|Interview with Alexander Brandon
Brandon has been writing game music since 1994. He has worked on over
a dozen titles and several of the highest ranking computer games in
recent years including "Unreal", "Unreal Tournament", and "Deus Ex".
He is currently Director of Audio on "Deus Ex 2" at Ion Storm, headquartered
in Austin, Texas. He has written articles for Gamasutra and Game Developer
Magazine, has hosted roundtables and spoken at GDC (www.gdconf.com),
is on the steering committee of the Interactive Audio Special Interest
and is on the board of directors (acting membership director) of the
Game Audio Network Guild (www.audiogang.org).
Alex focuses on advancing interactive audio for games on the aesthetic,
technical, and popular fronts, in that order, and has found great
success in all three.
Music4Games - Tell us a little about IASIG, its origins and about
Alex Brandon - The IASIG began out of an audio town hall meeting at
a fairly early Game Developers Conference, known then as CGDC (Computer
tacked on to the front, since consoles clearly didn't warrant attention
; )) around 1994. At the time, computer and game audio were in dire
need of a lot of changes to improve quality and technical needs, and
eventually formed as a special interest group of the MIDI Manufacturers
Association. The details can be found here:
I started working with the IASIG around 1998 or so and at the time
approached Chairman Mark Miller about doing a newsletter and revamping
the website, which wasn't kept up nearly as well as it is now by Jan
Borgersen. I started a newsletter called "The Interactive Audio Journal"
which ran 5 issues and which was superceded by regular updates to
the website. Once Mark Miller left I also revised and ran the website
for a year or so, and now my involvement is minimal, participating
here and there with news and workgroup issues. The SIG is as strong
as ever though, its largest achievement being the creation of Downloadable
Sounds (DLS), a standard that is still used in quite a few games today.
M4G - How do the aims of IASIG compare with GANG? What are the
other similarities and differences between the two organisations?
AB - The IASIG is more of an industry related group that deals in
mostly technical issues with interactive audio. If there's a group
that can propose a standard like DLS, especially anything involving
a subset of MIDI, the SIG is the group to do that. GANG is a guild
that has many different goals and that can provide services that the
IASIG does not, like discounts and such, but may not necessarily be
as official a vehicle for technical recommendations as the SIG.
There is actually not that much difference between the two groups
to be honest, but a few aspects of GANG such as offering business
/ legal advice is not something the SIG does.
M4G - There continues to be a lot of debate about the nature and
role of interactive audio. Please define interactive audio in your
AB - I've written a lot about interactive audio. First of all its
an industry thing. It will never be a buzzword to the masses the way
'3d' will be. Second of all, people usually think interactive audio
is reactive, and this doesn't really mean anything in the literal
sense. Adaptive audio does, but when you touch something and hear
a noise because you touched it (from an alarm button to a keystroke),
that's reactive; you influence the audio and that's an awfully easy
thing to do. Yes, even for a music switch.
Adaptive audio means the audio changes based on your decisions, AND
helps influence those decisions. Audio that is reactive is a very
natural phenomenon and can be anything from a music transition to
sound effects, but adaptive audio is a much more two way experience
and has yet to be fleshed out. So I think when we talk about interactive
audio, focusing more on adaptive audio is a good thing.
M4G - What are the benefits of interactive audio to the gamer's
AB - This can be broken down into any number of techniques does the
sound render well? Is it propagated in a way that can act as a suspension
of belief? Does the sound have decent reverb? Is the dynamic range
/ volume attenuation of the sound tuned properly? If these things
don't work then any additional icing on the cake won't help. Note
that I'm talking about a 3d first person adventure / action / RPG
title. For a 2D fighting game things like reverb don't necessarily
apply nearly as much.
As for adaptive elements helping the experience, sometimes it helps,
sometimes it doesn't. Its been shown that having music change when
an enemy is nearby is a mixed bag. Some players like it, some utterly
hate it. Its best to stick to sure things you know so I'm going to
start phasing this out of my techniques for the games we're currently
doing here at Ion Storm. If we were working on real-time strategy
my answer might be very different.
M4G - What tools/techniques are currently available to create effective/'realistic'
interactive audio in games? Which do you think most composers will
be using five years from now?
AB - Currently there are several tools available to achieve a variety
of interesting things for audio in games. SoundMAX by Analog Devices
is a good tool for some basic and a few advanced realtime synthesis
techniques. Sensaura has a pretty impressive engine called gameCODA
that tries to cover everything under the sun, but I haven't heard
it yet in a title. In fact I've heard almost no engine used to its
full capabilities in a title, but I digress. FMOD is another fairly
good engine I've heard about but have never used. Then there's the
in house engines, like Cadence, the one we're working on, and Pathfinder
at EA, that usually stay under wraps in terms of their capabilities
for various reasons.
I think in five years audio engines will evolve to include component
systems much in the same way the Unreal Engine can be coupled with
a physics system such as Havok. They will have basic playback parameters,
a set of middleware plugins for cool features like better surround
sound, and features specific to a game system such as triggering for
M4G - Having had time to reflect and live with it for quite some
time now is there anything you would change about the Deus Ex soundtrack?
