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Game Audio: A GDC 2003 Wrap-Up

March 13, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

If I was paying any attention, I would have realized the sunshine and clear skies on my annual drive up from San Diego were setting the mood for a Game Developers Conference to remember. There was initially a bit of concern that the current state of world affairs would dampen attendee participation, but developers came, and they came in force.

Game audio, it seems, continues to gain attention -- and what was once a relatively non-existent GDC topic a few years ago now plays out to large, standing-room-only crowds in a very conspicuous way. From the outgrown conference rooms to the many entertaining side shows, game audio is gathering steam as a force in the video game industry.

"I was surprised to see such a huge turnout of audio people, especially amateurs trying to get into the industry," said composer Shane Kneip, in response to my question about his impression of the show. "I know that I had lengthy talks with a few people who came up to me and started asking questions, and I'm sure other audio pros handed out tons of advice as well."

I personally met at least two-dozen composers examining our industry, from an established composer who's worked in TV and Broadway to students with genuine aspirations to write music for games. I witnessed many veteran game audio folks offering a hand to help make it a reality for them, even if it was just a simple offer to listen to their demo. I also noticed several new female faces this year, which composer Burke Trieschmann summed up this way: "I would like to give a shout out to any of the women who attended the audio track. They are few and far between and deserve much applause for hanging in a mostly testosterone filled industry."

Sessions, We've Got Your Sessions.

The audio track was quite popular this year. The many lectures, panels, roundtables and sponsored sessions were well received, and the minimal overlap freed folks from tough scheduling decisions. The general trends seemed to focus on interactive audio, scoring using live orchestras, surround sound and the overall increase in sound quality and presentation within the game. These topics are definitely fresh and reflect the current interests within an industry which has realized the importance of good audio.

Sessions covered a broad spectrum of audio issues, from hiring and directing voice talent to audio coding and everything in between. The top five, according to a completely unscientific poll I conducted on anyone who would listen, seemed to be the following:

1. Rich Goldman's "Audio Business Issues" roundtable. This roundtable gains considerable popularity with each passing year. I remember attending this one three years ago with moderate participation from conference goers, but as everyone begins to realize that being good at composing and creating sound effects isn't always enough to be successful, the room becomes more crowded. Business savvy is a must, and Rich delivered progressive views and often-stimulating conversation on the subject. Composer Jack Wall agreed, saying "This year's panel was incredibly productive. It has put into motion another subject G.A.N.G. [Game Audio Network Guild, http://www.audiogang.org/] is going to tackle in the coming months: protections from publishers using our music in the future for libraries, TV and film without any further compensation. This is definitely a very important topic!"

2. Chuck Doud's "Composing, Producing and Implementing an Interactive Music Soundtrack for Games". This was an informative lecture on a very relevant topic. Game music is constantly reinventing itself and this presentation was rich with audio demonstrations to back up the term "interactive". Composers were able to actually hear what Chuck was discussing, enabling them to gain skills to work in this growing adaptation and to maintain their competitive edge. The producers in the audience were able to hear the creative possibilities and take ideas back to their camps for further discussion. All in all, a great "how-to" session for everyone.

3. Rod Abernathy and Dave Adams' panel, "Does Melody Matter?" Panelists included Marty O'Donnell, Bill Brown, Chance Thomas and Chris Vrenna all expressed their views on the subject, the consensus being a resounding "YES!" The study included many examples of what a good melody can do for the identity of a product, from commercials to TV to films to video games. The montage Rod played at the start of the panel made this point in a hurry. The rest of the session was spent talking strategy about how to go about doing it successfully. Despite the trouble with the audio equipment, the show went on, Marty singing his melody examples much to the delight of the crowd who weren't expecting the live performance. "We are Flintstone kids, ten million strong, and growing." (Luckily, Marty was the composer for that one, so there weren't any legal issues involved.)

The "Interactive Mixing" panel.
(Photo credit: George Sanger.)

4. The "Interactive Mixing" panel, moderated by Alexander Brandon, with Brian Schmidt, Thomas Engel, Scott Gershin and Buzz Burrowes as panelists. There is always a lot to be learned when you get these guys together in one room. The panel discussed how to apply interactivity using the available tools and resources for the various consoles, how to form a strategy to make it work in the game, what the benefits are to the game player, and what skill sets are needed by content providers. More and more games are taking advantage of this interactive mixing, and those providing the audio need to keep up or they'll fall by the wayside. Just hearing these guys talk about their passion for game audio was worth the price of admission.

Composer Clint Bajakian agreed, telling me that "This had to be the quintessential assembly of the leading minds in game audio. While Alex struggled and ultimately succeeded in corralling them towards the common topic of interactive mixing, they still managed to break free and wax both practical and philosophic about the art and craft of interactive audio production for games, basically handing the audience their collective body of experience in just under 60 minutes."

5. The "Producing Orchestral Scores for Games" panel moderated by Tommy Tallarico. This was one of the most anticipated audio topics at the GDC, and recipient of the "Most Pre-show Hype" award. Composers and producers were literally crammed on stage to discuss both sides of this subject: how to convince producers to use a live orchestra, and how composers can actually get the job done. We discovered that the price isn't as high as we thought, and that there are already people in place who specialize in making this a reality for any composer. Bill Brown, Jack Wall and Clint Bajakian shared their experiences composing, hiring and recording in this exciting medium while Dan Irish, Simon Pressey and Jim Tso discussed their thoughts for going that extra mile. Everyone walked out of the session invigorated and ready to tackle the task for their next project.

Shane Kneip related his thoughts on the panel: "Over the course of the next 24 months I'm going to try like hell to use live orchestra in a game, and the talk they gave really made me feel at ease about the whole process. When you attempt something like that you really have to have all your "ducks in a row", so to speak, because for every second you're standing in front of an 80-piece orchestra (plus the 5 other staff members there to assist you) and you aren't doing something, you're losing money -- serious money! That has always made me a bit uneasy to attempt it. They covered this topic pretty extensively and reassured the audience that we aren't supposed to do this alone. You basically need a small army to get this done, and they are willing to point us in the right direction so our first orchestral sessions don't become a financial disaster."


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