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GDC 2004--The Audio Track
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GDC 2004--The Audio Track

April 1, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Game audio is in good hands. After surviving the non-stop and near sleepless pace of this year's Game Developers Conference, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a multitude of brilliant and talented individuals behind the wheel, driving this particular niche of the market in a positive direction. Not only are the veterans providing the experience and steady hand, but the new bloods as well are contributing with their enthusiasm and eagerness to dream impossible dreams. The music and film industries are also beginning to find their place and all were present in force at this memorable yearly gathering.

After five straight years in attendance, what really struck me most was the immense sense of community we have in game audio and in the games industry as a whole. Despite the quiet, yet fierce competition between companies and individuals, you'd never know it by the camaraderie this corner of the industry shares. I'm happy to include many of the guys I compete with as friends and not surprisingly, most others feel the same way.

Rod Abernathy, of Red Note Audio shares his observation: "There were lots of new faces! It's great to see new sound designers and composers at the conference, it really shows that we're growing."


This year's audio sessions seemed to be a bit of déjà vu for most of us, but that didn't stop the crowds from packing in, hungry for new information. The GDC organizers, realizing the growing popularity of the audio track, kindly accommodated us in the Hilton's roomy Almaden Ballroom where we still managed standing-room-only crowds for many of the sessions. Kudos to GDC for their foresight. And, just when I was beginning to know my way around lovely San Jose, the organizers announced that next year's conference will be held in San Francisco, due to the lack of hotel space in the area. (I hope they remember to give us a big room in the new digs.)

Session overlap was minimal, but there were a couple of tough choices to make when planning the days activities. Luckily, most of the audio track was recorded and is available for a mere $99 here on the Gamasutra site--the next best thing to being there and a great refresher for those of us who were.

Chris Rickwood, Watson Wu, Richard Jacques, and Simon Pressey

Erik Kraber's audio keynote address, "Sound Design Methodology of Medal of Honor", was an excellent session covering the process for creating sound effects for this award winning series. The scope of this type of project can easily become a nightmare, yet Erik made it sound completely manageable with his experienced approach. Alexander Brandon, Audio Director at Midway, summed it up. "My favorite session was definitely Erik Kraber's keynote. It provided insight to some of the best sound work done in games and gave a lot of information away, using excellent examples of how things were mixed."

A GDC highlight for me was the live orchestral panel discussion. This particular subject has been included at GDC in each of the past several years, but this year's panel was one of the best. The lineup included some real heavy hitters--Steve Schnur, WW Executive of Music for Electronic Arts; Chuck Doud, Audio Director at Sony Entertainment Corp. of America; Simon Pressey, Audio Director for UbiSoft Corporation; Scott Cuthbertson, former Tolkien Senior Producer at Vivendi-Universal Games; and celebrated composers Jack Wall and Chance Thomas. Discussion centered on such topics as the relative strengths and weaknesses of orchestras in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Europe, and of budgeting concerns.

Steve Schnur told the story of getting a bill for $600 worth of chicken delivered for the orchestra on the first day of recording Medal of Honor in LA. (He said he made sure they got "carrot sticks" the next day.) Chuck Doud discussed the trade-off between the flexibility and control in recording sectional stems, versus recording an entire orchestra playing together which can "really make the room hum." Simon Pressey discussed the need for a strong conductor, emphasizing that the players have to absolutely "respect the stick," otherwise they will look to the principal violinist for session direction. Scott Cuthbertson talked about the importance of setting the bar high, and related the tale of selling his "leather-bound edition" vision for the Lord of the Rings music to executives.

Jack Wall and Chance Thomas played examples of their live orchestral work for Wrath Unleashed and Lord of the Rings, respectively, and answered questions about challenges unique to writing and producing live orchestral sessions. Highlights included Jack's endorsement of multiple passes with a small number of professional voices for a tight choir sound, and Chance's discussion of tonal sweet spots and range-related limitations particular to various instruments in the orchestra. All in all, it was quite an event.

Tommy Tallarico's, "How to Budget Audio" session was also a favorite amongst the audio crowd. It can be a lot more complicated than simply having some music and sound contracted and thrown into a game. This list of items to consider when budgeting seemed endless but Tommy got us all thinking on the same page. "The session was a comprehensive look at every aspect of the audio budget. As a composer, it is easy to forget about funds needed outside of the realm of your creative fee. Tommy pointed out other line items to include, such as studio time, music contractors, mastering engineers, orchestrators, conductors, and a multitude of other line items. "Notes from this session will be invaluable when I bid on my next project.", echoed Chris Rickwood of Rickwood Music. Rob Cairns, of Associated Production Music, continues, "This was my favorite session. Tommy was very direct and open about his methods, philosophies and experiences with many publishers. His personality and presentation skills keep people's attention because he is passionate and wants to do his part to enable others to be as successful as he is. It's no secret, I relied heavily on my cheat sheet at the GANG Awards, and Tommy inspires me to improve my presentation skills!"

