When we started working on Ice Age one of the first things to spring to mind was that we needed audio work doing for it. For years we’d crossed paths with one Allister Brimble, a stalwart of the UK Development scene of over 30 years, having worked on more than 450 titles.
We reached out to Allister and accepted the offer to work on the game.
Below you’ll find a detailed piece from Allister talking about the audio in the game and how it was created.
When I was asked by Stewart to create the music and sound effects for their new Ice Age game I was excited. I hadn’t done anything really big on large formats for a while, focusing more on handheld, phones & tablets, but I had recently been missing the days where I’d be working on games for the larger formats.
My first problem was to work out how things are done differently on the larger formats compared to what I’d been working on in recent years. Thankfully, we have a lovely piece of software called FMOD which sits in-between my asset creation and the game. FMOD allows me to create randomness in the sounds and link game parameters to the sounds so that they can change depending on particular in-game actions. This was perfect for me… having been a leader in Nintendo handheld audio for many years which uses a similar concept, but actually far more tricky with everything written in script, so FMOD with its graphical interface was pretty simple to get used to and yet, could do even more.
I began by creating a title theme which was inspired by the music in the Ice Age movies. I wanted to give it a movie feel so ended up creating quite a large opening section which then settled down into the main theme. With the music being mostly orchestral in nature, I started by loading up some orchestral sound libraries in Cubase. There are such great sounds available these days that mean we can, when careful, get around the need for a live orchestra, especially when layered with other sounds.
I then started to think about the in-game music. The trouble is, FMOD can do so much. You could have a track with 5 layers and bring them in and out depending on the action. You can have random layers. Markers, inside the music so that you can switch to different points on the beat. I had to decide on the way forwards… in the end, I couldn’t so took the decision to use every possible method that I could manage in FMOD within the context of the game. Well, at least I’d know FMOD inside out by the end of the project!
The first to tackle was the Temple music. This was written with random phrases which trigger at fixed positions over a backing track, creating a different piece of music every time you enter. This actually gives me a bit of problem… when the publisher asks me for an MP3 of the track, say for rights assignment, it’s impossible because there is no fixed track.
For Sky Diving I had to take a different approach. You can complete the levels in varying amounts of time so I somehow had to create a track that would evolve on a variable 0-99 (distance fallen). For this, I recorded several short looping sequences and gradually faded them in depending on the 0-99 variable. Near the end of the fall sequence a 64 byte sine wave is faded in and we do a pitch bend to emulate a bomb dropping as Scrat is about to exit the level.
The Rapids and Nut Boarding mini-games, I composed one long track with multiple sections within it, each progressively more action-filled. As you progress along the level, these sections trigger. The trigger points stay with the beat of the music so that the transitions are not noticed.
The general in-game music was a tricky one. During my time as a BAFTA judge, I’d often find myself complaining that music could get too repetitive. I broke things up by having several pieces of music per level and also having an action layer which could be faded in over the top when fighting enemies. I also threw in a few pauses, to allow the ambiance to be the main event. This seemed to work in the long run without being annoying.
In the case of the Volcanic level near the end, I wanted the ambient sound effects to win, but also wanted some sort of musical accent. I wondered if FMOD might be powerful enough to generate completely random music from scratch, with no pre-recorded phrases, so I recorded 24 different tremolo string loops and had FMOD trigger them at random, one, two or three at a time, creating completely random music that would never get boring. Strangely, listening in-game it does sound composed! As a side effect, it meant it was the easiest track to create as well! Actually I believe that the producer, David Schumacher may have put this idea in my head during our first meeting when he mentioned the randomly generated music in Microsoft’s, Direct Music software that was used in a few games several years ago.
Finally, several of the boss fights use a transition layer… such as an action tom fill to hide the transition to the next section when the boss changes what it is doing.
I was very keen to keep the sound small and compact… However, I probably didn’t need to, but over the years I have learned to make limited formats sound good in as little memory as possible. I believe the act of optimizing sounds allows you to be a little more creative later on when it comes to adding them to middle-ware such as FMOD and more importantly, at the end of the project where new sounds are needed to finish things off, you will definitely have enough space left!
