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"Hi, this is Julian," says the fading voice on the phone. It's hard to hear him over the loud backdrop of machine guns and bullets ricocheting around his studio in San Rafael, California. As he finishes up his sound effects edits for America's Army, a highly realistic war-simulation video game, I seem to have interrupted his concentration at a critical moment.
"Hang on just one quick second . . . OK . . . there," he breathes out with a sigh and a click. "I needed to finish sending these ricochet sounds off so I can test the game's data footprint. This is a big project for us."
Julian Kwasneski and his staff of sound designers, composers, musicians, and engineers at Bay Area Sound (BAS) have worked on more big projects in the past ten years than most will in a lifetime. If you've played Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, James Bond, or any number of NBA, NFL, PGA, or NCCA console games, you've likely heard the music and sound effects of BAS. Even if you're not a gamer, you've probably heard one of the many film, TV commercial, public service announcement, and music soundtracks they've created along the way.
It's a somber sign of the times that Kwasneski's award-winning crew has been making more and more audio for war games in the past two years. But if anyone can keep an even keel when it comes to editing machine guns for a living, it's Kwasneski, who cut his teeth on Outlaws—one of the very first games with positional 3D audio—back in 1997. Somehow, every week, between his 60-plus hours at the studio, a very long commute, and his family, this affable Marin County creative finds time to jam with a "psychedelic rock meets Tears For Fears" band he's played with for the past 11 years.
"It's ridiculous that the U.S. ever thought of entering Iraq to 'win' anything," Kwasneski muses between bursts of the audio equivalent of molten shrapnel. "'Win' is a weird word that rarely applies to war."
With his ricochets muted and email delivered, Kwasneski—who honed his game audio skills at LucasArts for six years before cofounding Bay Area Sound with composer Clint Bajakian—has plenty to say about using computers to create realistic game audio.
When he's not recording gunshots, Julian Kwasneski is usually sitting right here—at his Digidesign Pro Tools and Control24 workstation.
Randy Alberts (RA): Tell me about working on America's Army.
Julian Kwasneski (JK): It's been a hugely successful multiplayer PC game the past two years, and we're working on the ported game-console version of it with 30 new missions added. I've been producing all the voiceover, sound, and music for the game, and the U.S. Army is officially involved with approving and shaping the audio and dialogue with us. We actually had Special Forces guys sitting in on our sessions, which was wild.
RA: They were actually in uniform in your studio?
JK: No, it wasn't that intense. But I must say working on America's Army has been a refreshing break from the exhausting amount of work we did on the Star Wars: Episode III game. It's great listening to these Army guys' stories over lunch because it really puts your own version of a bad day into a totally new perspective. One of the Special Forces guys is just in his early 30s, yet he's already fought in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Desert Storm. He recently returned for his second tour of duty in Iraq.
RA: Why were they sitting in on your sessions?
JK: Their whole reason for being there during our early developmental sessions was to listen to all the dialog in the game. They'd say, "Oh, no way, we would never say that . . . this is how you say that." Or, if I had a line of voiceover dialog like, "Hey, get me a medic!" or "I need a first-aid kit," they'd say, "No, no, no—it's called an 'aid bag.'" We learned a lot about military jargon on this project.
RA: Is America's Army so realistic that it's like a pretraining tool for gamers interested in joining the Armed Forces?
JK: Yes, it is. It's that real. To be honest, from the personal standpoint of, "Just what are we contributing to here?" it's been an interesting project for us all. Because this game is so realistic, it actually has a way of weeding out people who aren't really the best candidates to enlist. In the long run, that saves them a lot of time and taxpayers a lot of money.
A scene from America's Army, with audio by Bay Area Sound.
RA: Violence in games must be an old subject for BAS by now.
JK: Let's face it: The gaming world in general is always getting a lot of criticism for violence and potentially inciting violence. But after hearing these Army guys' stories, I think there's two sides to everything, including war. There are even positive benefits from those who buy and play games like these. It's really like the whole Night Stalker thing. It wasn't AC/DC's fault that one of their fans was a lunatic. If anything, I think a realistic video game will let some people, if not many, use a computer screen to safely get certain things out of their system without resorting to violence.
RA: Which came first for you: music or games?
