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Music For Video Games

Gerard 'Gez' Gourley Of Smartdog By Paul White
Published November 2001


Gez Gourley specialises in creating sound for console games — whether it be orchestral music or crashing cars...

Some people work for a living, whereas others are paid to indulge their hobbies. At least that's how Gez's friends seem to view his position as Music Director at Smartdog, the Leamington Spa‑based console games developer. While two rooms full of graphic designers and programmers toil over their hot VDUs to create ever more exciting and eye‑catching games, Gerard handles all the music, dialogue and sound‑effects recording on his own. A hot VDU is involved! I caught up with him in the middle of a heatwave, when his sweltering studio turned out to be one of the coolest rooms in the building.

There are obviously a lot of people who want to know how to land a job like this, and what qualifications are needed, so I quizzed Gez as to his musical background. It turns out that although he persisted in learning to play the piano, he didn't exactly enjoy his school music lessons: "The teacher insisted on playing Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' over and over again until we knew it inside‑out. I still do to this day. But I was also very interested in computers and bought a little keyboard so I could do some music on the Sinclair Spectrum. The Spectrum only had one music channel, so it could only play a melody, but I loved it. I've had all the computers, from the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum, through Orics and Commodore VIC 20s, Amstrads, everything. I've always been into the computer world and after school I went on to work for a games company called Players. I did loads of games for them. It's a case of a hobby becoming a career.

"My relationship with Smartdog began at another games company called Codemasters where I met up with Dave Thompson — I'd previously written a game for him as a freelancer. Dave then left Codemasters along with a couple of other guys, Ashley Routledge and Dave Saunders, who are now also part of Smartdog. I stayed on at Codemasters for a while, then moved to another company called Big Red Software who were just down the road and I worked there for a few years until I noticed an ad in the paper where Smartdog were looking for a musician. It was within walking distance of my house, so I went to see Dave Thompson and told him I was interested in the job — and he gave it to me. At that time Smartdog was a small independent company, whereas now it's much bigger and part of a group of companies [the Titus Interactive Group, made up of Titus, Virgin and Interplay]. There were only around five of us then, but now we have over 30 people working here."

Smartdog Studio

In most respects, other than the vast sample library, Gez's studio resembles a typical home studio setup based around a Pentium III PC running Cubase VST. There's a rack containing a small number of carefully chosen synths and a couple of effects processors, while a Yamaha O3D functions as the main mixer. The O3D is digitally linked to a Yamaha DS2416 soundcard in the computer, allowing both computer tracks and external MIDI instruments to be mixed to hard disk within the digital domain. The monitoring system comprises a pair of Genelec 1029As perched on the desk with a matching subwoofer underneath. I was curious to know whether this monitoring arrangement was accurate enough.

MUSIC FOR VIDEO GAMES"I know the sound of the room pretty well now, so the speaker positioning isn't a problem," insists Gez. "I know how much bass to roll off and I find that if you can get a mix sounding good here, it'll work in most environments. Having said that, I do test all my mixes through a mono TV as well, because some people still play games on those. I tend to roll off the bass end below 80Hz so that smaller systems still sound good.

"People still think that to write music, you need huge studios with lots of equipment, but it simply isn't true. You just need a MIDI sequencer and a few carefully chosen instruments, and that's very much my philosophy. I've worked in studios where people have spent days trying to get a snare sound, and in the same time, I could have finished four pieces of music! It numbs the creativity. When you have the inspiration, you have got to be able to write straightaway — if you have to spend two hours looking for a drum loop it all goes. So it's nice to have stuff that is straightforward and that I know works.

"I mix directly into Sound Forge now, so my DA20 DAT machine doesn't see much use any more. I do all the final tidying up and processing in Sound Forge before burning the finished audio files to CD‑ROM so I can take them upstairs to the programmers.

"I use a Roland A33 as a master keyboard because it has a nice semi‑weighted action. I just like the feel of it. I didn't want anything that felt too light because I play the piano and am used to a weighted keyboard. In fact I'd ideally have liked to have had a fully weighted keyboard in here, but this one is fine. We do have budget restraints, and all the studio gear here is provided by the company — I don't have to bring in my own equipment. When we set up the studio, I just made a shopping list and created the studio from there, but of course it does get added to all the time. When I first came here, the budget was for a very basic setup with a PC, keyboard and a sampler.

