Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Flea Sounds

Hello there,

I've been so busy working on my latest game Flix The Flea, that I've completely neglected to write a blog on any of the processes involved since I found my rough little demo backed up on an old hard drive and decided to make something more of it.

If you caught the last post, you'll notice that I'd just started a Kickstarter Campaign in the hopes of funding the software I was using to make Flix, and something like four months later, thanks to the help of my backers, I seem to have all but finished (er, a few persistent flippin' bugs aside).

While I take this momentary breather before delving back in to tidy the game up, it seems only right that I share a bit of my production process with you here... So d'you know, I think I will.

Something I never really covered while making Power-Up (although arguably, I really should have), was its sound and music.

While initially making the demo that was to become Flix, I kept a lot of the sound effects simple, leaving little programmatic prompts all over the place for future reference. This meant that sound and music kinda arrived in the game together, and quite late in production, which also meant that they had a sense of consistency in their style. I thought I'd explore that in a little more detail today.


A Bit About The Sound Effects Then...

I was a student at Bradford University until 2001, just before the advent of the specialist 3D Modelling or Games Programming degrees we see today. Instead, we had a more general Media Technology and Production approach which fed into the film, TV and games industries along with web design, animation, and loads of other creative lines of work too. One skill set which I became increasingly enamoured with through the creation of various sound scape projects and mock radio programmes was the whole area of creating and manipulating sound effects.

Making a listener believe in a shootout in a railway tunnel or a song composed with the harrowing samples of the world's first homicidal musician was a lot easier than accompanying said concepts with anything visual. Looking back, it was also a lot more fun and freeing to be able to produce this sort of thing individually or in small groups as opposed to doing it in cumbersome production teams lugging heavy kit and reams of storyboard under hot lights, battling with our destructive egos while keeping 50 extras from getting bored and restless on a set for hours on end. (Shudder).
A little taster of some of the nonsense that me and my friends got up to back in our university days.

In hindsight, I rather enjoyed making narratives happen in sound, though I never really saw my career in it. While creating all that narrative audio proved to be much more complicated than the relatively small demands of a little game like Flix The Flea, concocting those story driven pieces back in the day did provide some useful faculties for thinking in terms of what kinds of objects are hanging about in a scene and how to use those objects bring that scene to life. I think the term I'm clumsily reaching around for is "mise-en-scene" or something in that region. Anyway, the meaning of the term is tricky to pin down but French are said to do it very well in film, adding hidden depth all over the place.

My focus with those old audio and film projects was really only on the simple task of making the viewer accept that we were in a certain location. You know, to make it all a bit immersive. Given its peripheral nature sound tends to be particularly powerful for that sort of thing... and I had this in mind when I set out to make the sound in Flix.

Flix was based on the 8-Bit game Bugaboo The Flea. I go on and on about this, but Google it and you'll see the similarities. In fact, Flix was originally a little remake of Bugaboo. Just a hobby project from the days before Power-Up, which I made just for me. Just to see if I could.
Flix The Flea - Four months to make it sparkle.

As a child, I loved Bugaboo because despite its simple audio/visual approach, there was something about the depth of that cavern which had me so immersed that I almost didn't want to escape it (and in fact, I never did. The game was agonisingly difficult). As I recall, the dark vastness of this single, lonely cavern made the game particularly fun to play at night, and regardless of the game's outward simplicity, it oozed atmosphere.

The Bugaboo soundtrack comprised of just four in game sounds. A "beep" for jumping, a "blip" for inevitably hitting your head on a rock, a soily "squiggle" for landing arkwardly and slipping off an edge and a final "boop" for landing (in my case, usually frustratingly back at the bottom of the pit). There was also an inexplicably sickening little musical arrangement for when  you were caught by the bird, but I'll not even try to describe that, choosing instead to relegate it back to its proper place in my childhood nightmares!

