Shift­ing sounds

The com­poser tak­ing videogame au­dio into a new di­men­sion


The gam­ing in­dus­try of to­day has high de­mand for ac­tors and mu­si­cians, but for­mal and prac­ti­cal ap­proaches to record­ing au­dio have re­mained largely the same for the past decade. Games have sound­tracks that dy­nam­i­cally shift to match the ac­tions on­screen, and at­tract big-name com­posers and vo­cal tal­ent, their work re­layed in rich sur­round sound, but that isn’t enough. While de­vel­op­ers have rushed to use to­day’s horse­power for vis­ual and game­play fea­tures, au­dio has been some­what left be­hind.

Olivier Deriv­iere, a com­poser whose cred­its in­clude Re­mem­ber Me and As­sas­sin’s Creed IV: Free­dom Cry, hopes that what we hear in videogames will one day be as im­me­di­ate and vi­brant as what we now see in them. His cur­rent project, the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller Get Even from Pol­ish stu­dio The Farm 51, is cre­ated us­ing the fully 3D au­dio tech­nol­ogy Auro-3D. De­vel­oped at Galaxy Stu­dios in Bel­gium – where the Brussels Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra has been record­ing Get Even’s sound­track – Auro-3D cap­tures sound from around, above and be­low its source to give play­ers a fuller sense of space and im­mer­sion. The tech­nol­ogy has been used in movies for a while, but it’s new ter­ri­tory for games.

“Usu­ally when you record mu­sic, you get some­thing 2D,” Deriv­iere tells us. “You put 32 mics into a stu­dio and there are maybe two that ac­tu­ally mat­ter. But with Auro-3D not only do you use more mics, the pro­cess­ing and edit­ing al­go­rithm on the back end means you also get a lot more out of them. You get the sounds from ev­ery di­rec­tion.”

Eerie and me­thod­i­cal, if you sim­ply watch Get Even be­ing played it may seem as if lit­tle is hap­pen­ing at all. But to lis­ten to it – to ap­pre­ci­ate not just the swell of Deriv­iere’s score, but also the di­rec­tions from which sound ef­fects em­anate, and how they re­spond to your ac­tions – trans­forms the game’s ap­par­ently se­date se­quences into some­thing much more in­volved.

“To serve a videogame, as a com­poser, you need to un­der­stand how a videogame is made,” Deriv­iere says. “You need to have har­mony, melody and rhythm all con­nected, all hap­pen­ing in re­al­time. The sound in Get Even isn’t all ren­dered be­fore you start play­ing and you’re just lis­ten­ing to it, in or­der. I’m edit­ing it to make it as in­ter­ac­tive as pos­si­ble.

“Us­ing Auro and a MIDI setup we can con­nect sounds di­rectly to in-game as­sets and events. Some­times in Get Even there is very lit­tle of the mu­si­cal score, but still you feel like there is ‘mu­sic’ – if you con­cen­trate enough on the en­vi­ron­ment, it is mu­si­cal. In the open­ing level, for ex­am­ple, all the sounds are tuned to C. You en­ter a room and the lights above and around you are all buzzing in C. This is how we need to start ap­proach­ing au­dio. Games have been 3D for a long time now.”

But Auro-3D, and Deriv­iere’s ap­proach to sound, con­sti­tute more than tech­no­log­i­cal show­boat­ing. This is a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, and the goal is to get in­side your mind. The more real the au­dio mix feels, the greater the dis­tress. But it’s as much about a lack of sound as the pres­ence of it. To sim­ply stand in a room, silent in ev­ery di­rec­tion, is to feel trapped in­side a night­mare. And when the si­lence is shat­tered by dis­tant bangs and rum­bles, pow­ered by some vivid Fo­ley work, which grow steadily louder and closer thanks to Auro-3D, you feel suit­ably un­nerved. Emo­tion­ally it’s the face at the win­dow in a hor­ror flick, or the queasy feel­ing of peer­ing over a sheer drop in VR.

In­deed, it’s in vir­tual re­al­ity that these new tech­niques may come to the fore. With GPUs too busy min­imis­ing la­tency to push ad­vanced ef­fects, sound will play a much greater role in achiev­ing a sense of pres­ence. But Get Even shows that more tra­di­tional games can greatly ben­e­fit from the adop­tion of 3D au­dio.

“These are the games I like to see,” Deriv­iere says. “Some­thing which is a full and in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence but still with lim­i­ta­tions. There is still a whole story be­ing told ei­ther through sound or mu­sic, and play­ers will have no idea where it’s go­ing to go. Get Even isn’t about killing peo­ple or sav­ing the world. It’s very in­ti­mate. The sound leads play­ers through var­i­ous de­vel­op­ments un­til they reach some­thing, a mo­ment, where they feel like, ‘Oh my God’.”

“This is how we need to start ap­proach­ing au­dio. Games have been 3D for a long time now”

There is shoot­ing in The Farm 51’s GetEven (see Hype, p42), but the sound de­sign makes it a much less thrilling, and much more un­set­tling, act than in videogames gen­er­ally. Pulling the trig­ger feels a lot more sig­nif­i­cant too

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