GDD 017 : Audio and Soundtrack for Games – An Overview

By August 8, 2014 Podcast No Comments
Game Design Dojo Podcast Episode

We received an inquiry from a fan and it inspired us to discuss how to use music and sounds in video games. Brian and Ike tackle this topic with great detail using some of their personal experiences. So, enjoy!

Today’s Developer Diary

Ike’s watching movies and Brian talks about his experience at E3. This was much different than PAX which was all consumers, so you’re audience and players and you can see that they really are interested in what you’re doing. But the main difference at E3 is it’s more of everyone sizing each other up, more of a competition. It’s basically media and industry professionals at E3. The fact that the game is made by just a two person team is getting some attention.

The One Room Schoolhouse had been busy and getting pretty close to launching another education game this year and doing some contract work as well. He does contract work during the day and at night works on his own stuff just to have enough fuel to get through the day. Game development involves a lot of momentum.

We just want to thank you because we’ve received a bunch of great reviews on iTunes! “Keep on killing it guys! It’s like Christmas opening up my podcast app and seeing a new episode.” Thanks so much! It means a lot that we’re resonating and hope to live up to your praise.

Sound and Music In Video Games

Many of you may not know this, but music is Brian’s first love. Before he was an artist, programmer and video game developer he played the guitar and music is in his blood. He’s currently playing in a band too!  Brian’s love of music certainly shows in his games and trailers as he uses it as a centerpiece. In the film industry they say score, but in the video game industry it can be broken up into two sides:

Sound Effects:  Put onto a jump, a bullet shooting, button sounds in your UI – those are usually a one off, you just play this and it plays a sound file and of coarse there’s some tricks to the trade

Soundtrack: You can do a lot with it like have different soundtracks for different levels like classic Super Mario Bros. or blend from one soundtrack to another like Journey did and make it very composed.

Music and Soundtracks in the Mobile Market

When people play games on their mobile devices, there is more of a tendency to play covertly and the player might not want a ton of sound and music. So how much effort do you put into your sound on a mobile game if a lot people are playing it silently?

Keep in mind people can play with headphones on and there is something to the sound. It would be a huge mistake to not give your sound the attention it deserves. Obviously you wouldn’t give it as much attention as art because that’s visual and how you get your foot in the door. So, you’ll want to get your art style down first and then make sure your sound can support it.

Ike remembered the game EverQuest and how the game had a sound when you leveled up that was the most satisfying sound on the planet. Never forget how impactful sound can be. It can do so much for your production and if you put the effort into it, it will just pay off ten fold.

 Putting Sound in Your Game

It’s really part of the basic core feedback to the player. If you think about a game mechanic, there’s three things to think about as far as your core gameplay mechanics:

  1. A visual of the gameplay – show the actual mechanic
  2. There’s a sound to go with it – put a sound to it
  3. A visual component in the UI – somehow draw attention to it in the UI as well

Brian shares his experience when he worked at High Voltage Software with the lead audio guy. He said after the game was prototyped and they’re ready to start putting sound in, he would look for anything that looks like it would add some sort of a sound like if something moves would be the first thing he would look for. If it moves, does it make a sound, then let’s get a sound in there for it.

So, if in doubt put a sound in there for it.

Another interesting thing the lead audio guy would do is ask the Dev team for early video footage of the game and based on that he would put together all the kinds of sound he thought that would be happening. Brian explains this with the game he worked on Hunter: The Reckoning

  • Got awesome sounds – guts spilling out, blood splatters, etc
  • Layered them on top of themselves and made that musical
  • He put that in 1st along with a bunch of weapon sounds – sword slashing, axes slashing, guns firing
  • He created this composition of all the sound effects and pitched them – made them musical in and of themselves
  • Then only after that part of it did he approach the soundtrack

He found that the mid-range pitches (in the musical spectrum everything has a certain pitch to it) and a lot of the high-range pitches were all being handled by all the sound effects so he was looking to fill in the sound spectrum with the soundtrack to give everything a nice pulse to it and keep everything moving. He arrived at a kinda of techno/goth beat that fit the style of the game and it worked out perfectly. When the sounds for the hack and slash started coming in, it really made the game!

Visualize It

If you were to visualize it on the art side and put nothing but green in your game, there would be nothing for your eye to play on and there would be nothing to identify what’s important or not. Then, if you throw a splash of red on the screen that’s probably really important. It’s similar in the musical world – fill in all the action, then you know what you’re missing so you can fill that in afterwards.

Same idea exists with visuals. You can take any image, bring it into Photoshop and look at it’s histogram and it shows you it’s visual spectrum – how much light, how much darkness, how much mids. They say you want a nice balanced spectrum and there is a bit of a science to it. If spectrum look bad, then it’s probably a bad image. There’s a correlation.

When you Don’t Have a Sound Guy

How do you get that polished sound when you don’t have a sound guy and you’re trying to make something that works?

Being a game developer makes you really sensitive to stealing other people’s stuff whether it’s online or not because so much gets pirated. So, if taking things make sure it’s either public domain, follow the licensing rules.

  • Start with grabbing truly free stuff
  • Then create sounds based on about two or three sounds that was grabbed
  • If picking up a pick-up, might add a chime, a boom or a hit of a drum
  • On top of that record your own voice – saying “yeah” or some kind of a tone
  • Then combine all together – creates something that doesn’t sound like just got off the internet

Brian goes to websites. About 95% of the sounds he gets comes from 3 different websites. One he uses for sound effects specifically is and this website has a bunch of videogame sounds. They have it set up where you can play each file right there before you buy it and the cost ranges from $2-$5 for each sound.

