[The audio director on open world game Prototype 2 shares a crucial revelation about how to create a consistent soundscape for his game across all different sections -- and explains in depth how he achieved that great mix.]
Mixing any genre of game is a deeply logistical, technical, and artistic undertaking, and figuring out an overall approach that is right for your specific game is a challenging endeavor. I have been responsible for mixing on five titles here at Radical: Scarface: The World Is Yours, Prototype, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, Crash: Mind over Mutant and Prototype 2, and while we used similar technology on each title, each had unique requirements of the mix to support the game.
Sometimes this was emphasizing the "point of view" of a character, sometimes an emphasis on destruction, and sometimes on narrative and storytelling. As our tools and thinking become more seasoned (both here at Radical internally, and in the wider development community within both third party and proprietary tools), it is becoming apparent that, like any craft, there is an overall approach to the mix that develops the more you practice it.
With Prototype 2, we were essentially mixing an open-world title based around a character who can wield insane amounts of devastation on an environment crammed with people and objects at the push of a button.
The presentation also focused a lot more on delivering narrative than the first Prototype game, so from a mix perspective it was pulling in two different directions; one of great freedom (in terms of locomotion, play style, destruction), and one of delivering linear narrative in a way that remained intelligible to the player.
While this was a final artistic element that needed to be pushed and pulled during the final mix itself, there were other fundamental mix related production issues that needed to fall into place so we could have the time and space to focus on delivering that final mix.
This brings me onto one of the main challenges for a mix, and something that can be said to summarize the issues with mixing any kind of project; the notion of a consistent sound treatment from the start of the game to the end, across all the differing presentation and playback methods used in development today. Though it may seem obvious to say consistency is at the heart of mixing any content -- be it music, games or cinema -- it is something that it is very easy to lose sight of during pre-production and production. Still, it ended up being the guiding principle behind much of our content throughout the entirety of our development, and this culminated in the delivery at the final mix.
Knowing that all content will eventually end up being reviewed and tuned in the mix stage is something that forces you to be as ready as you can be for that final critical process of decision making and commitment. It comes down to this: You want to leave as many of the smaller issues out of the equation at the very end, and focus on the big picture. This big-picture-viewpoint certainly trickles down to tweaking smaller detailed components, and generating sub-tasks, but the focus of a final mix really shouldn't be fixing bugs.
This mindset fundamentally changes the way you think about all of that content during its lifespan from pre-production through production, and usually, as you follow each thread it becomes about steering each component of the game's soundtrack through the lens of "consistency" towards that final mix. Overseeing all these components with the notion that they must all co-exist harmoniously is also a critical part of the overall mix approach.
Consistency is certainly a central problem across all aspects of game audio development, whether it is voiceover, sound effects, score, or licensed music, but it comes to a head when you reach the final mix and suddenly, these previously separated components, arrive together for the first time, often in an uncomfortable jumble.
You may realize that music, FX, and VO all choose the same moment to go big, cutscenes are mixed with a different philosophy to that of the gameplay, or that the different studios used to record the actors for different sections of the game is now really becoming a jarring quality issue because of their context in the game. The smaller the amount of work you have to do to nudge these components into line with the vision of the overall mix, the better for those vital final hours or weeks on a mix project.
Horizontal and Vertical Mixing
For the first time, in writing this postmortem, I have realized that there are two distinct approaches for mixing that need to come together and be coordinated well. There are several categories of assets that are going to end up "coming together" at the final mix. These usually form four major pre-mix groups:
- In-Game Sound Effects
Here is the realization bit: Every piece of content in a video game soundtrack has two contexts, the horizontal and the vertical.
Horizontal context is what I think of as the separate pre-mix elements listed above that need to be consistent with themselves prior to reaching a final mix. Voiceover is a good example, where all speech is normalized to -23 RMS (a consistent overall "loudness"). This, however, only gets you so far, and does not mean the game's dialogue is "mixed".
Vertical context is the context of a particular moment, mission, or particular cutscene which may have different requirements that override the horizontal context. It is the mix decision that considers the context of the dialogue against that of the music and the sound effects that may be occurring at the same time. There can be many horizontal mixes, depending on how many different threads you wish to deem important, but thankfully, there is only one vertical mix, in which every sound is considered in the context(s) in which it plays.
There is an optimal time to approach the mix of each of these at different points in the production cycle.
- Horizontal consistency is the goal of pre-production, production and pre-mixing (or "mastering").
- Vertical consistency is the goal of the final mix, where missions and individual events should be tweaked and heard differently depending on what else is going on in those specific scenarios.
I will discuss each of these in terms of their lifespan through production, and trajectory towards the final mix, and then summarize by talking a little about how the final mix process itself was managed.