Harsh and simplistic as these sounds were, I felt that the developers, Paco and Paco had covered the key event-driven sound requirements of the game nicely and anything else would have been gravy (ie. Atmospheric garnish... which was often devoid from even the finest 8-bit games, so I wasn't complaining about its absence here).

I literally sampled and used these sounds in my original version of my game. Remember, at this point it was a simple straight modern remake of Bugaboo for the sake of my own entertainment. Later, the code for these simple sounds became the cornerstone of a much richer sound scape in Flix The Flea.


Software and Hardware

Back at university, playing with all the new software was a really fun part of creating for me and an audio-minded friend of mine introduced me to Cool-Edit Pro, a great audio package which was used by the course leaders and the local student radio station alike for both teaching students and creating broadcastable content. Many was the evening I stole in RAM Air's quiet radio booth with their top-of-the-range microphones and state-of-the-art PCs, experimenting with Cool Edit Pro. (Not to mention listening to the station's vast selection of CDs).

Cool-Edit Pro was an absolute pleasure to use and incorporated loads of easy to grasp tools for delay/echo, EQ (low/high end), and modulation too. Effects like chorus, phaser and flange could be applied for quite a variety of cool effects. Not to mention easy manipulation of amplitude, pitch/speed, etc. Throughout our days as students my peers and I enjoyed free use of the package, and after graduation I always kept my own dodgy copy nearby for whenever the urge to make my own little hobby games or animations got the better of me. Quite simply, it was brilliant! and I got a lot more use out of my own £2 desktop microphone than an impoverished cheapskate like me probably should have!
Ah, the £2 microphone. For years, I made my game sounds with something like this.

When it became apparent that I'd just have to release Power-Up I ran that first kickstarter for it... remember that? Well, that was basically so I could buy all my licences for 2D/3D software along with the software for sound and music. This way I could release my games without legal licencing worries... and included on that wishlist was my trusty old Cool Edit Pro. However, when I came to do my research I was gutted to find that the program no longer existed... at least, not under the same name. In fact, like a lot of good software, the package had been bought up by Adobe, and re-fashioned into the slightly more sanitised Adobe Audition. I was a little reluctant at first, but needs must and all that. I added it to the list of software I required, and when I finally purchased I was relieved to find that Cool Edit Pro and Audition were basically the same thing.
Adobe Audition: The modern incarnation of Cool Edit Pro and my sound app of choice these days.

Incidentally, I should also mention that there is a free alternative out there if you're willing to suss it out. It's a bit more bare bones but I'm told that a program called Audacity does a good job with sound effects. Take a peek if you're on an even tighter budget than me or just want to have a go at getting started with sound effects.

Your sound effects are only really as good as your sound acquisition, and my cheap desktop microphone wasn't going to cut the mustard for a game which was broadly to be made up of sounds I created myself. I kinda got away with it on Power-Up by using instrument samples as the basis of a lot of the sounds along with the half decent microphone on my iPhone when recording anything unique but the process was convoluted and messy. Realistically I'd need a decent USB Microphone.

Luckily, these days you can get a good one off the shelf in most major computer retailers for around a hundred quid. As purchases go, this wasn't a no brainer as I don't generally have that sort of money to spare, but I reasoned the purchase with my hopes of one day recouping it through sales of the game and I took the plunge. I got myself a Spark Blue condenser microphone, and so far I'm pretty happy with it.

A decent microphone of my very own. It's been a long time coming.


Making Noises

Well, it really is about as complicated as "making noises" really.

In more detail though, I find that the best way to get the sounds for my games (especially something cute and cartoony like Flix) is to identify what it is I need, then make it by whatever means necessary... which in my case, usually means with my mouth. When it comes to sound effects you can't be coy, and that's probably why it helps to do these things alone without a big group standing by.

Working at home as I do, I do sometimes wonder what my neighbours make of the crazy noises coming from my office when I'm in the middle of a recording session, but hey-ho. My local reputation as an eccentric nutter is a small price to pay if it means I get to make my little games!

