At this year’s Audio Engineering Society conference in New York, I had the rare and welcome opportunity to become a student again – if only for a day. While the conference’s offering is generally rich in technical programs, panels and a number of workshops, there is little in the way of hands-on classes that actually coach attendees on the step-by-step process of a particular audio discipline. Which is why I was intrigued and excited to come across a satellite event being held at the Institute for Audio Research on the last day of AES, an 8-hour class in audio implementation for games being taught by the SF-based Game Audio Institute (GAI), a relative newcomer in the education category, and one that is quickly gaining traction.
So I traipsed down to the IAR in the heart of NYU’s sprawling campus near Washington Square, to take part in the intensive Game Audio class led by Steve Horowitz and Scott Looney. These two music and game industry veterans have been cutting a dash on the Game Audio education scene of late, with a recently-published book entitled ‘The Essential Guide To Game Audio’, and with events such as this class to support the book’s curriculum. The unique aspect of their offering is the combination of traditional learning media with a set of game levels that are designed specifically to be tackled by students, and the goal of building a playable version with fully implemented audio using a middleware solution by the end of the class.
In today’s game audio industry, being able to write cracking music and create compelling sound design is only the tip of the iceberg – drilling down into implementation is increasingly desired if not required of the audio designer.
Now I have, as I am sure is the case with many of our audio-centric readers, spent many a late evening staring blankly and unproductively at Unity. More specifically, staring at an object I just created in Unity and wondering what on earth to do with it to make it more ‘Audio’ and less, well, a bunch of pixels. A frazzled tour through the manual, online tutorials and forums tells me there’s a lot I could do with it, if I only had the dazzling and easy expertise of a coder. Unfortunately, that’s just not my wheelhouse. The only thing I have been able to do consistently with objects in Unity thus far is to make them fall inexplicably through the floor.
Fabric – A Unity Audio Toolkit
The GAI’s innovative teaching solution is aimed at plugging such a gap by building an audio environment directly within Unity, in this case for a level ominously entitled the “Mysterious Warehouse”. During the day-long course, the curriculum covered or touched on or dived into a number of middleware solutions including FMOD, Fabric and Master Audio. However, I’m a newcomer to Fabric, so I decided to focus on this aspect for the class. The great thing about Fabric is that it is fundamentally tied to the logic of the Unity environment. It is not a standalone piece of middleware like FMOD that ‘plugs in’. Instead, it operates within the language and constraints of the game engine and is imported just like any other Unity package. While this means that implementation might get a little more involved, with more Unity knowledge needed than with FMOD for example, it is a very powerful and flexible manager for the adaptive events in the game.
There were about 15 of us in the class on the day, so there was a fairly significant attention load to be dealt with by our instructors. Even so, at no point did I feel that questions went unanswered or were topics skimped on. In particular, I liked the way Steve and Scott would ‘tag-team’ the instruction. Scott would drill down into the depths of a C sharp script and, just at the right moment, Steve would chime in to put things into context, explaining why for example it’s important to know what a variable is in a line of code, and more specifically why it’s important for us as audio designers to know these things (it makes us more valuable!)
This was billed as an intensive class, and with good reason – because that’s exactly what it was. The material is dense and intense, and if you didn’t follow along carefully and quickly you ran the risk of getting lost. Ordinarily this might be a problem, but the GAI’s documentation and organization of materials (which you get to take with you) is excellent and a great reference for post-class work, which is how I proceeded after my necessarily early exit from the event. The practical result of my newbie travails can be checked out in the web player build or movie walkthrough below. Although the GAI provides assets to use in the class, I swapped these out for my own sounds and music here:
Mysterious Warehouse – Unity Web Player Build (open in Firefox or Safari)
You’ll need the Unity Web Player for your browser to play the game. Download here:
Use A,W,S,D keys to move, and the mouse to look around
Mysterious Warehouse – Unity Walkthrough video
Granted, I did not manage to add all the course-required audio bits and pieces to the mix, but there are a few things I’m proud I was able to get the hang of. The footstep sequences that change timbre depending on the material being walked on (wood, concrete etc) are quite effective, despite their implementation being a little challenging (who knew that a footsteps script needed to be added to the First Person Controller object?). Playing through the build, I also noticed (as you, dear reader, surely will) that the randomized pitch of the footsteps may have too wide of a range and as such some footsteps on concrete occasionally sound like you’ve just trod on some that hasn’t quite set yet. I also added in a few hidden objects with whispering voices in one of the rooms as well as a nice bit of diegetic radio play music for a bit of intrigue. The music and room tone play reasonably well together, although they could stand some polish, to be sure.