An interesting straight audio panel was "The Virtual And Mixed Media Orchestra for Game Music.", moderated by Doyle Donehoo. This panel detailed some of the ways that multiple PCs can be used to constitute the core of a modern composition studio.

For some time now, composers have been using PCs running applications such as Gigastudio to replace racks of hardware samplers. But now it is possible to do distributed processing using FX Teleport and Steinberg VST System Link, for example. This allows you to have a main digital audio workstation, with one audio interface, and then have other PCs sharing some of the processor load for running software synthesizers and samplers. The key is that these PCs don't need their own audio and MIDI interfaces anymore; they just need to be networked to the main DAW, simplifying the studio design.

Other highlights of the panel included noted game composers Bill Brown and Jeremy Soule explaining their methods when using a virtual mixed media orchestra to score their latest projects, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield and Neverwinter Nights. "This technology is about leveling the playing field," Jeremy Soule said, "and about getting young people really into symphonic music."

Martin Wilde, after missing last year's event, commented that it was good to reconnect and was happy to be a part of the growing mobile scene. "I found a number of the GDC Mobile sessions very interesting. From multiplayer games to sales and marketing to new distribution models and different development strategies, this burgeoning area of the game industry will definitely continue to grow over the coming years. I would have liked to see it more incorporated into the mainstream of the show, but perhaps that'll happen next year."

The "Audio for Mobile" session included panelists Thomas Dolby Robertson of RetroRingtones LLC, Ted Cohen from EMI Music, Brian Wolkenberg from Motorola and Leslie Chard, an attorney and business consultant in San Francisco specializing in content development and licensing. Questions were answered on topics ranging from ringtone content creation to distribution, game development and selection, content pricing deals and technology, digital rights management and file sharing. The panelists' insight and diverse experience in each of these areas made for a compelling and interesting session.

Another important session, "Cross-Platform Audio using Interactive XMF" was billed as an intermediate lecture with Chris Grigg from Beatnik, George Sanger and Martin Wilde as presenters. The creation and implementation of interactive audio elements is frequently frustrating and stressful. Programmers often wind up making decisions the content creators should be making, and worse, the content creators can wind up programming. Interactive XMF is an emerging standard that will greatly facilitate the creation and implementation of game audio. It is designed to allow all creative control to be put into the hands of the audio artists by means of an intuitive interface and simple scripting language.

Many proprietary interactive audio systems have been developed over the years, but have never been disseminated to the larger game audio community. This new file format is non-proprietary and platform and language agnostic. It is also envisioned that the runtime engine will run on any and all systems, from PCs and game consoles to PDA's and cellphones, using a platform-specific Adapter Layer to access the individual audio services of each device. "This is still a work in progress and there is ample opportunity for those interested to contribute to and provide feedback on the specification as we finalize it's formation and adoption. We packed the place with over 70 attendees, the vast majority of whom signed up for IXMF updates and/or IASIG IXWG membership.", reflected Martin Wilde.

Additionally, "The State of Non-Linear Audio for Interactive Media" panel, moderated by Todd Fay; Andrew Boyd's "Audio Director to the Rescue" lecture; Rich Goldman's "Audio Business Issues Roundtable" and "The Hobbit, A Case Study" panel where also talked about as worthwhile events. " I must tell the truth, my favorite session was our panel about The Hobbit because we had such a good time doing it. Thanks to everyone who came to our talk." said Rod Abernathy.

Off Track

Not all of the audio business was being discussed on the audio track. Peeking in on the 'Production' and 'Business and Legal' tracks, found some gems waiting to be picked for those adventurous enough to try something a little off the beaten path.

"What I did see was a good lecture off the audio track. Alex Brandon's lecture on asset management and how programmers should work with audio people was quite enlightening.", notes Jamie Lendino. "The Interface: How to Create an Effective Audio Schedule", featured in the Production Track, provided a great outline for producers and composers to follow when laying out a project from pre-production through its final completion. Alex advocated getting started early by posing the question, "How do you get people to hear what you're trying to accomplish and get them excited about it?" This is a fundamental problem with audio, since, unlike the art department, you can't just "prototype" sound the way you can do art mockups--you have to basically produce a finished product to show someone what it sounds like. He also gave tips on asset management and budgeting along the way.

