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From a Distance: The Virtual Collaboration that Helped Score The Sims 2 DS/GBA

January 10, 2006
 

Getting collaborators in to help you score video games is widely regarded as essential these days. With each new generation of console, it's not just the graphics that improve. As game audio quality increases, musicians and sound engineers take on a bigger role – and hopefully more credit – in the overall success of a title.

Consequently the bigger the pool of creative input a developer has at hand, the better. But nowadays, game audio composers are not limited to musicians in their area or peer group. As the story behind the soundtrack for the recent DS release The Sims 2 proves, game composers can now call upon collaborators anytime and anywhere in the world…


The Sims 2 (DS)

Kyle Johnson of Moontech Studios and Ian Stocker of Ian Stocker Sound Design met through the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G). When they met, Kyle was running Moontech, recording scores for plays, freeware games and independent movies, and specializing in recording guitar. Ian was already an independent composer and director contracting with Amaze entertainment and offered some tips to Kyle on how to get his music into a bigger games arena.

Earlier this year, Ian was briefed to do the music for The Sims 2 on the Nintendo DS. “When Amaze came to me with the design for the new Sims 2 handheld games, it was clear we would need a more western sound given the setting,” he says. “Live guitar is something I've been wanting to do for a while, and this became the perfect opportunity.”

After his experiences with Kyle at Moontech, Ian realized he'd already met and worked with the ideal collaborator for The Sims 2 , but there was a problem: Ian lives in San Francisco and Kyle lives in Santa Barbara. Ian didn't let this small detail get in the way…

“I contacted Kyle about doing the guitar work for me,” says Ian. “It was our first project together, but Kyle was an easy choice because of his interest in game audio, and willingness to work remotely on the project. I do mostly sound programming, sequencing and manipulation here at the studio, so it was good to have the performance, recording and delivery all taken care of.”

“I jumped at the chance,” says Kyle. “The project started with Ian creating some music and passing to me some scratch drum tracks to play along with. We also had many online (San Francisco to Santa Barbara) and face-to-face conversations (when Ian was in town) about the project during which I would mark down some key words. For instance Ian mentioned, "aliens," "desert," " Roswell ," "broken down car," "hotel," etc. I would later add musical comments to the key words, so Aliens equals Theremin or Desert equals Ennio Morricone and reverb harmonica. Ian also sent me audio examples and movie clips.”

“The sound quality over video chat isn't the best in the world,” continues Ian, “and the connection also tends to be fragile. But even through AIM and MSN, I could do some good direction and we could have a very productive session in one to two hours. In a way, hearing the low-res feed through video chat was almost like hearing a sneak preview of what the guitars would sound like after they are compressed to fit on a handheld cartridge!”

Since Kyle and Ian started to work together in this way a new batch of online music collaboration plug-ins such as VSTunnel and DML (the Digital Musician Link) have come out. These make pseudo real-time online jamming a possibility.

However, as explained: “We kept it simple,” says Kyle. “Ian doesn't use a traditional sequencer; he composes everything using Buzz, Impulse Tracker and Sound Forge. I used Audio Hijack Pro to feed Ian a direct sound off of my board while we were zeroing in on specific guitar and bass sounds. I plan to test VSTunnel for the next project.”

“Once we found the proper sounds, Ian would leave me to record my tracks. I would then mix down a full track so he could hear where my parts were within the greater picture of the song and each individual track for his use with his process. I would then FTP the tracks to him.”

Ian adds: “I'm sure we can improve our method of online collaboration if we looked into some different software. AIM and MSN have been surprisingly sufficient for free programs. Anything with a higher quality video and audio feed would be worth looking in to, but we don't really use MIDI for these projects, so any VST or sequencing features wouldn't really add anything to our process.”

So how did the actual compositional process work online in terms of who did what in the score?

Kyle: “Ian hired me to create both original songs and streaming samples. Together, remotely, we would come up with the proper live instrument sounds Ian had in mind. I then would load any files Ian sent into Cubase SX3, set the BPMs to what Ian requested, beat-map Ian's files to match the BPMs and then start recording. If Ian sent a drum loop I would start with guitar and add bass or drums next if he wanted them. Ian would stay online and listen to what I was coming up with and add comments like, ‘more accents on the rhythm parts,' ‘less whole chords and more power chords' and so on.”

“For original songs like The Sims 2 opening movie I referenced the data I collected throughout the project (remembering that Ian wanted an Aerosmith Back In The Saddle feel), loaded the movie into Cubase SX 3 and just start to sketch out musical ideas. For the movie, I felt that a Paul McCartney and Wings Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey kind of song separation would do well. I decided the scene should open with that classic haunting harmonica from Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West, a favorite Ennio Morricone moment of mine. Then the song should bust into the Aerosmith Back In The Saddle kind of riff.”

“For the hubcap kicking, I thought it would be nice to revisit the bleak sound of old western/desert-based movies so I added the nylon guitar riff and then busted back into the Aerosmith part. Ian rearranged the song to its permanent state but honored my idea to separate the parts. Ian also took from some of my lead samples and built a lead for the song. I love the way it turned out. I have more music deeper in the game but I haven't heard it yet. I really need to sit down and play all the way through the game!”

