Interview on La Bobina Sonora

I have been interviewed on the site “La Bobina Sonora” which is dedicated to the spanish and latin america audio community. I thought it would be interesting to translate the interview into english in case you want to have a look. There are some insights into my career history, the way I approach sound design and mixing and the projects I was working on at the time (October 2018). So, here we go!

LA BOBINA SONORA: Before starting with the interview, I just wanted to thank you for your presence here at labobinasonora.net.

JAVIER ZUMER: Thanks you for the invitation, I’ve been reading the blog for years and I’m happy to be able to contribute.

LBS: You are currently based in Ireland, where you do most of your work. It’s interesting to ask, which are the main differences in the audio industry between Ireland and Spain?

JAVIER: The main difference is that Ireland is a country that enjoys a better economical situation. This brings more stability and specialization to the profession.

Having said that, Ireland is an interesting example because it shares some similarities with Spain. Both countries went under during the economic crisis (both with a property bubble). Also, both live under other countries shadows like the UK, France or the US since these have a more mature and stablished industry.

LBS: How are audio professionals treated by the Irish industry? Do any kind of associations or unions exist?

JAVIER: Personally, my experience has being positive. Maybe sound doesn’t get as much love and attention as other departments (that’s kind of universal since we are visual creatures) but in my environment I usually have the time and resources needed to get the job done.

About associations, I am not aware of them but if they do exist they are probably based in Dublin since the industry is mostly located there. (I’m currently in Galway).

LBS: Those who work on this amazing profession usually share an appreciation for cinema, music and even other arts. Which were the main reasons for you to end up building sonic worlds? Maybe your experience in music production brought you there?

JAVIER: Like many other people, the thing that made me consider and appreciate sound was music. Reason was the first audio software that I used in depth and that was when I dropped out of college to study audio.

I still think Reason is a very unique starting point since its design imitates real hardware and it gave me my first notions of how the audio signal flows.

Later, I started to be more interested in audio for cinema and games. I think they offer a great balance of artistic and technical challenges.

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LBS: At the start of your career you were getting some experience with music recording and mixing at Mundo Sinfónico. How do you think this time helped you in your career?

JAVIER: Mundo sinfónico was my first professional audio experience. Héctor Pérez, who owns the place, was kind enough to let me join on some projects during recording and mixing.

During that time I learned a lot about using microphones, Pro Tools, and other software. It was pretty much like discovering how all these things are used in the real world and in real applications. At this time, I also started to learn how to to face a mix.

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LBS: So, how were your first steps as a sound designer?

JAVIER:  At some point, I knew I needed to invest in my own gear in order to work in projects and I had to make a decision. I could either invest in music recording or in location audio gear. I decided to go for the latter since building an studio would lock me into an specific location but I could do location audio anywhere. Also, by that point audio for cinema interested me as much as music production.

With this gear I did many, many short films, some documentaries and TV stuff. Naturally, I would also work on the audio post for some of these projects and this was the way I went into sound design and mixing.

LBS: Is there any specific moment in time when you feel you made a big leap forward on your career?

JAVIER: Maybe the way I got my current job. By that time, I was living in Galway, which is quite far away from Dublin (impossible to commute). Since all the industry is really in Dublin, this was an issue if I wanted to get work but those days I was just working on freelance projects here are there.

One day, I decided that it would be cool to find people in my city interested in going out and record sound effects. I sent some emails to local audio folks and one of them was Ciarán Ó Tuairisc, who was the head of sound for Telegael, a company that was super close, like a 5 minute drive from my place.

I went there to meet him and see the place and he gave me some episodes so I could do a sound design test. Some days later, I came back with the results and I was offer a job there. I was maybe expecting that they will consider me for freelance work at best but the whole thing was kind of a job interview where I was successful with no need for a CV or a tie.

LBS: What are your main goals when facing a sound design project? Which of them are esential to your workflow?

JAVIER: When doing sound design I like to first do a basic coverage pass. Just have a sound for every obvious thing without taking much time with each. Once this is done, the real job begins when you start thinking about how the sounds you already have work together and which ones are important enough to spend more time and thought on them.

LBS: When crafting a sonic world, which are the processes (artistic or technical) that deserve the most attention and detail?

