Inside job: Audio artist

Time Out columnist learns how to record effects for video games

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Time Out columnist Paul Johnson tries every job in Shanghai. This month, he learns how to record effects for video games


Audio artist Alex Riviere has a sophisticated ear that puts me in mind of the refined palette of a wine sommelier. As I swing a lasso of clear plastic tubing over my head to create a whooshing sound, Alex says, ‘I don’t like the sound of the tape,’ in reference to the tape holding the two ends together.


‘You can hear the tape?’


He nods and explains he wants the clean, unbroken sound of the air flowing between the tubing. ‘The sound is to be as clear as possible. I don’t want to spend two weeks cleaning.’ He takes the tubing, whips it around his head, and asks if I can hear the tape.


‘Um...no.’ He repeats the motion and asks again. ‘Um...no.’ The third time I get wise and answer, ‘Yes. That’s way too much tape.’


I wish I could hear what Alex hears, just like when a sommelier asks if I detect any hints of apple with sharp acidity and a long finish, and I have to answer, ‘It tastes very...um...winey. I’m getting strong hints of...winey-ness.’


Alex has refined that ear through study at a sound school in France and years of work on a broad range of sound projects until he found his niche as a video game audio specialist. His Putuo-based studio, Game Audio Lab, first focused on translating foreign games for the Chinese market but now does about 50 percent of its work on original games in English for the European and US markets, providing all effects, soundtrack and voice. They’ve worked on titles such as Final Fantasy, Transformers and Call of Duty.


One video game may require more than 2,000 original sound effects. A seemingly straightforward category such as footsteps could encompass 100 different sounds, including variations of movement across multiple environments like grass or stone multiplied by the weight of a character, for example large female, small female, large male, small male, and children. The sound of steps may be recorded while stomping feet on different floor materials like marble or wood or gravel while wearing different types of shoes and while watching the footage to match the stride of the steps. Tap dancing karate games are probably especially difficult.


A single character in a fighting game has unique sounds for each movement such as jumping, running and the rustle of clothing; attacks, such as punching and kicking and melee attack combinations; damages received and inflicted; object sounds such as a sword drawn from a sheath or striking another sword; environment, both inside and outside such as rain or wind or the hum of an air conditioner; explosions, for example dynamite inside an air conditioner; special effects, such as re-spawning after death by exploding air conditioner; voice work, including dialogue and every variation of attack mode grunts and groans; and music. And each of those sounds will have multiple variations to avoid becoming monotonous.


An assortment of weapons, instruments and sundry noisemakers line the walls of his studio: swords and machetes, drums, chimes and whistles – enough to arm a medium-sized ninja marching band. A large plastic bin in the corner houses a potpourri of sound makers: a gong, a pea whistle, chains, heavy tool vests selected for their rustle value, plastic bottles, tubing and piping, a spatula, and more.


He finds potential effects in surprising places. He places a red, metal box containing the office’s two fire extinguishers in the centre of the room and gives the box a shake, creating a satisfying metallic rumble as the top flap bounces up and down. We then watch a demo of an Occulus Rift virtual reality game in which the player is shooting from inside a metal turret, and I recognise that metallic vibration every time the gun turret fires or draws fire.


I pull the spatula from the potpourri box and we enter a soundproof room. He holds a sword parallel to the ground and swipes the edge of the spatula along the blade edge to create a knife-sharpening effect, then flicks the spatula centimetres from the microphone to release a long, high frequency ‘ping.’ The spatula does all the work, although you’d still be ill advised to bring a spatula to a sword fight.


If the sound comes from the spatula I wonder why he uses the sword at all, but he says he likes it for the length of the sound. A monitor in the soundproof room plays a loop of a swordsman slashing through the air, and we take turns trying to create a sound length to match that slash. He instructs me to place my sword hand on the actual blade and not the hilt in order to mute the vibration. He doesn’t like the sword’s resonance.


I bring two machetes together, edge against edge, to create a short, dry clink, but he prefers to clap the flat sides together to create a more satisfying, wet sound. He hands me a thin, floppy sword – the kind of weapon you might give as a joke gift to an impotent ninja – and it makes a wobble sound like waving a sheet of thin aluminum. I take an inventory of his weapons arsenal and realise a recording studio might be a great place to hide during a zombie invasion. ‘Where do you get all these weapons?’


‘Taobao. You can find anything on Taobao.’


He keeps a database of thousands and thousands of sounds and I wonder how he keeps them organised. He plays clips of him stabbing and hammering assorted foods, duplicating body damage impact sounds. For him to find it quickly in his database he names each file for the food and describes the sound: various_egg_ hammered_metal_juicy; various_ carrot_stabbed_impact; various_ apple_vegetable_sawed_juicy.


The studio is always working on multiple projects at once, and it’s important to play the game and watch demos and ‘catch the mood very fast,’ Alex says. In the morning he’s working on a violent fighting game, and in the afternoon he’s working on a cute farming game. ‘I have to switch my mindset during the lunch to do a totally different mood of sound in the afternoon.’ It must be a challenge to get his vegetables to make cute, happy sounds in the afternoon after hearing their vegetable brothers get stabbed all morning.


For more on Game Audio Lab, contact alex@gameaudio-lab.com.

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