JK: Oh, music, for sure. I was a kid playing around with two cassette decks dubbing back and forth and actually thinking I had invented multitrack recording! I thought, "God, if I could only just have four tape heads and four tapes, I could sync things together and then I'd have a multitrack recorder."
RA: What were some of your earliest music technology experiences like?
JK: Well, MIDI was introduced and then the early MIDI synths came out; that's when I had my first taste of working with a sequencer. I had an old Alesis MMT-8 [8-track hardware sequencer] and can even remember the first time I encountered an error message with it; that experience made me realize that there are actual human beings behind all this music technology. You know which one I'm talking about? That classic Alesis "Bummer, dude, memory full" error message.
It was a late session at two in the morning, and that was the exact moment for me when things really started to snowball with music technology. I realized that the person who had programmed that error code was a fellow musician just like me who even talked like me. Later on, I got deep into game audio and sound design once I escaped my earlier career as a Wall Street stockbroker.
RA: What is your digital audio workstation of choice?
JK: It's a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD Accel 2 system that's, of course, on a Mac. I'm totally an Apple fan and just bought a bunch more of their stock shares. I love the company and would actually love to use Logic Pro, too, but I've been using Pro Tools since it was Sound Designer [Digidesign's original 2-track digital audio program] and, even though they add new features to it all the time, for me it really hasn't changed at its core. I always "feel" like I'm in Pro Tools when I open every new version for the first time, whereas in some other DAW apps I feel like I've just entered a new ride at Disneyland with all the colored buttons and knobs and all.
Don't even try to separate Kwasneski from his Pro Tools.
RA: Do you run a Windows PC as well?
JK: Yep, it's right here—powered down. I might open it up this week to look at a build of America's Army, but that will be a rare use of a PC for me. I used them for years and am totally proficient on a PC, but I'm just such a huge Mac fan. Anyone who's using a PC for audio and music work, I just don't see how they can work that way. Obviously they do because there's a lot of really good games developed using only PC audio and music tools. But I'm such a Mac purist that I even go so far as to use Virtual PC to put all the new revs on my Xbox dev kit! I pride myself on rarely firing up my PC.
RA: What Pro Tools features are you liking lately?
JK: There's this thing I've been playing with called Workspace that I'm about to start using. It's basically like the Mac Finder, where you can go in and set up catalogs and have Workspace index all the sounds on your drives. It's a window that comes up when you go to the
Windows>Workspace menu in Pro Tools.
The bummer is that it searches the file names and the comments on a file, so unfortunately I didn't set up my database that way. For instance, if you have an AIFF sound file called "Explosion.aif" and your file comment for it says, "This explosion has a fantastic attack with a rumbling low end," Workspace searches for and finds that info and file, too. When you open it up you see all of your drives with triangles next to each volume. Just turn each triangle down and you'll see what's in each drive, just like the Finder.
What's cool about Workspace is that when you click on an audio file name it displays a mini waveform next to it. You just click on the waveform and boom—you audition a file. [Kwasneski triggers a light-saber sound effect.] Now, if you want to spot that sound into your Pro Tools session, Workspace will take that sound right from its directory and put it directly onto a track that can be spotted to different timecode locations.
Star Wars: Episode III on the Xbox—featuring audio by Bay Area Sound.
RA: I understand you're very active in giving feedback to audio software developers.
JK: Yes, but only if they're listening [laughs]. For example, I know that Digidesign wants to be more involved in game audio, which they already are just by default of most everyone using Pro Tools. Many people are using host-based alternatives along with Pro Tools for peripheral tasks, too, but if Digi could implement a few features—namely having to do with using huge numbers of files and processing a lot of files and being able to import scripts to do VO [voice-over] recording—that would be amazing. If they implemented just a few of these ideas, it would be invaluable to game developers and no one would need to use any host-based applications for those kinds of tasks.
I do have Apple's ear right now about game audio development, so maybe Logic might not be a bad idea further down the road for me. More and more game audio people are using Logic now, and I'm mainly biased towards Pro Tools because I've used it for so long. Apple's Logic project manager drove up here to talk with us, which speaks volumes.
RA: Speaking of BIAS, you've also been a longtime Peak user.
JK: Pro Tools is not the only place I spend time. I've been a Peak user since I helped beta-test version 2 for them way back in the '90s. BIAS is another great company that could really benefit from working closely with game people. I tell you, if someone were to take Peak away from what I'm doing every day with it for creating game audio, I would be F'd! That is about as succinct as I can make it.
