My Xbox

Sound & Fury, Part 1

At a time when game soundtracks are finding their way onto CD shelves of gamers everywhere, audio is quickly becoming an indispensable component of a great console game experience. Russel Shaw should know: He leads the very talented and determined team that’s bringing the sounds of Fable®: The Lost Chapters™ to Xbox®. Welcome! Please tell us who you are, a little about yourself, and the nature of your involvement with the audio development of Fable: The Lost Chapters.

Russell Shaw: My name is Russell Shaw. I'm head of Sound and Music at Lionhead Studios. I am responsible for all things audio in Fable: The Lost Chapters. I composed the in-game music and created/designed all the sound effects for in-game, movie sequences, ambience, etc.

A rich world with rich audio. The quality of the Fable audio features, from the dialogue to the music, is incredible. Please tell us about the role the audio played in the overall development of the game.

Shaw: I was lucky enough to start work on Fable in the early conceptual stages, and this helped greatly in determining the audio goals for the game way before it actually started to take shape. One thing I tried to do early on in the project was make sure the game designers were aware of what was available to them both from me as the audio designer and from the technology behind the audio itself.

I'd often get asked by artists, level designers, etc before they started work on a design if specific sounds for different creatures or in-game features were possible. Something as simple as giving the scripters the ability to trigger off-screen 3-D sounds can add enormous variety to gameplay and the story lines themselves.

Both the scripters and cutscene animators had access to an array of custom sounds and musical pieces which they could trigger from within the script to help them achieve the cinematic feel they were after. How did you make the team aware of your progress with the audio?

Shaw: Most of the time I liked to have my door open so the team could hear what I was working on, to give them a feel for what I was doing. All the music that I composed for Fable went into the game as demos very early on—before we went to orchestra—as did most of the region ambiences and spot effects. This definitely had an effect on the game designers even if only on a subliminal level. Was the art complete before the music and effects were created, or was it a synergistic process?

Shaw: Remember that the aim of the audio designer is to create something that feels like it's coming from the object on the screen. Ninety-five percent of the time the completed artwork is needed to bring the whole thing to realization. There is much less scope for any inconsistency between sound and visuals in this way.

I like to tell artists and animators to imagine how they want their work to "sound" as well as "look," which leads them to come to me with questions like: "The Balverine should sound like a demented wolfman," or "Can you make a Minion sound like he's wearing rusty, heavy armor?" What is this level of audio detail meant to convey to the player?

Shaw: It was very important to the Fableteam that the sound and music should not only enhance the gameplay but should also give the game a "feel" which could not be realized by visuals alone. Every region has its own musical theme and atmosphere that conveys to the player what he can expect from that region, be it a cold, eerie graveyard; bright, cheery woodland; or quirky, unfriendly village. All this has to be obvious from the soundscape.

Emotion and tension are also important. If you find yourself in trouble or in imminent danger, the whole thing gets turned on its head: The music changes dramatically, and certain sounds are brought in to increase the tension.

Suddenly the woodland doesn't seem so cheery any more! Of course, the sound plays a huge role in letting the player know what's going on around him. You can hear threatening creatures before you see them, and the 3-D audio engine lets you know where these sounds are coming from, and how far away they are.

Varied environments need varied audio themes. What about audio cues for character development?

Shaw: A very important aspect of the game is that your current renown or status determines how successful you are in achieving certain in-game objectives and your renown is very much a result of your previous gameplay decisions.

You can glean a lot of information of how you are regarded by the other human characters in the game if you take the time to eavesdrop on their conversations. Hearing them curse or praise you can make you realize why you are failing in certain areas of the game. What’s your favorite dialogue or music segment in Fable, and why?

Shaw: It's very hard to pick a favorite as there's so much variation, but if I had to choose then the music for Witchwood and Oakvale are probably my favorite pieces. I had a very strong idea of how these regions should sound musically before I composed for them, and they just seemed to find their way to the score sheet easier than most of the other pieces.

Also, I was quite pleased with how Bowerstone came out, as it was technically a very difficult piece to write. It's completely pizzicato whereby the strings of the bass, cello, violin, and viola are plucked rather than bowed. I had no idea of how this was going to sound or indeed if it was technically possible.

