Total Immersion EffectsSURROUND LIBRARIES ENHANCE GAME DEVELOPMENT 2/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
Feeling surrounded by sound libraries? If so, you're probably not alone. The number of packages seems to be growing by the day, and with good reason: Elite collections offer their users an express path to high-quality music and sound effects.
If there is relatively uncharted territory in this space, however, it is in the category of 5.1 surround sound effects (FX) libraries. There are only a handful of surround library products, as opposed to the thousands of collections designed to fit just two speakers. Although libraries have long been useful for cinematic and an increasing number of HDTV productions, videogame developers are one example of a user base who have created a demand for specialized collections.
At Midway (www.midway.com), the publisher of such popular gaming titles as Stranglehold, Big Buck Hunter and Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am, Marc Schaefgen holds two titles: worldwide audio director of Midway Home Entertainment and studio audio director of Midway Studios Austin. “The beauty of pre-encoded surround sound effects is that when you do fast things like trailers, bumpers and quick video snippets, they're fast, easy to go to and you can get really cool surround effects in a short amount of time,” he says. “That's often preferable to our team starting with a bunch of mono files and creating a huge thing; instead, you can get three to five mono surround elements from a library and have something pretty quickly. In short-turnaround projects, it definitely helps that libraries have cool elements that people are looking for: swishes, explosions, interesting electrical effects and slow-mo sounds that enhance the reality or unreality, if you will.”
Gearbox Software (www.gearboxsoftware.com) has released such titles as Aliens, Halo and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. The company's audio director, Ed Lima, is in agreement with Schaefgen that surround sound FX libraries, while powerful, at this point are far more useful for in-game cinematic sequences than they are in game-play situations. “We use 5.1 effects libraries when simulating traditional post techniques — pre-rendered or post-cut scenes — where the imaging is ‘baked in’ to a fixed camera/listener perspective,” says Lima. “However, they don't work for us in soundscapes that are being made while your playing is being generated by the game's avatar, listening with a 6-channel ear in real time.
“For example, you might be walking through a forest with a river to the left and birds to the right, with a bad guy running at you and remaining in the foreground,” he contnues. “If you turn to the right, everything shifts 90 degrees, but I can't use a sound effect there with a pre-configured surround or stereo placement. That's why developers use them in non-cut scenes' pre-rendered video, but not during gameplay.”
While mind-bending sounds might capture attention for other types of libraries, Lima says that an outstanding 5.1 effect may very well be one that doesn't stand out. “In this category, I would look for something useful without a lot of unique character,” he says. “I prefer something fairly static and minimal due to the fact that we would have spent so much time making our own custom assets. A monster we build has to have a custom sound, and we want to make associations between that and the experience; that's why we want something vanilla for the forest scene and then have something custom for the game at large. I would be less interested in relying on something signature that comes out of the box, having spent a lot of time and money on the custom sound.
“Generic and vanilla also get me something else for free, which is easy loopability,” Lima continues. “I want something that will run for an incredibly long time, if necessary. Something that's less interesting right off the needle drop lends itself to that. The result will hopefully still draw you in, but I'm also layering. I can't have just a turnkey drone because folks will recognize it, but by building layers, again, we're able to leverage the custom assets that we've built for the game.”
For Schaefgen, who makes use of collections like Midway's recently acquired Revolver library from Blastwave FX, sample size and its place in the frequency spectrum are two constant considerations. “You have to constantly balance how large the resource will be in terms of memory streaming bandwidth,” he explains. “We also often go down to quad instead of 5.1. Our first-person shooter game Blacksite: Area 51 is a good example of why. So much of the action happens right in front of you — in the center channel — that we take ambiences out of that center channel, and for LFE [low-frequency FX] we use spot-mono LFE as opposed to bass, which is bass-managed in the user system.”
“If I know there's going to be a lot of explosions or deep things going on, I'll go for a shriller kind of wind for the exterior ambience,” Lima adds. “I might pick some nice winds, but if they have a deep 100Hz sublayer, I'll probably end up using EQ to carve that out.”
