Firelight Technologies lead designer Raymond Biggs says game audio tools are 'too different' from other industries

Opening the DAW

FMOD Studio is here to bring the digital audio workstation concept closer to games development. Develop talks to Raymond Biggs about a tool poised for what promises to be an industry-changing release

What differentiates FMOD Studio from FMOD’s previous offerings?
The main difference with FMOD Studio is how we approached the design.

We started by looking at the tools currently available for music, film and television – digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Pro Tools, Logic and Live – and we based our design on the core ideas these tools share.

We wanted FMOD Studio to have a similar look and feel but to be tailored specifically for games.

So what about the games audio sector today means that a tool of this kind is needed and wanted?
I believe there’s real frustration among sound designers and composers about the tools currently available for game audio.

For those coming from music, film and television to games, there’s a high barrier to entry because current tools are just too different from the ones they use every day.

Meanwhile, those currently working in the games industry are hamstrung by the lack of features that are standard for DAWs. With FMOD Studio we’re trying to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

Presumably that means that FMOD Studio could change the way games audio is implemented in the future?
If you look at how game audio tools are used today, you’ll see that mostly they’re just used to import and organise assets.

Most sound effects in games are simple random playlists, even though our tools provide the ability to make much more dynamic sounds.

I believe a major reason for this is that the interfaces of game audio tools today just aren’t designed for audio creation. They have more in common with file managers and databases than audio sequencers and software mixers.

By designing FMOD Studio to be more like a DAW, we believe sound designers and composers will spend more time creating within the tool and experimenting with dynamic sounds and music.

And how will it change the games that consumers play?
Ultimately, we hope FMOD Studio will help create more immersive and engaging games.

One unique aspect of game audio that sound designers and composers have to take into account and try to avoid is listener fatigue caused by repetition.

If sounds and music are dynamic and ever changing, the player will feel more engaged with the game.

FMOD Studio is designed specifically for creating sound effects and music that have variation and respond dynamically to in-game action.

Potentially, every sound effect and music track created with FMOD Studio is its own mini synthesiser.

Why is the virtual mixer element particularly important to FMOD Studio?
The mixer is actually a very important creative tool in any audio production. Creative mixing is really an art in itself and many highly regarded audio engineers get paid big bucks to mix the likes of albums and film soundtracks.

There have been some experiments in the past to bring mixers to games – starting with in-house tools and more recently in middleware. But we haven’t seen anything at the level you’d expect from an audio workstation or hardware mixer.

The mixer in FMOD Studio is special because it’s the most capable mixer ever created for games. We think it sets the bar for how games will be mixed in the future.

What other significant features and abilities does FMOD Studio introduce beyond the mixer itself?
The other major feature in FMOD Studio is its multi-track editor.

It’s a unified editor for both sound effects and music that supports flexible track routing, effect chains, automation of effects by the timeline as well as game parameters, and tempo automation for music.

We’re also including some long requested features, such as shared workspaces for teams, Perforce integration, mixer snapshots and support for hardware control surfaces.

And it’s fair to say FMOD Studio will provide games audio professionals with a parallel to that of film and TV audio?
Our aim is to reduce the learning curve, not just for newcomers but for those already working in the industry with current tools.

If you look at audio tools available outside of games, they are very mature pieces of software that share fundamental design features, conventions and terminology.

But if you look at current audio tools for games, they’ve got more in common with data entry applications like spreadsheets than with DAWs.

For someone coming from film or television it’s a very steep learning curve – and for those currently in games, a lot of time is spent figuring out how to do things in the game audio tool they already know how to do in a DAW.

We’ve based the design of FMOD Studio on those things common to all DAWs and expanded them to achieve things that are unique to games.

If you’re already comfortable with DAWs, using FMOD Studio should feel very natural.

Audio teams, of course, work in tandem with game developers specialising in other disciplines. How will FMOD studio improve the interplay between sound teams and the likes of coders, designers and so on?
I think we’re seeing a trend, in both internal tools and middleware, of reducing iteration times.

The best way to see if something works is to quickly try it – and if it doesn’t work, try something else.

Accelerating the iteration process for the audio team gives them more time to experiment and collaborate with the art, design, and writing teams.

With FMOD Studio we’ve actually tried to eliminate iteration time altogether by skipping the build step. Our live update system allows sound designers and composers to make changes on the fly and hear them while the game is being played.

Is FMOD Studio exclusively for triple-A development, or will it offer pricings and a feature set suitable for smaller studios, and even indies and microstudios?
From a design standpoint, we’ve worked hard to layer the complexity in FMOD Studio.

Although there are some advanced features that triple-A titles will exploit, there is a core set of basic features that will be used by projects large and small. We’ve focused on making these everyday things easy and upfront.

We’ll be announcing pricing closer to the release date.

However, it will follow our current pricing philosophy of offering the full product to everyone – free for educational and non-profit use, and variably priced for other projects, depending on their size.

What challenges still face those working in game audio today?
I think a common fight for all of us in game audio is for bigger budgets. Not just money – although that would help – but for system resources.

High quality effects and synthesis used in the film, TV, and music industries are computationally expensive – the algorithms are very complex.

For example, a reverb effect of the quality of Waves’ IR1 convolution reverb would blow the entire audio CPU budget for most games – and that’s just for one effect.

However, we are beginning to see greater value placed on game audio as attention increases from the press and from gamers.

We’re also on the verge of the next console cycle with the muscled up Wii U launching next year.

It’s a very exciting time to be in game audio and I think we’re going to be blown away by advances – both technical and artistic – in the next few years.

How important is integration with other tools and technology to FMOD Studio?
It’s easy to forget when you’ve got your head stuck in developing a tool that you’re only one stop in a much larger pipeline.

FMOD Studio sits between the DAW and the game engine, so anything we can do to improve the flow of content will help speed up the process.

FMOD is already integrated with all the major game engines, and we’ll be looking to continue those integrations with FMOD Studio.

Additionally, features like the live update system will allow sound designers and composers to get content into the game almost instantly.

In terms of technology we’ve been lucky to have attracted some really great partners; companies like Dolby, iZotope and Audio Gaming have incredible technology far beyond anything we could do in-house.

We know our own limits – and we can rise beyond them by working with great partners.

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