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Getting Into Game Audio Part 3: Know The Craft

by
Gift

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This post is part of a series called Getting Into Game Audio (Premium).
Getting Into Game Audio Part 2: Sell Thyself
Getting Into Game Audio Part 4: Know The Business

In Part 1 of our series, we followed the thread, "Know Thyself". I talked about how your focus and determination can carry you through challenges, and how knowing where you are and where you've come from can help to clarify your course of action to more quickly achieve your goals.

In Part 2, I showed you how selling yourself - even in advance of a robust CV - was an important aspect of getting into the industry.

In this installment, I want to briefly touch on the the key components of the craft of audio in the game industry, and how the process of learning the craft can help to guide you to success.


Also available in this series:

  1. Getting Into Game Audio Part 1: Know Thyself – Audio Premium
  2. Getting Into Game Audio Part 2: Sell Thyself
  3. Getting Into Game Audio Part 3: Know The Craft
  4. Getting Into Game Audio Part 4: Know The Business
  5. Getting Into Game Audio Part 5 - Making It Happen

Part 2: Know The Craft


flickr image by lenore-m

There's a common misconception about audio in the game industry that audio in games is 'just some sounds and music' and that 'we can get someone to do that job easily'. While it may be true that there is no shortage of composers and audio designers anxious to get into the industry, it is a dangerous miscalculation to underestimate how much work is actually involved in creating audio for games. Moreover, there is a growing differentiation among audio tasks in the game industry, and to assume that one person can handle all of them 'easily' usually results in a poor audio experience.

Much like the film and television industries, the roles and responsibilities for audio people in the game industry continue to fragment and become more defined. In the early days of the industry, it is true that one person would program the music and sound effects for a game. This became less common as the various game platforms became more complex and started to include orchestrated music, recorded voiceover, and realistic sound effects.

Casual and mobile games (partially) excepted, the vast majority of todays games are developed by a team of skilled artists, designers, programmers, producers, audio designers, and testers. For an AAA title, it isn't at all uncommon to see teams of 6 or 10 full-time audio designers, in addition to one or more composers, several audio programmers, voiceover producers, and localization specialists.

Let's take a look at each of the various roles of audio in games, so you can get a better understanding of how audio is designed for today's top games.


The Audio Team


flickr image by digika

Sound Designer

A sound designer, also sometimes known as an audio designer or audio artist. This title can apply to someone who has very little experience(sometimes called a Junior Sound Designer) or someone who has been working in the industry for over many years (Senior Sound Designer).

The title of Sound Designer is somewhat of a 'catch-all' term for someone who designs, records, manipulates and integrates sound assets for a game. They may record sounds 'in the field' using mobile recording equipment, capture sounds on a soundstage or foley-pit, or they may design sounds with the use of synthesizers, samplers, and sample libraries of pre-recorded material.

In some cases, a Sound Designer also implements these sounds into a game, using a variety of methods which can include: scripting, audio middleware such as Wwise or FMOD, directly into a game engine which already has audio support (e.g. Unreal).

The Sound Designer may be responsibile for any number of game areas including, but not limited to: character sounds, weapons, vehicles, environmental ambience, special FX, UI/HUD sounds, etc. On larger titles, you will often have several Designers, each taking the lead on one or two primary areas of the game (e.g. one person handling characters and weapons, one person handling ambience).

Sound Designers can be (but aren't necessarily always) engaged in a project from the early stages of pre-production where design and raw asset gathering begins. They continue involvement through production and into post-production as the game enters its final mixing stages.

Technical Sound Designer

A Technical Sound Designer, also sometimes known as an Implementation or Integration Specialist, is someone who focuses predominantly on designing, populating and refining the audio 'systems' within a game. This is a person who would perhaps focus on designing a sophisticated weapon system, where the sounds of the weapons change over time, or a car-audio designer, who spends their time tweaking and customizing car engine sounds as they respond to player and game-world input.

While a Technical Sound Designer may be asked to create assets, their primary focus is on the technical aspects of making sounds 'work' within the game's engine and/or middleware system. Often, a Technical Sound Designer will be skilled in sound design (audio production and engineering) as well as a variety of tools specific to game audio (Wwise, FMOD, XACT) and event scripting or programming languages such as C++ or LUA.

Audio Programmer

An Audio Programmer, also sometimes known as an Audio Developer or Audio Engineer (in the game industry the term Engineer is synonomous with Programmer) is someone who supports the audio vision of the game by developing and programming various aspects of the game and audio middleware engine. This is someone whose primary focus is programming, but who is knowledgeable enough about audio to make intelligent and informed decisions about audio-related matters. The Audio Programmer plays an integral role in designing game audio because they facilitate the Audio Designers by creating tools, workflows and systems that allow sounds to be played in the game as they were intended.

Composer

A Game Composer is someone who is hired to compose or adapt music for a game. Often times this person will not only compose the music, but they will also perform, produce and engineer the music - delivered as final mastered files for playback in the game.

However, to differentiate, it must be noted that very high profile (read: big budget) games often hire composers who specialize in a particular style of music (orchestral, ethnic, electronic). In some cases, that person will only write the music, and an additional set of people will help to arrange, adapt, and record the actual music.

