Saturday, April 26, 2014

All over the place

It's been a long time! I haven't updated for so long because I've been travelling the world. Considering the luck I've had with three studios in a row shutting down on me, this time I had the money saved and the time to spare, so went and ticked a whole bunch of things off my bucket list - Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Canada.

So here I am again, six countries and over 20 cities later, financially quite a bit poorer but what a lot of brilliant experiences I've had. Took a lot of photos. Ate a lot of fantastic food. Lost a lot of hats.

What does this have to do with audio? Well, a good chunk of what I did was sight-seeing, but I brought my handheld recorder with me. A lot of Asia was a terrible wash in this department - Japan might be the international champion of noise pollution. But I managed to catch a least a couple of recordings of the iconic train crossings. Was ready to cry when walking on a nightingale floor though, and not being able to catch anything in the recording beyond mellow background jazz!

I did however record some amazing ambiences in Lousiana's bayous, a variety of snow footsteps (in Canadian 'Spring'), sea lions in San Francisco, and a whole host of other interesting sounds encountered along the way. I'm still going through them, and probably will be for a while yet. Maybe later I'll put them up on SoundCloud.

Attended GDC as well, which was very inspiring. Despite something like eight years in the industry now, it was my first time attending and a hell of an experience. It's exciting to see audio tools growing better and better, giving more and more autonomy to audio designers. Lots of great ideas for where we can look into taking games audio next. Plus it was a fantastic chance to meet and talk with more audio people, and get my fingers back on the pulse of what's happening in the games industry after the last several months of globe-trotting.

I find myself a bit indecisive what to do next though! I would like to get back into a studio environment, working on a team and really dancing on the bleeding edge of audio integration tools and techniques, but it's a big time for indies right now too! And I have all the equipment I need to set up a very nice home studio for freelancing as well. Life's a bit uncertain these days, but that's audio. No end of things to keep me busy though, hopefully I'll remember to post about some of them!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Castle of Illusion: Starring Mickey Mouse

Latest project has hit the (digital) shelves!  Castle of Illusion: Starring Mickey Mouse.

It was a lot of fun to work on. For a good chunk of my career the first line of the audio style guide was 'don't make it cartoony', but for once the style was very much 'make it as cartoony as possible!' which was an enjoyable challenge. I love gritty realism as much as every other sound designer but there was a private little burst of glee when it came to making cute mushrooms sounds and deflating flowers. It also involved a lot of thinking outside of the box! What would a dolphin made of jelly sound like? Or a bouncing Letter A?

For a nice change, too, we had enough time to do a lot of original recording as opposed to relying on library sounds. In many ways though, I think it might often even be a time saver - all that time you normally spend trawling the library for the closest appropriate sound, and then trying to get enough variations or massaging it to fit better, whereas when you're recording it yourself it's so much easier to match what you need and have twenty variations of it!

I shall also fondly remember this as the project on which we ruthlessly abused the shepard tone.

It was a fantastic team and the project has a lot of good memories. I've worked in teams both good and bad, but when the team gels and communication flows and everyone is on the same page it all goes so much more smoothly. Sadly, this was Sega Studio Australia's last project, and I already miss everyone terribly. Hopefully we'll all cross paths again in the future, perhaps at other studios, or perhaps the indie scene! Some are already having great success in that arena.

In the meantime, I would recommend everyone who enjoyed the original Castle of Illusion check it out! It's already out on Steam, PSN and XBLive.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Taking Care of Cables

I've recently been trawling the rich minefield of Youtube for tutorials on making your own contact mic, since it is apparently both cheap and easy to make your own. That post will probably come later, after I get my hands on some piezoelectric transducer elements.  But Youtube Recommended Videos threw up a classic that I thought worth sharing here.

How to properly coil an audio cable, using the over-under method.

It took me an embarrassingly long time in my professional career to discover this technique - I wasn't even aware of it until someone observed that I obviously hadn't ever been taught to properly wrap a cable, which sent me scurrying (again) to Youtube to fill that void in my knowledge. One of those small things that's surprisingly easy to miss when your knowledge is a combination of self-taught and learning from other professionals who assume you must know something so basic already! Maybe this post will spare someone else the embarrassment.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

New Toys

It seems like it has been hardly any time at all, but my trusty Zoom H4n was simply no longer cutting the mustard for my portable recording wants and needs. So the time came to upgrade! (...Before the end of financial year.)

So after much deliberation, I chose a Sony PCM-D50.

