Audio Special: Tailoring sound for devices

Audio Special: Tailoring sound for devices

By Richard Aitken

May 23rd 2013 at 10:00AM

Nimrod Productions' Richard Aitken discusses how to get your audio tuned for specific devices

I’ve been thoroughly fascinated by the meteoric rise of ‘device-based’ entertainment over the last few years.

Not only has its ubiquity appealed to my Kurzweil futurist “everybody’s online” side, it has provided intriguing challenges enabling audio to sound as great as older delivery mediums.

Helping audio to sound good (on an objective level) has been a challenge in sound recording since day one. Many of us in audio production have suffered the issue of something sounding great in the studio but not so great in the car. This has been greatly amplified (ho ho) with mobile phones and tablet/surfaces; devices are quite a challenge to mix audio for. Add to that the hideous compromise of trying to get everything working in an ITU-R 1770 BS-3 sort of way and the job is getting harder.

Getting the sound to ‘translate’ from the studio to the intended medium has always been a challenge. I have worked with dev tools for Game Boys or checked mixes on television sets or consumer hi-fi for console/PC games. Where access to dev tools has been missing I’ve ripped speakers out of systems to mix directly on them.

All in all, when working with the portable systems of the past, one had to either be a bit brutal with a screwdriver or be part of the team. That hasn’t been helpful for freelancers and outsourcers without access to development resources. It’s changing with the DIY approach one can take with devices such as iPhones.

An increasing amount of tools are available to outsourcers. In fact it feels very much like the “home studio revolution” is happening to game audio development. I think that’s a good thing.

Right tools for the job

Lately, I’ve been using a suite of tools to test a few games at Nimrod. I’ve become a fan of AirFoil Speakers (RogueAmoeba Software). It’s really helped to be able to fine-tune a few music mixes ‘live’. It’s a good solution for music but I’ve taken to using sampler systems for testing UI/SFX sounds. My current favourite is NanoStudio (BlipInteractive). It’s been very useful for testing multiple SFX launches in a way that a game would require and is excellent for sitting with a client running through a series of onsite tests without having to get rebuild done for each variant.

I’ve previously enjoyed testing FMOD sessions using the EngineAudio system for the iPhone simulator; I haven’t used it recently but I’m hopeful that some extensions will happen (hint hint) so that there is a simple way to get the engine running under test circumstances actually on the device.

Audiobus is something else that is making an impact in music circles. The possibilities for pipelining an audio test in a game build are promising. For composers to “feel” like the music is already implemented in game offers great development possibilities for audio folks.

With many mobile titles turning to Unity as a development tool I’m finding myself turning to Fabric (Tazman-Audio). The loudness metering options are useful and it would be great to see a Fabric audio test environment as an App on mobile devices.

Audio outcomes

One of the outcomes of using these more direct feedback tools is I’ve noticed the team have started to change how they approach, for example, SFX work. I’ve been very pleased to witness the speedy development simple solutions to complex audio clarity issues.

One that springs to mind is utilising quick ducking techniques rendered into the audio samples so that a leading sound is heard as the loudest initially and then leaves a tiny little bit of headroom for other sounds to fill in the gap. Subtle stuff but it really helps when you have oodles of missile sounds and explosions going off, all through a tiny speaker or headphones (speaker or headphones? ah the conundrum!).

I’m convinced of more and more useful tools coming to the fore as simple apps for all to use. One of the best features of many of the middleware audio engines is that they are available to download and experiment with.

This has been great to open up the tools to those not working on a project; we’re definitely removing more of the barriers to entry compared to many other industries. This next step in mobile device tools will only do more to help that cause.

To see other articles in our Audio Special series, visit our archive