RA: What plugins are you using in your game audio work?
JK: Mostly the staples. The Waves plugins—things like Renaissance Compressor. I'm about to get their Diamond Bundle, too. Waves is like the Pro Tools of plugins: if you're crafting a sound in your studio with Q10 [Waves' 10-band EQ plug-in], then no matter where you take that session, you know the studio is going to have Q10. Likewise, another studio might have Logic or Cubase or Performer on hand, but you know they're going to have Pro Tools.
I also use Serato's Pitch 'N Time a lot, and the Focusrite EQs are great. Beyond EQ, I don't use a plugin the way it's intended to be used. I have a real need for screwing things up, but in a predictable way, not just for the sake of screwing it up. I don't have as much time as I used to for experimentation. I also use Line 6's Amp Farm for all my radio voice processing, which we do a lot of in the war-sim games.
RA: Bay Area Sound has created dialog and ambient crowd audio for a lot of sports games, as well. What are those sessions like?
JK: For NBA Shootout 2004, we put out a call on Craigslist for voice actors and paid each $60 for two hours' work. For that first game we ended up recording all the crowd tracks at a frat house in Berkeley, and it turned out great! We recorded it in their living room with a remote recording rig.
It went so well that we told them we also had all these other games that we needed crowd cheers for. But the brutal part for the NCAA game [NCAA GameBreaker 2004] was that every single school or team has their own cheer, right? So first we had to research and learn each school's specific cheer. We ended up with this long list of school cheers: "Go Cal Go! Go Cal Go!" and so on.
RA: All recorded in that frat house?
JK: No, that's when we started using the big room at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The voice talent showed up and there we all were using just five channels of Fantasy's sweet, gigantic SSL console! It was great fun recording all those cheers as we hung out in that legendary studio with cappuccinos.
During a field audio capture session for America's Army, Kwasneski records gun shots into a high-resolution DAT recorder.
"For any game, but especially for America's Army, I do all the two-way radio dialog processing with Amp Farm," Kwasneski reveals. "I also use Bomb Factory's Cosmonaut Voice for that sometimes, but that one is a little too bent for my taste. It's a plugin that does nothing but bandpass something and put little squelch sounds at the end of each transmission—that 'ssszzzzcccrrrt' sound when the sender takes their finger off the transmit button.
"In Amp Farm, I can work with different amp models and different levels of gain, saturation, and drive, in order to create a slightly different sound for each unit's radio in the war game. But those sounds have to be similar because if they're too different, the players will notice that and wonder, 'Are the units using such different types of radios?' You hear that difference in a lot of war games these days and, to my taste, it's not realistic. That's something I learned from the Army guys when they were here. So now I fine-tune each radio voice just a little to give each unit's radio transmission its own character within those parameters."
Simulating two-way radio with a guitar amp plugin
The audio capabilities of game consoles like the Xbox rival dedicated digital audio workstations. Not so those of the kiddie consoles. "We produced the sound for Dora the Explorer for Leapster, the Gameboy-ish handheld toy," recalls Kwasneski. "It's Flash-based technology that uses very low-fidelity audio. For me, it was like going back to the earliest games I worked on. There are tricks you use to maximize high end where none exists! I call this technique 'perceptual EQing.'
"If you convert a sound file to 11kHz, your highest audible frequency is half that, 5,500Hz, because of the Nyquist Theorem. So if you crank up 5,400Hz thinking you'll squeeze out as much high end as possible, it will sound just horrific. For Leapster, it was even more horrific because they had their own compression algorithms to work within. So we took a bunch of files and converted them scientifically with all these different EQs, ran 'em through the compression, and then listened to what happened. That was how we derived our settings. It was a very time intensive process, but it worked.
"I'm having to do the same sort of perceptual EQ for America's Army now. A lot of times games like this just run out of room for the assets, so the first thing you do is head to the sound. The ceiling on America's Army is at 11k as well, but it's based on the Unreal game-sound engine. That's a really well-known engine, so, if you're a game sound developer, you just license their engine so you that you don't have to reinvent the wheel on every game."
Kwasneski's parameter settings in Waves' Q10 EQ plugin add psychological sparkle to a dull 11kHz sound.
These game music cues are by Bay Area Sound composer Jared Emerson-Johnson. Each MP3 opens in a new window.
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