These have actually been on the market for a while, and don't appear to be in production anymore (?), which is a crying shame because from the looking around I've done this is still the best handheld recorder on the market. When I bought the Zoom it was both a great deal cheaper and had XLR inputs, which tipped the boat in its favour at the time, but aside from the occasional planned field recording trip the XLR inputs didn't get much use and my growing dissatisfaction with it prompted me to go searching for an upgrade.

I'm absolutely in love with it. Having both the monitor and record levels on such smooth-turning dials was the first thing I noticed and appreciated. The buttons as well are fantastic and near-silent - one thing that was always very annoying with the Zoom was how every button press was massively amplified, and how incredibly sensitive it was to any sort of handling noise. The start up time is a smidge faster than the Zoom, and the menus themselves nicer to navigate given the button layout. It also feels sturdier, despite weighing roughly the same as the Zoom with the batteries in. The benefits of an aluminium casing instead of plastic.

In terms of size it's about the same, although half the width, which saves space. It's about the same size as a Nintendo 3DS XL actually, so if you're in need of a case, they're cheap and easy to find. It also has 4GB of in-built memory which the Zoom lacks, although the tradeoff for this is being stuck with the Sony Pro Duo memory cards which are a lot pricier than the standard SDs.

The real value, of course, is in how much better the Sony's microphones sound compared to the Zoom's. The first and most obvious improvement being the significantly lower noise floor, which alone is worth the upgrade.  The microphone quality is really great bang for buck here, you would have to pay a heck of a lot more to get something better.

This is definitely supplanting the Zoom H4n in my bag. I'm hoping to at some point in the future to purchase another portable recorder with at least four XLR inputs for the more heavy-duty planned field recording sessions, at which point I'll retire the Zoom for good. Super excited to go do some spur-of-the-moment field recording with this thing!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Pitch Correction Shenanigans

Since I've specialised in sound design more so than music, I've actually not needed to do much in the way of pitch correction in the past, since most of the time of any music mixing or composition I do tackle is usually of the synth and midi-sequenced variety, so tuning concerns and pitch problems very rarely come up.  The occasional sound effect has been nudged into key but that's usually been something fairly simple and easily accomplished by ear.

However, recently I wanted to sample a steel tongue drum, with one of the goals to make a VSTi of it.

(This magnificent bastard)

It's a lovely instrument, a slightly lavish Christmas present to myself last year. It's fun and easy to play, and quite meditative, but as you might expect, its pitch varies dramatically according to ambient temperature, by up to as much as a semi-tone sometimes.

This is okay so when you're just jamming for fun solo, but for the purposes of a VSTi some pitch correction is necessary - especially if you ever want to throw it into a composition with any other instruments. Which is where my adventure into the world of pitch-correcting plugins has come in.

Here's a small snippet of the session recording, to get a feel for the sort of sound a steel tongue drum produces:

For the steel tongue drum, the vibrato and overtones from the resonance - which is a huge part of the drum's sound - rule out pretty much anything other than Melodyne, which after some fairly exhaustive research appears to be the only polyphonic-capable pitch correction plugin floating around. It's tough to swallow, though - $300 is a big investment for a plugin, especially one that you would have need of infrequently. It would definitely be a must-have for anyone more heavily involved in recording and mixing music though.

This is probably to the surprise of absolutely nobody in audio - Melodyne is fairly well known as the gold-standard, standing head and shoulders over Auto-Tune. But in looking for alternatives, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of WavesTune! It can't handle polyphonic, but based on my admittedly limited experimentation with it, with vocals and a lot of other instruments the result is even smoother and more natural-sounding than Melodyne!

VariAudio in Nuendo (and Cubase too, presumably) wasn't too shabby either, although its analysis was somewhat spotty and required a great deal of intervention. Still, considering it comes with the program, I was also pleasantly surprised by it. By controlling how much you want to flatten the pitch on a segment-by-segment basis it was very easy to preserve the vibrato, which is something a lot of the pitch-correction plugins stomp all over.

I gave Audition's pitch correction tools a whirl too, for curiosity's sake. The Auto Pitch Corrector actually wasn't too shabby with basic tasks, but like any automatic process is prone to blowing up in your face horribly and spazzed out at the slightest hint of vibrato.  The manual pitch correction is a bit better and more versatile, but nice as the interface controls were, you would need to either have perfect pitch or pair it with some hardcore analysis, and its tolerance before it starts sounding horribly processed is extremely narrow. Still, it's a feature that could eventually catch up to Steinberg's VariAudio... if Adobe spends any time on it. The pitch manipulation tools in Audition took a massive step back after 3.0 and have never quite recovered.