So, with the curtain of mytique firmly torn from the whole affair, let's take a look at a few of the sound effects from Flix The Flea, and a bit of the thinking and process behind them.

While initially re-making Bugaboo, I really hadn't given a thought to sound. I simply took those key sounds from the original and that was that... but when I returned to the project with a view to turning it into Flix I already knew that I wanted to elaborate on those sounds. For example, the sound of Flix hitting his head over and over quickly became pretty infuriating in game (it happens a lot). It was negative feedback on the most potent, repetitive level: Player frustratingly hits head - frustration compounded by the same dull "blip" noise over and over. I was just getting angry playing it.

Luckily, over years of making my little games, I've learned that a good way to reduce that frustration and lower the blood pressure is with a little bit of variety. First off, I was going to replace the "blip" with a fist-in-palm contact sound which nicely represents a little bald head slapping into a rock with the force of my knuckle behind it quite effectively simulating the rather harsh but necessary force of the character's skull behind the collision. This would be at the core of the impact sound (not to mention quite subtle and already much less abrasive than that "blip"). Now for the variety.Well, no probs. I decided that I'd basically do a selection of "oof"s, "ow"s and "ouch"es to accompany the impact.

But hang on! This isn't as simple as just grabbing the microphone and recording it. Let's just stop and think for a moment.

The first question is: How many variants of Flix's voice will we need? This sort of thing needs to be quantized... especially considering that later on there's going to be more vocal sounds than just "ouch"es. Again, drawing from past experience, here's how I see the quantizing of variable sounds chosen and played randomly on a cue.
Three is the absolute minimum when it comes to varying the sounds and having them sound fairly natural to a player whose attention is really on their progress through the game, and even then you're pushing it. Provided you're not firing off an "ouch" every couple of seconds, you might just get away with three. Any less and Flix definitely will sound like he's playing a recording. And that'll jar on the player.
Somewhere in the region of seven variations is pretty much the maximum for a small game like Flix. Any more than that and you risk wasting file size space while not actually really benefiting from all that variety. After all, sound is by far the largest part of a game's file size. It's all a bit of a balancing act.
My happy medium for a game like Flix was to be 5 variations of "ouch" played over the head-hit sound.

Secondly, Flix is going to say more than just this selection of "ouch"es. At the very least, he's going to need to celebrate the picking up of an item or the completion of a level, to die and possibly even to respond to the proximity of a nearby predator (as this bit of colour was a feature I REALLY wanted). The trouble is, Flix was clearly going to have an affected voice. My natural voice was hardly going to suit him. If I went in half-cocked and blasted out a load of "ouches", coming back to do the rest later... well it stands to reason that I'd be in a different mindset later and produce a totally different set of vocalisations... not to mention that I'd completely forget the processes I put them through to make them sound like Flix. That's no good at all. I'd need to be consistent, and to do that I'd need to set up a recording and editing session so that I could do all of Flix's vocal comments in one fell swoop.
The raw vocalisations for Flix... Yes, I am aware that at this point it just sounds like me acting like a bit of a moron. But bear with me on this...

When making your own sound in a consistently stylised way, this rule of thumb pretty much applies to any set of sounds in any game. Sure, make a bunch of random placeholder sounds as and when you need if you like, but reserve the creation of the game's REAL sounds for one good day/week/month-long session in which you can focus all of your attention on getting it right, in a nice consistent environment and mindset.

Basically, for me it was time to start a "List of Sounds for Flix The Flea" and "hit head x5" was going on it!
The voice of Flix, all nice and consistently stylised with a few extra bits of foley. (AKA - me eating crisps noisily).

The same would apply to the bird's squawks from a distance (to add an element of foreboding along with a vicinity warning), a selection of those same squawks close up, the celebratory outbursts, the squeaks and protestations of fluttering bugs and bats, and pretty much every other character's utterance in the game. 5 was the magic number.