AB - YeahI'd have made it a bit more subdued in nature, although there
are several tunes in there that'd work very well in DX2. I think Deus
Ex was the crossover game. It had elements from Unreal in it with
bombastic themes and pop oriented instrumentation (not pop as in N'Sync,
pop as in orchestral or modern popular music electronic elements)
as well as very immersive yet emotive music. The adaptive soundtrack
was fairly standard and had been done at least half a dozen times
before on games like that, so I wouldn't have done it that way. A
lot of it was rushed but overall I'm still very proud of how it turned
M4G - There was talk of the title piece in Deus Ex being remade
using a live orchestra for Deus Ex on the PlayStation 2. However,
some people have said that using a real orchestra, an increasing trend
in games, is going too far as it's expensive and game players can't
tell the difference, or even worse, don't care. How would you respond
AB - A live orchestra is like any other kind of instrument. With game
budgets increasing steadily, in some ways the orchestra is the best
way to achieve a vast, expansive and emotionally compelling sound
in a cinematic way for game, and the tradeoff for cost is minimal.
I think game players can tell the difference between a good orchestral
soundtrack and a bad synthesized one, since there's very few examples
of the former and hundreds of examples of the latter.
M4G - How will the music for DX2 differ from the previous Deus
Ex titles, both technically and musically? Will there be live orchestra
used for the sequel?
AB - The music in DX2 will be much more a sound effect, like an ambience
in Thief 1 or 2. But it won't be a drone all the time, it has to get
more interesting than that in places. I think the DX2 soundtrack will
be very unique, the closest examples I can think of are the ambient
soundtracks in such games as Soul Reaver and Splinter Cell.
We may yet use a live orchestra for some of the cinematic sequences.
Its still early days for that, but not too early the decision will
be made soon.
M4G - Unreal Tournament is another office favourite (both musically
and gameplay-wise), for which you contributed music while at Straylight
Productions. Do you miss the world of freelancing/running your own
AB - Glad you enjoyed UT it was fun writing for it. In some ways,
hell yes I miss freelance. Its far less hectic, but there's far less
control as well.
M4G - What do you enjoy most about working in-house at Ion
AB - Here I have been very, very schooled in teamwork and group management.
My first days at Epic were really kindergarten, and I'm in high school
now. Not because Epic had bad management, but because there were so
few people by comparison working on a title that had a longer schedule.
I'm sure Epic works in similar ways to where I am now, otherwise they'd
be out of the business.. and business it is. Unless you're utterly
rolling in cash you can't afford to spend 5 years making an A+ title
anymore, and even if you do, keeping up with the technology will bite
you where it really hurts.
Before I came to Ion Storm I had practically no idea how to work with
a team fulltime, how to run a team, how a team was structured, how
to schedule, how to task, how to prioritise, the list goes on. Now
I have very solid ideas about how audio interfaces with a project
from almost every angle, and much more. The lessons I've learned here
have been utterly invaluable and if the company didn't have such a
good structure and open lines of communication it never would have
M4G - Aside from DX2 what other game projects are you currently
AB - None. DX2 keeps my plate full. It's a project of staggering ambition,
as egotistical as that may sound, its true. I wouldn't want it any
other way. After its over though, if Ion announced they were working
on a puzzle game in the interim to the next big project, I'd be overjoyed
M4G - What about some of your side projects. Tell us about your
duo project with Bryan Rudge? Do you have aspirations to be a "pop
AB - I've thought about it. While 10 years ago I would've wanted nothing
else, now I just want to have one or two hits, and bow out. I'd like
people to hear at least one magnum opus of mine, but wouldn't want
to make a living from it.. I've heard too many horror stories and
too much anguish to jump there. But who knows, that may change.
Currently we've a group called Era's End that represents our acoustic
efforts, and OSPF (www.mp3.com/ospf)
that represents our electronic side. Both groups will probably release
an album in the next year or two.
M4G - I gather you are putting together a 'greatest hits' CD of
some kind. What are the challenges of bringing a game soundtrack to
AB - Whoa many and varied! Acquiring rights / IP to a game for soundtrack
publishing unless there's a HUGE amount of money involved is just
unfeasible at the moment. While I may have compiled a good collection
of game music at CD quality in the last few years, talking to publishers
from Namco to Nintendo for the rights would be a nightmare.
As a historic, FREE album though, it's quite possible. As long as
no money was charged and the compilation was released as something
of an exhibit, I think companies who own the rights might be very
amenable to the deal. I may pursue this in the next year if I can
find or form a group to help me tackle the administrative tasks behind
it. (hint, hint) ; )
M4G - What future developments in technology do you anticipate
will benefit music for games?
AB - The usual...more memory, more space, and more channels. Get those
up, and the rest will follow. We're almost to a point where we can
really do this well though. The Xbox has the best console features
yet and the middleware companies like Dolby are finding ways to squeeze
beauty out of lesser machines such as the GameCube with Dolby Prologic
For game sound, synthesis is the future. We're synthesizing visuals
and getting awfully close to reality with each new generation. Soon
I hope we can actually do the same with sound...soon being the next
ten to twenty years. : )
this article in the Forums
search facility here: