Music & Sound Design in Computer Games – Dave Ranyard’s talk in Coventry University

25.11.2011, Dave Ranyard, Executive producer, Sony Playstation

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk about music and sound design in computer games, and was absolutely fascinated. Here are some assorted notes from the talk:

Music and Sound Design in Computer GamesDave Ranyard, Game Director / Executive Producer; with over 15 years experience in games development. Has a Computer Science degree -> a programmer; then made a Ph.D. in AI (Artificial Intelligence). In the first game project he joined, he was working on menus, then moved to audio; then set up an Audio department. He says it was good that he had more than one strength: programming PLUS audio.

He spoke about the different ways of producing games:

  • old-school: 2-3 years development -> release
  • SingStar: modern production process; factory mentality (constant production + distribution)
  • DanceStar (his pitch): 8 months development

For DanceStar, His team was about 90 people; this was an Augmented Reality / Artificial Intelligence project.

DanceStar Party

Sound in games

On Audio departments in game studios: There are creative roles, as well as more technical ones. Typical roles in the Audio department include:

  • audio programmers
  • audio designers
  • dialogue editors

Everything in game development is about understanding constraints.

He also spoke about the audio ‘budget’ in a game. The ideal numbers should be 10 / 10 / 10:

  • 10 % of the budget;
  • 10 % of the console memory;
  • 10 % of the CPU.

Usually, though, it’s only 5 / 5 / 5. So efficiency really is key.

Technical constraints:

  • Blu-ray: 2 second seek time
  • HDD: 1/2 second seek time

So it really makes a difference which file contains which sound, how they are ordered and when they need to be cued. For example, when cycling through the guns menu, in the background the different sound collections are loading / cueing for quick access.

Constraints are also the number one problem in the mobile game platforms such as iPhone and iPad. The game files need to be ridiculously small, and still, contain a fair amount and quality of graphics, engines and audio. The music is usually cut up in pieces, and cued up when changing the main mood.

When designing a sound in a video game, it’s all about economy; you could be using the same ‘rumble’ as a basis for each gun sound, but then add different layers with different sound levels, depending on the type of gun sound you’re designing.

Another way to be efficient is, for example, with bird songs – the engine just changes the pitch, but is using the same bird sample, and the result is a song being created from a single file.

ChickenRandom fact: stuffed chicken (not just stuffed, but stuffed with vegetables!), when being hit, sounds very similar to the human skin. So when designers need ‘punch’ sounds, they often record stuffed chicken being punched. A nice little detail can be added with walnuts – apparently they give the sound a more ‘crunchy’ feel. Though there are problems with this: especially if you record on a Friday, and someone forgets to take the chicken out of the studio. Oh, hi Monday morning and smelly studio! (This actually happened to Dave) 🙂

Lots more details from Behind the Scenes in game design: for example, the use of triggers – points in the game that ‘trigger’ certain graphic or sound effect, improving the interactive effect. The whole game environment is mapped with such triggers; also, the programmers, sound designers and visual designers work together to determine the best way to illustrate interaction with different materials – eg, the difference between kicking a sandbag and kicking a dustbin.

Dave, as well as the audience, mentioned some tools for interactive sound: Skream and Fmode. Skream, apparently, is a generic tool – works on more than one platform, meaning it is not optimised for the specific platform you might be developing a game for. And Fmode is Sony’s in-house tool.

Music and the business side

There was a question from the audience about in-house musicians in game studios. The truth is that most of the music is created outside of the game studio; for 10 years, Dave’s studio has only had 2 in-house composers.

Big games usually mean big composers; they comission someone BIG for the main themes, and then to cut expenses, they’d often comission the different variations, adaptations and gap-filling with someone less famous and cheaper. Another way to cut expenses is to work with upcoming bands.

When mentioning a game and its music:

We couldn’t afford Prodigy so we hired him

An interesting example of a deal – Deadmau5 made the soundtrack for the DanceStar game; Sony sponsored his tour.

(here’s a promo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCW34w9OmE0)

For games like SingStar, where there need to be ~ 1000 songs / year, most contracts are standartised. A contract for licensing music usually includes:

  • publishing license
  • recording license

…where producers, songwriters, etc., get a piece of the deal.

Another interesting story was when the trailer for one game used an old Dylan song, which then became so popular that it got re-released on iTunes and attracted unexpected revenues.

A surprising (for some) quote about the music industry and the changed markets:

Games are the biggest single source of income for the publishing / recording companies.

Which means that in the yearly reports, game studios come out as the biggest piece of the piecharts ‘Where our profits come from’. Indeed, musicians don’t make lots of money selling recordings. (I can also add here that they don’t make money from streaming, either.)

Another quick mention: Sony comission lots of their recording in Prague in Bratislava, because it is cheaper. And not only cheaper, but also easier to manage. The game studio can pay up-front – negotiating the prices once, and then just paying them, as opposed to other studios where there is a more complicated licensing process.

When asked about the studio structure, Dave gave the example of World Wide Studios – this is a studio that is wholly owned by Sony, making games for Playstation. They have 14 studios around the world. They also work with external studios, which usually have an exclusive deal – meaning they work only for Sony.

On competition:

Nintendo Wii – ‘good console but bad software’ (Dave’s words); it uses slightly old technology in an interesting new way. Punchline: ‘grandma knows how to use it’

There was a question about the future of gaming. In his view, the future is in motion games, augmented reality, games using audio and visual input to enrich the game experience; understanding the physics in the room and making it part of the game; using glasses for projecting extra object the player can interact with.

On how to put your foot in the door in the game industry (especially for music and sound design): Dave’s advice was to prepare a showreel + description, and / or to put your own audio to an existing game. It’s also a good idea to partner with programmers and do something interactive. Also, of course, networking – to get talking to people, attend conferences etc. He mentioned that the contracts are usually short, and the game studios are looking for the right attitude – ‘looking for people who we can work with’. General advice on how to get started: just start editing stuff, start simple.

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2 thoughts on “Music & Sound Design in Computer Games – Dave Ranyard’s talk in Coventry University

  1. some great insights here – i think it could be very interesting if you partnered up with a programmer/interactive person to do some work. if you’re interested let me know and i can put you in touch with some people on the creative computing course

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    • Thanks Pete, I found these in my notebook just waiting to get published, I hope it’s an interesting read.
      I’ll let you know if I have an idea – but for the time being, I’m just posting my notes in case someone else around me might be interested 🙂 It is quite an intriguing area, on the borderline between sound design and programming, thought my heart is still in Media Production!

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