JAVIER: The elements that drive the story forward defintely deserve the most attention. Also is very important to give detail to any element that helps with world building.

If the story takes place in a special place or there is a relevant object is important to think how these should sound like. Of course, ideally this should work on subconcious level for the viewer.

LBS: Talking now about all the different processes that build a sonic world (dialogue editing, ambients/fx, foley, mixing…), which is the hardest for you and which one do you enjoy the most?

JAVIER: Probably foley is where I am the least confortable. It is a true art that requieres experience, coordination and sensitivity to get it right. I don´t have a lot of experience doing it and I am not into the physical part of the job although I know that that appeals to other people.

The process I enjoy the most is mixing since this is when all elements come together to create a cohesive whole that moves towards the same artistic direction.

LBS: Do you usually think about mixing when doing sound design? Do you use sub-mixes or pre-mixes on certain elements? Or do you prefer to start the mix completely from scratch?

JAVIER: It depends on the situation. When I´m just doing sound design I try to give the mixer as much control and options as possible so I don´t usually do sub-mixes although sometimes they makes sense.

If I´m mxing and also doing sound design I tend to pre-mix things as I go and even apply some EQ or compression here and there on elements that I know are going to need it. For this, clip effecs on Pro-Tools are great.

LBS: Talking about something omnipresent and unavoidable like technology, which is the gear you usually use when doing editing, sound design and mixing?.

JAVIER: I use a Pro Tools Ultimate rig with a S6 M10 desk. In terms of software, I use the usual stuff, most of my plugins are either from Avid or from Waves. For dialogue editing, Izotope RX is a must.

LBS: Which was your last technological discover that improved your workflow the most?

JAVIER: Probably Soundly, although this wasn´t that recent. It is a library management software that maybe doesn´t offer as many features as Soundminer but I think is a great option. It is more affordable (in the short term) and also offers online libraries that are kept updated and growing. It offers more than enough metadata capabilities and good integration with Pro Tools.

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LBS: A big portion of your work is focused on an area that is maybe a little unkwnown for some of us but very important and clearly rising in relevance. How did you get into video game sound design?

JAVIER: I grew up playing games and this was always an area that interested me when I got into sound design.

One day I saw an ad for a crowdfunding from a spanish game, Unepic. They were looking for some money to record some voice acting and I emailed them asking them wether they would also be interested in some help with sound design. I had really no idea about how this kind of work would go and surprinsingly the were interested and we started to work together.

Six year later, Unepic has sold more than half a million copies between consoles and PC, being the first spanish indie game to get into Steam. It was a project that taught me a lot and I have kept working with its developer, Francisco Téllex de Meneses and many others since.

LBS: What are the main differences between working on video game sound design and just working on traditional media?

JAVIER: The main difference is that traditional media is linear. Once you finish a mix, it is going to be the same for all viewers, the only differentiating factor would be the reproduction system but the mix itself it would be the same forever.

On the other hand, video games are interactive so there is no mix in the traditional sense. You just give the game engine every audio asset needed and the rules that will govern how these sound are played. So the mix would be created in real time as the player intereacts with the world of the game.

The real power in video game sound design comes from the fact that you can connect audio tools with parameters and states within the game world. For example, imagine that the music and dialogue are connected to a low pass filter, a reverb and a delay and they change as your health gets lower. Or a game where you build weapons that wear out as you use them so their foley and FX become darker (via an EQ) and more distorted in the process.

I have an article on my blog with more information for someone who wants to start to do video game sound design.

LBS: Let´s talk about your work on field and SFX recording. We can find some interesting libraries on your website made by you, some of them dedicated to something you call “audio explorations”.

How important is field and SFX recording for you?

JAVIER: It´s something I consider very important beacuse once you have access to the big libraries the industry uses, you realize that there are many sounds that are over used. Once you start to hear them, they are everywhere!

So, I think is important to bring a more unique and personal approach to sound design. Also, when you record and create your own sound effects you force yourself to be more adventurous and to experiment with thechniques and ideas.

LBS: How do you usually plan a field recording session? Are they done within the context of a larger project or do you plan free sessions just to experiment and play around?

