, why not track the mood of some of the sounds that exist in those two sections of the game? Tinker with your footstep sounds or your foley to create more “ominous” player interactions, and you may be able to heighten that emotional change that exists in the story and visuals.

Theater and games exist in very different worlds, and require drastically different techniques, but they do carry the same core purpose: to provide an experience that an audience (or player) can relate to on a personal level, and hopefully take some enjoyment or insight from their time with it. I don’t doubt there are more connections to be made from these two storytelling methods, and hopefully I can provide even more useful ideas in the future! Feel free to ask questions or offer insights in the comments, or find me on Twitter!

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Coherent Sound Design

For my first real post, I figured we’d dive right into a meaty subject: coherence in sound designs.

This is something that comes up a lot in discussions I have with other sound designers: How do you create a design for a game, or play, or film, or any sort of media, that feels coherent? What I mean by “coherent” could vary from project to project, but in a nutshell, Iit means a design where every element feels as though it fits in the same world and aesthetic.

I found when I was first starting out in sound design, my work was pretty slapdash: need an ice impact? Okay, I’ll get a good impact sound, and some ice cracks, slap them together and voila, we have an ice impact. Need a dog bark, sure, I’ve got one of those too! It was a matter of crossing items off of a to-do list, rather than thinking of how these individual sounds fit in the bigger picture.

Well, if I said I’d solved this problem completely, I’d be lying. But through discussions and personal experience, I’ve come up with a small handful of techniques that may help create a more coherent result:

1. Start with the essentials. When I’m working on a game or a play, I’ll start by creating an asset list spreadsheet, a no-frills list of what the project needs. This tends to be pretty mechanical, and initially is what I’ve heard called “see a duck” design, as in “see a duck on screen, hear a duck quack”. There’s not a lot in the way of abstract or creative ideas. This is okay. At least until you get the game (or play, etc) under your skin, you need to focus on what’s essential. Take the time to identify what audio is essential to the game experience. In some cases this is obvious, such as combat-heavy games, where audio is an indicator of whether attacks are successful, when the player is in danger, and so on. If it’s a narrative driven game, it’s possible you might want to start with audio associated with the main character, since this is who you want the player to identify with the most. Start with these sounds, and take the time to iterate on them until they feel right, and you’ll have given yourself a strong footing on the sonic identity of the project.

2. Create sonic collages. A “sonic collage” as I define it is a collection of sonic elements with no visual accompaniment. I don’t do these nearly often enough, and they can be immensely helpful for creating a coherent design. A good way to create a sonic collage is with your essential sound effects: your combat sounds, or character sounds, etc. Throw them in a DAW or a sampler program, whatever you prefer, and start playing around with them. Tell a story using only these sounds, with the desired gameplay or mood of the project in mind. I find that creating a through-line with only sound elements can develop your sense of how the project should sound overall. For me, I get a lot of inspiration for audio elements that aren’t hard effects this way, i.e. ambiences, abstract mood-coloring audio elements, and other less obvious sonic components.

3. Determine your hook or pillar. When I first started in theatrical sound design, these were two terms I heard occasionally when talking about cohesive design.

“Hook” generally referred to something that was a creative inroad for your design choices. Hooks can be essential in something like theatrical design, where your sound choices are often a lot more abstract and less presentational than some games demand. For example, I recently worked on a show that was a spiritual successor to Dracula. The show dripped with paranoia and malice. So I latched on to “paranoia” as my hook, and ran with it. I started grabbing sfx that came to mind when I thought of paranoia: sirens, bugs crawling, footsteps drenched in reverb, low unidentifiable drones. Did I use all of these? No, in fact, I don’t think I used any of them. But they started a creative spark that carried me through the project, and that creeping sense of paranoia informed every creative choice I made in the show, even when it came to sonic elements that weren’t inherently paranoid. (Even my “calm daytime birds” sound cue felt more paranoid than normal.)

“Pillar”, on the other hand, is used as a kind of central theme for a sound design. This is a phrase that informs the design, or is the stated purpose for the design. Another show I worked on in rep with the Dracula successor was, appropriately enough, a sort of side story to Frankenstein. The director frequently used a phrase in discussion: “What line separates humanity from monstrosity?” This is a pretty abstract concept, and you could unpack a lot from it, which makes it a great pillar. If you take this approach, write your pillar down and post it up somewhere you can see. Will it inform every choice you make? Probably not, at least not in the way my “paranoia” hook informed my choices, but when I was left uncertain as to whether a sound had the right quality, I looked to that pillar. Even if it didn’t directly apply to what I was working on (for example, I didn’t ask “does this chilly breeze fit the pillar better than this gusty breeze?”), the pillar gave me a sense of the purpose of the play, which in turn filled out my sense of the world in which it took place.

4. Let your collaborators inspire you. This seems obvious, but bears mentioning; If you’re working with others on a project, let their work inspire yours. Grab concept art from the artists, promotional materials from marketing/PR, any kind of documentation you can, and speak to your collaborators about how they see the project. However, I think with this one, you can go a layer deeper. Find out what inspired your collaborators. If the project has a lead creative person, it may be worth asking what movies, or music, or art they looked to as inspiration for the project. Even if the project doesn’t directly mirror the inspirational material, there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate elements that fit the project you’re working on.

5. Keep a reference handy. Ahh, finally something less theoretical! This also seems a little obvious, but once you get into the full-bore creative phase of the project, make sure to keep a “keystone” sound available in any of your audio sessions. This could be one of your essential sounds, or something you’ve developed along the way. I find that some ambiences work well for this, as you can easily play any SFX over them and get a feel for whether they fit the world. This seems like a simple technique, but it’s easy to tell yourself it’s not worth the hassle or that you’ll “know” whether what you’re working on really fits, but why not have a reference at hand to check against at all times? It will save you time in the long run, as it’ll likely prevent you from having to export a sound, put it in a game, find out it doesn’t fit after all, and go back to the drawing board.

 

Now one thing you’ve likely noticed, reading through these, is that all this advice is very front-loaded, in terms of a project’s timeline. There’s a reason for that! If you’re working on a game that’s well into a beta, or in tech for a show, you may already be too deep into the project to give serious consideration to how coherent the design is. Time is always limited on any project, so the best thing you can do is make sure you have as much time up front to carve out an identity for the sound in your project, rather than scramble for enough time to fix the inconsistencies further down the line.

I hope these tips help you think about your projects, and their sound, in a more holistic way. How do you keep a design coherent? Leave a comment, or find me on Twitter and start a conversation!

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New Beginnings

Hello and welcome! I’m Topher, a sound designer for games and theater. Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a deep love of unique and deep sound design for media, and I wanted to create a place where I could share some of the techniques, analyses, and random thoughts I have on audio.

My initial goal is to post something worthwhile here at least once a week, though check back as you’re able– I’ll hopefully be throwing some fun stuff up here before long, possibly even including some interviews with game audio pros!