The Noise Arcade: Tools That Game Sound Designers Can’t Do Without

One of the things that is so amazing about modern video games is the voluminous amount of talented and dedicated people it takes just to help 13-year-olds fall short of their potential.
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One of the things that is so amazing about modern video games is the voluminous amount of talented and dedicated people it takes just to help 13-year-olds fall short of their potential.

Kidding aside, though, videogame sound designers take on special challenges that don’t come up when sound designing for linear video. For games, the sound designer has to create sounds without knowing exactly how far away the sound will be from the character when it plays, not knowing the ambient environment the sound will be in, whether there will be obstructions between the sound and the character, and often not having any visual reference before creating the sound.

Nonetheless, game audio designers have the same tools to work with as other producers and sound designers, so the criteria for their gear may differ a bit. We talked to a number of sound designers and combed over the opinions of game audio professionals in articles, interviews, and online forums and sites such as Gamesounddesign.com to come up with some of the most beloved tools on which this singular niche of audio shapers relies. True consensus in such subjective matters may never be achieved, but this collection of mostly software products would delight any game sound addict, at least until the release of PlayStation 11.

Keep in mind though that while the following tools are certifiably awesome, one recurrent theme in the game audio community kept popping up in our research: You don’t need a million bucks to sound like a million bucks. Don’t get too hung up on gear, because technique and hard work trumps fancy toys every time. Practice, practice, practice, and you will find your sound.

Waves Sound Design Suite

Waves Doppler

No, no, no, it could not be that easy. You mean to say a game sound designer can just go to one of the one of the most renowned plug-in makers in the history of sound itself, pick the box that says “Sound Design” in the title, and be squared up? That may be an insult to the intelligence of sound designers if it didn’t happen to be so close to the truth. Loaded with compressors and EQs, the entire GTR3 suite of guitar amps and stomp boxes, and plenty of radically creative effects, Waves Sound Design Suite ($1,400 Mac/PC) bundles 36 monster plug-ins into a package compatible with all the major formats and DAWs.

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Waves Enigma

Game sound designers go particularly ga-ga over particular offerings such as MondoMod, a multi-type chorus effect with LFOs, for the ability to take rather mundane sounds and drastically alter them. The same goes for Enigma, a multi-layered modulation effect with BPM sync that stacks filtering, LFO modulation and delay feedback modules together for sound-obliterating results. These effects go far beyond basic modulation to allow designers to input one sound into a mixer track and come up with spellbindingly different and infinite results out of the other end.

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Waves MondoMod

Considered practically a must-have for games, Doppler applies the sense of movement to sounds with a highly tweakable Doppler effect useful for vehicles, bullets or any sound that a character in a game can move toward or away from. It includes adjustable reverb and different modes for one-shot or continuous cycling.

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Waves Renaissance Equalizer

On the more meat-and-potatoes side, game audio nerds love the sound of the look-ahead brickwall limiter and level maximizer series of the L1, L2, L3, and L3-LL Ultramaximizer plug-ins. These allow the designer to set-and-forget a limiter on the master output while they go sick on their twisted audible creations and yet maintain a controlled output. Finally, the Renaissance Equalizer effectively carves out unwanted frequencies and boosts where needed without coloring the sound. It’s also prized for its low CPU load. Although packed with audio-shaping power, the Sound Design Suite still doesn’t include all of the Waves plug-ins that game sound designers crave, but it’s the highest concentration of such tools in one bundle-priced collection.

Native Instruments Komplete 9

Another bundle too big to cover entirely, Komplete 9 ($559, Mac/PC, AAX/AU/RTAS/VST/stand-alone) includes the three Native Instruments programs that game sound designers find the most salivating at a price much lower than buying even two of them individually. Sure, if you wanted to shoot for the moon, you could drop the extra cash on Komplete 9 Ultimate ($1,099, Mac/PC) and walk away with a hard drive full of sounds and some other extras. Either way, you’ll capture the videogame world’s most wanted NI tools.

