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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!

One comment

  1. I dig it enough to leave you a comment here and not on Slack 🙂

    I appreciate this one is a little more concise too – not that a blog always needs a tl;dr to it. I was reminded tonight that editing is huge for conveying a clear message – same reason why you and I both rely more heavily on cutting EQ than boosting. I think you’re starting to carve out a good voice Topher!

    Bits I would add to your points:
    – Embrace the unconventional (it always makes for the best stories later)
    – It’s totally ok you’re hacking it together so long as it does the job, doesn’t break fire code, and doesn’t kill anyone
    – Always remember your job is to add to the story that’s being told. If your great idea is only a great idea and doesn’t add – you have to kill it.


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