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Good sound design is based on events in the real world.

In terms of overall approach, the mix should always be considered from the listener’s perspective. There is no point in creating a gigantic, wide-ranging mix for a game if it doesn’t sound good on computer speakers. Game sound designers typically mix using low-end computer speakers and switch back to high-quality speakers only for reference. That ensures the sound designers have the same sonic experience as the end-users. Here are some other issues to consider when creating sound for different types of media.

Film. No doubt about it, mixing for film is a beautiful thing. There are no limitations on frequency response due to low sampling rates, and having a subwoofer ensures that dramatic rumbles and explosions will be felt as well as heard. In mixing for 5.1 surround, the center channel enhances the clarity of the dialog, which leaves more room in the left and right for music and effects. Finally, the surround channels can be used liberally to enhance the mood and apparent environment size by sending ambient elements, reverb washes, and occasional musical elements to the rear (not to mention flyover effects). The mix’s dynamic range can be quite wide, keeping intimate scenes quiet and saving the volume for big, dramatic moments.

Game. Audio for games has improved substantially during the past few years. With increased budgets, enhanced audio hardware, and more recognition of the need for high-quality audio as a significant part of the game experience, things are getting better all the time. Yet problems remain. The necessities of data compression lead to compromises in both frequency response and dynamic range. A typical sampling rate of 22 kHz means no frequencies above 11 kHz, resulting in a lack of sheen, air, and crispness. The audio is also compressed, using some perceptual coding and variable bit-depth scheme. That step adds artifacts and reduces clarity, and it’s particularly harsh on quiet sounds.

What’s more, computers have loud fans, which increase the ambient noise floor and thus decrease the listener’s dynamic range at the computer. Finally, games tend to be loud and punchy. All those factors lead to mixes and individual sound files that make heavy use of normalization and limiting.

Web. The same computer-based limitations for games are inherent in Web-based presentations. An additional factor is download speed, which affects durations and increases data compression beyond that required for games. One general suggestion: turn technical limitations into design considerations by using very short sound files and loops.

As you can see, the audio arts outside of music have incredible depth and richness of expression. When you open your ears to the sounds around you, the world becomes an unending symphony of footsteps on crunchy gravel, wind slithering through tall grasses, and cars flying by in the night. Good sound design is based on events in the real world, and the more attuned you are to sounds in your environment, the better you will be at providing sound for the virtual world.

Your job is always to enhance the visual elements in the project. Be tasteful yet subtle, and your work will best serve its intended purpose.

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Nick Peck owns Perceptive Sound Design, a post-production firm. He plays keyboards in the Bay Area jam band Ten Ton Chicken. You can reach him at [email protected] or on the Web at

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.

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