A Composer's Perspective on Game Audio part 3 - Gearing Up

I was going to spend a little time writing about interactive adaptive audio this month, but since I get approached regularly about gear suggestions, I got kind of excited at the thought of talking about the tools of the trade.

by Lance Hayes

I was going to spend a little time writing about interactive/adaptive audio this month, but since I get approached regularly about gear suggestions, I got kind of excited at the thought of talking about the tools of the trade.

This list focuses on core pieces of gear that you should consider having in your studio if you aim to be a well-rounded game composer. I realize that this list may seem somewhat pedestrian to some. This is a post for those starting out who want some idea about where to begin building a system for game work. As topics go, this one is inclined to sprawl, so I’ll just cover the basics.


At this point you can compose on a PC as easily as on a Mac. Most everyone is aware of the basic advantages so I won’t get into a comparative analysis between the two platforms.

You can definitely get by with one very powerful system to start out with, but you’ll eventually need more as your projects grow. A couple of multi-core computers with as much RAM as possible with good pro-level sound cards such as those from RME, PreSonus, Avid, Focusrite, etc., is a good start. But given today’s powerful systems, you can do a lot with just one when you are starting out so don’t despair if your budget doesn’t allow for multiple rigs.

Apple has a great channel established for media boxes and or you can talk with your pro audio dealer.

If you are going PC, they are fairly easy to build yourself, but if you don’t want to roll your own, you can have someone do it for you. There are a number of companies that specialize in custom DAW building such as ADK Pro Audio, PCAudioLabs, Sweetwater and VisionDAW. This is a great way to save time but can be a little pricey so do your research carefully and make sure you are getting everything you need. One upside to this approach is that you have the peace of mind that comes with being able to call someone if your DAW goes dark.

The Software

Assuming you are not going to start out with a lot of hardware synths and outboard gear you will probably be investing in software initially.

On the software side, you should focus on tools that will allow you to dive into a wide range of musical styles since it’s not unheard of to be asked for a sea chantey, a romantic string suite, and a hip hop treatment in the same week or in back to back projects. A DAW, an editor and lots of plug-ins are pretty standard fare for games, as they are in film and TV work these days.

In informal polling, the most popular DAWs tend to be Pro Tools, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic and Sonar. Additionally, Sound Forge and Audition are good editing focused tools.

On the music library and VST front, there are some great tools out there.

On the orchestral soundtrack side, you’ll want some orchestra, choir, percussion and piano software. Top choices are the East West, Project Sam, Tonehammer and Vienna libraries. There are dozens of other solid options out there as well but these tend to be the baseline sets that people tend to build on.

Synths-wise common solutions are Reason for synths, drums and the unusual and Native Instruments Komplete for everything VST.

Altiverb and the Waves plugs are common tools in the industry.

The Remote Rig

You’ll want a good laptop with a pro soundcard and/or a good handheld recorder and some decent large diaphragm microphones for sound creation. Many games require unusual concepts for their music and you should be able to source outside content quickly.

As an example, a title I recently worked on required me to create instruments from scratch. That is, I had to create them physically by building them, play them for recording sessions and take that all back to the studio for further manipulations. I did this out outside the studio and I didn’t have a lot of time to get in front of it so my remote setup came in very handy.

Also, sound design is ever present in the game audio world and you will undoubtedly be tasked with creating elements at some point. Having a good hand held or portable system is paramount to getting usable results.

For recording software Ableton Live, Reaper, Propellerhead Record and Pro Tools are among the established tools.

Widely regarded handheld recorders are available from Zoom, Sony and Tascam.

The Keys

As is the case for most composing work, an 88-note controller keyboard with some control surface tools, or an additional dedicated control surface, are standard tools. This is a no brainer for most readers of Keyboard so I only mention it to make the point that many sound libraries samples are scheduled across the entire length of a keyboard including key switching and instruments with huge ranges covering the entire seven octaves or more. Having less than 88 notes is going to leave you at a disadvantage, since you won’t be able to play the entire range of many instruments without skipping around the octaves.

The Middleware

For those not in the know, audio "middleware" is the tool used to integrate sound assets and music into the game engine. Middleware allows the game’s audio team to effectively playback music and sound design much as you would playback sounds in your DAW. Further, it makes specific calls for sounds that are tied to events in the game allowing the developers to create a custom soundtrack and sound design cues when they see fit based on progress within the game during playback.

I would highly recommend downloading some demos from their respective sites and spending some time learning about how they work. Two popular pieces of software in game audio middleware are FMOD and Wwise. Other popular tools are Microsoft’s XACT and the Unreal Development Kit.

The Wrap-Up

So there you have it. Again this is intended only as a primer. I’m sure that there are other ingredients to this process that people find useful. Feel free to chime in below in the comments section with additional tools or specific recommendations.


Postscript: The Game Developers' Conference

I want to share a few highlights from this year’s Game Developers Conference which I attended a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco. It was a fantastic week as usual with many of the most talented people in the industry contributing to and taking in the various conference events at the Moscone Center in beautiful downtown San Francisco. It’s truly a rarified environment that’s charged with the electricity that only comes around once a year. There are other game events but this is one of the biggest specifically for the industry.

Among the Audio Track highlights this year, Marty O’Donnell’s wonderful keynote address stood out for its refreshing take on the creative process and what that process needs to survive in today’s game environment.

Another standout was Martin Stig Andersen’s lecture on his work from Playdead’s Limbo. For those that haven’t played the demo; if you have an Xbox and love dark puzzle games with unconventional highly effective audio treatments this is a must download.

GDC is all about socializing with your peers while learning new tips and tricks. The epic party atmosphere in the evenings tends to run late into the night at places like the W Hotel bar and usually proves that some of the best networking can unexpectedly happen in the oddest places. GDC remains one of the most important and fun events for anyone that’s interested in the game industry.

0111 Lance Hayes bio

Author bio: Lance Hayes is also known as DJ Drunken Master and is a keyboardist, synthesist, and leading composer of music for video games. Most recently, he composed the soundtrack for Microsoft's Forza Motorsport 3 title. Find out more at www.djdm.com.