Julian Kwasneski: Inside Game Audio
Pages: 1, 2, 3

RA: What plugins are you using in your game audio work?

JK: Mostly the staples. The Waves plugins—things like Renaissance Compressor. I'm about to get their Diamond Bundle, too. Waves is like the Pro Tools of plugins: if you're crafting a sound in your studio with Q10 [Waves' 10-band EQ plug-in], then no matter where you take that session, you know the studio is going to have Q10. Likewise, another studio might have Logic or Cubase or Performer on hand, but you know they're going to have Pro Tools.

I also use Serato's Pitch 'N Time a lot, and the Focusrite EQs are great. Beyond EQ, I don't use a plugin the way it's intended to be used. I have a real need for screwing things up, but in a predictable way, not just for the sake of screwing it up. I don't have as much time as I used to for experimentation. I also use Line 6's Amp Farm for all my radio voice processing, which we do a lot of in the war-sim games.

RA: Bay Area Sound has created dialog and ambient crowd audio for a lot of sports games, as well. What are those sessions like?

JK: For NBA Shootout 2004, we put out a call on Craigslist for voice actors and paid each $60 for two hours' work. For that first game we ended up recording all the crowd tracks at a frat house in Berkeley, and it turned out great! We recorded it in their living room with a remote recording rig.

It went so well that we told them we also had all these other games that we needed crowd cheers for. But the brutal part for the NCAA game [NCAA GameBreaker 2004] was that every single school or team has their own cheer, right? So first we had to research and learn each school's specific cheer. We ended up with this long list of school cheers: "Go Cal Go! Go Cal Go!" and so on.

RA: All recorded in that frat house?

JK: No, that's when we started using the big room at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The voice talent showed up and there we all were using just five channels of Fantasy's sweet, gigantic SSL console! It was great fun recording all those cheers as we hung out in that legendary studio with cappuccinos.

Recording Gunshots

During a field audio capture session for America's Army, Kwasneski records gun shots into a high-resolution DAT recorder.

Kwasneski's QuickTip #1: Amp Farm Radio

"For any game, but especially for America's Army, I do all the two-way radio dialog processing with Amp Farm," Kwasneski reveals. "I also use Bomb Factory's Cosmonaut Voice for that sometimes, but that one is a little too bent for my taste. It's a plugin that does nothing but bandpass something and put little squelch sounds at the end of each transmission—that 'ssszzzzcccrrrt' sound when the sender takes their finger off the transmit button.

"In Amp Farm, I can work with different amp models and different levels of gain, saturation, and drive, in order to create a slightly different sound for each unit's radio in the war game. But those sounds have to be similar because if they're too different, the players will notice that and wonder, 'Are the units using such different types of radios?' You hear that difference in a lot of war games these days and, to my taste, it's not realistic. That's something I learned from the Army guys when they were here. So now I fine-tune each radio voice just a little to give each unit's radio transmission its own character within those parameters."

Amp Farm screenshot

Simulating two-way radio with a guitar amp plugin

Kwasneski's QuickTip #2: Squeezing High-End Sound from Low-Res Games

The audio capabilities of game consoles like the Xbox rival dedicated digital audio workstations. Not so those of the kiddie consoles. "We produced the sound for Dora the Explorer for Leapster, the Gameboy-ish handheld toy," recalls Kwasneski. "It's Flash-based technology that uses very low-fidelity audio. For me, it was like going back to the earliest games I worked on. There are tricks you use to maximize high end where none exists! I call this technique 'perceptual EQing.'

"If you convert a sound file to 11kHz, your highest audible frequency is half that, 5,500Hz, because of the Nyquist Theorem. So if you crank up 5,400Hz thinking you'll squeeze out as much high end as possible, it will sound just horrific. For Leapster, it was even more horrific because they had their own compression algorithms to work within. So we took a bunch of files and converted them scientifically with all these different EQs, ran 'em through the compression, and then listened to what happened. That was how we derived our settings. It was a very time intensive process, but it worked.

"I'm having to do the same sort of perceptual EQ for America's Army now. A lot of times games like this just run out of room for the assets, so the first thing you do is head to the sound. The ceiling on America's Army is at 11k as well, but it's based on the Unreal game-sound engine. That's a really well-known engine, so, if you're a game sound developer, you just license their engine so you that you don't have to reinvent the wheel on every game."

Waves Q10

Kwasneski's parameter settings in Waves' Q10 EQ plugin add psychological sparkle to a dull 11kHz sound.

Bay Area Sound: Music Examples

These game music cues are by Bay Area Sound composer Jared Emerson-Johnson. Each MP3 opens in a new window.

Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.

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