Five was also to be the number of variations on Flix's jump sound... although this time for different reasons. The whole game mechanic rests on Flix's jump height. I basically broke flix's jump height into 5 sound categories. When the player releases and the height is at the bottom of the scale in category 1, we get the quiet, low spring, in category 2 the spring gets higher and louder with more of a travelling rise in its pitch, and so on. Basically, the higher the player makes Flix jump, the higher, louder and generally brighter the little accompanying springy sound becomes (by the way, that's the sound of me twanging a plastic ruler on my desk in a myriad of different ways). Sure, I could've just stuck with the one sound, but where's the subtle charm in that?!

Sometimes a seemingly simple sound would turn out to require a little more work. for example, later in the game's story, there's the sound of Flix smiling which required the creative manipulation of an instrumental violin sound I'd purchased for music composition... in fact I reckon that musical instrument samples are the next best thing after your voice for getting that Hanna Barbera/Ren & Stimpy brand of expressive sounds that you don't hear in real life.
These are the 5 squawks I made for the bird, followed by the modified versions for nearby and the further modified versions for far away.

Finally comes the issue of pitch and key. Something I've mentioned before. With my games, I try to use key where I can in the sound effects to subconsciously please the player. In Power-Up I actually created the whole sountrack in one key (in a nutshell, this means based around the same dominant bass note). It gives each song in the game a sense of coming from the same place and allows me to pitch sound effects with the music for seamless juxtaposition. If you're wondering what I mean by this, have a play of the first level of Sonic The Hedgehog. Pick up a few rings and you'll find that the sound of those pick-ups is perfectly in key with the music. A very pleasing effect. Sure, the later levels change the key of the music, but the way that the all important first level is nicely tied together really makes for an inexplicably positive and memorable experience for the player. It's those kinds of experiences I look for when gaming, and its those experiences I attempt to emulate, elaborate on and experiment with when I make my little games.

I could dissect my Flix sound processes further but I'd probably be treading the fine line between informative and downright self indulgent, so I'll leave Flix sound there, suffice to say that the whole process of sound recording for the game happened properly in the last few days of the game's production when I knew what I wanted. A large percentage of the work was in prepping a list of the sounds I'd need while working on the game and just messing around with whatever items came to hand in the hopes of getting a nice audio effect.
Examples of sounds from Flix The Flea that are in tune with the music. Very effective for tying it all together.


The Music

The music in Flix shared one common characteristic with the game's sound effects. It was all prepared in advance then actually added in toward the end of the project. But while I'd be prepping the game's sound effects in the form of a list,  the music was all prepared in the form of little recordings of me humming melodies, bass lines and generally trying to commit easily recognizeable vocal licks and riffs to my iPhone's voice recorder app (other phones and voice recording apps are available).

This was a trick I picked up back in my band days. Basically, I wrote songs. Lots of songs... I'd have probably done that whether I was in a band or not. I just liked doing it. I'd come up with a little melody and a few phonetic sounds which might eventually evolve themselves into lyrics depending on what I was in the mood to write them about later, then I'd grab my acoustic guitar and my trusty little tape recorder, both of which were always on hand in my bedroom at my mum's house, and later in my student bedroom. Once I had that little bit of tune recorded, I'd consider it safe and I was able to concentrate on other things, coming back to my tape when the urge to write a song came along.
An example of how my ridiculous howlings in note format eventually became a half-decent song, courtesy of my old band.

Again, you first have to get over yourself enough to recognise that in your initial rough recording you're going to sound downright stupid. It's worth it for the finished result though. With a bit of imagination, your idiotic babbling into your tape deck/phone will eventually come out sounding like a good song.

