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  • SQUASHED – Jesse Harlin (December 2008)
    EXPERIMENT For my control music file I used a 44 1 kHz 16 bit WAV file with a length of 30 seconds and a size of 5MB Additionally the file was authored so as to loop seamlessly from end to end upon playback Following the conversion process the largest files were the A law and μ Law files both of which compressed with a 2 1 ratio down to 2 52MB To encode the A and μ Law files within Peak the source file needed to be converted into an AIF file On the positive side following compression both the A and μ Law files retained their seamless loop points perfectly However there was a noticeably loud continuous crackle of compression artifacts which seriously degraded the sonic quality of both files The next smallest compressed file used Apple s own Apple Lossless Audio Codec or ALAC A number of programs will convert into Apple Lossless such as dBpoweramp Music Converter or SoundConverter but by far the easiest to use and most common program is a free download of iTunes Apple Lossless compressed the source file down to 2 39MB and maintained the seamless loop while offering no audible degradation in sound quality Much like the A law and μ Law files the IMA ADPCM conversion within Peak necessitated a conversion to AIF Following conversion the IMA ADPCM file also retained a seamless end to end loop but had a much smaller file size than A Law μ Law or ALAC files with a decrease in its file size down to 1 35MB While I didn t hear any noticeable change in the quality of the audio it may be worth noting that the audio file was actually 8 samples longer after conversion into IMA ADPCM For Apple s own AAC format I again tackled the conversion process within iTunes which gave me two different quality settings 128 kbps or 256 kbps The quality of both was decent with even the 128 kbps file showing little difference from the source WAV even though some clarity was noticeably lost particularly in higher frequencies The 256 kbps file compressed down to 950k while the 128 kbps file shrunk to an impressive 480k However conversion to AAC destroyed the seamless loop with an additional 3080 samples of silence tacked onto the end of the file in both instances as the conversion goes through a process of rounding the data up to the nearest frame boundary To test the MP3 format I again used iTunes for the conversion and compared two different quality settings 192 kbps and again 128 kbps While both files were smaller than the AAC files 707k and 472k respectively the same need to round up to the nearest frame boundary resulted in an additional 1764 samples of silence added onto the end of both files and an audible skip in the loop point Sonically the compression was beginning to take its toll and while the 192 kbps file sounded better than

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  • iCAN TOO – Jesse Harlin (January 2007)
    listed on iTunes There are essentially two methods directly through Apple or through a digital distributor THE MACINTOSH WAY iTunes is a great opportunity for independent artists and smaller labels to easily distribute their music worldwide However finding the online application can be difficult as all the necessary links are in out of the way places on Apple com Start at www apple com itunes and click on the light gray hypertext link at the bottom of the screen that reads Working With iTunes Labels Artists On the following Labels Artists page the application to apply is linked to in the first blue box on the right side of the screen conveniently labeled iTunes Music Store Online Application After complying with a brief don t call us we ll call you and you better own the rights to this stuff warning from Apple you re ready to apply The application comes in two relatively short parts The first section is about contact info and where globally you have the rights to distribute the music The second part of the application is about the content is it music How many albums How many tracks Pretty simple stuff NIBBLING AT THE CORE Here s the snag with the Apple method As Apple is fond of telling you real people read and evaluate every application that comes through their site As such the word on the street is that Apple can take a very long time to get back to artists if ever Since the company doesn t approve every artist who applies and you already clicked on the don t call us button the whole process can feel a bit like throwing a feather down a deep well and waiting to hear some sort of splash If you do hear back from Apple you ll need to download their free iTunes Producer software to edit track metadata attach album artwork and convert tracks into the necessary AAC file format As of press time there is no fee to apply but Apple will take 35 percent of all sales The other 65 percent goes to the record label which in this case might be the game s publisher the artist or an actual record label How much you as the artist will see of that remaining 65 percent is completely dependent upon the specifics of your individual deal You will also need to set up your music with a UPC code for each album and ISRC codes for each track The UPC barcode is used to track individual albums sold and the ISRC functions as a digital fingerprint for every song in distribution To create your own barcodes you need to become a member of GS1 US and obtain a unique company prefix This can cost as much as 750 If you re going through your publisher or an established record label you may be able to get a UPC code through them ISRCs can be obtained for free from the Recording Industry

