John Broomhall gets down on the carpet to find out what makes Sony’s virtual pet squeal…
As music manager for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Alastair Lindsay has a unique role. Working out of the London Studio as part of SCEE’s Creative Services Group, not only does he pen the tunes for selected projects, he also supervises all commissioned music, acting as a middle man between composers and project teams. After advising on budgets and composer selection, he manages the schedule, acting as a single point of contact and support for hired tunesmiths.
One of the most important services he provides to dev teams is establishing creative direction and a definition of music cues they require. “Using temp tracks and reference I help them get a clear idea of music style and what it has to ‘say’; the mood or character,” he says. “With that in place, matching a composer is relatively straightforward. Then I determine the exact requirements – how much music and where it’s placed – so the team have a clear idea of what to expect. I get the composer to meet the team, and look over game materials like storyboards, artwork, and the script, for example, so they really understand the flavour we’re after.”
Practising what he preaches, Lindsay began work on EyePet’s music score in late 2007 by listening to a tonne of reference music, creating a proposed sound palette and music style guide for the team appropriate for an augmented reality virtual pet game.
“It was clear from the outset that the core music should have an intimate sound, so the dominant instrument I chose was steel-stringed acoustic guitar – some of which was recorded live, with the rest using Real Guitar and Akkord Guitar from the Kontakt library. The style is drawn from folk, pop, funk, jazz and soul, focusing on simple harmonies and strong melodies with a lot of triplet time and swing groove to add to the happy, playful vibe. Along the way I recorded myself beatboxing and even some whistling made it in, which great for adding human feel without introducing vocals or lyrics. As an added bonus we recorded a live horn section for the title theme and a couple of other cues, which meant brushing up on Sibelius to get the parts ready,” he says.
“Compositionally, the main challenge was ‘Open Play’ where gameplay time and type is indeterminate – you can interact with your EyePet, introduce an object for him to play with or, if you stay still, he’ll fall asleep. The team didn’t want it musically blank because the sound FX are fairly minimal, so I eventually settled on a simple interactive music system with three levels of intensity – idle being the lowest, the next level reflecting some movement and the highest level for where your EyePet’s very active, jumping around and excited. It works very well with really smooth natural-sounding tempo-synced transitions. Musically the lowest level is steel string guitar and a smattering of electric piano, then moving up you also get some bass and percussion and the top intensity level adds all the drum parts.“
For implementation, Lindsay used SCEE’s smart in-house tool, a customised version of Acid Pro. “You need a tool that looks familiar to audio people that you can use to define sections and set-up interactive replay parameters,” he explains. “It has some powerful functionality. You can decide how long transitions will last on a per-track basis and define how motifs and stingers play over the main tracks. We work at 48kHz in 16- or 24-bit, but on export from the tool everything’s converted to MP3, usually 128kbps. We can also handle 5.1 and 7.1 mixes in MP3, and we encourage surround formats for many projects.”
As audio lead, Lindsay also had to grapple with the thorny problem of vocal ‘emotes’ for the EyePet himself. “We wanted to keep it animal-like vocally, but one of the activities you can do threw a spanner in the works was teaching him to sing simple melodies which he can then sing back to you. To start with, the human voice sounded too human to me and I was adamant it should all match up credibly as one ‘voice’. Thankfully, our external sound designer found the right combination using a quirky real human voice mashed up with animal source recordings.”
As well as three hours of music, EyePet features thousands of sound effects for the numerous activities, many of which are physics-based and highly abstract – for example, rolling and scraping a virtual toy car made of paper or cloth. But throughout, the team has managed to stay faithful to the original mantra – ‘playful and happy, but not cartoony’ – and the end result is a well-rounded, audio experience that cannot help but make you smile.