How to work with an audio team
Approaching the audio for your game!
Most of what the following article is about, is making your time with an audio team, as seamless and stress free as possible. My perspective is coming from a freelance model, so efficiency is also a top priority! ALSO, I do do music, sound design, AND implementation. But I’ll be talking about these roles often separately, as to when they should occur in the pipeline.
ALSO, sooo much of this is something to work WITH your audio team on. It’s a guideline, not a prescription!
So, let’s start the from the top!
WHEN is a good time to bring in your audio team?
Pre-production is always great for the first consultation! Getting at the very least your audio director in early, makes sure that all the design decisions going forward, get in to your audio’s ears and therefore wave forms!
Start some demo tracks of what gameplay might sound like. This is a really efficient way of helping to define pacing, physics (movement, weight, friction), emotion, and player impact. It’s like concept art, but well, with time and physics and often with player interaction. It’s like that 12 concepts of animation that Disney has, but without the long arduous work of animating something.
During production is is your next best time! And perhaps, if your audio director was already in during pre, this is the time to bring in the other parts of your team. Especially IMPLEMENTATION. You have to get your systems in EARLY, so they can:
Evolve with the game
Actually get it done
This then allows your composer and sound designer to work closely with the team’s designer and programmer to create structures, triggers, and dynamics that add to gameplay seamlessly, and effectively.
Post-production should be purely for polish. Things not lining up with animations properly? EQ sound more like underwater than behind a door? Need a few more footstep variations?
WHAT do you need, to bring in your audio team?
Here are some things to work toward. The most important is your game pitch, and from there your audio team can help you craft the rest!
1. Game Pitch - this is all about moods an textures
- What is the setting?
- What sort of character is the player?
- What sort of narrative is there?
2. Reference tracks - Don’t let them spend hours making music you don’t like. For each track (just a few is fine)
- What do you like about the track?
- What about this track isn’t suitable?
- How do you want the music to impact the player? How should it make them feel?
3. Implementation - what sort of system will the audio have? Will it be generative? How big/small is the game?
This impacts the structure of how the music is composed, and the structure of your sound design assets!
Perhaps your game has a learning curve that the music could align to. Or a rhythm! Perhaps there are mechanics or on screen movement that the audio should illustrate, or draw attention to. And are the timings on those set and linear? Or are the variable and could start or end at any time. Perhaps there’s details that aren’t on screen, that need to be illustrated. Voiceover, warnings, timers, other players, could all be audio only cues. Maybe it could be accessible while vision impaired!
4. Role - what is it going to be like working on your team?
- What sort of collaboration are you looking for?
- How large is the team, and who has what responsibilities?
- What sort of tools do you have experience with, and what tools will the audio team be expected to use?
- What are your working hours like, and when do we invoice!
- How long do you have? What sort of milestones would you like to achieve?
Often my process will be as small as
- Contrasting pallet sounds
- Demo tracks after feedback on which pallets they liked best
- mastering and polishing of chosen demo track
Or as BIG as
- initial consult
- demo tracks
- implementation design
- documentation setup (spreadsheets, system flow sheets etc)
- further demo track (as game will have changed somewhat)
- system setup for implementation
- initial mixed midi mockup pass on music, and initial pass on sound assets
- initial pass on implementation
- system work on implementation
- live recording of music, if needed
- professional voice acting recorded if needed
- editing of music and VO if needed
- polish of assets and implementation (sometimes a total redesign)
- implementation of new assets - process of iteration
- final implementation of final assets
- sometimes a couple more passes purely for iteration
If the project is very long, like my work on Wayward Strand - which has been totally redesigned a fair few times in the last two years! Iteration again and again! Go back to step two or three!
But while all this is happening?...
HOW to communicate, what I dunno… make it more.. Fluffy?
There are sooooo many ways to communicate feedback to your audio team, and talk about sound.
☆☆☆Adjectives and intent☆☆☆
It’s like game design. What do you intend the player to do? How should the game feel to communicate that? DOES THIS SOUND CONVEY TO YOU WHAT YOU WANT TO CONVEY TO THE PLAYER? It can be about level design, it can be about game mechanics!
Music and sound is broken up into a few elements.
Rhythm, Tempo, Texture, Timbre, Instrumentation, Melody, Harmony. These are the different elements that a musician will look at altering to communicate different messages.
For a sound designer, they might not look at harmony or melody, but all these other elements can describe single sounds and loops. They even get in to the nitty gritty of each tiny bit of a sound!
“The foot step has the right attack, it definitely sounds like it hits ice, but the decay makes it sound like a thin sheet, and the sustain doesn’t sound like the foot is being brought up through snow”
Often when asking for feedback I’ll let the designer know what I want feedback on:
“I want to know what you think mostly of the instrumentation, pacing, and if it hits the mood you’re after”
“I want mostly feedback on the structure of this piece. Do the sections make sense? Does this suit the structure of what your trailer/intro might be?”
“Do these impact sounds sound heavy enough? Do they sound like they’re coming from the object you imagine?”
“I know you said you wanted it to sound sad, but there is a lot of kinds of sad. What kind of sad does this music make you feel?”
“I know you wanted this atmos to sound like isolation but also sunlight, and dust… anyway how does this make you feel?”
“This humming sound is going to be placed behind the door you want the player to go through. It sounds mysterious right? Like you would want to go through the door? Not like you’re meant to avoid it?”
“Does this sound like HURRY UP, or does it sound like TOO LATE?!”
All these questions are things I say because I trust that the designer can outline their intent. Or that I can at least help them. And, part of hiring an audio team, is trusting that they know what they are doing! I KNOW how to make something sound heavier, I KNOW how to make something sound more mysterious and less sad. Your audio people know how to do this, so tell them that’s what you want. All these emotive words, are REALLY helpful.
If you’re confused on what to comment on, ask for clarification!
Some of my favourite adjectives that come up a lot in my discussions with game developers:
This mostly talks about the percussive beat, and the bass line. While the vocals and other layers are mostly floating on top, and add very little rhythmic variation. The rhythm is unwavering in how constant it is. Everything is really repetitive
A little bit odd, floaty and lovely. Busy https://chapelierfou.bandcamp.com/track/les-m-tamorphoses-du-vide
This song has some familiar elements (the violin and the cello), but also some very cute and cheeky sounds, which sort of sound like toys, which makes it very charming. It makes me feel as if I’m exploring lots of very small things in a miniature world. There are many different sounds and objects which all seem to have their own lives.
Smooth, boundless, mysterious, ominous https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iVYu5lyX5M
What makes this piece so effective, is that it’s very hard to hear when one voice starts or stops. It’s very void like. It’s isn’t harsh.
Sparse ornaments, with a bed of rhythm https://yosihorikawa.bandcamp.com/track/wandering-2
This track makes great use of bird song and small ornamental details. Imagine if it was JUST the ornamental details and you took out all the rhythmic lines?
And for all you gamers:
Long, flowy, dynamic(has periods of very loud and very soft) https://austinwintory.bandcamp.com/album/journey
This soundtrack works so well because the player identifies with a single instrument. The other instruments’ roles are more for setting and as textural layers. This aligns SO MUCH with what the game is ALL ABOUT.
Hit me up for more tweet length descriptions of music, hah!
I Googled adjectives and found this great poster. All of these (except maybe hungry, that’s probably more of a sound design solution) I can think of a musical way to communicate.
Use adjectives. Think about your intent. Communication is everything.
I tried to find a good poster on “elements of music” and none of them are for non-musicians. But I found this and it’s hilarious, and a GREAT way of describing what you’re hearing: