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Establishing an Aesthetic in Next Generation Sound Design
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Establishing an Aesthetic in Next Generation Sound Design

June 21, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Too Much Freedom in the Next Generation

Previous generation platforms had very strict limits on how many sounds could be played at one time and how much audio could be loaded at any one time. These constraints forced a very particular aesthetic onto those games which could perhaps be learnt from when creating sound for games today. As we move away from having our boundaries and aesthetics defined for us by the hardware, as sound designers we need to enforce our own ‘boundaries’ or refined aesthetics. In this case, refining and constraining the means and methods of production during the art-making process to further focus the resulting aesthetic of the outcome of the process. Instead of the arbitrary constraints from our materials we now have the artistic freedom to choose from a reduced spectrum of materials. It can be used to clarify the basic goal of the artistic process without the confusion of limitless options .This refined aesthetic is a result of a set of rules that you cannot break, and with increasing freedom to achieve anything sonically, the need to enforce limits and boundaries on the choices you make in terms of sound effects and music are becoming more and more paramount.

Diminishing Sonic Returns

To further compound the problems experienced in keeping up with a technology that moves so fast, is a symptom of gradually decreasing audio channel capacity. The almost infinite number of tracks we now have has given rise to a particularly digital problem. In terms of current trends in music, TV, film, videogames and radio, sound is becoming more and more maximised, compressed, limited and overloaded. As hundreds of tracks are being layered, all the sounds are competing for our attention in a mix. There does come a point of diminishing sonic returns, where the more you add the more you just end up with the sonic equivalent of a ‘grey goo’. This is where every frequency is filled and there is no more room to add anything without taking something else away. PS3 and Xbox 360 effectively allow a 10-fold increase in the amount of sounds that may be loaded at any one time allow audio designers to literally add any sound they like, and to keep adding and increase variations of these individual sounds. With older gaming systems limitations a sound designer had to employ very careful editorial skills in selecting exactly which sound they wanted to hear at exactly which time due to RAM and voice limitations.

This problematic aesthetic is compounded as a direct result of an over-reliance on sampled sounds. Sampled sounds are similar to taking a photograph of a dynamic event. They are very convincing on the first playback, but on repeated plays they becomes repetitive and eventually irritating. To compensate, the tendency is to overlay many waveforms together to hide their non-dynamic nature.

Even though the limits of replicating what the human ear can actually discern have been reached, anything above 24khz is considered inaudible, there is still an increase in the capacity to create and record sound above and beyond 96khz. One area where higher sample rates will come in useful is where sounds are being manipulated to a lower pitch in real-time, processing. In this case a higher sample rate will greatly reduce any artefacts that occur in lower sample-rate sounds being played below their original pitch.

Stereo and Surround sound began, to some extent, to get around the issues of a saturated sonic spectrum by spreading the sounds around in space so they at least do not compete with frequencies within the same spatial location. However, the number of individual audio channels available to us far outstrips the number of speaker channels we currently have available and often the content is down mixed to stereo anyways. Again, that question comes back “...are we really making games which will survive the test of time better than games we produced ten years ago?”

Methods of Limitation

Establishing a Strict Aesthetic
Given that sound designers and composers now have so much more freedom to overproduce and over-implement sound for videogames, methods of limitation will become necessary in order to differentiate the sounds of one game from another. How can we begin to make better sound in this seemingly limitless age by using less? It begins with realising that it is how we approach technical limitations as composers or sound designers that forms the very core of our art. The second thing to realise is that we have greater limitations than the fully equipped million dollar studio, and this gives us a distinct advantage. The limitation with expensive studios is cost, so usage time is bounded, however with the rise of the professional quality home studio and inexpensive digital equipment, cost has become less of an issue. All we need to do is recognise and capitalise on our limitations and avoid some of the easier traps to fall into. It is all too easy to create high production quality audio while ignoring the greater goals of high artistry and meaningful work. Instead of being able to identify the particular platform by playing a particular game, we should be able to have a good idea of who the audio team was behind the game and their style they have impressed upon the audio. The style we choose four our audio should be as distinctive and recognizable as the visual style of the game.

This whole process begins with establishing the limits you wish to work within. This is what will define your ‘aesthetic’.

Avoiding Complacency
Due to the ease with which digital sound design now occurs, it is easy to be guided by the samples and synthesiser voices immediately available. One of the main problems is that demo samples are often very attractive when solo, but easily add to a sonic mush when combined with other elements. How often have you started to create a track and pulled a drum beat from a sample library, starting to build your music up track by track from that drum loop bed? You’ve just got a new soft synthesiser, the preset sounds are pretty new and fresh to your ears, so you pick those sounds for you lead lines and pads. Now consider how many millions of other musicians have bought the same drum samples, have the same soft synthesiser and you start to realise the problem in musical aesthetics that is occurring with computer musicians and sound designers who rely on the same Sound Effects libraries. Contrast this image with that of the classic composer, sitting down at his piano with quill in hand, ready for inspiration to strike. What have we lost and what have we gained over the years?

Many of the tips and tricks we talk about here will help you commit to a sound or musical idea earlier on in the recording process than you normally would in the digital age. With the emphasis taken away from the post production, from frame by frame, from mixing every single element individually and adding effects to every single element separately, you begin to see that you can actually commit to the sound long before you record it.

This will help to avoid the morass of audio ‘grey goo’. Start with the idea first, strip things down. Start with a melody, if you have problems even at this stage, then start to limit the notes you are using within the scale, let’s say you like a particular interval or chord structure, use only notes from those chords. This can also be done with rhythmic tracks. Start by tapping out a drum rhythm you like and then creating it in the computer, essentially, make sure that your starting point is not at the computer at all.

Most rhythm creation software such as Native Instrument’s Battery is actually very sophisticated in terms of allowing you a great degree of control over exactly how you want to create beats and supports varied workflow methods. Pretty much all sequencers such as Acid, Nuendo, Live, Pro Tools also support this kind of small scale beat editing, and are not merely looping tools. Try zooming in on samples and doing very small scale beat level editing on a beat to replicate what you hear rather than using those easy loop tools.


Native Instrument's Battery


Try breaking a loop into individual hits with a program like Recycle and begin removing non-essential sections. With the additional processing power on the new consoles we can hope to run programs similar to Ableton Live in real-time rather than continuing to repeat the offline rendering process that we perform with the older platforms. Once reduced, replace the remaining sections with new samples or notes to construct a percussive lead line. The breaks between the sections allow other layers to shine through and strengthens the transients of the newly reconstructed sections.

Another technique, which is becoming more forgotten, is to write all the parts of your music sitting at a piano or a guitar, before you move to orchestrate on the computer. In this way you could actually fully realise the piece of music before you even get near the computer. At the stage when you do sit down to recreate the piece of music, you will find yourself using software to build up a fully realised piece of music. Conceptualise what the music might sound like using different instruments and focus on orchestration and arrangement. Allow the melody to define the timbre colour and range which best suits its particular voice.

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