JAVIER: This is something I´ve been thinking about for a long time. On one hand, when something specific is needed, I just go out to get it. But with time I have been thinking that in those cases is not very convenient to explore and record interesting stuff since you have deadlines and many other things to work on.

As a solution, I´ve been going on what I call “explorations”. I just pick a technique, prop, place or software and I try to create interesting stuff while trying to learn how it works. I´ve been blogging about them and also releasing free mini-libraries with the results.

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LBS: Any particular piece of advice to keep in mind when doing field recording?

JAVIER: At the begining of every take, always explain what your are doing with your own voice. Take videos and picture if you can. I guarantee you won´t remember everything you where doing later when you are editing.

LBS: What kind of gear (recorder, microphones…) and techniques do you usually use when doing filed recording?

JAVIER: Nothing too special or obscure. I use a Tascam HD-P2 that works great after seven years of use and is able to record at 192 kHz although it only has two pre-amps so sometimes I need other recorders as a reinforcement. The microphones I use are a 416, Oktava 012, Rode NT4, SM57, Sanken COS-11D and some more exotic mics from JRF (hydrophone, contact mic and a coil pick up).

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LBS: Which project would you consider a highlight on your career in terms technical or artistic merit?

JAVIER:  Recently, I have worked on the sound design and a good portion of the mix for a documentary series about the lighthouses of Ireland that was premiered on RTE (the irish BBC).

It was a very interesting project with beautiful helicopter footage. I needed to recreate the audio for 200 minutes of aerial shots so loads of waves, wind, storms, seagulls and things like that. I tried to give each location and lighthouse its own personality and sound. Some of them are really astonishing and true masterpieces of engineering while others are situated on amazing natural locations.

I summary, one the most beautiful projects I have had the chance of working on.

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LBS: Is there any cool anecdote in your almost decade as a professional that you would like to share?

JAVIER:  While I was trying to remember an anecdote I thought I could share something that happens to me from time to time and I wonder if it´s something thar other people experience too.

Some times, when I´m looking for a particular sound. I bring some audio just by chance or even by mistake and it works great just like that. I guess that when you spend many hours editing audio, these things are going to just happen from time to time but it always feels like you were touched by the goods of sound design for a moment.

LBS: Is there any project on your near future?

JAVIER:  I´m about to get immersed in Drop Dead Weird, a live action comedy about three australian teenagers that move to Ireland and their parents turn into zombies. I am mixing the show, which is a co-production between Channel 7 (Australia) and RTE (Ireland).

It´s a cool crazy project with a lot of action and sound design and many people on each scene which is always a challenge in terms of dialogue editing.

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LBS: To wrap thing up, any advice for someone who is mad enough to be interested in this beautiful profession?

JAVIER:  When I look back at my career there is a pattern that repeats itself: I was able to make a leap forward when I was on the right place at the right time. The problem is that you never know when and where this is going to happen, for each of these moments of success I´ve had many more that just were unfruitful.

So the best way to go then is to be persistant and throw as many seeds to the air as possible while always improving as a professional. Something will bloom.

LBS: Thanks again for your time, Javier. Best of luck on your future projects which we will keep an eye on here on labobinasonora.net.

JAVIER: Thanks to you, Óscar for having me. My pleasure.

Dear Devs, 7 Reasons why your Game may need Audio Middleware.

There are several audio middleware programmes on the market. You may have heard of the two main players: Fmod and Wwise. Both offer free licenses for smaller budget games and paid licenses for bigger projects.

So, what is Audio Middleware? Does your game need it?

Audio Middleware is a bridge between your game's engine and the game's music and sound effects. Although is true that most game engines offer ready to use audio functionalities (and some of them overlap with the features explained below), middleware gives you more power and flexibility for both creating, organizing and implementing audio.

Here are the seven main reasons to consider using middleware:

1. It gives Independence to the Audio Team.

Creating sound effects and music for a game is already a good amount of work, but that is barely half the battle. For these assets to work, they need to be implemented in the game and be connected to in-game states and variables like health or speed.

This connection will always need some collaboration between the audio team and the programming team. When using middleware, this is a much easier process since once the variables are created and associated, the audio team will be free to tweak how the gameplay will affect the audio, without the need to go into the code or the game engine.

