A beginners’ (and pros’) guide to sound atmospheres
Sound Atmosphere: Creating perfect sound atmospheres for your game
One of the most important and high rated elements in a video game is without a doubt its sound. Player immersion and game experience can benefit from a well designed and involving sound atmosphere, but this is not always an easy task to take on. Just imagine that you have been assigned to create the sound ambience for an outer space game. How are you going to recreate such an ambiguous concept? It can be hard yet not impossible, all you need to do is to learn a few things that will be useful every time you are enrolled in a mission like this one. So let’s come back from outer space and land some important concepts here.
By learning all these concepts and understanding the principals behind video game sound atmospheres, you will become a true pro and be able to join any kind of game project with absolutely great results. So hold tight and keep on reading.
Let ́s start by defining the functions of sound inside a video game. As you know, there are many elements composing a video game and, of course, each one of them is important as a single element, but the ultimate idea is to create the perfect match among them.
As a sound designer, you need to make sure that you possess all the tools and the knowledge available for you. Remember that achieving success is all about your capability to deliver the perfect job.
The main task or mission of sound in video games is to make everything that is happening on the screen believable, to bring things to life by the addition of such an organic element. Visuals and graphics can be very advanced nowadays but they still have the “virtual reality” feeling attached to them. However, sounds can be reproduced just as we hear them in real life.
You might be asking yourself how you can reach this goal, and all you need to do is think about these examples: amazing graphics from a shooting gun are nothing without the explosive sound effect of the bullet leaving the barrel, right? Walking over wood and walking on sand don ́t create the same sound effect, so it is necessary to pay extreme attention to details as it will make the difference between a pro and an amateur job. If you are recording your own SFX library, take samples of the same sound from different angles and distances. Coming back to the shooting gun example, record a take from it at short distance, as you can use this one for first person character case.
If you record the sound from a further distance, it can be used to recreate a scene happening far away from the player. Think about all the possibilities and let your imagination help you on this quest.
1. DEFINITION OF SOUND ATMOSPHERES IN UNITY 3D
So now, what exactly a sound atmosphere is? We can define it as the “Space” containing all sounds involved in one scene. If our hero is entering a coffee shop we will need to recreate as many ambience sounds as we can, starting with background music, coffee chats, cups and mugs being placed on tables, people walking, a cash machine, etc.
It is important to keep in mind that not all sounds have the same volume or impact to our ears, and if you are working with surrounding environments you will need to pan them to create a more realistic feeling. Staying in this scenario, if your animator has placed a speaker on one corner of the coffee shop you will need to map the background music to it, so the sound emanates from it and responds to character location. This is called a “Source”. One of the advantages you can find in Unity 3D when working with sound is that you can assign different SFX to different elements, and it allows you to recreate the perfect sound atmosphere on your video game.
Practice is the way of the master so make sure that you are constantly polishing your skills and upgrading your knowledge, ’cause there are many things you can achieve in Unity 3D. There are many ways to practice all sorts of skills, and a very useful one is to pick a place and go there. Then do the exercise of closing your eyes and identifying every single sound source around you. Take notes and, more importantly, record everything with your phone or any other recording device. Come back to your working place and work on recreating this sound atmosphere by using your audio software and SFX files. Listen to your recording as many times as needed, but remember to take breaks as your ears can get tired and you won ́t be able to hear things in a critical way after a while. It is recommended that you take 15 minute breaks for every hour of audio processing. This will lead you to better results.
2. THE THREE LAYERS IN A SOUND ATMOSPHERE
In order to get to know and recreate the perfect sound atmosphere for a video game we need to define and enlist the most important elements or layers, giving form to them. The first element or layer to inspect is background noise; this will be the steady sound we always hear when on a specific place, let ́s say on the street. Here we find a group of sound sources creating a big mass of sound, including but not limited to cars, people, businesses, music, steps, chats, etc. We can also move into a different environment like a forest. Here we can hear the sounds of birds, the wind going through the trees and water sources, if there’s one around.
