Designing sound – Part 1: Intro

In this first official blog I would like to briefly (and not so technically) explain the processes of designing sound for games and how it differs from films/animations in general. The target audience for this blog is game developers who are interested in these processes and how professional sound design can benefit their game project (but is also open for anyone who’s interested in learning more about these processes). For the first part of this series I would like to present a general theoretical overview of sound design. In the following parts I will explain in more detail each separate process that forms part of sound design with theoretical and practical examples from projects that I worked on and other interesting examples.

Sound design is both technical and artistic in its purest form. It is very important to know the technicalities of sound capturing and sound creation in the digital domain and how to engineer such processes to achieve a quality audio file. However, good quality sound is not the only factor, and here’s where the artistic part comes in. It is also very important to be able to imagine, manipulate and match sounds to whatever is on the screen, including the  ambience/location of the scene, sound effects required, voice and also non-diegetic sounds (for non-screen events) to complement the project. Apart from that, it is also important to complement the sounds with the laws of physics and acoustics for a more realistic experience where required (for example, in very basic terms, sound behaves very differently indoors than outdoors). This is why a professional dedicated sound guy is a requirement in a team. Sound is such a vast field and unfortunately many people still fail to realise its power that you need to have someone who knows what he/she is doing when it comes to audio for your project. Sound design is not simply the addition of ready made samples from the internet directly into your project. Although occasionally this might work, there’s much more to it than that and it is very difficult to achieve a professional, complete package this way.

The following list shows the typical basic categories that form a complete sound design package for a game or film project:

  • Foley
  • Sound effects (SFX)
  • Ambience/Atmosphere
  • Voice-over / Dialogue
  • Music

In future posts of this blog series I will go into more detail in each of these categories and explain their processes, technicalities, how they differ, why each is important, and how they are produced to fit into a project.

There are also different methods of how sound design is produced for games and animations. While films and animations follow a linear timeline and have a defined start and end point, games do not follow these ‘traditional’ cue points. Games are non-linear and can be endless and this is what makes them more exciting and challenging. They are challenging for sound designers to create randomised, interactive and adaptive audio depending on the current position of the player in the game. For example, how long will the player stay in a level, and should the music loop forever? One extreme example is No Man’s Sky with it’s procedural audio dependent on the world that’s currently being generating according to the player’s advancements. Another example of interactive audio is Playdead’s Limbo where music is not separated from the ambiences and effects and is generated alongside the player’s in-game behaviour (notice how the music is linked to the sound design of the game in the attached link). This is where middleware comes in very handy. Middleware software allows the sound designer to randomise sounds and create interactive audio more easily and releases some of the load from the programmer who doesn’t have to implement sounds one by one and script for basic behaviours. I will also talk more about this in future posts.

So to conclude, sound design is the art and technique of creating either a realistic or an artificial, exaggerated aural experience to complement the project at hand. Usually sounds are always exaggerated for both games and films to make a greater impact and we’ll look into this in more detail in future posts. It is important to make sure that the sound matches the style of the game and what you would like to achieve. Remember that sound can really make or break a game and if you’re not up for the task, seek the help of a professional, dedicated sound designer.

Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think or what you would like to read more of in this blog series in the future.

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