The technique I developed back then for capturing a good melody before it slipped my mind is as useful as ever for my little games, and having a voice recording app in my pocket at all times makes that even easier than it was then. While making Flix I knew that at some point I was going to need music, so throughout the development of the game's art, design and code, I was constantly humming, recording, then refining little riffs to fit into the game's overriding melody. Sure, to anybody else it sounds idiotic, but placed in the context of the finished product, it all makes sense.
Where it all began: This is the sound of me playing with pleasing Flix-style melodies while doing a spot of housework.

In some ways, this aspect of the music was made easier by the fact that I'd decided to attempt the whole game's soundtrack in a single song. While this meant that the ten-level game's soundtrack was to be reduced from a potential ten tracks to just a single one, it also meant that I'd have to layer this one song in such a way that the player would feel a sense of the story unfolding as they progressed through it. A sense that with each level of the game, they also got another level of detail to the music... not just a token channel switched on. To achieve this, the addition of a new instrument, and in a lot of cases a whole new sub-melody in the song would have to have a noticeably profound effect on the game's music with each progression. This was the experimental element of the Flix soundtrack, and the real challenge too.
Here's s peek at the arrangement for Flix The Flea. I've been making my music in Cubase since my days in the band. It's great fun to use. Note the different colour schemes for the groups of tracks. Each of these groups has been painstakingly arranged to get the best out of the music with each itteration and corresponds to each level of the game.

I wanted to see if this approach would add to the immersion, starting with an almost completely diegetic sound of wind rushing through the vast tunnels of the underground caverns while lonely percussive instruments hinted at creepy and lingering presences in the not-so-distant darkness. A reversed triangle hit here. An echoing castanet there. Altogether, it starts off pretty spooky. (incidentally, if you're a Kickstarter backer and you've played an early build of the game, that rather good wind sound in it is actually nothing more complex than me blowing whooshy noises into my microphone... I know, right?! I never thought for a moment that it'd work either! Came out pretty convincing eh?! But if you listen closely and you'll hear a little pop of the microphone that I couldn't quite get rid of... Note to self. Must get a good pop shield).
Here's the Flix soundtrack from an early point in the game when I'm trying to make it feel all lonely and spooky. (Imagine the wind in the cave howling in the background and you'll get the idea).

As the player progresses through the levels of the game, the percussion would give way to a gentle, dark rolling cello, which would later be joined by a bass guitar line with a mild suggestion of some bounce to it. The first of many instrumental additions intended to turn the sound scape from a lonely alien environment into something more representative, and downright celebratory of the cheeky, hop-along character of Flix himself as he gets that bit more cocky, self assured and nearer to his goal at the top of the cavern.

It would also become more busily populated with instruments and variants on the game's core melodies as the levels became more densely populated with creatures, reflecting the game's increasing complexity.
...and here's the Flix soundtrack when its really opened up and there's loads going on.

...at least, this was my intention when I set out, though I generally don't put it in so many words to myself when I'm getting creative. I just lie awake at night, sleeplessly visualising it all as best as I can in a much more abstract, less explanatory way, then I go about prepping to do it the next day.

By the time I have all of my samples together for the big recording/composing session, (three days in the case of Flix) I generally have a comprehensive library of hummed tune bits and a fairly clear idea of what's going to come out the other end.

Only you can be the judge of whether or not I actually managed to achieve all that pretentious bobbins I just laid out above. I'm far to close to it all to decide that myself. I only know that I really enjoy making this stuff. Sure, it doesn't yet make me a living, but it makes me feel like I am living... and that's good too.



I'm keeping this one short and sweet. I think my last post went on over three parts and well, that can be a bit of a drag. Instead of a big text based finish, how about I show off the final cover art for Flix while shamelessly plugging the game's soundtrack?! Yeah!!
I reckon the Flix The Flea Soundtrack should be coming out on the likes of Bandcamp (and maybe even the mighty iTunes if I can suss it out) around the same time as the game arrives on PC. That should be late September-ish.

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you liked it do let me know. Maybe even come say hello on Twitter. You can always get in touch with me @psypsoft, or just drop me a comment below.

See you next time!