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Native Instruments Absynth 5

The software sampler Kontakt 5 dominates the field, which heralds this extremely deep program for its all-in-one sound-design potential. Designers often have the ability to do all their sound editing, effects processing, pitch-shifting, etc. entirely within Kontakt 5, saving them time when a deadline looms. They can build up libraries of sounds beginning with just raw waveforms, or load samples and use the instrument as a “virtual Foley stage,” where they sufficiently alter and then play back the sounds for recording.

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Native Instruments Kontakt 5

Beginning with more than 2,100 atmospheric presets, Absynth 5 lets sound designers combine aspects of one patch with another in the Sound Mutation module or get deep into the semi-modular architecture, where FM, subtractive and wavetable synthesis combine with sampling to create Absynth’s signature otherworldly sound. Of the staggering amount of soft synths in the world, game audio designers name-drop Absynth the most. It seems tailor-made for all the alien creatures, ships and environments that are so prevalent in sci-fi and adventure games.

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Native Instruments Reaktor

No sound design studio would be Komplete without Reaktor 5.8, considered an obvious choice for professionals because of its fully modular synthesis structure, where there are infinite possibilites for creating new sounds and even new instruments. It offers more than 70 core instruments out of the box, with thousands more available from its online user library. Game folks revere it because it inspires creativity, leads to unexpectedly awesome results, and because, again, you can potentially take a design project to completion using only this instrument.

iZotope

Among iZotope’s strong lineup, a pair of programs have stood out in the game community. As either a stand-alone editor or plug-in, RX 2 ($349, Mac/PC, AAX/AU/DirectX/MAS/VST) or RX 2 Advanced ($1,099) frequently save the day as a spectral audio repair tool with batch processing. Game publisher staffers frequently have thousands of Foley sounds from the field or dialog files to clean up, and RX can remove noise, hiss, pops, buzz, etc.; restore clipped audio; perform leveling; and so much more before batch processing them with a sound that many prefer over other pro editors. The advanced spectrgram allows you to “see” problems in the audio, as well. RX 3 was released in September—just before press time—offering cool additions such as reverb removal, real-time dialog processing and more.

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iZotope Spectron

Audio geeks love their spectral displays, and Spectron ($129) earns a spot in game sound designers’ hearts for its access to the sound’s spectral domain and dynamite string of effects that can mangle the original source into something completely new. With 64-bit internal processing, Spectron includes frequency-level effects chains including delays, chorus/flange, surgical panning, and the Morph module, which lets you modify the spectrum of one signal based on the spectrum of another signal in real time. Users note that Spectron appeals to those with a love of experimentation; the journey may take awhile, but the destination sounds fantastic.

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iZotope RX 2

Zoom Handy Recorders

Zoom recently flipped the portable recording scene on its head with the release of the H6 Handy Recorder ($499), the first handheld 6-track recorder, which also supports four interchangeable input capsules: X/Y mic (included), MS mic (included), shotgun mic and dual XLR/TRS input.

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Zoom Handy Recorder H2

The H6 is too new to have made an impact yet, but there is a convincing plurality of game sound designers who choose either the H2n ($349) or H4n ($549) as their field recorder of choice, never leaving home without one. It’s a combination of construction, sound quality and ease of use that has made Zoom the commonly heard brand name in game audio over the many competing handheld recorders. It’s not at all unusual for a Zoom unit to handle the bulk of the Foley work on professional game audio projects. However, when they need a more high-end portable recorder, game designers tend to prefer the Sound Devices 702 ($1,975) or 722 ($2,595).

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Zoom Handy Recorder H4n

Camel Audio Alchemy

When you’re faced with hundreds, if not thousands, of original sounds to create on a deadline, you want an environment where you can create and modify new sounds fast, as well as keep them organized. Camel Audio Alchemy ($249, Mac/PC, AU/RTAS/VST) rates highly among all virtual instruments for its five types of synthesis, including a virtual analog engine, and for its deep programming.

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Camel Audio Alchemy Version 1.5

Yet game sound designers in particular see Alchemy as an oasis of possibility due to its sampling capabilities that let you import your own sounds and then develop them with one of four types of re-synthesis: granular, additive, additive + spectral, and spectral. With those endless options, designers can import their banks of Foley, voiceover and other sounds to create instruments out of vocals, for example, or to transform simple instruments, such as an acoustic guitar, into an angelic cosmic echo twinkle. The options are staggering, but creatively liberating.