When it comes to the technical particulars, Lima names fairly up-to-the-minute preferences. “I'd rather have 96kHz than 48, 24-bit rather than 16; the highest-quality original sound source we can get is ideal,” he says. “Hard drive delivery is also ideal.”
After all that, of course, videogame developers are also painfully aware that they must look beyond their armed-to-the-teeth audio suites and into the messy basements of their customer base. “This will sound like a step backward,” says Lima, “but one of the things we have to contend with in the game is that only a small percentage of our users have a properly configured 5.1 setup. We often spend a lot of times verifying that our surround mixes fold down to stereo properly by checking them on headphones, near-field monitors, TVs, earbuds — all manner of 2.0 and 2.1 setups. One of the best things engineers on the authoring side of 5.1 effects libraries can say about their product is ‘easy fold-down.’ Don't introduce anything that can phase out or phase-augment. Not surprising me when I knock it down to 2.0 is the biggest favor you could do for me.”
With all of the demands that users require from a surround sound effects library, companies are responding in kind — releasing new offerings every year. Here is a look at what is currently on the market; companies are listed in alphabetical order.
A new arrival on the scene is Blastwave FX (www.blastwavefx.com), headed up by veteran sound designer Ric Viers and his gang from the Detroit Chop Shop, rolling in with its new 5.1 surround sound production elements collection Revolver. Distributed by Pro Sound Effects (www.prosoundeffects.com), Revolver is an all-in-one set of 1,000 hi-def 5.1 surround sound imaging elements, compositions, drones and trailers on six DVDs. All sounds were originally recorded at 24-bit, 96k, and then delivered as 24-bit, 48k broadcast WAV files, along with iTunes-compatible reference MP3 files.
All Blastwave collections, including Revolver, are Click N' Drag
De Wolfe Music (www.dewolfe.co.uk) offers a four-CD collection, Renaissance 5.1. A digital 24-bit, 48kHz remastering of the company's original surround sound collection, the release's process was accomplished through use of Renaissance Sound Technology's proprietary psychacoustic software applications. Collections include World Ambiences, Sounds From Nature, Special Environments and Subwoofer FX.
In April of 2008, film score composer and sound designer Frank Serafine (www.frankserafine.com) will introduce the new Ambience 5.1 collection to the Serafine Collection of sound effects libraries. A 20-DVD collection of surround sound samples from both natural and city environments, Ambience 5.1 includes traffic, rain, waterfalls, forests, Grand Canyon winds, countryside, neighborhood, weather, aquatic, crowds and more.
No one can say Hollywood Edge (www.hollywoodedge.com) lacked focus when it created this 5.1 library: Surround Sport Crowds, a remastered release. This 58-track, single DVD provides a variety of sound effects recorded in a large audience venue, with the feel and intimidation of a large sports crowd. All types of audience reactions are covered, from idle walla, victory elation and infuriated losses. The original stereo set has been remastered into 5.1 surround WAV and AIFF files, which were also subsequently bounced into L/R stereo WAV and AIFF files for quick television editing.
Slithering into the field is Iguana Kitchen (www.iguanakitchen.com), presenting its new Quantum Audio Mechanics Vol. 1. The company states that this product was designed to be the world's first 12-channel HD surround effects library. That's not to say that these are in 11.1; rather, the company has made it simpler to mix for multiple surround formats by providing separate tracks for every surround sound format currently in use: left/front, left/center, center/front, right/center, right/front, left/rear, center/rear, right/rear, left/side, right/side, IMAX (overhead) and LFE, with each sound recorded and labeled with all 12 channels.
In this way, an editor/sound designer can insert the tracks for the particular format they're working on and get the same consistent sound for 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, 8.1 and/or 9.1. Perspectives can also be changed by reversing the track order (front to rear and rear to front) or loading the tracks sideways. All tracks have been recorded at the source at 24-bit/192kHz, and are delivered on a portable hard drive that includes both AIFF and WAV files of every track.
Sounds on Quantum Audio Mechanics include weapons at an outdoor shooting range and indoor shooting range; suburban outdoor ambiences, including traffic, trains, fire trucks and emergency vehicles, helicopter flyover, planes, fireworks and more; interior ambiences, including bathroom showers, washers (top- and front-load washers) and dryers; quiet room sounds; a unique collection of sounds of things being dropped on the floor above the microphones; and an assortment of industrial sounds, both interior and exterior.
