Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist to overseeing the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive. In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam and other members of SomaTone talk about using sound to improve a game.
Great games have great audio. Developers who focus and execute on high quality and attention to detail know that audio adds high production value to the overall experience for a relatively low cost. With a plethora of choices flooding the digital marketplace, great game sound is that “secret sauce” that can make mobile games and apps stand out.
Well-conceived and expertly executed game audio contributes mightily toward delivering an immersive and engaging experience that can feel much bigger than the small mobile device nestled in a player’s hands. The name of the game for us as creative partners is to focus on effectively creating and incorporating original music, sound design, and VO into the mobile experience so that players keep coming back for more.
To this end, here’s what some members of SomaTone’s creative team have to say about using sound to make great games.
1.Understand the importance of game sound, and treat audio production NOT as something that comes last in the pipeline, but rather an important component of game design that should be thought out creatively and technically from the inception of your game.
—Eric Van Amerongen, Senior Sound Designer
2. Establish a clear idea of what the creative style and aesthetic of the audio should be and define important delivery milestones.
—Ollie Glatzer, Audio Producer
3. Pay attention to detail and keeping that in line with an overall, inspired vision.
—Michael Bross, Chief Creative Officer
4. Creative and effective integration – You can have the greatest SFX on the planet, but if they’re not playing back correctly, or mixed just right, the audio experience won’t be good.
—Ben Gabaldon, Sr. Sound Designer
5. Passion! Pre Production! Strive for a cohesive, focused audio experience. The audio should be engaging and captivate the players to want more.
—Ben Brown, VP Business Development
Sound and music truly make visual entertainment come alive. Fun, memorable moments that we experience when playing our favorite games are often tied to a great character line, or a catchy melody, or a sound effect that thrills. Savvy game makers know this, and whether the project is a new slots game or a point-and-click survival horror game, smart developers use sound and music to deliver more entertainment value to the audience.
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist, then serving as a composer and sound designer in the burgeoning multimedia industry in the early 90’s—“before anyone knew what a video game sound designer even was,” as he put it—followed by sound and music director positions at Interplay, Electronic Arts, and Shiny Entertainment. During his tenure as Senior Director at Activision from 2006 – 2011, Adam established and managed both the Central Audio and Central Talent teams supporting work on major franchises. In 2011, he launched Levenson Artists Agency, providing representation to clients such as celebrity composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe. Now, Adam oversees the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive.
In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam examines how new sensorial technologies can take the immersive gameplay experience to heightened and even more engaging levels of player fascination and enjoyment.
Immersificationnoun \i-ˈmərs-ə-fə-ˈkā-shən\: the process of creating enhanced involvement in a particular activity
In 1974, the blockbuster disaster film Earthquake wowed movie theater audiences with Sensurround effects. Low frequency sounds were pumped through big Cerwin-Vega subwoofers that sent vibrations through the seats during the film’s tremor scenes. It physically involved theatergoers in the drama and, like an amusement park ride, the result was thrilling. In some theaters, Sensurround effects sent pieces of ceiling plaster falling into the audience and shook seats in neighboring theaters showing The Godfather Part II. Sensurround was audience immersion on an epic scale, a bold experiment in producing a multi-sensorial experience.
Now, 40 years later, consumers of mobile interactive entertainment are also seeking deeper engagement. Giant leaps in display technology have provided intensely vivid visual experiences, but humans have five senses, and with the advent of sophisticated digital devices with built-in functionality to stimulate those sensations, it’s now up to content creators to take full advantage and rock audiences in their virtual theater seats.
The Apple iPad Air features dual microphones, Amazon’s Fire Phone sports dynamic perspective, and Samsung Galaxy smartphones include tactile feedback. These are just a few of the offerings in the development of recent mobile technologies that provide sensory engagement. Although both smell and taste are primary and essential senses, there isn’t much being done with olfactory and gustatory digital transmissions (putting experiments such as Smell-O-Vision and Nokia’s Scentsory Phone aside). Maybe that’s OK. But entertainment technologies and content designed to stimulate hearing and touch are engaging consumers, and a resurgence of virtual reality points to a trend towards greater immersification.
Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation.
Dolby has always been at the leading edge of sound technologies that improve sound quality and envelope the listener. Even on smartphones, Dolby Digital Plus delivers virtualized surround sound through headphones or even with built-in mobile device speakers. This opens the door for app and video game developers to provide a more engaging experience. Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation. That starts with developing rich audio environments, including layers of ambient sound, music, voice performances, and specific sound effects to make all the game mechanics come to life.
Despite recent advances, music in games generally plays in a linear manner, just like it did when Edison invented the phonograph cylinder in the 19th century. Amazingly, visionaries in music technology have been working on concepts in “real-time composition” since the 90’s. It has been called many names like computational music and algorithmic composition, and much of this research has been academic. With vastly increased processing power, new devices may soon present an opportunity to implement fully responsive music. Music adds an emotional dimension that makes us laugh out loud at funny scenes, jump out of our seats when surprised, or get choked up during sad dialog. How much more immersive would a Star Wars game experience be if the score could build and sting with each dramatic Jedi lightsaber hit?
On one hand, the virtuality of new smartphone and tablet interfaces promotes a whole new physical language of gestures. We can push, swipe, sweep, and slide. But on the other hand, we lose the satisfaction of getting real world physical feedback when we perform the gesture. We type, press buttons, turn pages, move objects, throw switches, but for the most part, we don’t feel anything. In our mobile entertainment, explosions, cars racing by, or feats of strength that we experience visually lack any sense of physicality. Haptics technology changes all of that. Haptic effects are touch or tactile feedback events produced by actuators (a kind of motor) integrated into our devices. Video game console controllers have used haptic type feedback, or rumble effects, for years. But with newer technologies from companies like Immersion, users feel customized force or resistance as they perform virtual activities. Sensing the impact of a soccer ball kick, the recoil of a gun, or the mechanical click of a button push brings the experience to life, providing a deep level of immersification.
By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion.
Although VR still calls to mind images of disoriented people at 90’s tech conferences stumbling around in bulky headsets, advances in virtual reality technology have reinvigorated consumer interest. Earlier this year, Facebook acquired innovators Oculus VR for $2 billion – imagine simulated social networking, and the motivation for the acquisition becomes clear. By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion. The potential applications for VR range from therapeutic uses, to military training, to entertainment media, and beyond. Although VR doesn’t currently have the portability and accessibility of more mobile technologies, the renewed interest and innovation in the field do reflect growing consumer demand for immersification of our digital experiences.
Contemporary immersion relies on rich creative content like engaging stories, great music, impactful sound, and believable physics. Developers and publishers that incorporate those elements into their entertainment media have already taken the first step towards immersion. New technologies allow for the completed, multi-sensorial experience without the inconvenience of falling ceiling plaster.
The thrilling part is, it all just keeps getting more and more immersive.
Rich Vreeland, more commonly known as Disasterpeace, has always had a passion for music. After playing the guitar throughout childhood and his teenage years, Vreeland pursued his interest in music by going to Berklee College of Music. After college, Vreeland interned at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab where he worked on the puzzle games Waker and Woosh. This experience would not only further solidify his love for music and gaming, he would use this experience to build a career designing sound and music for videogames.
GameSauce was recently able to interview Disasterpeace about his background, his experience at MIT Game Lab, working on Bomberman, developing January, crafting the soundtrack for Fez, and his general thoughts on music in gaming.
Beginning of Disasterpeace
Rich Vreeland always had a love for music. As a teenager, he was into “Nu Metal and pretty much anything that was guitar heavy and riff oriented,” with two of his favorite bands at the time being Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It was around this time that Vreeland became interested in videogame music. One of the first projects to truly get Vreeland’s attention was Metroid Metal – a website dedicated to the soundtrack of the Metroid videogame franchise.
