LazyDog - Sound Design Reference Guide

Sound Design Reference Guide

Or "things I wish I had known earlier"

A disclaimer: these are all described in laymans terms and may be over simplified. It's a starter guide for people that want to learn. If anything interests you, now you know what to google for. 
If you get the "well, technically..." itch when reading, please disregard it and pat yourself on the back.  Because if you already know the differences and nuances - this ain't for you.

A little of everything

  • Overview - general stuff
  • Game terminology
  • Sound Terminology
  • Voice-related stuff
  • General tips and advise

Overview - General Game Sound Designer stuff that you should know

A DAW or Digital Audio Workstation most commonly refers to programs that allow you to record and edit audio. Programs such as Cubase, Nuendo, Reaper, Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live and Studio One are examples of this. They allow you to record and edit audio such as dialogue or sfx, or make music and ambiences. You can record directly into them if you have a microphone, or edit previously edited material.

I mainly work in Reaper and Nuendo, but all softwares have their kinks and advantages. Find one you feel comfortable with and learn it well. Once you know how and why things work, switching from one to another is not all that difficult.

Sound Interface refers to an external, physical box that you plug into your computer. This interface enables you to connect microphones and line inputs (such as guitars) or midi (synths) to your computer. Some of these also take over the computer's audio processing, and to get them to work, you most often have to manually choose your new audio interface (sometimes referred to as external soundcard) in your playback/recording devices. Your sound interface should be adapted to your needs, but it's rarely a bad thing to have too many inputs or outputs. At home I use a Zoom UAC, previously I used a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.

Sound Middleware refers to programs and plugins that help the sound designer integrate their sounds into the game engine. Wwise, FMOD, Fabric and Elias are such programs (although Elias used to be for music, but now they have a cool audio engine). These programs can help the Sound designer setup logic for switching sounds for footsteps or ambiences without having to dig into code.

Game Engines are programs that allow game designers, programmers and artists to create environments and setup logic that enable gameplay. Essentially, it's complex toolbox. There are an array of 3d engines such as Unreal Engine, Unity 3D, CryEngine and Frostbite, as well as 2d engines. 3D engines allow the game developer to place objects in the game world (a level or scene) and then connect the objects with logic. It also handles a lot of physic and lighting calculations. For example, when the ball enters the goal, the player gets a point. Many engines are free for students and non-profit projects, and only require a fee once you start making money from the game.

AWO - Refers to A Way Out. I'm lazy, alright?

Game Terminology

Programming/scripting in laymans terms are differentiated by depth and complexity. I myself do not program even though I use programming languages (like C#), I do sound design scripting using visual scripting tools, such as UnrealEngine's Blueprint. An example would be that a scripter adds a trigger that detects if a ball enters the goal. If it enters, add a point. A programmer has programmed the physics of that ball and the detection of that triggerbox (see description below).

Visual Scripting are tools that allow level designers, coders and sound designers to use code without having to write everything out. Often node-based, these tools allow users to drag from one node to another. Often color-coded and with the ability to follow the code from one function to another these enable non-programmers to do implementation. An example of this would be Unreal Engine's Blueprint.

Triggers/triggerboxes/collision are ways that the game engine react to objects touching, crossing or leaving each other. These allow you to detect if a goal has been made in football, or if a different sound should play because now the player is walking on grass and not concrete. These also allow you to trigger a certain dialogue or cutscene upon reaching a specific area.

Parameters/variables/bools/integers/floats/strings are examples of ways you can connect your sound to what happens in the game. Bools, integers and floats are different ways of storing data. Bools can only be true/false (i.e. 2 values), integers can only be whole values (1,3,19) and floats can have decimal points (1.5, 89.34). Strings are words such as "Goalie" or "Zlatan". These come in handy in different ways and are used in almost all kinds of scripting and programming. There are more types, but these are the most common ones..

Each variable has a name and most often a value. A variable is kind of like a box. If you get a box, slap a name onto it that says "Eggs" and then toss 6 eggs into it, then you've created the variable Eggs, with the value of 6. Some programming languages require that you decide what kind of box it is: an int, a string, etc. and say "this box is an int, called Eggs that contain the value of 6." You can also say "this is an int box called Eggs and it contains nothing for now" and then assign a value to that box later.

  • Example: To use the football example again, you want the audience to react to the game. You could make a parameter that increases in value everytime a goal is made, and then goes down over time.  This would allow you to connect the volume (loudness) of the audiences cheers to this parameter and the current state of the game. If you do that, then the audience would cheer extra loud when there's been a goal, and then calm down over time. This could use a float, since you want a smooth audio transition between the levels. If you use an integer or int it might sound choppy if directly connected to the audio.

If you want to increase your complexity you could also add a detection system using a triggerbox that detects if the ball is near the goal. When the ball gets closer to the goal, the audience should get exited, right? You could set this up by having a sound item (preferably a loop), "ScoreCheer" that is connected to the "ScoreCheer" parameter. Then make another item called "AnticipationCheer" connected to the "AnticipationCheer" Variable.

Cutscenes are movies or sequences. Most commonly used to bring the story forward. Sometimes pre-rendered (calculated by the compute beforehand, like in animated movies) sometimes they are in real time (if you gave your character a silly hat and the silly hat is in the cutscene, its most likely rendered in real time).

MIDI is a format to convey information, usually associated with keyboards as many midi controllers (devices that allow you to send midi input to the computer) come in the form of keyboards. Midi convays information about which key is pressed how heavily (velocity) and for how long. This allows you to write music digitally, to play a chord on the piano and then instead use trumpets or strings for that chord in the computer.

Frequency and EQ

Everything you hear (and many things you don't hear) has a frequency. The lower the frequency, the lower the tone, and the higher the frequency the higher the tone. An EQ plugin in your DAW allows you do boost or lower certain frequencies. Cut them out entirely or just balance them a bit. This can be used to get rid of sounds you don't want or to emphasize sounds you like. If you have a song with several tracks and you then want to add a piano layer, you might want to EQ out some frequencies in the same span as the piano to "make room" for the more important sound. This helps your mix sound less muddy and messy.

Plugin Chains

How you setup your plugins, the signal chain of the sound affects how it ends up sounding. For example, if you have a vocal track (singing) with two plugins, a gate (cuts out all sounds below a certain threshold, good for pauses) and a reveb (an echo) you can get the following results:

1: Reverb first, then gate. As you put the gate on after the reverb, it now cuts off some of the nice round echoes you added, giving the song a harsh feel. Some of the noises between the phrases are now exaggerated thanks to the reverb and no longer cut out by the gate.

2: Gate first, then reverb. Put the gate first and get rid of any sounds you don't want between phrases. Add the reverb. Everything sounds smooth and nice.

CrossFades are when you have two audio items and fade out one item while simultaneously fading in the other, making a seamless transition in between.

Voice-related stuff

VO stands for Voice-Over and is pretty much everything voice-related. Dialogue, cutscenes, efforts.

Efforts/Exertions are things such as heavy breathing, grunts and "ouchies" coming from the player or npcs. Kratos in God of War going "HAUGH!" everytime he does a dodge roll is an example of this. Or Leo and Vincent in AWO sounding strained while helping each other up a cliff.

Dialogue most often refers to an exchange of words between two characters. Such as the dialogue between Leo/Vincent and the inmates in AWO.

Barks are dialogue pieces that are blurted out by characters, most commonly without an associated animation or a dedicated cutscene. A bark could be the player commenting on something in the environment or an NPC telling a chased player to stop.