Thoughts on Game Audio History

Game Audio History

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently giving GameSound.org some love after a couple of years of neglect. I’ve never been particularly good at keeping the articles bang up to date with any kind of regularity, but that hasn’t really mattered because the primary focus has always been for the site to act as a starting point for folks who are new to game audio. The links page has therefore been the recipient of more of my attention – from there it’s possible to find much of the game audio content and resources that are available online.

But in doing this refresh, what has become clear is that the online record of our game audio history is transitory, fragile and fading fast – I was shocked at how many of the links to articles and media I had curated were dead. And it’s not just the oldest content, as you might expect – there’s work from just a few years ago that is already lost.

Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine! It isn’t able to capture everything, but it’s nonetheless been a great resource for resurrecting much of what was missing, and it was all relatively easy to find because the links were backed up here and on other resources like the IASIG Game Audio Relevance blog (maintained by these folk, also on twitter). Without such archived links it would be incredibly difficult to track down deleted content, which would mean loosing these important records and artefacts of our culture forever.

Looking past the tedious aspects of this work, the big upside for me has been an amazing trip down memory lane. Re-reading articles I first read when I was a student in the late ’90s and early ’00s but with the benefit of 20 years’ distance and experience has been kinda mind blowing.

I think the main thing I got out of it is an even better understanding of, and appreciation for, the particulars of the point in time that I entered the industry. I’ve always felt that I got in to game audio at an advantageous inflection point, but sifting through the strata of game audio history this past week has really helped me to see and understand that with an increased clarity.

So, if you would be so kind as to indulge me… let me take you on a game audio journey through time! [Oooooooooo!]

Well… as far back as the internet has allowed me to peer :)

The Game Audio History Wormhole Of Wonder!
Enter the wormhole! Doodley-dood, doodley-dood! Harp glissandi etc.

One of the earliest records is this one recounting Brad Fuller, Pat McCarthy and Chuck Peplinski’s pioneering work at Atari in the 1980s. This aspect in particular jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

“So, Brad Fuller and Pat McCarthy set about building a board, separate from the main board, to isolate audio development. The new board was called the ‘SA board’ which stood for “Stand Alone Audio” (Ed. Shouldn’t that be SAA? Hmmm…). The idea was to separate audio development completely from the rest of the game team, which contrary to first impressions of others at Atari, was a very good idea. Now the audio could be developed easily without as much reliance on the other members of the game team. This also saved a great deal in manufacturing costs, which for hardware were, and still are, sky high compared to software.”

Alexander Brandon interviewing Brad Fuller in A Look Back (November, 1999)

This idea of audio trying to “break away” in order to free itself up from restrictions imposed by technologists who don’t fully understand its requirements is a recurring theme in the story of game audio. It also hints at the friction which is a defining characteristic of this early period. I think this is perhaps best summed up by these choice quotes from Annotated scrawl from the wall of the audio hall… (March, 1999):

“How can you tell if the programmer’s lying to the sound guy? His lips are moving!!!”

Anonymous

“Anyone who has to constantly try to convince coworkers that his profession is challenging, worthwhile, and requires basic professional tools eventually gets burned out and depressed and either does a crap job (present company excluded) or changes fields. Oh, wait a second, that’s not funny. Forget it.”

Anonymous

“After another good demonstration – I was asked why our sound set sounded so good. I then proceed to explain about our engine, and that our samples were all at 44k. One of the gents perked up and said “Wow, that’s a lot of money” – when I told him that I didn’t understand what he was talking about he said “Well, you, just said, your samples cost 44 thousand…” he stopped mid sentence, looked around and said “Ahhhh, never mind.”

Anonymous

Whilst it’s clear that these quips were for the catharsis and amusement of their fellow audio practitioners, they are nonetheless clearly based on real-world experiences. And we know this because the tropes and situations they represent remain familiar, even if they are less pronounced. The big difference between then and now is that you get the distinct impression that this is how things were for most audio folks. That is to say, adversity was the norm.

In response to this, the late 90s is chock full of valiant attempts to educate colleagues in other disciplines. And despite the challenges, there is a palpable enthusiasm for the future and optimism about the potential of the medium.

Much of this is clearly fuelled by exceptional work that inspires the whole community:

“Michael Land and the Lucas Arts folks showed us their iMuse system, which blew us all away. It was a truly momentous event looking inside a proprietary tool 10 years in development that worked smoothly and intuitively with audio files, responding interactively to an amazing amount of game states. We saw samples from The DigMonkey Island and Grim Fandango and could see how easy it would be for a composer/sound designer to work with their system. Game programmers would love it too.”