2. Adaptive Music.

Music is usually linear and predictable, which is fine for linear media like movies. But in the case of video games, we have the power to make music adapt and react to the gameplay, giving the player a much more compelling experience.

Middleware plays an important role here because it gives the composer non-linear tools to work and think about the soundtrack not in terms of defined songs but of different layers or fragments of music that can be triggered, modified and silenced as the player progresses.

3. Better handling of Variation and Repetition.

Back when memory was a limiting factor, games had to get by with just a few sounds, which would usually meant repetition, a lot of repetition. Although repetition is certainly still used to give an old school flavour, is not very desirable in modern, more realistic games.

When something happens often enough in a game, the associated sound effect can get boring and annoying pretty fast. Middleware offers tools to avoid this, like randomly selecting the sound from a pool of different variations or randomly altering the pitch, volume or stereo position of the audio file each time is triggered. When all these tools are combined, we end up with an audio event that will be different each time but cohesive and consistent, offering the player a more organic and realistic experience.

4. Advanced Layering.

Layering is how we sound designers usually build sounds. We use different, modified individual sounds to create a new and unique one. Middleware allows us to, instead of mixing down this combination of sounds, import all these layers into different tracks so we can apply different effects and treatments to each sound separatelly.

This flexibility is very important and powerful. It help us to better adapt the character and feel of a sound event to the context of the gameplay. For example, a sci-fi gun could have a series of layers (mechanical, laser, alien hum, low frequency impact, etc) and having all these layer separated would allow us to vary the balance between them depending on things like ammo, distance to the source or damage to the weapon.

5. Responsive Audio tools.

Sound effects are usually created using linear audio software, like Pro Tools, Nuendo or Reaper. These are also called DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). The tools that we can find in DAWs allow us to transform and shape sounds. Things like equalization, compression and other effects are the bread and butter of audio people. Most of the modern music, sound effects and movies that you´ve ever heard came from a DAW.

But the issue is that once you bounce or export your sound it’s kind of set in stone, that’s how it will sound when you trigger it in your game. Middleware software not only give us the same tools that you can find in a DAW. More importantly, it also give us the ability to make them interact with variables and states coming from the game engine.

How about a monster whose voice gets deeper as it gets larger? Or music and sound effects that get louder, brighter and more distorted as the time is running out?

6. Hardware & Memory Optimization.

Different areas of a game compete for processing power and usually audio is not the first priority (or even the second). That´s why is very important to able to optimize and streamline a game´s audio as much as possible.

Middleware offers handy tools to keep the audio tidy, small and efficent. You can customize things like reverbs and other real time effects and also choose how much quality you want in the final compression algorithm for the audio.

7. Platform flexibility & Localization.

If you need to prepare your game for different platforms, including PC, consoles or mobile phones, middleware makes this very easy. You can compile a different version of the game’s audio for each of the platforms. Memory or hardware requirements may be different for each of them and you’ll need to maybe simplify sound events, bake-in effects or turn a surround mix into an stereo one.

You can also have a different version per language, so the voice acting would be different but the overall sound effects and treatment of the voices would be consistent.


I hope this gave you a bit of a taste of what middleware is capable of. When in doubt, don´t hesitate to ask us, audio folks!
Thanks for reading.

An Introduction to Game Audio

Talking to a fellow sound designer about game audio, I realised that he wasn't aware of some of the differences between working on audio for linear media (film, animation, TV, etc) and for interactive media (video games).

So this post is kind of my answer to that. A brief introduction to the creative depth of video game sound design. This would be aimed to audio people who are maybe not very familiar with the possibilities this world offers or just want to see in which way is different to, say, working on film sound design.

Of course there are many differences between linear and interactive sound design, but perhaps the most fundamental, and the most important for somebody new to interactive sound design, is the concept of middleware. In this post, I’ll aim to give beginners a first look at this unfamiliar tool.

I'll use screenshots from Unearned Bounty, a project I've been working on for around a year now. Click on them to enlarge. This game runs with Unity as the engine and Fmod as the audio middleware.