Marty O'Donnell, audio director at Bungie, talked about his favorite off-track event. "My favorite session was John Carmack's keynote address. He told us that audio for games was basically "done" if only we apply all the processing power we have for graphics to the audio instead. As soon as that day comes I'm going to take a long vacation."

Catching up with Tommy Tallarico after our return to sunny southern California, the "Music Publishing: A Primer for Game Developers and Composers" panel had him the most excited. "BMI and ASCAP are collecting money for game music which appears on things like TV, movies, even radio. But, because these songs aren't registered with them, they don't have anyone to give it to. What game publishers need to do is create their own publishing companies, register their music and collect this free money. UbiSoft has their own publishing company. EA and Squaresoft have another company do it for them. These guys know the value and are willing to take the steps to make it happen. This panel was a great eye-opener for the industry and I hope to see others take advantage of it."

Chris Rickwood was seen wandering the halls far from his comfort zone in the audio track: "As a freelance composer, there was a session that really interested me on the Business & Legal Track. 'The Well-Fed Freelancer: A Survival Guide In 24 Easy Lessons,' reminded me of how to be a better consultant and also introduced some tips I had not thought about. Francois Dominic Laramee's experience, quirky humor, and organized presentation provided an entertaining and informative lesson. While the audio track does provide the 'Business Roundtable,' I think a session like 'The Well-Fed
Freelancer' specifically targeted for audio contractors would be a great addition to next years GDC."

Eric Doggett, of Doggett Studios echoes this last sentiment: "I think we may start to see an introduction of audio sessions at future conferences which relate more to the beginner/intermediate game composer, rather than the multi-million-dollar-production composer." There is definitely a growing need for this level of information--stay tuned.

Audio Awards

As budgets grow, so does the quality of game music, sound effects and voice overs. And so does the difficulty in choosing the best game audio of the year. The bar is so incredibly high at this point, and there is a mass of games hitting it solidly, we can all be proud of our contributions.

Dweezil Zappa

The 4th Annual Game Developer's Choice Awards, the "Excellence in Audio" award was presented Wednesday evening (by EA's Chris Cross and Halo composer Marty O'Donnell) to Chuck Russom for sound effects in Call of Duty. On an interesting audio side note, the First Penguin Award, which recognizes "valorous developers who test the water, sink or swim" was awarded to Masaya Matsuura who pioneered beat-rhythm games, with groundbreaking titles like Parappa the Rapper and Um Jammer Lammy. You can't argue with their choices.

The 6th Annual Independent Games Festival was also in full bloom, with 110 submissions, the organizers divided them into categories for better representation of the independent game making populace. Consequently, there were two winners of the "Innovation in Audio Award", Anito: Defend a Land Enraged in the "Open" category and Dr. Blob's Organism in the "Web/Downloadable" group. They were both quite worthy and you can see for yourself at and, respectively. Did you know one of the other winners in the open category had a 1.5 million dollar budget? Wow! The independent games segment has taken an interesting twist indeed.

The 2nd Annual G.A.N.G. Awards were presented Thursday evening in the Regency Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, to a packed house. 600 plus people were on hand to see the G.A.N.G. officers, Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall, and Clint Bajakian hand out awards to some incredibly deserving talent. It was a monstrous event, filling two and a half hours with award presentations, recognitions and some great musical entertainment to liven the place up. Performances by Steve Kirk and the Voodoo Vince band playing some cool music from the game Voodoo Vince, LoudLouderLoudest! showcasing version 2.0 of their video game classics montage, the OneUp Mushrooms and their tasty rendition of classic video game tunes, the Rockin' Hobbit Band and a performance of their Hobbit score, Alexander Brandon and his standup impression routine, and game audio's newest friend, Dweezil Zappa, ripping (that's a good thing, by the way) a game music version of Van Halen's "Eruption" like you've never heard it before.

Rob Cairns, of APM, gave his take on this year's event. "I took particular notice to the incredible production that it was compared to last year. And I was hoping people didn't actually think the voting was rigged for Clint or Tommy. I can actually say that Indiana Jones and the Emporer's Tomb is by far my favorite console video game of all time. The engine is the easiest to control, the music is absolutely top-notch and interactive as you play. I think that it is natural that many of the very talented people who created the awards program ended up winners, because they are just that, very talented. As the years go by, I expect that more and more people will join G.A.N.G., more people will vote, and the system will be more refined. I truly see the awards show becoming more and more important for the industry. I'm honored to have been a part of it."


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