Can you give us a little background on where you've worked before arriving at Radical Entertainment, and what sort of education/training did you have before getting started in the industry?
I guess I started out as a musician in the late 1980’s early 1990’s in various bands, and from there, tangentially, got really interested in cinema. I did my undergraduate degree in Film Studies out of Derby University in ‘93, and it was there that I developed a real interest in sound and music for cinema, so from there I did a Masters Degree in Sound Design for Film from Bournemouth University. Pretty much straight after that I landed a job as a studio engineer / sound designer for a small-ish multi-media company in Reading, UK called ‘Matinee’. In fact, it was while at Matinee that I landed my first video game sound design gig for the Dreamcast title ‘Vanishing Point’.
That encounter, and that environment, taught me a lot about working with clients and about how sounds, music and vo plugged into an interactive continuum, rather than a linear cinematic context. After that I briefly worked for Antenna Audio in London as a sound designer for interactive guides for museums and art galleries, and it was shortly after that that I landed my first full-time, in-house audio director gig (even though we didn’t call it an ‘audio director’ back then – in fact I think I was just a ‘sound designer’, but also did all the music) for Climax in Fareham. The titles I worked on there were Sudeki, Serious Sam and (a sadly cancelled) Warhammer Online MMO. After two really enjoyable years with Climax, I had the opportunity to come to Radical to be an audio director on the Scarface project...
I assume you are deep into Prototype 2 at this time...it must be interesting jumping into a sequel where you try to make improvements over the first game, while remaining true to the aesthetics and iconic audio from the original. Can you describe some of the decision making that's gone into this process, and how you work with the other team leads to make improvements while also retaining the 'Prototype' vibe
Just finishing up the final bugs on P2 now (I’ve forgotten how good it feels to be at this stage!)
Sequels are interesting beasts. You either need to reboot a franchise while remaining true to certain core elements (say a character), or more subtly, re-iterate and improve elements while remaining loyal to what worked the first time around. That process can be a real challenge. Firstly, although you do your best to avoid reading the negative press you inevitably get in reviews, you trawl through the reviews and commentary on the first game and boil down some negatives and positives. Build on the positives, and take a serious stab at addressing the negatives. Our mantra on P2 has always been ‘Evolution not Revolution’ – and from the top down, through art, design and sound that has been the approach we have taken. Having said that, I can say without a doubt, that it feels like we have improved every element of the game. The vo systems and performances have had greater investment of time and attention, we also have an awesome DSP processing workflow that slots right into our build pipeline now, so we don’t have to process any files off-line with radio effects, we just hit build in our tools and the VST plug-in pipeline starts the batching of any new or altered vo files with the presets we have defined.
Sound effects wise we have put a lot more fidelity into our physics systems, incorporating rolling and a far greater amount of variety in the sounds themselves, not just from a ‘variations standpoint, but also from the sheer breadth of different sounding assets. We did a ton of bespoke recording for the creature and transformation sounds here at Radical too, and with these sounds all now sitting in our soundminer library we find it pretty easy to dial in a ‘prototype’ vibe to things like marketing trailers and promo material when needed. From a music point of view, we have kept the incredible DNA and tone that was set in the first game, and gone for an entirely in-house produced score. Again, having our own studios here at Radical we feel very lucky to be able to record bespoke instruments and also mix and master the final sessions here, so we made full use of our in-house facilities and talents for the whole of the music creation and implementation process.
You tweeted once about a bug that came to your in-box that you'd been waiting to receive..."game isn't as loud as other games of this genre..." or something along those lines. Can you explain your philosophy behind this, why you were excited about it and how that might tie in to what's going on with IESD?
Yeah, ha it turns out after that tweet, and once we got on the mix stage here, our game was a little quieter than it should have been actually. But, yes, in general I see those kinds of bugs on every game I’ve shipped, and I think that generally points to the situation most of us are familiar with, that is there is a sea of games out there that are incredible loud, it is not QA’s fault, its just an symptom of the loudness wars.
I’ve been a big proponent of the ITU spec for some time now, but having mixed a game like Prototype at those recommended levels, I can safely say that not every game should look to these standards as a gospel. The feeling among the community at large right now is that the ITU spec (a broadcast film and TV standard) works very well for narrative driven, dialogue heavy, medium-paced action genre or stealth games. With the big action titles, it makes sense that you need to let things get a little hotter overall. We’ve come out with something that sits around -19 for the action sequences, but does drop into the recommended areas of -23 for cut-scene vo etc. We’ve been generally looking at a dynamic range of 20dB. We also took the step to focus on two mixes for this game, and they can be chosen from within the audio settings menu. The default setting is ‘Home Theatre’ which is the one we spent most of the time on, and the other is a TV speakers setting, which introduces some mild compression as well as a boost in volume of around 5 – 6dB overall – so ideal for someone playing in a noisier environment on TV speakers.