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  • DOES IT SOUND NEXT-GEN? – Jesse Harlin (February 2007)
    character enters a new area There s no map The character s radar malfunctions The power has been cut and surprises lurk in the shadows Regardless of the visual mood a lack of occlusion means that they can hear the signature vocalizations and foley sounds for each enemy around every corner and know exactly what to expect next At that moment the lack of occlusion has completely destroyed all drama tension and anticipation that the level designers and environmental artists have painstakingly worked to create To lack occlusion is to undercut the efforts of the other game designers DYNAMIC LOADING There s nothing immersive about a loading bar While dynamic loading is a battle that must be planned for and waged across all disciplines it s the responsibility of the audio lead to initially request dynamic loading of audio assets With the launch titles on the new consoles it s clear that next gen gaming means little more right now than prettier graphics Eventually this will expand to all disciplines as greater immersion is inevitable throughout the next console cycle The ability to load and unload sounds only when needed will be vital for audio Smarter memory management should be one of the primary goals of all audio tech moving forward REAL TIME DSP Much like occlusion robust digital signal processing DSP systems speak directly to the heart of immersion DSP effects like filtering and reverb place our sounds in the spaces the characters inhabit Unfortunately with surprising frequency real time DSP is a casualty of poor planning poor technology or both Foley in outside spaces should sound different from the same foley files played inside interior spaces If characters are grunting and groaning inside a cave their utterances should be processed with a cavernous reverb I m looking at you FINAL FANTASY XII ABANDONING CHIPSET MIDI You only have to look as far as GameSpot s review of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA TWILIGHT PRINCESS to see that chipset MIDI scores aren t going to pass muster with the gaming press in the next gen age and rightfully so Enough game scores over the last console cycle ditched old technology and embraced digital recordings that gamers tastes have largely evolved Consumers have come to expect their epic games to have epic orchestras It might be excusable if every game using chipset MIDI were doing so because it used an extremely interactive music system that digital recordings can t achieve They re not though INTERACTIVE MUSIC Interactive music made strides over the last round of consoles Unfortunately thousands of new games come out each year only a fraction of which have interactive scores The majority of games still have trigger and forget loops tied to in game locations This fatiguing approach leads many players to turn music off in their options menus What s worse it s led to Microsoft s insistence that music in every Xbox 360 game be replaceable with the user s own music files This should be

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  • THE GREAT CONJUNCTION – Jesse Harlin (March 2007)
    somewhat surprising source our own backyard As it turned out Industrial Light and Magic ILM a Lucasfilm company had long been working with a proprietary tool called Zeno Zeno helps ILM build and populate digital stages for their films It contains texture controls particle generators and systems for digital actors Its only drawback is that it s rooted in rendering each frame is rendered individually in a time consuming process so making changes is very slow going But in time LucasArts brought to the table the grand concept of runtime viewing Two years into the collaborative development of Zeno LucasArts is well on its way toward the original goal of having a robust game engine populated with ILM s computer effects wizardry while ILM is gaining a robust real time pre visualization tool that saves time money and aids pre production in the creation of advanced animatics Both LucasArts game developers and ILM s film teams are using the same technology with standardized terminology a standardized workflow pipeline and standardized tool sets WHERE IT S GOING The environment we ve been working in for the past two years is one in which many game developers may find themselves in the near future With standardization and the cross pollination of tools which puts game and film design on an even technological playing field assets can be tossed back and forth between teams instantaneously throughout production The digitalization of filmmaking and visual effects enables the game development teams to create levels out of scenes still being worked on by the film team And effects artists texture artists and animators can service the design needs of both teams simultaneously But how does this affect audio The conjunction of film and game authoring technology has different implications for audio professionals than it does for our graphics centric brethren Film audio exists almost exclusively in a world of post production and will most likely always be that way Game sound is rarely a linear experience The notion of audio simply coming in at the end of a film project however is misleading As budgets balloon an ever increasing importance in the film world is being placed on detailed and sophisticated pre visualizations The audio capabilities of current pre visualization tools are often extraordinarily basic if implemented at all Usually if a pre visualization program has any audio functionality it s the ability to play back one or two linear tracks of audio ILM began using Zeno s pre visualization tool with that kind of limited functionality However the group then collaborated with the same programming staff who was creating the audio tool sets for LucasArts audio engine and as a result the audio capabilities of the pre visualization tool are now more robust It even shares similar key commands UI design and workflow conventions as the game audio engine JOB DIVERSITY At its heart converging technology is efficient economical and dedicated to expanding professional opportunities What s critical to remember is that while film audio

