Game Audio Design Templates

This week I’m going to try something a little different. Instead of recording I’m going to talk a bit about session templates as they relate to game audio sound design. First we’ll talk about why templates are good and how they help your workflow and then I’ll take you through one of my standard templates.

When I was first starting out, a designer much wiser than I told me, “Keep your sessions neat. If you die tonight, someone should be open it up and start working tomorrow.” It didn’t really dawn on me how true that was until I was handed a session that could only have been created by a complete and utter moron (or someone who just didn’t care/know any better). Mono and stereo tracks mixed together, insert effects all over the place, sends on a few random tracks to an effect track buried in the middle of other tracks, summing buses fed by tracks seemingly selected at random. I found myself thinking, “It would be easier for me to start from scratch than to figure out the organization.”

In the daily hubub of the game world, there’s no time to sit down and figure out what the heck someone else was doing. Even worse is coming back to a session you made 6 or 12 or 18 months later to make revisions only to find out that it was you, you moron, who left yourself a gigantic mess that makes no sense. Having a standard template, or set of similar templates gives you a number of advantages, all of them time-savers. First, there’s the setup, or lack of setup.
Game Audio Sound Design Template Signal Flow
Also, you can move things between sessions by quickly importing tracks (that will obviously work in your new, templated session). Finally, and most important, is the ability to come back to a session years after the fact and be able to pick up (mostly) right where you left off.

The diagram to the left is what I have come up with over many, many revisions during my last 12,000+ hours of game audio fun.

So how does it work? Rectangles are Audio Tracks and rounded rectangles are Buses. There are four components: FX Tracks, AUX Tracks, Effect Sends, and a Record Track. The signal flow goes from FX Track->AUX Track->Aux ALL->Output. Each FX Track also has a (or many) send(s), and that chain goes FX Track->Send->Aux ALL->Output. Finally, there is a send from the Aux ALL->Record Track. (Aux ALL->Output is not shown in the diagram.)

The FX Tracks hold the actual sounds and are divided into small sub-groups. You can see the A and B groups in the diagram. I have groups set up through E in my template and will import as many as I think I’ll need (usually through D). This grouping allows for easy organization, where similar elements can be placed in nearby tracks. It’s also convenient because insert effects can be applied to small groups of tracks at the same time by sticking them on the Aux tracks. Want to apply an EQ to a group of your sounds? Place them all in FXA tracks and put the effect on the AUX A bus.

At the same time an effect can be inserted on a single track while the Aux ALL bus allows effect inserts to be thrown over the entire session.

Effect sends allow more flexibility than the AUX Inserts. I often use these for an encompassing reverb, where I want each element to have a different level sent to the verb for each sound. Each FX Track comes with sends already set up but disabled (ctrl-command click). This keeps everything ready to go but does not eat into the CPU resources until necessary.

Finally there is the Record Track. This comes in handy in many situations. Once I have finished an effect, I will stick the final version, muted, up on the record track. This just makes things easier from an organizational standpoint. When I come back to the session later, I know exactly which setup belongs to which asset.

The record track also works as a scratch palette. If I’m experimenting with a chain of effects or combination of material, I can quickly arm the track and record the output. This has netted me a lot of interesting sounds and textures that would have otherwise been lost to the void.

The record track can also be used to mix down the final sound. While the debate about whether this method or Bounce to Disk sounds better, I’m not going to touch it. You can do what you feel is best. (And honestly, I can’t tell the difference. If you can, more power to you.)

This basic setup works for mono, stereo, quad, mono to stereo, mono to surround, stereo to surround, mono + stereo to stereo, mono + stereo to surround, almost any configuration you can think of. I use a close variation of it for cut-to-picture projects (more tracks in a group, groups labeled by element such as BG, Hard FX, etc.). I’ve found that this setup, along with a well labeled I/O setup (that matches my track/bus/send labeling) keeps me designing sounds instead of organizing and reorganizing my session. And that’s why we do this job in the first place, to be creative.

I’ve included my basic mono template for you to download and play with. Enjoy!

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Glowing Sounds

I was once asked in a job interview, “What kind of sounds aren’t you good at making which you’d like to improve upon?” It was a fair question but one I never expected (I was waiting for the more generic, “What is your greatest fault?” interview question). It took me a minute or two, literally (never be afraid to take your time in an interview to find the right answer), but then it hit me. “Love. Hope. Home. Warmth. Kindness. Heaven.”

Sound effect people get asked to make Hell all the time. Guns, zombies, goopy mud, blood curdling screams, explosions. If it’s violent, terrifying, or freakish, that’s our time to shine. The warmer moments (few and far between in games) usually go to the composers. Still, I was being honest in the interview--I had had trouble making such feelings come out in the past. Just because a composer saved my butt once doesn’t mean they’ll do so again. As an artist I feel much more comfortable tackling my weaknesses than I do avoiding them. (And come on, it’s way more fun to operate outside of your comfort zone anyway!)

When I think of the words described above, I hear ringing. I hear it as a note & chords, as chimes, bells, and other types of harmonious ringing. One of the tools I’ve picked up since the interview to achieve this type of sound is the tibetan bowl. For those who aren’t familiar,
Tibetan Bowl Used as a Warm Ringing Sound
it’s a standing bell that can be struck or played by rubbing a mallet around the edge to produce a wonderfully complex singing-type sound.

Below you’ll hear a recording I took time to do one day with Larry Peackock manning the console. First is the bell ring. Second is playing of the bowl. Finally, I’ve included a texture I made using some surround panning (the online version is a 2 track fold down), pitch shifting, and delay tools (not sure what anymore but I’d bet on the SoundToys Crystallizer). The hardest part of recording the bowl is keeping the mallet from striking the bowl while rubbing. It takes a steady hand and a good surface on which the bowl can rest without spinning yet doesn’t stifle resonation. You’ll hear that we didn’t get it perfect.

TibetanBowl3Takes by dsteinwedel

Wineglass used for both ringing and strained sounds
Another choice for making a ringing sound is the crystal wineglass. Fill a glass with liquid, get your finger wet, and rub it around the rim with just the right amount of friction to excite the glass and get it to hum. Altering the volume of liquid in the glass changes the pitch. It took me a long time to be able to pull this off and I’m not sure why. It’s kind of like whistling: I couldn’t do it until I could do it and now I couldn’t give you the faintest idea how I go about doing it. Unfortunately, this glass didn’t respond with an exciting glow. It did, however, give a nasty, struggling, squeaky, strained call when muting the glass while resonating it--not the emotion I was trying for but a very nice sound indeed.

WineGlass by dsteinwedel

To the practical uses: Eventually I was asked to make an entire level that was meant to be a little slice of heaven. I had to pull about every
“Nice” sound I’ve ever recorded, made, or run across in a library to get the job done. I also didn’t have the luxury of plastering music across the whole level--so no composer butt-saving this time. :) Fortunately, the end result turned out well with lots of cool winds, warm tones, glowing textures, and was a stark contrast to the dripping, creaking soundscape in the rest of the game. One of my favorite sounds from this level was the fire. Using a combination of real fire and some kind of ringing (I don’t remember if it was the Tibetan Bowl, chimes, or something else entirely), I created a blend of the two that feels as if the fire is sparkling. The effect was achieved using a touch of Izotope’s Spectron Morphing tool & good old fashioned layering.

Recording Geek Notes: The above sounds were recorded in dual mono, using a Peluso and Neumann KRM 81 into a Focusrite preamp to Nuendo at 24/48.
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Mouth Flutter Bys

This week’s entry is a fun exercise and something you’ve probably already done thousands of times in your life. Mouth effects are used by children, adults, and sound editors around the world. Whether pretending to fart, imitating a car, or punctuating a point with a solid “Wha-CHA!”, the mouth effect is here to stay.

One of my favorite things to do with my mouth is the Flutter. At its most basic level, the Flutter is just blowing air through your lips. You can change the feel and character of what’s coming out by biting on parts of your mouth, blowing from a different part of your throat, blowing into a different part of your mouth, or changing how intensely you blow. At the advanced level, you can blow air into two parts of your mouth simultaneously, alternate where the air goes, or add in other mouth and vocal effects with the fluttering.

The Flutter By is an extension of the Flutter. It involves making a flutter sound and whipping your head by a stationary mic (or, having a friend whip-pan a mic by your mouth). In the sample below, you can hear different styles of Flutter moving past the mic.

FlutteryBy Various by dsteinwedel

The hardest part of such an exercise is physical and occurs when the mouth dries out causing you to lose the flutter while moving. For some reason, moving your head quickly makes it much harder to keep a flutter going. Many of my takes have been thrown away for sounding like “PbPbPbPbPbPbPbthhhhhhhhhh.”

FlutteryBy Fail by dsteinwedel

The Flutter By has tons of uses. Need a big bug that flies around? Mouth Flutters. Have an explosion pass by the camera? Mouth Flutters make a great texture element that give the feel of a shockwave passing over you. Cartoon cars? Check. Raspberries? Check. Bullet Bys? If you can get one going fast enough it works for those too (though you’ll want to use your voice to add some doppler while you’re at it).

Below is a clip from Bioshock 2 (Spoiler Alert if you haven’t played it!) and around :12 in you’ll hear a nice, fat, mouth flutter by.


Recording Geek Notes: Neumann 191 -> SD 302 -> ProTools.
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Toy Tops

Toy stores are a good source for finding things that make interesting sounds. As such, I try and stop in from time to time (this has nothing to do with my love for Legos, I swear). At one point, I found a pair of tops (made of metal) which made an interesting hum when spinning. Each top had a different quality to its hum, instantly cementing my double purchase. What I thought would be a quick recording session turned into two full days as I experimented and was able to consistently milk more and more interesting sounds from these puppies.

The first set (Tops_01) includes Pumps, Hums, Contact Spins, & Hanging Spins. The Pumps are pretty explanatory, that’s simply the pumping of the top to set it spinning. The Hum is the sound made when the top was left to spin on its own. The tonality of the hum could be modified by closing off a series of holes around the edge of the top. Contact Spins were a spontaneous find and occur when letting objects rub against the spinning top. These required the closing of all holes on the top to keep any hum from occurring--which also led to the top slowing down at a much more rapid rate and made getting long, loopable takes difficult. The recording here is one of the cooler sounds I pulled from that part of the session. Finally, Hanging Spins were made by pumping the top to a high speed and then holding it off the ground by the pump and letting the top spin freely in the air.

Toy Tops 01 by dsteinwedel

The second set (Tops_02) were made by attaching stuff to the top as if it had helicopter blades. The first few attempts were unsuccessful--I tried only attaching one or two blades which set the top off balance and caused it to crash. However, once I got 4 blades evenly spaced, the sounds coming out were fantastic. In this set you’ll hear velcro, zip ties, paperclips, and fishing line used as the blade source.

Toy Tops 02 by dsteinwedel

These sounds have been used all over projects I’ve done. The humming is great for looping and attaching to projectiles. The helicopter spinning (I label them as Spin Downs in my library) provide great texture and can be reversed to indicate a fast startup. I last used them as part of a sound for the upcoming XCom: Enemy Unknown. I remember the Contact Spins being used by Pam Aronoff on a project to make some awesome magic effects.

Recording Geek Notes: Neumann RSM 191 direct to ProTools via a Sound Devices 302 @ 24/48.
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