With IESD, we are definitely getting our teeth into these kinds of discussions, and my hope is that the IESD will continue to publish the most relevant up to date thinking on overall ref levels. We don’t want to put out a document, and then have it go out of date. I believe that this area will be evolving, as tastes evolve, for some time, and we’ll just try to keep the members up to date with the current thinking on that. We’ve recently expanded the IESD leadership to include seven new committee members, so we are ensuring that we have much wider discussions on these kinds of topics and continue to stay relevant.
Can you describe some of the thought that went into creating the sound system for Prototype and maybe some of the philosophy behind it...I've heard there were a lot of streaming audio channels going on behind the scenes, and I'm curious if you can speak about how you organized that.
There is a pretty in-depth overview of our ambience system written by Scott Morgan here We’ve pretty much stuck with this system in the sequel, it is solid and works really well for our kind of open-world game. The content has been updated and refreshed to represent the updated Prototype universe, we don’t really have much of a ‘normal’ New York ambience any more, things have moved on significantly in our story.
Do you have some other games that you find inspiring when it comes to the mix/sound picture? Any titles that really set the bar that you think about while designing sounds or when considering the mix/music?
Mix-wise, I still love the recent Rockstar titles, as far back as the last GTA. Red Dead Redemption is almost perfect. I think the mix benefits so much from their design, presentation and pacing though, the clean and balanced levels are really a symptom of a well mixed game design (meaning game design, pacing, storytelling) - These games are very different kinds of games to Prototype in their tone, so perhaps my love of those games is because to me the change of pace and tone is refreshing with me being immersed in the P2 world 24/7. We deal with creating a more claustrophobic feel, whereas RDR is a much wider, more open space. I also love them because they have been the bravest titles in terms of dropping their overall output levels to something in line with broadcast mix standards, and this paves the way for other developers to feel comfortable and justified in putting out a game with similar levels.
I imagine you have a pretty different looking day, every day...could you describe some of your responsibilities on a daily basis, and all the different aspects that you are responsible for on the audio side?
Every day is different, for sure; we all get our hands dirty here at Radical with the implementation. For me I’ve been focussed on dialogue (typically around 17,000+ lines in Radical’s titles), cut-scene post (typically around 95 minutes) – weapons and interface were also a focus for a while, but dialogue and cut-scenes just took over. Dialogue typically gets the least love in game production and is one of the more complex and ever-changing systems, so it needs dedicated supervision, that stuff can go off the rails very quickly if left alone.
Where do you see new innovations in game audio...middleware tools? procedural audio? any shiny new tech yer excited about?
Not so much the technology right now, but how we use it. For me, LIMBO was the most innovative title over the last 10 years, and that was all down to style and direction. I like technology that solves the big day to day problems for me, like batching and parcelling up bink audio and gluing them to the video files, or dsp pipelines for radio-processed dialogue content. Having said that, I am seeing some mention of improved mixing systems in the major middleware engines right now, and polished, professional feeling tools like that really do get me excited!
For students trying to break into the industry, where do you think they can concentrate their efforts to be best prepared for landing a job?
Man that is such a tough question. We’ve probably heard all these things before, but, I’d say, get experience, start out with a good college course, follow that on with some kind of internship, network like hell, show a ton of passion, and follow/express the tone of games / game companies that you really get excited about in your work. Professionalism is a key factor here too that I really should mention. Even if you meet with people, do interviews, but don’t get the gig, that door should always be open for that company to reach back out to get you later on. My first job at Matinee, I did the interview, didn’t get the gig. But then, a couple of months later, they unexpectedly got in touch with me again and had a new position that I was more suited to. There is a lot of uncertainty in the game market right now, but I see lots of positives, big studios are still opening up in places like Montreal, and I don’t see the entertainment software industry getting smaller, we are seeing a lot of change, and really we should expect that to continue. To that point, I really think you’ve got to be prepared to be geographically mobile.
What's the best part of being in the game audio biz?
I think we are a young industry, and with that comes a great amount of challenge & flexibility to invent your way out of unique problems. Production staff & pipelines are trying very hard to solidify, but the kinds of games we make keeps changing that... and the consoles keep refreshing, this is also good; it keeps things moving forward and constantly forces innovation. So, I guess what I am saying here is that the constant change in the technology and the kinds of entertainment products we are seeing succeed makes this a really exciting place to be every day. I’d hate to be stuck in a monolithic production culture where I know exactly what I need to do every second of the day (and I have worked in warehouses and I understand how that feels), having fresh challenges and getting to solve new problems every day is the reason I’m still doing this.
Check out more of Rob's contributions to game audio at gameaudiomix.com
Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for audiogang.org