From Ian's point of view the process was limited only by his software and the consoles…

“Everything needs to be tracked into Impulse Tracker format to work in the game,” he says. “So once we have a good session, I will cut out the guitar phrases I need and stitch them together in the tracker. Because of the extreme memory limitations of the DS, and especially the GBA, I can't afford to have two copies of the same phrase in the song – so part of the challenge is finding the best way to cut up the patterns. Sometimes I will take a full session for a 2-minute song, and only need 10-20 seconds of guitar samples. In the end I have a collection of individual notes and small phrases to reconstitute the song.”

So, after working together, for The Sims did they find that the distance between them had any adverse effect?

“The distance didn't have a negative effect at all,” says Kyle. “With both of us being independent, online collaborations are the future. Technology isn't where I would like to see it yet but with greater demand I expect a breakthrough very soon. The main issue, obviously, is latency. But with cable modems being installed in more and more households and the infrastructure being redesigned to support them, a day of low latency is on the horizon.”

So they definitely see this virtual collaboration as the way forward…

Kyle: “Absolutely! I wouldn't have the opportunity to work with Ian's team (Joe Graves, Steven Velema, and Matt Piersall (who is with Okratron5000.com)) if it wasn't for online collaboration. Studios have become affordable without losing the quality of professional recording. Mix that with ‘inter-collab' (ha ha!) and now the industry can hear fantastic music from remote and unknown artists, which is a win-win situation.”

Ian: I'd also like to take the opportunity to mention Matt, who has pretty much taken over my sound design department starting early this year, and Steven who has done music composition for me for about the same time. Matt's in Texas and Steven's in the Netherlands, but that never got in the way. Best of all, at E3 the four of us got to sit down for a drink together. This is the future!


The Sims 2 (GBA)

“Just listen to some of the songs being uploaded for review on the G.A.N.G. forums. You won't believe your ears. Not to mention the power of AUs and VSTs [software instruments]. For a past project I was asked to put together some classical, Halloween music in the vein of Danny Elfman. I was able to pull it off using the orchestral sounds of my JV-1080 [hardware sound module] but I had to work very hard. Today I don't have to rely on less than perfect sounds or contract a symphony. I re-recorded two of my favorite songs from the Halloween project using EWQL Symphonic Orchestra Platinum and the sound is unbelievably realistic. My wife even cried at some part due to the convincing realism of the instruments!”

And Ian adds: “When I set out to subcontract music work, there was never a question about collaborating online. I live in the Bay Area but I didn't plan to restrict myself to people around here, as large as this talent pool may be. I'm just used to working remotely and making deliveries through the Internet so when I set out to collaborate on these projects, I went online.”

“There is still a lot to be said for regular visits and communication, but we err on the side of ‘alone time.' Audio people need their quiet personal time to get stuff done, so it's just as well that we aren't crowding one another in a typical office setting!”

So what are their future plans?

Kyle: “The Sims 2 was our first project together. Ian then hired me for Burnout Legends and we have a couple more planned. We are in talks about upcoming projects where I continue helping him with his need for live instrumentation and him helping me by producing the projects that I bring to the table.”

Ian: “Among the many trials of running a business, I can actually say that coordinating recording and other audio work over the Internet is one of the easiest and most rewarding. It's definitely something we'll be doing more of on future projects.”

And what have they learned from their experiences so far?

Kyle: “As in most fields, there is no real recipe for success in game audio and I'm young enough in the industry to only give minimal advice, but what I have learned from Ian, his team and G.A.N.G. is to stay the course, know your tools, and pay it forward.”

Ian: “Working on music for games is unlike anything else because you are under extreme pressure and the plan is constantly changing. It takes a certain agility and flexibility to succeed. Plans are great, but they have a shelf life of about a month—then you need to rethink things.”


Kyle's Studio Kit List
  • Apple G4 Dual 1.25GHz, 2GB RAM
  • MOTU 2408 MK3 audio interface
  • MOTU 24 I/O audio interface
  • Cubase SX 3 sequencing software
  • Roland GP-100 guitar Preamp and effects unit
  • Roland VP-9000 – “For some accurate time stretching”
  • Roland RE-201 – “Reverb for harmonica and some of the guitar samples”
  • Trigger Finger – “To perform the drum parts”
  • Alesis SR16 drum machine
  • Various VSTs & AUs – M-Tron, reverbs, compressions, etc.
  • Apple iSight webcam and external mic “for remote sessions”
  • Audio Hijack Pro – “To route audio directly to Ian”
  • “I just picked up Ableton Live 5 and love it. I'm presently working within Live 5 for my next project's sound FX and sampled audio compositions.”
 


Ian's Studio Kit

“As Kyle mentioned I am still using Amiga-style trackers like Impulse Tracker. Sample editing is all done in Sound Forge, and some songs are prototyped in Buzz. The full production songs for the FMVs were mixed entirely in Buzz. It's not the most user-friendly software, but it can be fast. I had to come up with two 30-second stings to accompany FMVs in the game during the hectic beta period, and I would say each one only took an hour from start to finish.”

“For hardware, I use a PC with an Emulator X Studio sound card, and M-Audio BX8s for monitoring. I have a Korg Z1 and Roland XV-2020 for composing and sampling instruments. The Z1 runs MIDI directly to the XV, so I don't use any sequencing software – just for fiddling around to pick out chords and so forth.”

“Music is sequenced in real time from samples and patterns, pretty much like a basic sampler. On the GBA music is mixed at 16KHz, 8-bit which means you gotta stay LOUD. On the DS, music is 32KHz at 10-bits, which for me is basically epicurean hi-fi excess.”

 

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