It was also during his teenage years that Vreeland created the name that many know him by: Disasterpeace. Coined in 2004, Vreeland says, “Disasterpeace came out of ‘masterpiece’, and I changed piece to peace to give it an additional meaning, in the sense that disaster and peace are sort of diametrically opposed to one another.” It is a name that Vreeland not only feels accurately represents his approach to music and sound, it is the name that Vreeland would take with him through college and into his professional career.
Vreeland began his college career in 2006 at Berklee College of Music and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Music Synthesis. Due to Berklee being located in Boston, Massachusetts, and his interest in videogame music, Vreeland eventually learned of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Game Lab and its internship opportunities. Vreeland was able to earn an audio intern at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.
Getting into Gaming – MIT’s Game Lab
Taking place from June 2009 to August 2009, Vreeland’s internship at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab involved him being placed into a team that, as he told GameSauce, “worked together to create games that solved specific educational problems.” One game that his team created “attempted to help teach math concepts like acceleration and velocity.” Moreover, he continued, they “created two versions as a side effort to determine if narrative had any impact on the success of such an experience.”
“But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”
Vreeland’s experience at MIT’s Game Lab also made it clear to him that music is his skill. “Music is what I do best…, so it’s been a relatively easy choice for me to keep music as my primary focus.” It was a realization that confirmed his passion and cemented his desire to pursue a career in game music and sound design. His experience also taught him the importance of exploring areas outside of his comfort zone while keeping in mind his strengths. “I don’t have any qualms exploring areas that I’m not comfortable or the best in,” says Vreeland, “But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”
This internship proved to be more than just a line on his resume, but rather an experience that would help him throughout his career. “Above and beyond anything else, I think I learned a lot about working with others in a creative environment,” he says.
Approach to Sounds, Music, and Franchise Games
After his internship, Vreeland went on to write music for games such as Bomberman Live: Battlefest and Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. During this time, he learned how a work environment could affect his creativity. “As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want,” says Vreeland. “Large teams tend to have layers of abstraction which make it difficult to communicate with others at times, and to get the right piece of information from the right person.”
“As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want.”
In regards to his work on Bomberman Live, a franchise that has been around since the 1980s, Vreeland remembers how he and his colleague aimed to honor “the aesthetic style of the more recent games by creating music that was high fidelity but had lots of ‘gamey’ charm and energy.” He does admit, however, that he “would have liked to have paid more tribute to the older games,” but was more focused on meeting the required standards.
Vreeland learned during this time that his approach to sound design had to differ from job to job. “Developers want you to handle most of the conceptual legwork yourself, which is great fun, but other times, they want to work more closely with you,” he explains. Overall, he feels that a significant aspect of designing a game’s sound is letting the person with the “strongest vision for the work” lead you through the design. An example of this was his next project: designing sound for Fez.
Released in April 2012, Fez is a puzzle/platform game created by Phil Fish and developed by Fish and his company, Polytron. First announced in July 2007, the highly anticipated game took much longer than expected to be built. Upon the game’s release, Fez was not only met with critical and commercial success, its soundtrack was also well-received. It was so well-received that the soundtrack could be purchased, and an official remix version has been released.
Though Fez became known for its long development time, Vreeland only joined the project after the game’s visuals were established. “When I joined the project, the game’s visuals were largely set in place,” he says. “All that was left was figuring out how the levels worked together, some mechanical adjustments and lots of tweaking, as far as I can tell.” As such, Vreeland and Fish instead focused on how to develop a soundtrack that complimented the game’s unique mechanics.
Originally, he and Fish discussed using music that “tapped into the mechanics”. “It turned out to not really make much sense, so we ended up taking a more traditional approach,” Vreeland says. However, Vreeland pointed out that “one area in which the music takes advantage of the structure of the game is in the fact that the game is highly modular, and in some places, the music is as well.” Vreeland described this aspect as “layers com[ing] in and out and the music shifts as you move through various levels that are similar, but different.”
Snowflakes and Music – Developing January
Prior to working on Fez, Vreeland had been playing with ideas for games that would allow him to strengthen his programming skills. After finding a tutorial in Flixel on how to make Space Invaders in Actionscript 3, Vreeland felt that it would be the perfect opportunity to make a game about falling snow. This game concept eventually evolved into January.