In the case of heavily orchestrated music, a composer, arranger/copyist, conductor and full-orchestra, as well as a team of engineers may be brought in to realize the score for a game. These recordings may then be handed off to yet another individual or team for final editing and coordination for use in the game.

Music Designer/Integration Specialist

In conjunction with all of the aforementioned people, the Music Designer may be more deeply involved early on in the process of composing. This is because the Music Designer, while not 100% responsible for actually writing all the music, might actually be able to guide the composer toward composing music that is more compatible with the type of interactive music system being used in a particular game. For example, if a game has a particular focus on the player moving through various stages of combat (stealth, alert, danger, combat) the Music Designer might assist the composer in working with themes where there are multiple variations and layers of a theme, whereby individual instruments or sections can be added or subtracted to increase complexity and intensity.

The Music Designer would then also be responsibile for integrating these recordings into the game.

Voiceover Producer

A Voiceover Producer specializes in voiceover production, coordination, and (sometimes) integration. This is becoming an increasingly important role as big budget games bring in higher quality and well-known voice talent. The VO Producer will help to work with the script writers, casting directors, studio engineers, and voice director, as well as all the members of the game development audio team, to ensure that the VO assets for the game are recorded and produced to a high quality.

As a special side-note, the majority of the work I currently do with Microsoft is VO Production - but specifically I work in Localization. This is VO Production that specifically focuses on international markets. We work with the development team to translate and record their game into multiple languages for delivery to global markets. So if you have ever listened to Halo, Fable or Gears of War in another language...my team deals with those voice recordings. :)

Field/Foley Artist

It is more common to see a field/foley artist in the film and television industry, but I thought I would mention it here because it is an increasingly important role. A field or foley artist is someone who specializes in field recording (recording sounds in the real world - vehicles, weapons, locations, etc.) and a foley artist is someone who specializes in performing and recording foley sounds (character footsteps, clothing movement sounds, doors opening - all of the small, subtle sounds you rarely pay attention to but make a HUGE difference in detail). These roles are often intertwined with the Sound Designer role - especially at smaller developers. However, some people make a living simply doing these jobs alone (for games, film or television), so if it sounds interesting it may be worth more research.


Management


flickr image by aerosol.halos

There are two roles that are relatively common at larger game developers. These are the roles of Audio Lead and Audio Director. These roles are somewhat hard to define, but typically an Audio Lead is someone who acts as the 'foreman' for the Audio Team, taking lead responsibility for managing the team, the task assignments, and the general execution of the audio plan for a specific game. The Audio Director acts as an advocate and visionary, handling the budgeting and planning for the audio team and resources needed for all projects at a given development studio. The Audio Director manages the audio team as a whole, as well as makes influential decisions about the overall design and asthetic of the games in development. In some cases, the Audio Director may take a more hands-on approach to particular parts of a game - for example, Martin O'Donnell, Audio Director for Bungie (Halo franchise) is also the main composer for the series.

These roles become increasingly important as project size increases. Having a smaller group of individuals assume responsibility for the vision and aesthetic of the audio design can often result in a more cohesive and polished sounding game, as well as improve team functionality.


Functional Example

To provide an example of how these characters might work together, let's look at a idealized game development workflow. Let's say that we're designing sounds for a new first person shooter. The Audio Director will work closely with the Audio Lead to outline the scope, budget, schedule and staffing for the title. Additionally, the Audio Director may make some aesthetic decisions about the overall audio design.

Early on in the pre-production phases, the audio team will be focused on fleshing out the design (usually done in a document, as well as on test levels/maps which help prove out and test various audio systems). They'll get help from the Audio Programmer in designing, specifying, and building up new tools, plugins, or workflows to ensure the title goes smoothly.

The VO Producer will actively be workign with the design and script teams to establish the voiceover workflow, and will provide temporary voice assets (recorded with non-professional talent or test-to-speech) so level designers can design and build accordingly.

The field and foley artists may begin recording raw source material such as weapons, vehicles, character foley and ambient sounds. Over time, the Audio Designer and Implementation specialist (along with the Audio Lead) will begin placing these assets in the game through whatever workflow has been established (audio middleware, proprietary engine, etc.). As production picks up, the team will continue to work on the above tasks - creating or capturing raw assets, designing sounds, and integrating them. They will also continually test their work in the game, providing feedback to the Audio Programmer when things aren't working quite as they should. They'll also closely partner with all the other disciplines to ensure all the sounds are integrated and working according to spec.

The Audio Director and Lead will also begin partnering with the composer and possibly a music designer to begin designing, composing, and integrating the music for the game. This process typically comes somewhat later into production, depending on scope, budget and complexity.

A VO Producer may step in at this stage as well, and begin working on recording the final voice assets. Toward the end of this stage, the Localization team may also join in, and being translating and recording the non-English versions of the voice actors.

As we reach the end of Development, the team is focused on polish, last minute changes, and fixes, and doing a final mix-pass on the game. During this process, the Director and Lead will focus on ensuring the games volume is consistently presented throughout the game, that the cinematics are mixed appropriately, and that the important aspects of the audio are heard when they need to be.

While this is a very simplified version of the development process, it gives you an idea of how the different roles might work together.


To Be Continued

This concludes Part 3 of our series. There is lots more to come, so please check back with us for the next installment.

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