Linear Sound vs Interactive Sound

Video games are an interactive media and this is going to influence how you face the sound design work. In traditional linear media, you absolutely control what happens in your timeline. You can be sure that, once you finish your job, every time anyone presses play that person is going to have the same audio experience you originally intended, provided that their monitoring system is faithful.

Think about that. You can spend hours and hours perfecting the mix to match a scene since you know is always going to look the same and it will always be played in the same context. Far away explosion? Let's drop a distant explosion there or maybe make a closer FX sound further away. No problem. 

In the case of interactive media, this won´t always be the case. Any given sound effect could be affected by game world variablesstates and context. Let me elaborate on those three factors. Let's use the example of the explosion again. In the linear case, you can design the perfect explosion for the shot, because is always going to be the same. Let's see in the case of a game:

  • The player could be just next to the explosion or miles away. In this case, the distance would be a variable that is going to affect how the explosion is heard. Maybe the EQ, reverb or compression should be different depending on this.

  • At the same time, you probably don't want the sound effect to be exactly the same if it comes from an ally instead of the player. In that case, you'd prefer to use a simpler, less detailed SFX. One reason for this could be that you want to enhance the sound of what the player does so her actions feel more clear and powerful. In this case, who the effect belongs to, would be a state.

  • Lastly, is easier to make something sound good when you always know the context. In video games, you may not always know or control which sounds will play together. This forces you to play-test to make sure that sounds not only work in isolation but also together and in the proportions that usually the player is going to hear. Also, different play styles will alter these proportions. So, following with our example, your explosion may sound awesome but maybe at the same time dialogue is usually being played and is getting lost in the mix and you'd need to account for that.

After seeing this, linear sound design may feel more straightforward, almost easy in comparison. Well, not really. I´ll explain with an analogy. Working on linear projects, particularly movies, is like writing a book. You can really focus on developing the characters, plot and style. You can keep improving the text and making rewrites until you are completely satisfied. Once is done, your work is always going to deliver the same experience to anyone who reads the book.

Interactive media, on the other hand, is closer to being a game master preparing a D&D adventure for your friends. You may go into a lot detail with the plot, characters and setting but like any experienced GM knows, players will somewhat unpredictable. They will spend an annoying amount of time exploring some place that you didn´t give enough attention to and then they will circumnavigate the epic boss fight by some creative rule bending or a clever outside the box idea.

So, as you can see, being a book writer or working in linear sound design gives you the luxury of really focusing on the details you want, since the consumer experience and interaction with your creation is going to be closed and predictable. In both D&D and interactive media, you are not really giving the final experience to the players, you are just providing the ingredients and the rules that will create a unique experience every time.

Creating those ingredients and rules is our job. Let's explore the tools that will help us with this epic task.

Audio Middleware and the Audio Event

Here you can see code being scary.

Games, or any software for that matter, is built from a series of instructions that we call code. This code manages and keeps track of everything that makes a game run: graphics, internal logic, connecting to other computers through the internet and of course, audio.

The simplest way of connecting a game with some audio files is just calling them from the code whenever we need them. Let's think about a FPS game. We would need a sound every time the players shoots her shotgun. So, in layman's terms, the code would say something like: "every time the players clicks her mouse to shoot, please play this shotgun.wav file that you will find in this particular folder". And we may don't even need to say please since computers don't usually care about such things.

This is how all games were done before and is still pretty much in use. This method is very straightforward but also very limited. Incorporating the audio files into the game is a process that is usually called implementation and this is its more rudimentary form. The thing is, code can be a little scary at first, specially for us audio people who are not very familiar with it. Of course, we can learn it, and is an awesome tool if you plan to work in the video game industry, but at the end of the day we want to be focusing on our craft.

Middleware was created help us with this and fill the gap between the game code and the audio. It serves as a middle man, hence the name, allowing sound designers to just focus on the sound design itself. In our previous example, the code was pointing to specific audio files that were needed in any given moment. Middleware does essentially the same thing but puts an intermediate in the middle of the process. This intermediate is what we call an audio event

An example of audio events managing the behaviour of the pirate ships.