While there was a significant learning curve, once you understand the flow of how Fabric handles sound logic, much of which has is basis in the Fabric Manager, it becomes much easier to understand how to implement your sounds intelligently in the game. And of course once you remember to ALWAYS apply your changes to the prefab (it’s just one of those things – don’t question it), you’re home free.
The Game Audio Institute – An Interview
After the class, I briefly interviewed Mr Horowitz and Mr Looney to get some background on the Game Audio Institute, and their plans for the future:
RW: What do you want your students to get out of this class?
SL: We want our students to come away with a sense of how deep the water is. There are lots of moving parts in the game audio machine, and often audio designers will only scratch the surface of these. Also, we want them to understand that they can’t operate outside the structure of the game, so to learn to work within it.
RW: Do you design your classes to be for a specific audience, or are they meant to appeal to a broad customer base?
SH: Our classes are definitely designed to have a broad reach – for some, it’s a first introduction, while for others the insights we provide can lead to an already established composer or sound designer to landing that job, and it can even give a game audio instructor the tools to eventually teach a class themselves on audio middleware.
RW: How far have you reached into the academic institutions that offer game audio courses?
Right now we are at a good number of the schools the Bay area, and we are expanding out to places like Berklee and NYU on the East Coast.
RW: Are you considering rolling out a certification program similar to that offered by FMOD?
SH: I think that’s inevitable, as well as an online course component, but we don’t want to roll these things out until the time is right. One of our unique strengths is that we test everything out in the classroom before we package it up for sale as a downloadable level or other product. We’re constantly refining our teaching, and if we come across a problem we’ll work out the kinks before we make the final version public.
RW: What’s the advantage of testing your learning products out on a class before rolling out and offering your levels for sale?
SL: To give you an example, I was giving a class at UC Santa Cruz and was doing my usual thing of going around the class and one student called me over to explain that every time he shuffled rooms, all the audio disappeared. So I went back and forth with those students, and also with a student at AAU, and eventually through this process we identified and solved the problem, which was a bug in the code related to reverb zones. This kind of rigorous testing makes our levels bulletproof for our students, and we write up the quirks in the documentation.
RW: Is anyone else doing what you’re doing?
SH/SL: Folks like Stephan Schutze with his FMOD training classes, as well as Leonard Paul at the School of Videogame Audio, but no-one is centering everything around Unity at the same time. This is something that sets us apart.
RW: Did you get any feedback about this course from IAR?
SH: IAR were hugely positive about our class. One of their instructors actually audited it, and we heard very good things, which is encouraging for the future.
Overall I was very impressed with the quality of this class and its accompanying materials. If you are comfortable with learning some fairly alien concepts very quickly, and feel fearless about diving in and making some mistakes along the way, there is a lot to be gained as an audio designer. I look forward to seeing the evolution of the Game Audio Institute’s offering in the near future.
The Game Audio Institute will be offering workshops and classes during NAMM in Anaheim, January 2016. Visit http://gameaudioinstitute.com/ for details.
About the Author
Richard Warp is a Core Team Member at Designing Music NOW. Having moved from the UK to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, he is currently an Audio Producer at Somatone Interactive, a full-service game audio production studio based in Emeryville. Prior to Somatone, he was a full-time composer and sound designer at Leapfrog for over nine years. To learn more about him, check out his bio on our site here.