Alchemy comes with 5 GB of samples and more than 1,000 presets, with bundle options to add up to 26 more sound libraries for more than 4,000 presets. When you add that to the thousands of new sounds that a game designer will likely create, it’s a good thing that Alchemy also boasts one of the the most sophisticated sound browsers in the business. All the presets are labled by category, genre, articulation and timbre, so it is quick to find a sound according to those tags. You can rate sounds and then search by rating, or add your own tags to search by project name, client name or whatever you like.

SoundToys

Prized for their clean, simple interfaces but more importantly for their outstanding sound, both Decapitator and Crystallizer ($179 each, Mac/PC, AU/RTAS/TDM/VST) feel a lot of love from the game sound community. Decapitator models many types of vintage gear to mix up an analog saturation effect that reacts to the dynamics of the input signal.

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SoundToys Crystallizer

SoundToys based Crystallizer off the Crystal Echoes preset from the Eventide 3000, which ruled radio in the late ’80s. How about a little granular reverse echo slicing combined with vintage, glitchy pitch processing? That’s why you insult Crystallizer by using it for basic delays. SoundToys also polished it up with MIDI sync, Gate/Duck control and filters. Crystallizer’s bizarre reverse delays make it perfect for the fictitious worlds of videogames.

Moog on the iPad

In our day, you coudn’t buy a Moog synthesizer for 30 bucks! You had to mow lawns in the snow for three years just to save up for a half-working monosynth from Radio Shack. Well, thank God those days are over. Moog has brought its two most famous legacies, its filters and synthesis, to the iPad in wonderfully modernized apps. The polyphonic Animoog ($29.99) represents the proud debut of Moog’s Anisotropic Synth Engine (ASE) optimized for the iPad’s touchscreen with an X/Y space for controlling its dozens of timbres. The sound lives up to the lofty expectations of the Moog name, and there’s professional modulation and filtering options, as well. Sound designers love the convenience of this handheld Moog synth. You can record your creations, and there’s an optional 4-track recorder, as well.

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Moog Animoog

For Moogerfooger lovers, Filtatron ($7.99) delivers a similar experience on the iPad or iPhone. Its processing suite includes a modeled Moog filter, envelope follower, LFO, overdrive and delay. You can record the result of effecting loaded samples, the built-in oscillator or the input from the iPad’s mic, making it great for spontaneous Foley sessions in any location.

Ina GRM Tools

Resulting from years of study by a French musical research group, the effects of GRM Tools Complete Collection 3 ($800, Mac/PC, AU/RTAS/VST) now shows up in the sounds of a great deal of videogames on the market today. The 15-plug-in suite comprises three smaller bundles that go from basic to mild. Besides a good collection of filters, delays, EQ and a crucial Doppler effect, the most characteristic plug-ins of GRM Tools radically and dynamically effect the sound by shifting and rearranging frequencies, evolving resampling, modifying spectral resolutions and more.

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Ina GRM Tools

GRM’s unique sonic outcomes have made it a staple of the sound design scene. In one notable example of its use, Benjie Freund, as a challenge to himself, designed the sounds for the popular Tribes: Ascend game using only simple signal generators in Pro Tools and the GRM Tools Collection.

Steinberg Wavelab 8

While there is hot competition for the audio editor of choice among game sound designers, both from the industry standards like Sony Sound Forge Pro 11 and from the inexpensive upstarts like the Cockos Reaper DAW, the recently updated WaveLab 8 ($599, Mac/PC) editor and mastering program has a strong cross-platform following, as well as the features and performance to back it up.

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Steinberg WaveLab 8

The most ardent game sound designers in the Wavelab camp sing the praises of its batch processor, its smooth VST integration, auto-cutting of certain files, the convenience of handling marker placement, and many other features. While some editors prefer the destructive editing of Sound Forge to retain the same file name quickly, Wavelab sticks to non-destructive editing.