Aaron Marks, GDC 2000 From an Audio Guy’s Perspective: Audio Track Wrap-Up

One of my favourite documents from this period is Bobby Prince’s CGDC 1996 talk on sound effects for games, partly because it’s so rare for the focus to be on sound at a time when most conversations about game audio are music-centric, partly because he touches on his iconic work for ID Software’s seminal Doom, but also because it reminded me of how ground-breaking tools like Cool Edit 95 were when they came along (although I was admittedly more of a GoldWave man myself)! Flashbacks to older ways of working are great reminders of just how spoiled we are today – before we had abundant hard drive space which begat databases referencing terabytes of material, each time you needed something from your library you had to go fetch a CD or a DAT tape off of a shelf and rip the appropriate material. Every ****ing time, kids!

Another fave are these IASIG quotes from November 1999 on the future of game audio, particularly:

“For the future, I have a ‘Downloadable Studio’ theory. A piece of interactive music data will be wrapped in a virtual studio consisting of, DLS banks, software synthesizers (FM, analog models, subtractive, etc.), Physical Modeling synths, DSP effect plug-ins (i.e. reverb, pitch shifting, compression, chorus, etc.) all centered around a virtual mixing environment,. This ‘studio’ will be downloaded to the gamer/end user’s machine, but will be invisible to him/her. They will simply hear richly interactive music being controlled by the game or software it’s embedded within.”

Guy Whitmore of Whitmoreland Productions

Guy had to wait for the tech to catch up with that idea, but he got it eventually :)

This quote is peachy too:

“Physical Modeling of sound effects has the potential to be the next big revolution in interactive audio, hopefully in the next 18 months but maybe longer”

Colin Anderson of DMA Designs

Colin may have been a little optimistic with his timescales there, but it goes to show just how long anticipation for the procedural sound revolution has been around!

But it’s this quote that says all you need to know about game audio at the turn of the century, certainly with regards to where its technology is headed:

“I think there are two types of interactive music… The easy way (streaming, which I prefer to do), and the more complex way (MIDI, which I prefer not to do). Let me quickly explain the differences…

The complex way.

I think when most people think of “Interactive Music” this is what they think of. Everything is MIDI based and depending what is happening in the code the midi file is changing “on-the-fly”. That could mean the muting or unmuting of tracks, volume, tempo, midi branching, etc. This is an amazingly complex and time consuming way to write music. I bow down to the numerous audio guys who have to go through this hell for months and sometimes years! I wouldn’t want to do it!! …

The easy way.

Let’s say your character is in a cave so I’m playing a two-minute looping ambient audio file. Then I find a switch which opens a secret door. I then lower my ambient looping piece and play a dramatic 5 second sting, and raise the ambient loop back up to where it was. While inside this area I come across a gazillion demons who want to eat my butt. I then switch to my 30 second looping “holy crap these demons want to eat my butt” battle tune. And why stop at music?!?! Why not have one and two minute looping ambiences such as waterfalls, streams, jungles, winds, etc. Let’s see ya do that in Midi!!!

Guess what!!! All of this is Interactive Music!! And I didn’t have to spend a year to get it to work correctly, and because I’m just using audio files I can have real instruments galore playing!! Oh yeah, and don’t forget… Eventide effects!! Lexicon reverbs!!, Mastering!!

Now I know that every game on the market (due to streaming restrictions) can’t be done like this. That is why the more complex way is sometimes chosen. You have all that stuff downloaded and you never have to hit the disk! But as hard-drives become bigger, processors become faster & bandwidth becomes immense all of those worries will completely go away!!!! And I’m not talking 3 or 5 years from now!! I’m talking this Christmas!!!… Right now in the PlayStation (4 year old machine) you can have up to 16 .XA tracks all playing at once (check out Parappa the Rappa!!) and mute and un-mute on the fly to get interactive music!! Wait until DVD hits hard and the streaming bandwidth hits the ceiling!!

Tommy Tallarico of Tommy Tallarico Studios

That approach, and that way of thinking, clearly won out over real-time note-data based systems. But that wasn’t a given, because at the same time as Tommy is calling it here, there remained a significant amount of interest and excitement surrounding interactive “MIDI” music in the form of Microsoft’s freely available DirectMusic API and it’s authoring tool, DirectMusic Producer. But with a few notable exceptions, very few people actually made use of it:

“You might wonder why, if this ability has been around since 1997, everyone doesn’t use it. That’s a valid question. As I pointed out earlier, the fear factor has kept developers from being interested in learning about it even if there was information easily accessible — which there isn’t. Since the DirectMusic Producer is a free program, all of the attention [that] has been given to its creation has been in the technology and not the user interface. This means it is difficult to learn and use. Musicians are rarely programmers (although when I look around my studio I wonder how I got all of this gear to work together with three PCs) and therefore not inclined to deal with the problem solving required to figure it all out. In addition, it’s not useful in other areas of the music industry, which means it’s gotten little attention in the music community. Interactive audio also requires a whole new way of thinking about composing. You can’t approach a composition in the traditional linear structure because changes in the game will dictate that your composition must change. If your entire life you’ve been taught, listened to and created music one way it takes serious dedication and focus to learn to look at audio in a completely different way. With the steep learning curve, it’s difficult to justify the loss of productivity while you try to get a handle on it. Who’ll pay the rent? Then, after you learn it you have to sell the developers and publishers on the technology. As a free program it generates no revenue, which means it gets no advertising funds. With little available information, it’s a hard sell. It’s much easier to go with what you know, and what you can sell.”