An audio event is the main functional unit that the code will call whenever it needs a sound. It could be a gunshot, a forest ambience or a line of dialogue. It could contain a single sound file or dozens of them. Anytime something makes a sound, is triggering an event. The key thing is that, once the code is pointing to an event, we have control, we can make it sound the way we want, we are in our territory.

And this is because middleware uses tools that we audio people are familiar with. We'll find tracks, faders, EQs and compressors. Keep in mind that these tools are still essentially code, middleware is just offering us the convenience of having them in an comfortable and familiar environment. Is bringing the DAW experience to the game development realm.

Audio middleware can be complex and powerful and I'd need a whole series of posts to tell you what they can do and how. So, for now. I'm just going to go through three main features that should give you an idea of what they can offer.

I - Conventional Audio Tools within Middleware

Middleware offer a familiar environment with tracks, timelines and tools similar to the ones found on your DAW. Things like EQ, dynamics, pitch shifters or flangers are common.

This gives you the ability to tweak your audio assets without needing to go back and forth between different softwares. Probably you are still going to start from your DAW and build the base sounds there using conventional plugins, but being able to also do processing within the middleware gives you flexibility and, more importantly, a great amount of power as you'll see later.

II - Dealing with Repetition and Variability

The player may perform some actions over and over again. For example, think about footsteps. You generally don't want to just play the same footstep sound every single time. Even having a set of, say 4 different footsteps, is going to feel repetitive eventually. This repetitiveness is something that older games suffer from and that generally modern games try to avoid. The original 1998 Half-Life, for example, uses a set of 4 footstep sounds per surface. Having said that, it may still be used when looking for a nostalgic or retro flavour the same way pixel art is still used. 

Middleware offer us tools to make several instances of the same audio event, sound cohesive but never exactly identical. The most important of these tools are variations, layering and parameter randomization.

The simplest approach to avoid repetition is just recording or designing several variations on the same effect and let the middleware choose randomly between them every time the event is triggered. If you think about it, this imitates how reality behaves. A sword impact or an footstep are not going to sound exactly the same every single time, even if you really try to use the same amount of force and hit on the same place. 

You could also break up a sound into different components or layers. For example, a gunshot could be divided in a shot impact, its tail and the bullet shell hitting the ground. Each of this layers could also have their own variations. So now, every time the player shoots, the middleware is going to randomly choose an impact, a tail and a bullet shell sound, creating a unique combination.

Another cool thing to do is to have an event with a special layer that is triggered very rarely. By default, every layer on an event has a 100% possibility to be heard but you can tweak this value to make it more infrequent. Imagine for example a power-up sound that has an exciting extra sound effect but is only played 5% of the time the event is called. This is a way to spice things up and also reward players who spend more time playing.

An additional way of adding variability would be to randomize not only which sound clip will be played, but also their parameters. For example, you could randomize volume, pitch or panorama within a certain range of your choice. So, every time an audio clip is called, a different pitch and volume value are going to be randomly picked.

Do you see the possibilities? If you combine these three techniques, you can achieve an amazing degree of variability, detail and realism while using a relative small amount of audio files.

See above the collision_ashore event that is triggered whenever a ship collides with an island. It contains 4 different layers: 

  • A wood impact. (3 variations)

  • Sand & dirt impacts with debris. (3 variations)

  • Wooden creaks (5 variations)

  • A low frequency impact.

As I said, each time the event is triggered, one of this variations within each layer will be chosen. If we then combine this with some pitch, volume and EQ randomization we will assure that every instance of the event will be unique but cohesive with the rest.

III - Connecting audio tools to in-game variables and states.

This is where the real power resides.

Remember the audio tools built-in into middleware that I mentioned before? In the first section I showed you how we can use these audio tools the same way we use them on any DAW. Additionally, can also randomize their values, like I showed you in the second section. So here comes the big one.

We can also automate any parameter like volume, pitch, EQ or delay in relation to anything going on inside the game. In other words, we will have a direct connection between the language of audio and the language the game speaks, the code. Think about the power that that gives you. Here are some examples:

  • Apply an increasing high pass filter to the music and FX as the protagonist health gets lower.

  • Apply a delay to cannon shots that gets longer the further away the shot is, creating a realistic depiction of how light travels faster than sound.

  • Make the tempo of a song gets faster and its EQ brighter as you approach the end of the level.

