Voices of Reason

Voices of Reason

By Phil Evans

June 1st 2011 at 9:30AM

Side's director Phil Evans offer some sage advice on the increased importance of choosing the right mic for the right voice actor

Take a step back 10 years into any sound studio recording games dialogue and you’re likely to find an actor standing relatively still in front of a high quality Neuman U87 mic, once considered ‘the’ mic for recording voice.

Look today and you’ll find a different story: shot gun mics like those used for location sound in film and TV, noise cancelling mics like those used by sports commentators, or lavellier mics like those used by theatre actors, to name a few.

Many audio leads already have ideas about which mics they like to use, or the developer or publisher may have strict technical specs that they have been conforming to for years.

But in this fast moving, creative industry, dialogue recording has become more than a matter of placing the same old mic in front of an actor. And at Side we believe that the range of techniques available to the recording engineers of today, need to be viewed as an integral part of the ‘creative’ process; and considered at a much earlier stage of production than on the day of recording.

IN GOOD VOICE

Actors often talk about the challenge of working in computer games: of acting alone, without props or costumes, and generally without being able to move from the mic. And these are considerations that the audio creatives of our industry should be tackling head on. The way dialogue needs to sound in game, and the effect a mic choice or recording technique can have on an actor’s performance, should be in the forefront of any audio team’s mind.

Much has been written about the value of performance capture in achieving more convincing and engaging performances from actors, and few in the industry would dispute that this is usually the case. The combined benefit of the actors working together, with the freedom of movement that a lavellier or boom operated shotgun mic offers, is recognised by actors and directors alike as breathing considerable life into the characters being played.

But although these qualities are being recognised on the performance capture sound stage, the same principles are rarely being transferred to the vocal booth. Some argue that the audio quality of the lavellier mics often used, is not comparable to that of a classic voice over mic, and so should not be used in the booth. But chosen well and positioned correctly, they can not only produce a sound that mixes pretty seamlessly into the game, but more importantly they give actors the ability to move in a way they simply can’t with a fixed position mic. And the dynamic performances that this can create in the booth, can be quite dramatic.

In games such as Ninja Theory’s Enslaved the engineers at Side used lavellier mics in the booth to complement their use on the performance capture sound stage. This not only gave continuity in the sound of the dialogue throughout the game but offered Andy Serkis and the rest of the cast the freedom of movement they desired. And when recording the cast together, their ability to turn to face each other and draw on each others’ reactions really inspired each performance.

SECOND NATURE

Recently, while still at the audition stage of one game, we found that the actors were having difficulty grasping the incredibly naturalistic style of performance the game required. So we emulated the real life environment, opting for a headset mounted mic with the appropriate radio comms filter feeding back to the actors’ headphones. The actors could instantly feel what it was we were looking for and tuned their performances accordingly. And with the right man cast for the job, the project was recorded in the same way.

DICE is one developer that has been advocating such context based ideas for some time in their Battlefield titles, like recording battle shouts outside rather than in the vocal booth. They confidently affirm the improvement on both sound quality in relation to context and on actor performance.

In filmed facial capture sessions, the audio team is often working with a static camera in the vocal booth. Keeping the mic out of shot is easily overcome by using a shotgun mic, which can record the actor from a greater distance than a traditional ‘voice over’ mic. And being used regularly for film and TV location shoots, the sound they produce is one that mixes well into 3D environments.

It seems clear that the context of the audio in game, the way the dialogue mixes into game environments and perhaps more crucially the effect this has on the performances gained from the actors are all matters that must be considered before embarking on dialogue recording. With the increased use of experienced script writers and directors in our games it is vital that the technical audio team bring added value too.

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