Perspective is a hell of a thing.
It reflects the knowledge we have as individuals, on an industry basis, and as a society. So let me start with my perspective. I come from an industry that started with a handful of people, as most industries do. Game audio would consist of the few who could see through the murky fog of transistors, capacitors, and later, lines of code to create the most satisfying experience possible. Silas Warner (programmer of Castle Wolfenstein, one of the first programmers at Muse) who programmed some of the first sampled sounds into a game managed not only to write code nearly entirely himself but push the boundaries of what a system could do.
“Halt!” You heard it here first, folks.
Those of us who grew up in these days of the late 70s and early 80s experienced a vast rift in platform capacity. At the same time that Warner was programming the earliest form of AI “barks”, Ms. Pac Man was playing very catchy jingles. The PC would maintain its status of beeps and boops for the most part for another six years, all the while arcade boards would produce bigger and better sounds, and the Nintendo Entertainment System would begin its meteoric rise to fame and glory, spouting the themes we all know and love. For ones you may not know be sure to check out Hidden Sound Test on Facebook.
I’m not going to go through history again. I’ve done that in the Fatman’s Guide to Game Audio and numerous articles over the years, including mine, have gone through an awful lot of hits. What people don’t know as much is the quest we had. We wanted to not just make better music and sound, but we wanted to have everything sound the same across all the platforms (another quest of the Fatman, come to think of it).
And there were parallels. As the music industry fell in love with sampling, so did games. Some Amiga songs penned by pale Finnish geeks could have (and probably were) been played in clubs alongside the latest dance hits. But we could still wrap our heads around samples. We being those who had been immersed in computers from the beginning. Our music industry counterparts would raise eyebrows and stare dumbfounded at how hard a tracker would be to grasp compared to their MIDI software (Cakewalk, Cubase, Voyetra and the like). It was step time composition, people. Not that hard.
Throughout the 80s and 90s we kept wishing for more power. We wanted to be like our film and music industry heroes. We wanted to write music that sounded clear, without a hint of 8 bit fuzz. We wished for the ability to have the limits thrown off sound effects banks so that for God’s sake we wouldn’t have to hear the same jump, the same gunshot, the same zombie howl every… f’ing… time. Then, the unthinkable happened.
We got our wish.
I write this very article on a 15” laptop with visual clarity far beyond the Sony Trinitron monitors of the 90s, with audio processing power that would make studios of the 80s and 90s cry. I can emulate the best hardware used to make hit records and AAA films. I can store so many sounds that there’s actual latency sometimes on a search. There are so many instruments and gigs of instrument samples it requires terabytes to store them all, and a search just to decide which one to use. We have automation, we have integration, we have mixing, we have real time control. Some of this tech is FREE. And it’s all within reach of a summer’s worth of savings from waiting tables. Having said that, there’s always places to go. VR. AR. Er… VR… and… AR…and…
Fact is, for the old school, with limitations along the lines of registers and kilobytes, this is scary as hell. The limits are off, but where do we go? No limits squared? Cubed? We can emulate orchestras. Woop de doo. Where are the Star Wars sounding scores for games (except for Star Wars games)? The ability to create any sound imaginable through recordings or synthesis. But… what is there to imagine? Not a sine wave. Not a square wave. Anything.
Anything is scary. Anything doesn’t give us a playroom with walls that at least provide a framework. We are in an ocean of possibility and that ocean will drown you in an instant. You can be lost, caught up in the next best EQ plug in (or hardware unit, the line blurs a bit here and there), or the next version of Omnisphere with the 400 billion possibilities it provides. Therefore, at no time has it ever been better to, yes, Keep It Simple, Stupid.
First, let’s not discount the orchestra, the guitar, the bass, and the drum set out of hand. I won’t get into voice just yet. But the instruments we have heard countless times since the 60s in radio, television, film and games still have room to move. Jason Graves shows us this in Dead Space. Just listen to the first 5-10 minutes.
For more information regarding Dead Space, there’s plenty in the GDC Vault:
Admittedly the singing girl is not exactly mind blowingly new, except the crazy delay effect that hangs a few of the final syllables. But what follows is wonderfully anticipatory. It blends Goldsmith and Williams very well, and particularly around 5 minutes you can hear “Close Encounters” Williams techniques with low strings “mumbling”. They’re mumbling! Do you hear stuff like that much?
NO! You don’t!
And therein is a perfect example of the problem. We don’t tend to think of strings as mumbling. We tend to think of things in the context in which they’re presented to us. If you get East West Gold or Hollywood Strings or CineStrings or Berlin Strings you’re given staccato, legato, that sort of thing. “Mumble” really isn’t an option. And I don’t want to make you roll your eyes with the words “outside the box”, because that’s easy to say. What’s harder is to give you a little insight into how Jason did what he did. Something we all need to do a little more.
I didn’t tell you to listen to the whole Dead Space score because frankly it’d have torn your attention away from this article for too long. But it was also to make a point. The bits I called out that honored and channeled Goldsmith and Williams, which you can listen to here:
These were just the were the jumping off point. There’s gems in the rest of the soundtrack that, if you haven’t played Dead Space or heard the score, will rock your world. Goldsmith and Williams helped inspire this new territory because they themselves explored it, spurred by their own heroes. And that’s a great way to move to new places.
But this principle doesn’t just apply to strings, or vocals, or… ok, it applies to everything. A simple sine wave with an oscillator, filter, modulator, and ASDR envelope. Your creative mind takes a simple example like mumbling strings and all of a sudden you’re not just loading presets and tweaking them a little anymore. You’re delving deep and experimenting. I get it. This isn’t where we all started (some of us did but those people are just insane, I’ll leave it at that). We started with wanting to dive straight into our inspirations without the work. But this kind of experimentation isn’t work. It’s the new frontier that created those inspirations in the first place. A bit confusing perhaps, but the things that inspired you had to be generated somewhere and most likely they were derived from something else.
Other examples of “outside the box” graciously provided by Michael Sweet and Chanel Summers include Diego Stocco’s “Invent an instrument”:
As well as the V Motion Project:
Alexander Brandon is an Advisory Member at Designing Music NOW, and the President of Funky Rustic and the Vice President of the Game Audio Network Guild
Alexander Brandon has been working in the game industry for over twenty years, starting with Epic Games in 1994. He has written music for games such as Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Alpha Protocol, voice over for games such as Skyrim and DC Universe: Online, sound design for Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, and built several audio departments, including studios for Ion Storm and Obsidian Entertainment.
He has written the book “Audio for Games: Planning, Process and Production”, has served as the columnist for Game Developer magazine’s audio column, columnist for Mix Magazine, and is Vice President of the Game Audio Network Guild. He has settled with his family in Georgetown, Texas and runs the audio production house “Funky Rustic” with his wife Jeanette.
Alex wishes to thank Dale Crowley, Michael Sweet and Chanel Summers for the additional content!