  • As your sci-fi gun wears off, the sounds get more distorted and muffled. You feel so relieved when you can repair it and get all its power back.

Do you see the possibilities this opens? You can express ideas in the game's plot and mechanics with dynamic and interactive sound design! Isn't that exciting? The takeaway concept that I want you to grasp from this post is that you would never be able to do something this powerful with just linear audio. Working on games makes you think much harder about how sound coming from objects and creatures behaves, evolves and changes. 

As I said before,  you are just providing the ingredients and the rules, the sound design itself only materializes when the player starts the game. 

You can see on the above screenshot how an in-game parameter, distance in this case, affects an event layers' volume, reverb send and EQs.

How to get started

If I have piqued your interest, here are some resources and information to start with.

Fmod and Wwise are currently the two main middleware used by the industry. Both are free to use and not very hard to get into. You will need to re-wire your brain a bit to get used to the way they work, though. Hopefully, reading this post gave you a solid introduction on some of the concepts and tools they use.

If I had to choose one of them, Fmod could look less intimidating at first and maybe more "DAW user friendly". Of course, there are other options, but if you just want to have a first contact, Fmod does the job.

There are loads of resources and tutorials online to learn both Fmod and Wwise, but since I think that the best way to really learn is to jump in and make something yourself, I'll leave you with something concrete to start from for each of them:

Fmod has these very nice tutorials with example projects that you can download and play with.

Wwise has official courses and certifications that you can do for free and and also include example projects.

And of course, don't hesitate to contact me if you have further questions. Thanks for reading!

Ghost 1.0 Sound Design Postmortem

Hi there! Here is a brief summary of my sound design work on the game Ghost 1.0
Since this is the first one I write, I'll go into some extra detail about my workflow but I'll try to always keep it related to Ghost 1.0

The Project

The game was developed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses (Fran). We had already worked together on Unepic, a pretty successful metroidvania RPG published on Steam and consoles.

I had worked on Ghost 1.0 on and off between April 2014 and June 2016. To give you an idea of the size of the project, here are some numbers from the audio folder where I did all the work:

-23K files in total.
-37 Gb in size.
-Around 200 Pro Tools folders.
-386 unique audio files in the final game (not including voice overs).
-Over 1000 lines of dialogue for each language (English, Spanish and Russian localizations were made).
-Around 230 sound events covered in the game.

 

Game & Audio Engine

For this game, we were using the Unepic engine (written in C) which already manages audio using DirectSound. This API allows cross-platform audio and, in the case of Unepic, allowed us to port the game to the a big variety of systems including WiiU, Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac & Linux. Ghost 1.0 is also planned to be ported to some of these systems in the near future.

DirectSound works nicely but sometimes I missed some middleware features like "live" layering, more complex randomization capabilities and better loop management. I realised that not using middleware forces me to really work on the SFX within Pro Tools and only bounce when everything seems perfect. Going back and forth between the game and the DAW is very common. On the other hand, with FMOD or Wwise, I often find myself just casually creating the SFX layers knowing that I can put them together and even EQ or compress them within the middleware environment.

This difference in the workflow is something to keep in mind while switching between projects with or without middleware.

Sonic Style

I began by working on some general sounds to define the game's tone and style. Footsteps, the starting weapons and initial character skills were the very first things we focused on. The basic, primary blaster pistol was one of the SFX that went under the most iterations. It's the gun every player starts with so we wanted to make sure we had the right sound for it.

Here you can have a listen at how the starting gun SFX evolved. At the beginning, we were just trying out different styles until settling with a more mechanical and simpler sound. Version 9.3 was the one used on the game.

One of the main priorities creating this sound was to avoid being annoying through repetition. Sometimes you think you have a cool sound but you have to remember that, if the SFX needs to be played over and over again sometimes you are better off with a simpler, shorter SFX. Also, we made it feel a little weak with the idea of making the player feel powerful when switching to better weapons.

The room where you start the game and try your primary weapon. I've been here too many hours.

After this initial phase, Fran would then ask for new sound effects as the game grew and expanded over time. The nice thing about this way of working is that the project doesn't require constant attention but what it does require, is an ability to adapt quickly once again to the tone of the game when work does need to be done.