You’re going to want to give yourself about a half a day to listen to all the sounds and you’re going to want to batch it. Get your game to a certain point and then get a batch of sounds. Pick out the ones that you think will work and then pick out a few alternatives because you never know until you get it in the game. A spreadsheet can be helpful especially if doing a bigger project and to have a list of what you intended to use each sound for.

Have Fun With It

Ike likes to look for sounds when he’s eating. It’s a good activity when you have something else you’re doing, like the equivalent to flipping through a magazine since you don’t necessarily know what you’re looking for.

It’s kinda fun being the audience for a minutes instead of creating and putting your essence out there you can sit back and listen to a lot of different things and think about how they would work in your production.

Another thing that’s a lot of fun is to try to create some sounds for the effects that you’re looking for. You can make a lot of sounds just from sitting at your desk using: ceramic jars, keys, bells, chotchkes, a coin and a bottle to make a coin drop. With a simple little microphone you can get pretty far with a lot of these sounds and it might not be 100% professional grade but it’s lots of fun.

Brian wanted a certain sound for his game SOURCE but couldn’t find anything that would fit so he went over to his cheap old Casio keyboard and used it as a MIDI controller and plugged it into his Mac through the USB. Then he used the program Logic Pro and was able to create the perfect sound after doing a bunch of takes. It was really fun and brought everything to life!

When to Add Sound Effects

Ike suggests putting them in pretty early, at least for the core game loop. He finds that it also helps set some landmarks. Having about 20 basic sounds like button clicks and bullets, even if they’re not great, can highlight key game play things very early is probably really helpful.

We’ve talked about the core gameplay loop, prototyping that core gameplay loop and adding the UI around that so that you really have a continuous experience – That’s a perfect time to add the sound.

When you add sound at this stage, something magical happens and suddenly the game feels more finished. Even if it’s not the perfect, right sound put it in anyway.

Another landmark or beacon as Ike like to call it, is before you hand your game over to someone, get some sound in there. The general consumer expects it and can’t overlook it.

The Video Game Soundtrack

Brian’s game SOURCE actually came from the soundtrack and that’s what really guided the artistic direction of the visuals of the game in case anybody’s curious why it looks the way it does.

It’s really hard to write your own soundtrack, so here’s some tips:

  • Look to a professional or a musician that does composition
  • Go to a website –  Audio Network – Amazing high quality soundtracks with cost ranges $100-$400
  • Especially mobile games, there’s potential to embrace player’s own music library and allow them to play their own music – has to be the right kind of game
  • Websites go by mood to find sounds – can act as a guide if end up hiring a professional
  • If find good sound guys, keep using them

One definition of being creative is being put in a box and actually trying to come out with something interesting and awesome. This is very true about sound guys. If you can find good sound guys keep using them. There’s a lot of people that can make sound, but not a lot of people that can create an emotion from their sound that plays perfectly to your visuals. Very valuable people.

A ballpark number would be somewhere around $800 for a 30 sec loop custom made by a top LA studio that also had movie and TV credits.

Or you can try to team-up with graduates or students who want to build up their portfolio and work out a deal like if they make the sound for free, you’ll put their name in the credits for example.

We’re big fans of if someone does work and they do good work, then compensate them for it. It’s not easy. So try to take core of the people that are helping you out with your productions. It’s also important to never burn bridges with people.

Trailers and Cinematics

Can approach in two ways:

  1. Create the action and have the sound match it
  2. Find the sound 1st then use that to fill in the tone and the pacing of the action

Both work fine, it depends on how you’re going to source the actual sound.

For SOURCE, Brian started with the soundtrack for the trailer. He used Adobe Premiere as the video editor and started by putting the soundtrack down then cutting up gameplay footage and laying in on top of the soundtrack while being mindful of the overall duration of the trailer. He ended up doing a bunch of design and implemented gameplay for the sake of the trailer.

The trailer was actually  driving development because it forces you to think about:

  • What is the story line?
  • How does this all roll out?
  • What’s the progression?
  • What are the arcs?

Putting it all together in a cinematic really helped and gave some great functionality that hadn’t planning on doing until further in the development.

The good thing about a song is it has a beginning, middle and an end. If the song has a peak to it and you don’t have any grand moments in your game – that’s a problem. It can help you fill in the picture.

Promotional Materials for Sony and Microsoft

They will ask for things with and with out sound effects. Sometimes they want something called ‘B Roll’ – which is straight gameplay, not edited it’s just a stream of someone playing.

It’s important to make sure there’s an easy way to turn your sound effects and your soundtrack on and off when doing your screen grabs. True for both the consumer and marketing reasons.

The Key To Sound Effects

Feedback 1st and Mood 2nd. It’s a combination of feedback and mood. Highly encourage using the rule of 3 with any key gameplay element: have the visual of the gameplay, the sound effect and the UI support all together on your core gameplay experience.

With SOURCE, did the opposite and started with mood and now have an extremely moody game.

How you approach that is going to have a big impact on your development and how you progress.


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Listen now to Game Design Dojo Episode #017



About Deanna McRae