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Interview with Alexander Brandon

Alexander 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 (, is on the steering committee of the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (, and is on the board of directors (acting membership director) of the Game Audio Network Guild ( 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 your involvement.

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 I started a newsletter called "The Interactive Audio Journal" which ran 5 issues and which was superceded by regular updates to the website.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 own words.
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 overall experience?
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 scripted events.

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 out.

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 to this?
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 show?
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 Storm?
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 happened.

M4G - Aside from DX2 what other game projects are you currently working on?
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 star"?
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 ( 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 market?
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 II.

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. : )

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