In this way, it was a very organic process, usually without strict deadlines, that allowed us to spend the proper amount of time creating the right SFX.

Keeping track

I used a spreadsheet, to gather every relevant piece of information including the name of the SFX, its duration, how it was triggered (one shot or loop), its location in the game, description and examples. This was crucial to be able to keep track of dozens of sound effects at the same time, I'd usually found myself constantly going back to the spreadsheet to note down ideas or check on things.

Whenever the sound was going to be triggered by an animation and needed precise timing, I'd record a short video of the animation using OBS and then use it as a reference in Pro Tools

SFX Approval

Any given SFX would need on average around 2-3 versions to be approved. Usually language is not very good to describe the abstract world of sound so I always tried to get as much information as possible (the spreadsheet is great for this) to get close to the idea Fran had in his mind.

Weapons and power-ups are a good example of a SFX that can vary greatly in its style. Sometimes just knowing is a "Cloaking device SFX" is not enough information to get the SFX right. Should it feel powerful? Quiet? Electric? High Tech? Is there an example from other game or movie? Making these kind of questions is crucial.

I always took extensive notes through meetings, or, even better, recorded the whole thing. Having all the information and context for a given SFX in a video that you can go back to was a blessing. I never trust my memory and you probably shouldn't either.

Versions, versions, versions...

File Management & Version Control

I had a separated Pro Tools session per sound effect and usually even separated sessions per version of a given SFX. It would often happen that I had to go back to a previous version or combine layers from some of them so giving every version its own session is the safest way to go about this in my opinion.

For version control, I keep a very simple but effective system. I would use the sufix "_v1", "_v2", "_v3", etc. at the end of a sound file name. I recommend this system or a similar one and I'd avoid using terms like "_final" or "_last" because you never know when you are going to need to go back and change something, even months later.

A sequential numeric system keeps everything tidy and clear. I would sometimes use sub versions like "_2.1" or "_2.2" when the sound design was essentially the same but there was a small difference in volume or EQ, usually to make the sound sit better in its context.

 

Implementation

Basically, testing new sounds was as easy as swapping the audio files in the game folders. To make work easier, I had access to a developer copy of the game that allowed me to have instant access to the whole map and to cheats like being invincible or give myself any weapon or power-up. 

Having access to these kind of tools is key to speed up work and helped me a lot to focus on the sound design and testing SFX.

Developer map screenshot

I first worked on Ghost 1.0 using a Mac mini to do the sound design an run Pro Tools. I used bootcamp partition with Windows to run the game. I also had the option of emulating Windows but when working with a game still in development  things can be unstable sometimes so running the game on Windows natively was the most reliable option. 

Going back and forth between two operating systems is quite slow and usually breaks your creative momentum when working and testing new sounds in the game.

So I later upgraded to a dual computer system. I still use my Mac mini as a Pro Tools and Soundly machine and then I custom built a PC to run the games I'm working on. I share files between both computers via Ethernet and the keyboard and mouse using Synergy's Seamless which sometimes can be a little problematic, especially if you are using an old mac OS version, but in general, I would recommend this set up.

Distance, Panorama & Reverb

A comparison between Unepic and Ghost 1.0. Both have a similar point of view.

Both Unepic and Ghost 1.0 use a classic metroid style 2D Side-scrolling view that is particularly wide so our hero looks pretty small on the screen. This presented some challenges in the stereo sound placement and also in terms of getting the distance right.

If we use a completely realistic approach, with the listener on the camera, all sounds should be pretty much mono and somewhat far away but of course, this would be quite dull, since we wanted to convey information about enemy placement using the stereo field. So, what we did was to imagine that the listener was somewhere between the camera and the character. This way, we have some stereo depth but keeping also a sonic perspective that works with a wide camera angle where you can see several enemies and platforms at the same time.

We used baked-in reverbs since all the action happens in a very similar environment, the space station hallways and chambers. I may have used bigger reverbs for certain SFX that only play in large rooms, like boss rooms. 

Sample sounds

I leave you with some weapon, User Interface and environment sounds from the game. If you have any questions or want me to expand on anything further, feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!