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  • AN INSIDE JOB – Jesse Harlin (May 2007)
    sound designers get their start in the game industry with staff positions A career as a freelance sound designer always develops from the ability to impress in person out demo the next candidate and manage important small business tools such as invoices or marketing and promotional materials anything that helps to get the next gig What that next job might be will often vary greatly making a high degree of flexibility indispensable for the freelance contractor Gigs will vary in scope from tossing a handful of UI sounds over the proverbial wall to delivering an entire weapon and impact sound set By and large freelance designers can create their work however they see fit While Protools Sound Forge and Filemaker Pro are industry mainstays freelance designers are largely free to employ whatever software they prefer so long as they deliver the necessary assets on time and in the format required by the development team Because a freelance contractor s software and hardware palette is dependent upon personal preferences and wallet size there s little in the way of global standards and practices for external designers While this isn t typically an issue for freelance designers it can cause some issues for sound designers who make the move to on staff positions THE INSIDER At a macro level on staff sound designers tend to fall into two main categories the jack of all trades and the special forces team member The jack of all trades whose title is usually something like audio lead or senior sound designer is typically at a smaller developer or part of a small audio department In house audio designers are responsible for the production and delivery of all facets of the game s audio including sound effect creation voice production and music composition In addition to content creation the audio lead is also tasked with handling everything audio tech related Audio leads are frequently responsible for researching and determining a game s audio engine needs whether that means deciding to license middleware like Wwise or writing extensive documentation so that the engineering team has a blueprint from which to build the audio engine Once content is created audio leads are often tasked with handling all implementation and audio testing to ensure that the content plays back correctly In this jack of all trades role the audio lead must determine which playback errors are simple implementation mistakes and which are audio engine functionality bugs that must be reported to the programming team On top of everything else as the sole point of contact for all things audio staff audio leads must also function as the accessible face for the development team This means making themselves available for frequent design meetings updates with production staff and publishing staff and regularly preparing materials and documentation to show how the audio development is progressing This may also mean managing and contracting additional external sound designers as dictated by the workload of the project A special forces team member is typically

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  • THE GOSPEL OF ATTENUATION – Jesse Harlin (June/July 2007)
    crossfade shapes are indispensable tools inherent to every digital audio workstation Pro Tools Logic and Cubase and even some of the most basic shareware and freeware audio editing applications contain a choice when it comes to fade shapes However Audio Implementers have a whole different set of tools such as Wwise FMOD Miles and XACT and these almost never offer anything other than a Linear fade shape for playing fades back within the game engine The solution is relatively simple and relatively light in terms of programmer work hours though By expanding the options to include two additional fade curves audio implementers gain a great deal of flexibility and creative control LINEAR CURVES The linear curve shape is the only fade curve that has a standardized name It is without a doubt the most commonly used curve for fading or crossfading game audio However while it definitely has its uses the linear curve can be clunky and fairly artless when implemented Linear fades work really well with either very short fades or very long fades For any fade being measured on a scale of milliseconds linear fades are great Fades of that short a duration are too fast to necessitate any finesse in the shape of their curves Linearity also works well for long fades such as transitions between two different ambient sound effect loops as the player walks from one room to the next or transitioning between segments of a vehicle s engine hum LOGARITHMIC CURVES The logarithmic curve can also be called a convex log curve a trigonometric curve or Preset Curve 3 according to Pro Tools fade editor Whatever its name a logarithmic fade out curve attenuates slowly at first while performing a much steeper fade closer to the end of the process The inverse is true for a logarithmic fade in When applying a linear fade to any audio file that already includes a natural fade in or out a double fade will be applied to that file Logarithmic curves are great for solving this problem Natural reverb tails or music files that begin with glissandos or crescendos will all be unnaturally affected by the use of a linear fade curve In this situation logarithmic curves will retain much of the file s natural fade and create a much more realistic result This can be particularly helpful when crossfading between non beat based interactive music such as orchestral or ambient electronica cues EXPONENTIAL CURVES Like the logarithmic curve the exponential curve suffers from a lack of standardized nomenclature Exponential curve concave logarithmic and Pro Tools Preset Curve 5 all define the same fade shape An exponential fade out is characterized by a rapid initial falloff of volume that gives way to a more gradual attenuation for the remainder of the fade s duration Again the inverse is true for an exponential fade in Using this fade shape for crossfades results in a large volume hole in the middle of the fade which is neither realistic nor

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  • VOX POPULI – Jesse Harlin (August 2007)
    Sony or EA may be completely different from the results my poll collected However with nearly 2 000 responses these results should offer an interesting cross section of how the public regards game audio CRASH Of the three audio categories sound effects are the most well received 63 percent of respondents had never turned the effects off while playing a game Additionally 87 percent of respondents felt as though they had played a game that could not possibly be completed without sound effects Unfortunately this means that 13 percent of the respondents have never played a game where they ve viewed sound effects as an essential part of their gaming experience In the comment threads that sprung up in response to the poll effects were by far the most highly praised of the three audio disciplines First person shooter fans often attributed their elite skills in large part to audio design One MADDEN fan noted an inability to play defense without audio turned on Not surprisingly sound effects were cited as contributing to the immersive atmosphere of games like SILENT HILL BROTHERS IN ARMS and BURNOUT REVENGE Praise for the transformative experience of a decent surround sound system was the most overwhelming Interestingly 5 1 systems were repeatedly mentioned as being more important to next gen gaming than a high definition television screen Those who left comments that most enthusiastically praised sound as a fundamental part of gaming were also frequently those touting 5 1 as the new standard for game audio POP Music proved to be significantly more subjective The numbers were exactly flipped from those of sound effects when it came to tuning out 63 percent said that they had turned off the music in the past Surprisingly even with the success of games like GUITAR HERO and DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION or the inclusion of music based puzzles in best selling titles such as GOD OF WAR or THE LEGEND OF ZELDA THE WIND WAKER only 56 percent of the respondents felt as though they had ever played a game where the music was absolutely necessary for its completion Like sound effects music was commonly cited as a major contributor to a game s mood A good soundtrack was often credited as being a leading factor toward immersive gameplay Licensed music however was a frequent target of criticism Most respondents who expressed a desire to hear a song based soundtrack as opposed to a game specific score mentioned that they simply turned the game s music off in favor of their own external playlist That said for Xbox and Xbox 360 users only 56 percent of those responding said that they had used the custom soundtrack option to add their own music into their games At the same time 58 percent said that they wish more games offered the option of adding their own soundtracks This was also a common topic in the comment threads Rather than poorly composed or produced music the biggest complaint was a simple

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  • AUDIO ACCESSIBILITY – Jesse Harlin (September 2007)
    many of the gameplay conventions they had come to count on for relaying critical information LOOK AND LISTEN One of the easiest solutions to the problem of visually representing sound in next gen software is the inclusion of closed captioned text in game The concept of closed captions is borrowed from the world of television and is manifest as lines of text on screen which represent any dialog sound or music that has been programmed to appear Most common is the practice of captioning cutscene or in game dialog However any sound that can be described can be captioned Additionally closed captions can be color coded in order to aid in the clear demarcation of player sounds versus environmental sounds for example Unfortunately very few games are completely captioned Only four commercially released games have included a full closed captioning system the most widely known of which is HALF LIFE 2 However the GA community is a very active one and mod projects exist to expand the number of captioned games In 2006 the IGF nominated Games CC s DOOM3 CC for best DOOM mod of the year Text isn t the only way to represent sound however In addition to closed captioning various other feedback systems can be built into the game to approximate augment or substitute for audio in ways that benefit hearing players as well Cartoon y visualized hit impacts such as those found in games like ALIEN HOMINID and VIEWTIFUL JOE add to the games art styles while offering a silent way to know that weapon fire connected with an enemy target In game icons and radar like those used in the METAL GEAR SOLID franchise convey changes in enemy AI threat states just as effectively as their accompanying alert sounds or changes to the interactive music score Blinking HUD elements such as low health or ammo are a common component to first person shooters that are often accompanied by beeping auditory feedback Even the use of a console controller s rumble feature can be used to express any number of audio elements from explosions to lock picking to an overheating engine SOUND IT OUT At the other end of the audio experience spectrum there are visually impaired gamers Approximately four million Americans between the same consumer age range are blind or visually impaired For visually impaired gamers an entire cottage industry of audio only GA games has sprung up to meet their needs the vast majority of which can be found at AudioGames net Audio games are devoid of any graphic representation and convey all gameplay information through a diverse range of auditory feedback Weapons UI options character locomotion inventory statistics and relative position within the game world are just a few of the traditionally visual pieces of game data represented strictly through audio Additionally audio games span the full gamut of genres ranging from puzzle games to racing games to third person action games such as Studio Hunty s IN THE PIT Spend some

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