Allan Wilson, my orchestrator, assured me it was possible and enlisted the help of a strings specialist who changed the key of the composition to bring out the best tonal quality of each of the stringed instruments. We left it to the end of the session and let all the other orchestra members go home, leaving just the 54-piece string section to concentrate on the composition.

They all had to play perfectly in time for it to work. As soon as they started playing, it was a magical moment and the end result is quite stunning.

Lastly, the Cemetery piece works really well. We had the choir sing Latin words associated with the doom and gloom of a graveyard and it sounds very chilling. Famed composer Danny Elfman contributed the Fable soundtrack. What was it like to worth with him?

Shaw: We initially set up a conference call with Danny before work began to give him a briefing of sorts. The Carter brothers, Peter Molyneux, and I crowded around a conference telephone not knowing the correct protocols for dealing with Hollywood composers. We needn't have worried as Danny is very accommodating.

He just wants to deliver exactly what the client wants! Basically, we wanted him to compose the three minute opening title theme to give Fable a memorable musical identity. We wanted the theme to reflect the dark-and-light, evil-and-good elements of Fable as well as the underlying story of a young boy growing to become a hero.

He took all our thoughts and went away and composed some demo pieces from which we chose the bits we liked best. He then combined all these elements into the final composition that went into the game. What was the most challenging aspect of working on the game’s audio features?

Shaw: Well, there was the sheer logistics of shoe-horning an elephant into a dog kennel. The amount of audio in this game is absolutely absurd! For a while I think we seriously doubted we could fit it all on a DVD. However, with some gentle massaging and some tender loving care I think we just managed it.

Also, composing a score is always intense and requires almost insane levels of focus, but with the time periods involved and knowing that it was to be played by one of best orchestras in the world made it a very tense, not to say daunting, time. Knowing that everyone on the team had such high expectations and indeed aspirations for the Fable score, I found it one of the biggest challenges of the audio design. Please give us your opinions on the role of dialogue and music in console gaming. What are the qualities of good game audio?

Shaw: Good game audio is a question of balance and tone, and the line between a good mix of all the audio elements and complete cacophony is a thin one. The usable audio spectrum for games goes from around 60hz up to about 16000hz. That's a lot of hertz!

Good games employ as much of this frequency spectrum as they possibly can. This means you have to have quality recordings of music, dialogue, and sound effects. Also, making sure that there are moments of calm and quiet in a game as well as the all-out mayhem means that the audio designer is thinking about dynamic range.

Putting all this together is a real art. You can have the best recorded sound and music in the world and a million lines of dialogue but if they are not mixed together correctly in the game it all goes to nothing. The most important part of the game audio design is the final balance.

Towards the end of the project I like to play through the game as much as possible making final tweaks and adjustments to volumes to make sure that everything can be heard when it's meant to be heard, and that the hours of dialogue recording, composing, etc haven't gone to waste.

Storms (and calm) need audio emphasis. You seem to be making a strong distinction between dialogue and music.

Shaw: Well, dialogue is meant to be listened to and music isn't. It sounds mad, but I can explain! Let's take dialogue first. Anything spoken in a game should be there for one reason only and that is to be listened to by the player.

Dialogue should be used to give the player information, make him or her laugh, etc. Any dialogue that doesn't do this shouldn’t be there. Music, on the other hand, covers the other end of the spectrum. You could say that music should be heard but not listened to. I'm always striving to make the music as inconspicuous as possible.

It should enhance emotion or tension, but never get in the way. There is an old adage that if you can watch a movie and not notice the underlying music then the composer has done his job perfectly. Music is normally most noticeable if it is too loud or just plain bad. With that in mind, what do you foresee in the future for game audio?

Shaw: Every game audio designer will tell you that the ultimate goal is movie-quality game soundtracks. To a certain extent we are already there, but there are still compromises being made, especially regarding disk space and loading priorities. It's a constant battle that I think will rage for some time yet! Any advice for gamers who might aspire to a career in game audio?

Shaw: Specialize. Make yourself an expert in game audio. Keep plugging away at your own thing and never feel completely satisfied with anything you do. Keep your ideals high. Don't compromise on quality until you are forced to by logistics. Thanks, Russell!

Article by Jason Carl

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