Practical Audio for Indies

In the hierarchy of the senses, hearing occupies a lower position than sight, so it’s not surprising that audio frequently gets the short end of the stick when it comes to indie game development budgets. Nonetheless, good game audio can and has been produced on very tight budgets, and you can do it too; all you need is ears, and the information contained herein.

One of these portraits of me does not have ears; can you tell which one? Also, try crossing your eyes and gazing in to the midground. Wow!

The game audio pipeline is divided roughly in half between engine-specific and engine-agnostic tools and processes. As the audio capabilities of game engines can vary widely, and because indie game developers are frequently faced with projects that hardly leverage unique or expressive audio engine features anyway, my focus will be on the engine-agnostic processes of capturing new sounds, editing them into something better, and ultimately, weaving them into sonically pleasant soundscapes. My hope is that you can use this generously hyperlinked overview of the processes I use every day as a springboard for your own further resesarch.

If you don’t already have a preferred DAW, find one, and familiarize yourself with it. I can’t teach you to use your DAW, but almost every sound requires processing to sound its best, so read the manual, poke around, and get acquainted with the basics—cutting sounds into multiple pieces, altering the volume and pan of individual tracks, time stretching, and applying general effects (compression, equalization, reverb.) I personally use and reccomend REAPER, but almost any DAW will do.

When you're ready to roll, the first thing you need to do is establish your target soundscape. Play through the game in your head, or in real life, if you can, and try to hear what your ideal version of the game would sound like. There is no need to be overly specific, initially; the details will be determined gradually. Is there a soundtrack? Are the sonics generally organic, synthetic, or both? What game events even need sound effects? The answers to such questions form a conceptual framework for the game’s audio that can be documented and paired with a comprehensive list of the game’s expected sounds to form an audio design document to be referenced and further developed as the project unfolds.

I find it useful, at the beginning of a project, to implement sounds in a particular order determined largely by the relative frequency at which they are to occur in the game. Long sounds that are frequently present (music, ambience,) and sound effects that occur frequently (footsteps, gun shots,) are the sonic foundation of your game and so should be produced first, so that they can be honed without distraction from elements that contribute less to the characterization of the soundscape.

Some sounds can be represented, at least in part, by a direct sample of their real life occurence. Other sounds will need to be composed from recordings of other things, for effect, or because you don’t actually have access to what they represent, like the crack of a magical spell or the dull roar of an anthropomorphic dragon’s pillow talk. In terms of having to compose your own sounds, you've got a lot of latitude design wise; one person’s crinkly tin foil is another’s ominousily crackling ice, and the possibilities presented by combining and morphing sounds are endless.

This glacier sound was made by lightly processing a sample of crumpling tin foil. It would also be a good sound for a snapping tree!
I made these blaster sounds by cutting, recombining, equalizing, and compressing samples from this video of a slinky.

In any case, the source material that you need to build up your soundscape is probably already available to you, for free or cheap, if you know where to look. My first stops are almost always the best free sample libraries:

For most purposes, you should be looking for dry (without fx) sounds, with little ambience, and high recording quality. This will allow you to more easily exert control over the imaginary space that a sound occupies, which is essential for making different sounds sit well together. Admittedly, a lot of free sounds don’t fit this criteria, because they're simply not recorded with our convenience in mind. Luckily, lo-fi sounds are quite usable as components of a designed sound, or even as-is in certain contexts, but if you want to save yourself the hassle of treasure hunting for and designing sounds, there are a number of affordable high-quality royalty-free commercial game sound vendors:

If even the commercial samples packs don’t deliver the goods, you may have to record or synthesize your own original sounds. Recording is best avoided whenever you can manage to; it’s a real pain. In certain cases, like dialogue, you've obviously got little choice but to record. To that end, get a good cheap condenser mic, and a good cheap audio interface, do at least a touch of acoustic treatment, watch your levels, apply some compression, and you're good to go. For more general recording the same equipment applies, but you might want also want a field recorder and a dynamic mic for a wider range of sonic possibilities. When it comes to figuring out what to actually record, read some foley tips, and basically just bang on things until you hear what you want. Godspeed.

Some sounds, like retro, sci-fi, ambient, or otherwise abstract sounds, can be trivially synthesized. If you have no synthesis experience at all, start with BFXR and check out its semi-random convenience buttons on the left; that’s the juice. Learning how to synthesize your own basic sounds isn’t difficult; if you take a look at this introduction to subtractive synthesis, you'll be well on your way. If you want to go deeper, the following are some of my favorite free synths for game audio:

The death beam from Dayglow Empire was made with MiniMogueVA. Watch the trailer to see this sound in action at the front of the cop car.
These countdown, failure, and success sound effects are from Brad's Rough Draft and were made in BFXR.

As you work with your sounds, it’s essential that you audition them in your DAW in the context of the greater soundscape. Mocking up entire scenes in a DAW is common practice, and should be your first major goal, but you'll probably find that neither your sounds nor your scene sound very good. That’s to be expected, however, because audio is 90% polish, and we haven’t discussed much of technique yet. I'll leave you with this chart to ponder:

In other words, the gods of audio can be appeased by vodka and sausage.

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