The main rack in the Smartdog studio contains, from top: Korg MS2000R and Novation Supernova II virtual analogue synths, Emu EIII sampler, Alesis Midiverb 4 multi‑effects, Behringer Composer compressor, Roland Orchestral expander and JV2080 sound module, and a Tascam DA20 DAT recorder.The main rack in the Smartdog studio contains, from top: Korg MS2000R and Novation Supernova II virtual analogue synths, Emu EIII sampler, Alesis Midiverb 4 multi‑effects, Behringer Composer compressor, Roland Orchestral expander and JV2080 sound module, and a Tascam DA20 DAT recorder."Now I've added a Korg MS2000R and a Novation Supernova II because I like having hands‑on control over the parameters and these things have real control panels with real knobs. The Supernova II sounds really crispy, punchy and to the point with nice strong attacks whereas the Korg is a bit smoother — a bit more wishy‑washy, which complements the Supernova well. There's also a JV2080 in the rack, though there are no expansion cards in there at the moment because they haven't been budgeted for yet. Perhaps when the budget for the next game comes up... There is an old Roland Orchestral expander module in the rack, and its sounds are based on the JV Orchestral expansion board samples, so I do have quite a bit of flexibility when I need to work on orchestral arrangements. Usually I'll use the modules to rough out the arrangement, then replace the sounds with high‑quality orchestral samples. My sampler is an Emu Emulator III, and I chose that model because what I put into it comes out clean, whereas other samplers I've used seem to colour the sound. I've learnt that if you're under pressure to get a job done quickly, the sounds have to be clear so that when you come to mix, you don't have to waste time struggling with EQ or processing to get the sound you want.

"I'm a big fan of Spectrasonics samples because they relieve you of a lot of the programming burden, and the quality is exceptional. I always use the CD‑ROM versions of the samples rather than audio CDs as so much of the work is already done for you. You just load them up and away you go. I've just got Vocal Planet, which is amazingly good, and of course Distorted Reality. Vocal Planet isn't used on the new Downforce racing game, but I've waited a long time for it and it is perfect for some of the other games I'm working on. I also use a lot of breakbeats and things like that, or I'll build up my own drum rhythms by layering things. I do a lot of layering, and if I need a guitar part, I'll have a look through the Spectrasonics library to see what they've got, such as the Hans Zimmer Guitars collection. I also know a few local guitar players who can help me out.

"I load up samples as and when I need them for each project, because I class each game as being entirely different from the last one and try not to use any of the same sounds. When I do come to mix, the effects in the O3D are pretty good and I use them most of the time, though I also have a Midiverb 4 and a Behringer Ultrafex. The Midiverb 4 has a brilliantly simple user interface. Of course I also have some plug‑ins that I can use within Cubase, such as the TC Native Reverb, which is fantastic, and also some nice delays. I have to be careful not to use too much delay when designing sound effects because of the memory restraints in the game itself, but for CD‑based music, I can use whatever I need to."

The Process

So, how does Gez go about producing music for a platform like the Playstation, and what are its limitations? "Essentially, I have to produce a General MIDI sound set for the Playstation that can be used by its internal sound engine," explains Gez. "I have control over the ADSR envelopes via the Playstation. In some ways, it's a bit like the old Megadrive with little FM chips on board so it's not the best in the world, but the machine can also play back CD audio. In fact, for our new racing game Downforce currently in development, there's no internal music used whatsoever, it's all purely off CD. It's full‑on sound production so you can can have as many music tracks as you can physically mix."

Racing games are very emotive things, so how do you fit the rhythm of the music to the game? "I start with some rhythm loops that I think might be suitable, then I go to the game programmers' room and play the loops alongside the game so I can work out tempos and lengths. Once the rhythm is right, the rest is layered up with a funky bass line and some other suitable sounds. Racing games tend not to have a lot of melody, but there are lots of effects and filter sweeps. At the end of the process, you usually end up with a big bowl of musical soup with too much stuff in it, so then you have to start taking things out. Often you can reuse the bits you take out elsewhere in the game.

"The bass sounds come from the Supernova in this case, as it has that hard‑hitting, insistent quality. The sound punches through well with the drums and you don't really have to do anything to it afterwards."

Gez uses a Roland A33 as his master keyboard. This shot also shows part of the huge Smartdog sample library.Gez uses a Roland A33 as his master keyboard. This shot also shows part of the huge Smartdog sample library.

Sound Effects

I've already remarked on Gez's huge sample library of effects, but he doesn't always use library material. "Collecting your own sounds for use in the games is a lot of fun. I use a little MD recorder, and for Downforce, I recorded a real Formula One car by taping a little mic directly to the car body on the driver's side. There's a limit to where you can put the mic because of the risk of causing an accident, and they were understandably very particular in that respect. If the mic falls off and causes a crash, I'm in trouble! It worked a treat, and any vibration noise resulting from the mic being taped directly to the car just seemed to add to the effect. When you hear the finished product, it sounds very exciting."