A second layer will be for all things creating sound when interacting with the character, like the material he is walking on, him grabbing and dropping items, opening a water tab or a soda can, firing a gun, starting a car engine, etc. This is the most powerful audio element when it comes down to bringing video game animations into life and when designing sound atmospheres for Unity 3D.
A third layer will be for all music and tracks you include in order to create more involving experiences. Contrary to real life, players are used to music as an active part of their gaming experience. Just think of fantasy games and their epic music scores rolling drums when a battle is about to begin. Depending on the game, you will need to give more relevance to a particular layer.
For example, if you are working on a sports game, you might want the crowd (background layer) to have more gain than the most immediate elements to the character, like the ball or other players. Furthermore, music won ́t add a lot of value in this case unless it is used for menus and transitions.
3. SOUND DENSITY IN UNITY 3D
It is very important to be able to have a clear vision of when there is too much going on in the scene and when you are lacking sound elements; this combination is called “Sound Density” and it is a very important part of creating the perfect sound atmospheres for video games.
When it comes to sound density in a game, it is important to know what you are looking for as a result of your creative process and the experience you want to deliver to your future players. AAA titles will usually have sounds coming from every single element on screen; this can be either good or bad, as the whole experience can be overwhelming for players sometimes. If you are planning on going this way make sure you know how to configure every aspect in order to avoid high-level clipping and losing audio depth because of compression.
When applying compression processes, bear in mind the results you want to achieve and decide wisely the kind of compression you want to apply. Dynamic range compression may deprive sound of its fidelity, and your “world” will show this lack of realism. Remember that when you apply dynamic range compression both the sound and the music are compressed by way of cutting high and low ends from the range. As a sound designer you must know that some elements that help the brain to identify sounds as real are unlistenable frequencies, so go easy on the cuts when creating sounds for Unity 3D. A good example on this kind of process is Borderlands, a game that benefits from keeping SFX levels on top of the music without diverting the attention from it. Thank the light mastering process for that effect.
Always be aware of your game performance specifications, so that you can design atmospheres according to what the game or system can actually handle. It is always better to have fewer elements running perfectly than heavily designed concepts that will be clipping or will not even work properly because the game can ́t handle them. Use preview tools and work as closely as you can with other development areas so you can experience your sound atmosphere working in Unity 3D. By identifying your priorities you can “sacrifice” different layers if needed.
4. MUSIC IN SOUND ATMOSPHERES FOR UNITY 3D
Music can be a very powerful tool when it comes down to creating emotions. After all, different melodies can trigger different reactions on the player, so it is a great way to create tension before an important event happens or to bring tears or even anger if the right music is used.
Make sure you have a good sense of musical instruments and different cultures in order to achieve an effect of familiarity. A Wild West themed game will profit from the use of old styled music and instruments from the era, like the violin or a guitar. A fighting game can feature more hyped up tunes and a futuristic title will perfectly match electronic music. Research on related titles and listen carefully to their soundtracks. You will actually learn a lot just from listening to them and you will also get a better idea on how to develop your sound atmosphere concept.
As in any other field, there is no “golden rule to create the perfect atmosphere”. Such a thing does not existe! In the end, as an audio designer you are an artist, and you should always trust your feelings.
If you pay attention to successful indie games like Limbo, you will find yourself in front of an uncommon sound setup. In Limbo, sound manipulation and SFX distortion add a unique element to the game. Martin Stig Andersen, sound designer for Limbo, have said in interviews that his bet went to all kinds of sounds with less “identity”, and he also points to the fact that if a sound was known to him, he would distort it until it became a complete new sound.
He argues that this technique helps the player to immerse himself in a more free way, as sounds won ́t be easily recognized and no associations will be made. The secret behind this kind of procedure is: “Leave things free to open interpretation”.
In general, music is an element that mustn’t be abused and should be handled with care because it can either create a connection between the scene and the player or make it impossible to happen.
After reviewing all these concepts we are sure that you have a better idea on how to start working on your next sound atmosphere in a video game. Remember to learn as much as you can from your audio software and Unity 3D interaction.