My first job with the sound design was to take the vocal tracks provided by Blue Sky and chop them all up into their individual vocals. The recordings were fairly inconsistent, so I needed to balance the volumes and tonal content before they could get into the game. Ice Age uses well over 1000 vocal samples!
I then quickly moved onto creating some background ambiance.
For the hub, I recorded a large number of tiny bird tweets and had them triggered randomly over surround space with some reverb added to create as much atmosphere as possible. Underneath this we have a gentle wind and trees rustling.
For the first main level.. Ice Cliffs, I tried something a little more exciting. In this level you climb and climb until you reach the top of the cliffs. I wanted the wind and bird song to change as you went upwards so I used 8 different wind recordings which gradually cross-fade between each other the higher we go, and we also thin out the bird song and introduce some ice crackles as well. Interestingly the wind recordings were done binaurally (4 channels encoded into 2) so that headphone users get a great surround stereo effect.
Where I live in Devon, we’d just gone into a really cold spell of weather. It was at about the time I was going to do the sounds for The Ice Fields world which has a lot of snow and ice in it.
The next day, it snowed!! I rushed out with my sound recorder and recorded all manor of icy sounds and creaks. But then something really unusual happened… the snow froze, and on top of this, new snow fell. As you stomped through the ice and snow it made a very satisfying “Crack!” sound which allowed me to create many types of snow and ice impact sounds.
However, I did find that real snow and ice did not always give me the sounds I needed. I wanted ice creaks and crackles too, and set about freezing various materials in the freezer. I tried cardboard soaked in water. This sounded ok when broken apart. However the best of all was frozen polystyrene packaging, slowly pulled apart, especially for ice creaks!
All of the graphics in Scrat`s Nutty Adventure are game engine generated and this includes all of the cutscenes. My task was to create any additional sounds needed for these and then for the existing sounds to fill in the rest. However, the coder, Joseph, would have to attach every single sound by hand, inside Unity and there were a lot more additional sounds required than I’d expected, since Scrat has very different actions in the cutscenes compared to during gameplay. This job would have taken an extreme amount of time and effort. After some thought, I came up with a plan… to record each cutscene into a movie, and then score the movie. This actually meant a lot more work for me, but was worth it as I could employ the full range of pre-rendered studio sound effects available to me for a much better overall result. After some initial problems with syncing things up, it all worked out perfectly. I used the very capable Reaper software to do the scoring.
One thing that made things so much easier was having Joseph Barber putting the sounds in the game. This is something I’d normally like to do myself as most coders I find, do not “get” sound, and end up putting things in the wrong places or not timed up correctly. However, this worked out perfectly, and was not only done fast, but with some attention to detail as well. The only thing I’d change, is that I’d probably make the enemy sounds at the last possible minute as every time the animations change, the sound needed to be hooked up all over again.
I have really enjoyed my time on this project, seeing how the latest games are made, applying some old-skool skills to FMOD and just hearing and seeing everything take shape. I feel though, that middleware such as FMOD is just the start of interactivity in games. Once all the consoles are as fast as say, current PCs, we will be able to link up all sorts of parameters to the game sound and have music with many more layers that can also react to game-play in many different ways.
I’m now looking forwards to any future projects using FMOD, and hopefully FMOD 2.0 which has a lot of new features.
Allister started working in video games in the late 80’s / early 90’s. As with many people growing up during the 8 bit era, he was inspired by the music on computers such as the ZX Spectrum & Commodore 64. When the Commodore Amiga came along, things moved away from synthetic sound to sample playback. Allister was one of the first to utilize it’s capabilities with early software such as, Aegis Sonix, then later on, SoundTracker and ProTracker.
During his time in the industry Allister has worked for companies such as Team17, Double Eleven, Sumo Digital, Popcap Games, Codemaster, Konami, Electronic Arts, Activision and THQ to name but a few. Not only has he created for a wide verity of companies, his platform awareness covers everything since the Amiga in the late 80’s to the PlayStation 4 etc of today’s market.
Head to www.allisterbrimble.com to find out more.