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Medal of Honor

BILL TROUBIE profiles the team that brought audio realism to DreamWorks Interactive's war game, Medal of Honor.

Welcome to the wonderful world of video games. They first invaded our homes in embryo form as Pong in the 70's and morphing into Pac Man in the 80's. It was even fun to hear that weird voice in the TV commercials in the '90s yelling, "Sega" or "PlayStation". They were, at their best, low tech but always entertaining and fun. Now low tech has become high tech, taking the entertainment level up a notch as well. Now they are not only thematic, they're scripted. They feature ADR by huge film stars, they are edited and dubbed in surround by post production veterans; and they are scored by top Hollywood composers writing for full orchestra. To top it off, titles are selling in the hundreds of thousands of units, some going up to triple platinum. This silent underdog of the entertainment industry is now a force to be reckoned with. Being encouraged and funded by Steven Speilberg and DreamWorks Interactive also helps.

Erik Kraber is the sound supervisor for DreamWorks Interactive and the Medal of Honor franchise, which will soon include four titles. Two of the titles have already won the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science Awards for best sound design. Kraber's background is in film and television working for both Saul Zaentz, and Skywalker Ranch in northern California as an editor and in foley. Kraber now incorporates similar techniques in creating sound FX for the game. He begins with a conceptual spotting session which is very similar to a film spotting session. With a film, however, you usually have a rough cut for reference, whereas here all ideas are in the conceptual phase. The pre-production planning is basically Kraber sitting down with the producers and designers figuring out what the game is actually going to be.

The Sounds Of War

Beginning with verbal communication and imagination, the process of things coming alive in the game happen concurrently with the audio created for the event. This can sometimes become a hit-or-miss game of cat and mouse, as early playbacks allow them to see what audio works and what doesn't work. As the game evolves, this process becomes more precise, and the team learns more with each game they create. Erik uses traditional sound effects libraries for effects, but as he does more and games he has created a personal library of sound effects that he has created for DreamWorks.

Foley is addressed at the spotting sessions as well. First, the sound effects team will meet with the animators to discuss the different ways a character will be moving throughout the game. This may include walking, running, crawling and even dying. The animators will then deliver AVI or QuickTime movies of the final rendered animation. At that point Erik creates foley, and SFX for the movie and sends it back to the animators with sync points so that they can include cues in the animation to trigger audio.

Kraber has also gone on location all around the United States recording WWII re-enactments. For the re-enactments they use authentic vehicles and weapons (firing blanks). Erik was on hand to record the audio to a DAT or analog Nagra for his sound effects library. Additionally, he will schedule special recording sessions with vintage gun companies for incidental SFX. They will get all of the authentic weapons with live ammo and a 12-mic set-up to record the shots from a variety of distances. The distance can vary from a few inches to over 400 yards away. All of these elements are transferred and edited in Pro Tools.

Kraber began as the only SFX person for DreamWorks Interactive, and now he has a team of 6 editors on staff to create the sound design for the games. This team includes both Stephen Townsend and Jack Grillo. On occasion they will record directly into a traveling Pro Tools rig that may accompany them on a remote session. The SFX are 16-bit resolution and are recorded at either 44.1 or 48kHz depending on the platform for the game. (i.e. PlayStation 2 is at 48kHz while the PC games are at 44.1kHz.).

Memory allocation offers many limitations for audio in the games too. Often the audio, geometry, animation and code is sharing RAM on the computer creating memory restrictions that TV and film editors never have to consider. The amount of memory sharing is platform dependent. Most consoles allow a certain (generous) amount of RAM for sound, but with a PC all RAM is shared. In this creative process, trying to find the correct memory balance for all of the elements can be quite a task, and often sacrifices are made for the ultimate success of the game.

A final dub or pre-dub does not really apply within the games. Most of the audio is balancing each individual element within the sound engine in the game code. So instead of sitting in front of a mixer with all of your sound elements playing back in a linear fashion along with an image, Erik has to play through the game and see all of the different things that a player will encounter. This means that sound-by-sound, he must make changes in the balance and EQ.

The panning in the games is done at this phase also. With Front Line, on the PlayStation platform, the formats include both Dolby Surround and DTS. The spin with this is that most sound elements in a 3D game are not stationary. As you move around and play the game, the elements move as well in the surroundscape relating directly to the location of the player. You 'as the player' control the camera so to speak. So if an object is on your right and you keep turning around, you'll start to hear it behind you and to the left and then in front of you.

The biggest challenge in this whole process is the amount of guesswork involved. Ultimately the game is never going to play back the same way to a fixed image. You have to envision what would be like to play and hear. You also have to account for the fact that you can't predict what the player is going to do all of the time. For instance, a scream may be heard five feet away from the player or 50 feet away from the player depending on where they are at in the game. Therefore, the sound has to work in both applications (and sometimes many points in between). Within the limits of the platform, this is usually achieved by a combination of volume and EQ filters.

Music And ADR

The dialog scripts are usually written by both Erik and Peter Hirschman (the producer of both games). ADR and walla cues are prepared as Kraber produces the dialog sessions. This will include voice casting, editing and mixing dialog and walla within Pro Tools. During ADR they will use a traditional condenser ADR mic along with dynamic mics. He likes the effect of using a dynamic mic to capture the room along with the ADR line. Because 70 to 80 percent of the dialog is people screaming, the dynamics are more often than not a better choice.

Michael Giacchino is the composer for Medal of Honor Front Line and Medal of Honor Allied Assault. Between the two titles, Michael has written and recorded over 100 minutes of music. Giacchino has worked with DreamWorks interactive for about five years. His first title forDreamWorks was Lost World in 1996. The music has evolved quite a bit since then. The first games available with music primarily featured an electronic (MIDI) score where the Medal of Honor series is a 90-piece orchestra recorded and mixed in surround. The Medal of Honor score also included a20-voice choir that they triple tracked to thicken the texture.

All of the music for Front Line and Allied Assault was recorded at the Chapel in Bastier University, located in Seattle, Washington. It is a beautifully kept large church at the college. "The room sounds incredible and the acoustics compliment the music", comments Giacchino. They set up a little control room behind the altar and away they go.
The control room features a couple of Mackie d8b digital consoles linked together along with a Mackie 24/96 Hard Disk Recorder. The digitally recorded score was brought back to Giacchino's studio in Sherman Oaks, California for mixdown. Michael's studio includes the same Mackie d8b consoles and Mackie 24/96 Hard Disk Recorder that made the process easier.

The recording and mixing were completely done in surround as both studios were equipped with Mackie monitors in an L, C, R, LS, RS, LFE surroundscape.The orchestral session's microphone setup included a traditional Decca tree for the LCR along with a matched pair of mics for wide Left and Wide Right to enlarge the environment. Additionally two matched B&K mics were hung in the rear of the church for the L & R Surround.The score was recorded and mixed by Steve Smith.

In conclusion, these games are very cool. Experiencing them first hand, with a high resolution video screen along with surround monitoring can take gamer's to a level of action never before available. It was surprising to me that
this even existed. So kids, grab your PlayStations and
hook'em up to daddy's audiophile surround system and be the game. Just make sure that you play it long, and play it loud,... very loud!


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