Tyre squeals are de rigeur in any self‑respecting racing game, but understandably the Formula One driver wasn't willing to supply them. "In fact you can't actually hear the tyre squeals on a Formula One car when the engine is running because it's just so loud," adds Gez. "Of course you still have to have them in a racing game! What we used eventually was a mixture of library squeals and some recorded using my own car in a car park! I stuck the mic to the side of the car, got up to around 30mph, then turned the engine off and went for it. We got some nice big screeching sounds that way.

"For the crashes, I went to the scrap yard and smacked a few cars around with hammers, punctured tyres, broke a few windows and things like that. To recreate the sound of the cars going over rumble strips, I recorded myself flicking a balloon, then compressed the result and repeated it at the correct intervals. It worked a treat. Of course beating up cars with hammers doesn't produce the low end of a real crash, so I layered up my own recordings with some crash sounds from library discs, where I filtered out the high end and just left the low rumble. At each point, you have to see if it fits in with the game visuals, but it usually does. We've got it down to a fine art now.

"I'm a big fan of compression when it comes to sound effects because it makes everything stand out in the game. That kind of processing would normally be done in Sound Forge using plug‑ins, and I also have the Hyperprism plug‑in for when I really want something to sound heavily processed. You can put a sound into Hyperprism and come out with something quite different to what went in."

Racing simulation Downforce is Smartdog's latest and biggest release.Racing simulation Downforce is Smartdog's latest and biggest release.A resident musician/sound designer obviously has to work closely with the programmers who are actually writing the game itself: "The programmer might come to me and say he's doing the code for the car collisions and he needs five collision sounds, one where a tyre hits a wall, one where the chassis hits a wall and so on. I have to take these ideas and try to visualise what a car sounds like when the chassis hits a wall, then find some way to come up with a sound to match that, usually by going back to the scrapyard with a hammer!

"I do some out‑of‑house work, and I can spend two days doing a particular piece of music, take it in to them and then get, 'Oh, didn't anyone tell you it's changed now?' Working in‑house is quite different and I monitor the situation each day. There are changes, but the way it works is very organic at the moment. For example, in Downforce, as the game gets faster, my music has to get faster, so I monitor the game's development and make changes to suit. Then, at the end of the game, the music changes to something relaxing to help the player unwind and to bring them back down to earth — like Air, with a bit of piano and vocoder. It just gives the player time to recover, then the game builds up again. You have to have a break from the full‑on music from time to time, otherwise people just get annoyed and turn it off."

The audio for music and sound effects has to share a CD with the code for the game itself, as well as the fancy graphics. Doesn't Gez always find that the game code writers want as much of the disc space as possible? "Yes they do, but I can normally get away with nine or 10 tracks, almost like an album. Games music is generally data‑compressed to maximise efficiency, and each track can be up to three minutes long. The graphics do take up the majority of the space, so I have to push for space, but I usually get it. In some racing games, the sound is just a loop, but what I've tried to do is create tracks that build up to match the tension of the game, but at the same time, the sound has to be full‑on straightaway. You don't have any room for quite bits or little hi‑hat sections as they'd get completely lost behind the car noise. So, it starts full‑on and then gets fuller!"

The Future

"Everyone asks when I'm going to get a real job, but I have an income, a nice car and a house as well as a job that's a lot of fun!" enthuses Gez. "It's not all about money and I have chosen to make this my career. Of course, like most composers, I'd love to do some TV or film work and I'm a great admirer of the top Hollywood composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Hans Zimmer. Hans Zimmer is like the games composer of the film industry and he can really rattle them out. But they're good — just listen to the Gladiator soundtrack. I'd love to move into doing things like that, but it seems that kind of project comes with age. Perhaps it's because when you're older you start to throw away the rules? Already I don't follow the rules when it comes to music as they can be very restricting, especially on the classical side of things. But people seem to look at you and say, 'You can't do films at your age!', and I think, 'Why?'"

Surround Ready?

Perhaps surprisingly, Gez says that surround sound still isn't viewed as being particularly important by the games industry. "The industry is a little wary of surround at the moment because they don't feel enough people have surround audio systems, though my feeling is that more people have surround now than they think. I'm working on them slowly! We'll also have surround headphones soon and that will be awesome! Then everybody playing games will want surround sound. I'm gearing up for it so that I'll be ready."

Simple Sounds

Although the newest home games consoles have very sophisticated sound facilities, the experience of squeezing a tune out of a Sinclair Spectrum still comes in handy when developing for handheld devices: "We develop for Playstation 1 and 2, X‑Box and the Advanced Gameboy. The Gameboy has a rather limited structure for sound and music so it requires an economical approach to programming, whereas the other platforms use stereo digital audio tracks, so you can approach them more like conventional music writing. The Advanced Gameboy can play back multiple channels of monophonic samples, so if you want chords, you either have to use several channels at once or use sampled chords. You have to be very careful in choosing your instruments and what you need them to do."