Centering on a person outside while it’s snowing, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note. “In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was going to be a strictly music-related experience, but that is sort of how it evolved as I got deeper and deeper into the code and trying to see what I could do with it.” As such, it is a game that uniquely displays how gameplay can be utilized to create original music.
The Shift to Mobile
Being involved in games, Vreeland noticed the significant change in consumer habits that is affecting all aspects of the gaming industry: the shift from consoles to mobile devices. Though this reallocation of consumers has impacted those that code and design games, Vreeland feels that “the difference between these two is still tantamount. In the beginning, I was writing music for cell phone games as MIDI files to be delivered, so in that regard, things have converged a bit.”
However, he doesn’t view mobile devices as having the hardware needed to a sound experience comparable to consoles.“Cell phones still have terrible speakers, and oftentimes, you have to adjust your sound and how it’s mixed accordingly so that it doesn’t get washed out by low frequency content that it simply cannot handle.”
Looking Back – Lessons Learned and Future Goals
During his time as a videogame music producer, Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has. “I think seeing people experiment and create music that has so many nonlinear possibilities has given me a lot of perspective about music that I didn’t have before,” Vreeland reflected. “When paired with other media, it can really take you places you wouldn’t even think to go, and that’s one of the things that I think is so great about games and music in games.” Though he is amazed by the near limitless potential of games and music, Vreeland pointed out that “there are a lot of times at the end of the day that I still just want to listen to a good record. It’s funny that way.”
Vreeland is currently working on other several projects, with the next game to be released featuring his music being Cannon Brawl. In addition to making games, Vreeland wants to continue to develop his potential as a musician. “I really want to explore some different spaces, work my way into areas that are not all necessarily game related,” says Vreeland. “I really want to make some traditional albums, because it’s something I’ve been flirting with for years but have never done.” He has also become interested in scoring, an interest he describes as “refreshing and requires an entirely different set of parameters to accomplish.” Overall, though Vreeand doesn’t know exactly where his love of music will take him, he does know what he wants: “to be doing music-related things for a long, long time.”
“If we think of mixing [music] as a journey, which it really is, goals help us stay on the proper path and headed in the correct direction,” said Jeff Tolbert during his session, The Goals of Mixing, at Casual Connect USA. “They also help us step back and stay focused on the big picture and not get lost in the details.” He advises, “Think of a goal like a compass: helps keep you oriented in the right direction and it helps you make those re-orientations, those course corrections, faster and more easily.”
The next few years will see game music becoming even more interactive and more generative. There is nothing wrong with loops, but I would love to play a game where the music was slightly different every time it’s played.
As sole proprietor of Jeff Tolbert Film & Videogame Scoring, Jeff Tolbert must spend as much time marketing as composing. Fortunately, as one who has been self-employed for many years, he has networking and promotional experience that he uses every day. His free time is spent watching movies, playing games and playing, thinking about, and writing music. Since he has to write music in many different genres, he has no particular favorite, but he does listen to a lot of film scores.
From Film to Game
Because Tolbert is used to writing film scores, he finds composing for games a fun change. He feels the biggest challenge in the games industry is the non-linearity of game play, but he certainly doesn’t want this to change. His response to this challenge is to continue to write and learn and grow as a composer.
He asserts, “Nothing succeeds like experience!”
Tears at Benaroya
When his piece “Electron Boy” was performed by a 50-piece orchestra in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, Tolbert experienced the proudest moment of his career.
He tells us, “It made my father cry, which doesn’t happen very often.”
From Art to Music
The biggest challenge he has faced in his career was having the courage to make the switch from graphic design to composing while in his mid-30s. His passion for music and the desire to compose music for films and games helped him make it through the uncertainty he felt about his talents, as well as a number of lean years.
Interactive Generative Composition is Too Cool
Tolbert is hoping the next few years will see game music becoming even more interactive and more generative. While there is nothing wrong with loops, he would love to play a game where the music was slightly different every time it’s played. The technology already exists, but as more resources are made available to the music game to make it work, it will hopefully become more common.