Rob Ross, Interactive Music…er, Audio (May, 2001)

However, this movement pushing for improved tools and technology for audio practitioners wasn’t for ought – whilst it may have resulted in the ill-fated DirectMusic, it also produced the early versions of the tools and techniques which permitted a more sophisticated use of sound in games. It’s at precisely this point that I was fortunate enough to get in to the industry.

Other than messing about with various different mods and their tools throughout my teenage years, DirectMusic Producer was my first significant introduction to game audio technology. Free access to professional tools might be the norm now but, back then, when proprietary tech reigned supreme, getting access to any kind of authoring tool was so incredibly valuable. I taught myself elementary coding skills and created a little DirectMusic-powered MFC application exploring interactive music and sound techniques as part of my undergraduate degree’s final project (which unfortunately no longer works properly due to the deprecation of DirectMusic in Windows, even with compatibility enabled, otherwise I’d have made you a wee video!).

A test application made with DirectMusic Producer. That's Game Audio History, folks.
My first app. Aw, bless! :)

So, there was me at age 21 creating a project using technology shunned by most of the professionals in the industry. Indeed, I went on to become a bit of a DirectMusic ninja and made good money (for a student anyways!) over the following year consulting on a project that was using the tech.

As alluded to in Rob Ross’s earlier quote, DirectMusic Producer was challenging to get your head around and patchy in its documentation. Forcing myself to learn it, and its integrated Visual Basic scripting language, meant that when I landed my first in-house job working for Sony as a junior sound designer, and was faced with learning their proprietary SCREAM audio implementation tool, it was, relatively speaking, a walk in the park.

I think it’s fair to say that, at the time, I took these tools for granted and had little appreciation for the struggles of my forebears or those of my contemporaries who were still working without this kind of wizardry. The real advantage it gave me though was that it freed me up to concentrate on more important and interesting things like how to use sound to assist creating an engaging player experience, and how to pull that off through close collaboration with folks in other disciplines.

That candle was lit by Stephen Deutsch and Maike Helmers at Bournemouth University on their Sound Design for The Moving Image MA course. They indoctrinated me into the understanding that when it comes to Sound Design for film, the good stuff comes about through either someone in a position of creative control on a project having an interest in sound and giving it a seat at the table (e.g. Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Walter Murch, David Lynch) or through close collaboration (e.g. Skip Lievsay and The Cohen Brothers, Ren Klyce and David Fincher) and frequently, of course, a bit of both. Translating this to the world of games and understanding that it was on me to seek out these collaborators and make myself someone that they would choose to work with gave me a focus and an edge. I look at the emphasis placed upon “learning middleware” or “learning sound design” [sic] by today’s up-and-comers and appreciate how lucky I was to have my eyes and ears opened to the importance of collaboration so early on in my career by these two lovely people.

Stephen was highly critical of games and game audio but, crucially, never dismissive of their potential. That’s an attitude that strongly resonated with me, but also clearly made an impression on fellow Bournemouth alumnus, Rob Bridgett. Not wishing to get too meta, but here’s Rob reflecting on some of Stephen’s thoughts on this early period of game audio:

Deutsch’s article [Harnessing the Power of Music and Sound Design in Interactive Media (2001)] served to highlight the shortcomings of the games industry in a period where it was embryonic, and provided some useful areas into which it could develop. It is interesting to look back now, after only around five or so years, and see how far game audio has evolved and progressed both towards and away from it’s antecedent of film sound.

Rob Bridgett, Updating the State of Critical Writing in Game Sound (2006)

I think the exercise of looking back at this embryonic period perhaps has even more value now. Not just to appreciate how far things have come, but to appreciate the pioneering work of everybody working at that time, and the heavy lifting they did that we all continue to benefit from and build upon.

So, here’s to our pioneers, many of whom are still working and making outstanding contributions to our craft and culture, and here’s to the past and future of game audio! For my part, I’m doing what I can to preserve our game audio history and have got a few things cooking which should hopefully bring back some offline material – watch this space.

If you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane, or if any of it was new to you, all these references, and more, are available in the external links section on GameSound.org – they’re sorted by date so, if you want to go way back, just click through to the last page.

One last little bit of fun – game audio gig hunting in the year 2000 :)

Cheers,

Kenny

About Kenneth Young 21 Articles
Kenny is a multi-award winning freelance sound designer, composer, audio director and writer best known for his work on Knights & Bikes, LittleBigPlanet, Astro Bot Rescue Mission and Tearaway. You can read more of his writing here on GameSound.org or learn more about his work via his professional website, AudBod.com.