Thrillseekers craving adventure in professional audio can find everything they're looking for in the mobile devices department. As PDAs, pocket PC phones and good old cell phones get smaller, faster and more powerful, and users can gain access to higher-bandwidth wireless connectivity via WiFi, there's more room for quality audio in the games, advertising and other applications that are being produced for them.
The good news is there's plenty of room for adept audio developers who want to get involved. The bad news is that rules, standards and guidelines are few and far between. “Mobile audio is the Wild West — anything goes,” says Steve Horowitz, founder and creative director of New York City — based Mobile Audio 2 Go (www.ma2g.com). “By nature, this is an audiocentric medium. Everyone is claiming that they have the secret formula, but in fact, there's a tremendous amount of opportunity and risk.”
Horowitz is betting that mobile audio will take off. A successful indie film composer (Super Size Me), experienced Inter-net music developer for Nickelodeon Online and a member of the Manhattan Producers Alliance, Horo-witz has plugged into New York City's thriving, media-rich content scene to found ma2g, which he describes as the world's first mobile music and sound effects library. By offering multiple libraries created for mobile games — in a single package that can satisfy the hundreds of formats and data size limitations that mobile developers contend with — Horowitz and his collaborators believe they can ensure better-quality audio for all users of the coming generation of games and applications.
“ma2g is a custom depository that developers can go to where they know there's music that's been pretested on the phones by people who understand how these systems operate,” says Horowitz. “When they're assembling their games, if they purchase an ma2g library, they don't have to worry about multiformat compatibility.”
Horowitz compares the evolution of mobile audio to that of music and sound effects for Web applications during the past few years. “When you originally started with games on the Web, they couldn't be more than 150 kilobytes [of memory],” he notes. “Now, they can be as large as 20 megs, and you can get a lot of rich content — music, sound effects and voice-over — into a 20-meg Flash game. The same will happen with mobile games.
“Meanwhile, the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group [www.iasig.org] is getting ready to issue a white paper with recommendations for a baseline standard for mobile handsets,” he continues. “Currently, everyone is trying to support different formats because each company has its own proprietary formats, and a lot of those are low-level compression schemes that are just horrible. The way it is right now, certain handsets and game development platforms support a certain set of codes and others support others, so to make it simple for producers, we founded ma2g on the principle of delivering for all possible North American handset formats.”
Horowitz collaborates closely with Devin Maxwell, president of Brooklyn, N.Y. — based mobile media specialists Loud Louder Loudest (LLL, www.loudlouderloudest.com). Maxwell has deep experience developing mobile and audio/visual content for record companies. Horowitz points to the creation of a stirring package called Cinematic Suspense, with six audio music loops, a MIDI arrangement and 10 sound effects as a good example of the ma2g development workflow and subsequent user interface.
“In deciding the length and number of cues, think of it just like a radio or TV library where everything is cut to fit the format,” he continues. “ma2g conforms to, at the moment, the way mobile games are built, so there's an intro for the loader splash screen that plays when the title screen first appears. Then we created small loops, broken out into four-bar patterns that increase in intensity, so as you're progressing up to further levels of the game, you get a somewhat adaptive, interactive soundtrack. Then we cap it off with an outro flourish for game's end. We also provide an extended MIDI arrangement.”
After an audio package has been composed and recorded, ma2g posts its availability on the Website. Developers can preview the sound of the files and can find out what size file will be in any of a laundry list of formats, including AAC & AAC+, MP3 and QCP.
Once an order is placed, ma2g sends the raw package to LLL in the form of WAV and General MIDI files. Then, Maxwell's team oversees a painstaking but speedy process wherein each file will be reformatted 450 times in as little as two days, depending on the client's deadlines.
Next, LLL becomes a highly prolific mastering house, albeit one where critical listening happens in the worst possible environment — a plastic cup with a small speaker inside to simulate the ultralow-level speaker quality of many handsets. “We master them in [Sony] Sound Forge using a lot of the Waves plug-ins, like the L3 multiband limiter,” says Maxwell.
“On handsets, dynamic range is generally a bad thing, so we'll cut out everything the phone can't play, which is generally above 8 kHz or below 125 Hz, depending on the format. However, my goal is to not really impose a lot of restrictions on Steve's team; I want them to think about music with a little bit of mobile, while I think of mobile with a little bit of music.”
Following the mastering process, LLL does the file encoding, followed by a meticulous quality assurance process, wherein a digital procedure of verification is followed by a manual QA that places many, but not all, of the files on LLL's sizable phone collection for hands-on testing. Once QA is complete, the files are zipped up and sent back to ma2g, which expedites their delivery to the client.
“You've got to be able to get your hands dirty,” Horowitz adds. “If people say, ‘I'm composing music for films and TV, and I heard you can make money doing game music so now I'm going to try that,’ that's the wrong approach. If you want to write music for mobile games, you should really want to do it, be interested and be willing to learn everything about it.”
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