Backgrounds are in the foreground with Digiffects Surround Sound FX from Ljudproduktion AB (dist. by Sound Ideas, www.sound-ideas.com). All of the 169 royalty-free sound effects in the three-DVD collection have been recorded in 4-channel surround at 24-bit and 48kHz quality. Two stereo WAV files make up the 4-channel surround sound; audition MP3 files (at 192 kbps) are also supplied.
The point of Point One Sound (www.pointonesound.com) is total surround, as evidenced by its Immersion 5.1 surround sound library. Comprising seven DVDs and seven CDs (for preview or stereo applications) of royalty-free ambience tracks, all contents were recorded, edited and mastered by the motion-picture engineers and mixers at Point One Sound. Immersion 5.1 offers more than 220 ambience tracks, including airplanes, arenas, cottages, beaches, elevators, frogs, marshes, percussion, subways, train stations, wind and more.
Sony Creative Software (www.sonycreativesoftware.com) is arriving on the 5.1 surround scene with a bang — literally. Volume 7 of the Sony Pictures Sound Effects Series features a series of layerable 5.1 surround sound explosions. Each of the 14 sets of WAV files is labeled to indicate where in the 5.1 field the user can achieve the best sound effect; i.e., 5.1 Explosion Set 01: C.wav; 5.1 Explosion Set 01: L.wav; etc.
For something a little more civilized, turn your ears to Soundeffects (www.soundeffects.ch) and its 14-DVD or hard-drive Civilisation Soundscapes 5.1 surround sound library. This collection was created to provide sound professionals with an archive of field-recorded 5.1 sounds, focusing on the sounds of nature and civilization. In addition, the recently released Industrial Soundscapes 5.1 surround sound library, delivered on a hard drive, adds ambient surround tracks in the “Industry” category to the mix.
Soundeffects points out that part of the fun of surround is the new possibilities that arise from integrating various stereo and mono files in surround, and the company's surround sounds were specifically recorded to be combined with each other. Civilisation Soundscapes 5.1 contains many foregrounds, such as interior recordings of airports, museums, train stations, theaters, bars and restaurants. Exteriors were recorded in cities, forests and parks. In addition, the library contains numerous traffic ambience tracks that feature different vehicles and varying traffic density. There are also pure nature atmospheres, including birds, trees, swamps and fields with chirping crickets. Weather, traffic and rain are also well-represented, as is ambient silence in the “Open Space” part of the collection. “Room Tones” has the hum and buzz of HVAC systems, electrical installations and more.
All sound files come fully equipped with metadata for Soundminer Versions 3 and 4, as well as comprehensive PDF documentation or dynamic HTML track sheets that can be downloaded from www.soundeffects.ch/soundeffectsdownloads.php for free.
Talk about in-depth. The Just Boom Trax Surround Sound FX Collection from Sound Ideas (www.sound-ideas.com) was created specifically to stimulate one's subwoofer. Designed to provide sweeteners for use in the subwoofer channel when mixing surround sound productions, Just Boom Trax offers 250-plus royalty-free tracks on two CDs or DVDs of real-life, fantasy and utility low-frequency sound effects.
This collection is for enhancing the depth and impact of audio via LF growls, impacts, hums, booms, throbs, rolls and drones. Real-life sound effects include aircraft carriers, jets and helicopters; boats, ships and submarines; automobiles, races and crashes, trains, trucks and motorcycles; animal growls, footsteps and cries; human hits and bodyfalls; thunder, wind, earthquakes, avalanches and volcanoes; weapons and military battles; construction, crashes and hits; explosions and impacts; and doors, industrial and motor sounds, stampedes and the space shuttle's sonic boom — wow! The Just Boom Trax library also provides sci-fi and fantasy sound effects tracks, a set of oscillator tones, low-frequency white- and pink noise, and a selection of drum hits and synth accents. A variety of sample rates and bit depths are offered.
David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.