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Product Review: Analog Devices' SoundMAX SMart Tools

August 15, 2002

In the past, audio professionals have managed without dedicated middleware tools, relying on in-house toolkits to incorporate and manipulate proprietary audio technologies. However, with more and more developers striving to create relevant audio content for their products, a need for more sophisticated interactive audio tools has arrived.

Analog Devices answers the call with SoundMAX SMartTools. SMartTools grants sound designers the power of so-called "animated audio." With it, sound designers can create interactive and nonrepetitive audio content. Gone are the days when you hear the bird sample tweeting every seven seconds, the same exact way, over and over and over and know what I mean.

SoundMAX is based on the Staccato Sound System, an API and toolset released in the late 1990s by Staccato Systems; Analog Devices (ADI) acquired Staccato Systems in 2001. Anyone familiar with Staccato Systems might remember the company as "those guys that make that audio thing for racing games ... So what? I don't make racing games." Well the ADI ARTG (Advanced Rendering Technology Group) is busy creating audio tools beyond physically modeled car engines. And let me tell you, you won't believe your ears when you hear what you can do with SMartTools.

So what exactly is included? Right now SMartTools ships with two tools for sound designers (along with the API for audio coders). The first, SMartAnimator, relies on a series of audio playback algorithms to create nonrepetitive audio streams. The other tool is the SMartSynth, a sound generation tool that uses physical modeling synthesis to create realistic sounds. Both tools are professional grade and would cost you a ton of money to acquire. That is, if ADI weren't giving it away for free. (More on this ingenious pricing later.)

SMartAnimator currently ships with one algorithm: Crossfader. Crossfader employs complex sets of (you guessed it) cross-fades and other parameters, which can react to the game state in real time. This algorithm is built with persistent sound effects in mind, such as engines, crowds, and other ambient effects. It's slightly annoying that some of the parameters are named for engine sound controls, but this is a small price to pay.

A session with SMartAnimator goes something like this: You create your sound palette like you would in any other situation. Once you have your sound set together you import them into SMartAnimator and use the easy-to-comprehend GUI to design "sound behaviors." You then test out your sound behaviors and export your final file. The audio coder drops the file into the latest build, and magically you have animated audio for your game.

SMartAnimator, one of the ingredients of the SoundMAX SMartTools.

The toolset is cross-platform between PC, Playstation 2, and Xbox, with each platform having a dedicated export button built into the SMartAnimator GUI. You create your audio behaviors once in SMartAnimator, click on the export button for the platform your title is shipping on, and that's it. Once you export the behavior for one platform, you can export for the other two as well simply by clicking on the appropriate buttons. How easy are they going to make this for us?

ADI is working on three additional algorithms, all of which will serve unique purposes. ParticleBurst will be ideal for nonrepetitive one-shots, ParticleFlow will randomly recombine short sound clips and is designed with soundscapes and ambience in mind, and ParticleCycle will allow sound designers to create nonrepetitive cyclical sounds (footsteps, machine-gun fire, and the like). Assuming this last one is an improvement on the footstep algorithm I heard at the Game Developers Conference, we should all be very, very impressed. Keep in mind I have yet to test these in-progress algorithms, but if they function as well as Crossfader does, things are looking up for game audio content creators.

If you are familiar with the progression of this technology, beginning with its roots in the Sondius project through its first incarnation under ADI, you know that SoundMAX game audio tools, due to their dependency on physical-modeling (read: highly processor intensive) algorithms, weren't always ideal solutions. Well, the SoundMAX team reevaluated their approach to developing audio tools for game developers, and SMartTools is now a true success. Developer-friendly, SmartTools' newer algorithms depart from strict reliance on physical modeling for real-time sound generation, depending more on eventmodeling synthesis (the SMartAnimator algorithms, for instance).

Physical-modeling solutions are still available through the use of SMartSynth. The focus has shifted on using SMartSynth to generate sound clips for use in SMartAnimator. The synth models sound outrageous. SMartSynth is a great solution for creating a variety of sound effects on a strict budget. It is also perfect for creating common sound effects that aren't canned (read: licensed from a sound FX library).

These tools are extremely easy to use. Let's face it, it doesn't matter how great a particular technology makes your game sound. If it's a monumental task for your audio team to learn the tool, it just isn't worth it. It's a huge improvement over ADI's first attempt at a SoundMAX toolset. Additionally, the toolset and the API are meticulously documented in clear language.

This is the part that will convince your producer why this cool audio app belongs in your company's next game: It's free. What's the catch? ADI wants their SoundMAX logo on the game's box, a splash screen, and on sell sheets. Not a bad deal.

This technology has created a world of unparalleled potential for interactive sound designers. It's pretty obvious to me that, given the newness of this system, game audio developers haven't even scratched the surface of what SMartTools can do for interactive sound designs.

SoundMAX SMart Tools

Analog Devices



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