Lend us your ears: The benefits of audio outsourcing

Lend us your ears: The benefits of audio outsourcing
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 2nd 2016 at 10:45AM

Audio outsourcers may seem like another service devs have to splash out on, but it’s more akin to bringing in extra – and specialised – staff

Audio production can be extremely time-consuming and demands significant resources if you want your game to sound as good as it looks.

As such, a plethora of companies have risen over the years dedicated to audio outsourcing. But why do developers even need their support in an age of accessible audio tools such as Fmod and Wwise?

“Full-scale industry-standard audio production facilities are expensive to purchase and maintain, so it often makes financial sense to hire an audio outsource company,” says Sounding Sweet MD Ed Walker. “Developers are able to keep their internal headcount consistent, while also benefitting from our expertise, equipment and studio facilities.”

93 Steps co-founder Francesco Libralon adds that audio specialists may have more range than in-house teams: “If devs want to create music and sound across any genre and mood they would need several composers and sound designers. This would be really expensive compared to collaborating with an audio company.”

INSIDER KNOWLEDGE

Visit any audio firm’s website and you’ll be confronted with reams of information on the services they offer – but what should developers demand? 

“The developer is the boss and we outsourcers are the employees,” says Solid Audioworks audio director Will Morton. “You have to do what needs to be done, get the best result and do it promptly.”

Many outsourcers stress that they come from development backgrounds, and therefore not only know what studios expect but are also able to fit into their workflows.

“We can either act as an overflow to your own audio team, or alternatively, we are also very capable of taking on larger chunks of work, or whole projects, depending on what is required,” says The Audio Guys’ audio consultant Tim Bartlett.

If devs want to create music and sound across any genre and mood they would need several composers and sound designers. This would be really expensive compared to collaborating with an audio company.

Adele Cutting (pictured left), director of Soundcuts, adds: “We are creatives but also, and key to the client, a service provider.”

She goes on to observe that the ongoing democratisation of games development technology also enables audio firms to match developer practices.

“On many games, we have a build, audio middleware and, for some teams, we’ll have the Unity/Unreal engine to add the sounds as devs would in-house,” she says. “At the start of the game, we’ll go in and discuss toolsets that may be needed to help add audio to the game like animation editors.”

93 Steps’ co-founder Lorenzo Scagnolari agrees, adding: “Middleware that helps companies like ours to integrate audio directly inside devs’ projects are quite a solid reality nowadays. More developers are using these middleware solutions, thanks to price drops for the licences.

“This is definitely helping outsourcing companies like us to give developers a complete and also affordable service: from the beginning of production to the very end.”

That said, Morton believes audio outsourcers have to work hard to keep ahead of the curve in terms of technology – primarily because the vast majority of developers can’t afford to do so.

“We have to be fluent in using every piece of software and middleware on every platform, which enables us to hit the ground running when it comes to helping a company with their project,” he says.

Of course, the continuing improvement of audio technology means the gap between what studios and outsourcers are capable of won’t become too wide. 

Andrea Ballista, audio director at Keywords Studios, says the rising adoption of DAWs and middleware integration will help with this: “We’re already moving in that direction, integrating existing tools with proprietary tools, creating a unique mix of solutions each of our partner.”

 

Outsourcers help devs achieve much higher quality sound, such as real recordings of environments and vehicles 

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

To get the most out of any partnership with audio producers, the outsourcers need to know as much as they can about your game.

“It’s usually great to get as many references as possible from the very beginning,” says Scagnolari (pictured right). “These references don’t have to be only audio ones. Artistic sketches like artworks or plot samples will get us deeply into the project itself.”

Nimrod Productions’ MD Richard Aitken says a studio visit can be extremely beneficial: “You’ve no idea how much quicker a trailer mix comes together when you’ve been invited to come and sit in-house for a few days.”

Not quite sure what you need from your game’s audio? Fret not.

“If you are not sure what you want and need, but know you can’t do it in-house, and don’t have time to pour over the possibilities, then ask us to come and have a chat, and we can discuss the best way between us,” says Bartlett. “Or maybe just give us a build, some docs, and a rough remit, and ask us to tell you what you need.”

We have to be fluent in using every piece of software and middleware on every platform, which enables us to hit the ground running when it comes to helping a company with their project.

Don’t be surprised if audio outsourcers suggest alterations to your game’s sound, even if you have a thorough brief. Crucially, creative control remains in the hands of the studio.

“Tweaks and changes should be expected,” says Aitken. “A good audio professional knows how to get the audio the client requires; it’s not just about writing a great tune, but about helping the game developer realise their artistic and commercial vision.”

BEING OPEN

As with service providers in many sectors, audio firms stress the need for constant and open communication.

“Communication is king,” says Ballista. “The engagement level between producers needs to be extremely high, not only at the beginning, but during the whole project, so that we can bring the original development vision into the international development scenario.”

Aitken predicts that, as the quality bar continues to rise, more devs will turn to outsourcers for their audio needs.

“As the games industry moves ever more toward a ‘film-style’ business model – where production staff are largely specialists and on the books as permanent house salaries – we will see the requirement for deep production experience come to the fore,” he says.

“The people in audio land are some of the most creative and inspiring people I’ve met in games. I’m astounded on a regular basis with some of the creative artistic developments in audio. Game audio tech and creativity is leading the sound world in all media.”

A good audio professional knows how to get the audio the client requires; it’s not just about writing a great tune, but about helping the game developer realise their artistic and commercial vision.

SOUND OF THE FUTURE

Virtual reality presents new challenges for audio creation and is often touted as crucial to a comfortable VR experience. Fortunately, outsourcers are embracing this new technology.

“With the increased momentum behind virtual reality leading to more players experiencing game audio through headphones, we are extremely excited to see the potential increase of focus upon the overall audio experience,” says Sounding Sweet’s Ed Walker. “Not only will this potentially increase the number of games exploring advanced immersive audio technology, such as binaural audio, but with faster CPUs comes the increased scope for generative sound synthesis at a runtime level, taking us beyond traditional sampling methods.

“This allows for the development of procedural audio which scales accurately from frame-to-frame with precise sync across all game animations, therefore completely eliminating the typical aural fatigue that is encountered via standard asset repetition with basic modulation. These technological audio advances are leading to developers investing in high quality audio, both from their internal audio teams and outsource partners.”

Solid Audioworks’ Will Morton adds: “Audio tech normally progresses smoothly, so it’s usually easy to adapt to developments in audio tech, but VR is so completely new that everyone had to start with a clean slate. The tech still feels in its infancy, but already people are getting amazing results. We’re really excited to see where it goes, especially seeing as developments move faster as more people adopt the tech.”

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special. Article originally published in our Augsut 2016 issue.