For now, though, Melodyne and WavesTune get my votes of confidence! Urgh, now to decide how much use I'll get out of Melodyne in the future... $300 isn't horrific for a plugin of that calibre, but when the money is tight... maybe I should have bought it instead of the drum!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Recording Workshop in Melbourne

Had the opportunity to head down to Melbourne for a sound recording workshop a week or so ago held by Stephan Schutze.  Stephan hired out a studio in Docklands for the day to record some things that aren't easy to record normally, like flaming torches and arrows and dry ice-on-metal, etc.

This is a quick picture I snapped of the space - impressively large!  Once the doors were closed it was wonderfully insulated from outside noise, but of course that massive expanse of concrete made for some incredible reflections!  I'll be curious to see how many of the final recordings that compromise.  Although the reflections sounded fairly epic in themselves, I kind of wanted to record an impulse response of it!

A lot of the workshop wound up covering familiar ground, but it was definitely a lot of fun just listening to someone be so enthusiastic about sound recording and share some of his recording anecdotes.  I think if the same workshop turned up three or four years ago it might have saved me a lot of lessons learnt the hard way!

There was far too much material covered for me to remark on at length, but the biggest points of interest I took away from it were:

1. Dry ice on metal is a very cool combination, and I have to find a way to play with this myself sometime.

2. He showed off a neat hack using a pair of lapel mics and a drilled-out manikin head as a cheap binaural microphone solution.  I'm extremely curious as to what the recordings of that one will sound like and how effective it is versus an actual binaural microphone.

3. Safety first!  Made me think twice about smashing up that vintage TV that I've been lugging around since University days.  Vaccuum tubes involve some fairly toxic chemicals, who knew!  Also when it comes to miking up a car, taking not only moving parts but heat into consideration, as well as wind noise not just from the car's movement but from within the motor itself.

4. For field recording, specialist groups will get you further than more generic approaches.  An interesting angle I hadn't considered before, but obvious in retrospect!

5. Splitting signals, having one channel running hot and the other at a much lower volume for safety.  This is something I normally try to do when recording with multiple microphones, but the idea of multiplying out the signal was an interesting one I'll have to explore at some point.

Perhaps I'll have more food for thought once the videos and recordings come out, but overall, it was a good experience (and also great to catch up with some of the other audio people present).  It's pretty rare to find any sort of audio workshop happening in Australia - plenty for music production but precious little dedicated to other audio disciplines!  So major props to Stephan for going out on a limb and organising it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Recording all the fun and weird things

Been feeling a little bit scatterbrained lately!  That's my only excuse for not updating this blog for so long.  It's a poor excuse, I know, and likely to be repeated.

Part of my professional development goals at Sega is to record something at least once a week, and it's been really awesome so far. Back when I was with KMMGames I did make an effort to record when I could, but it was largely a mixture of opportunism and need.  The audio room was in the less-than-ideal position of being wedged between train tracks, a construction site, and the QA room, which meant I was limited to either waiting for a quiet moment or only recording very loud sounds.

No such issues at Sega!  The rooms are very well insulated which makes it extremely convenient to set up a quick recording session, even if only a single mic for five or ten minutes.  It's paid off very well so far, with a rapidly growing library of sounds, many of which have already been useful.

Here's a picture of just last week's recording props:

A bit of soft discarded plastic from a popped plastic ball, a wind up toy fan, and a bunch dried clay bits that were leftover from a sculpture I made when I was in an arts-and-crafts kind of mood after cutting through Lincraft one day (incidentally, the source of all my arts-and-crafts moods).  They sounded kind of interesting when I was gathering them up to throw them out, so instead stored them in a bag and put them with the rest of the junk I packrat for potential recording.

Useful discovery - bits of solid clay actually make very good rattling bone sounds.  With a little bit of processing and layering I think you could make a pretty good sound set for a skeleton out of these.

One advantage to recording your own sounds where possible which has come up with this is not only how many more variations you can record - because however good the libraries are, it's rare you can get more than a couple of decent matching variations from the same sound set - but also the potential to play some of them like instruments.  To drag the sounds out, or make them short or punchy, soft or violent, or use them on or with a wide variety of surfaces.  One thing I've been learning to do better is to not just record the obvious sound a prop makes, but to wring every single possible sound out of it.

Just some of the things we've recorded in-studio lately have been rubber and leather gloves, squeaky toys, paper and plastic bags, balloons, silly putty, soft furry slippers, a vampire cape, and a jaw harp.

It's been a lot of fun, too!  If I were to come up with an art analogy, recording sound is like working directly with paint and clay, as opposed to working in photoshop or 3DSMax.  You can get really great results either way, but there's something very satisfying about dealing with the raw materials, even if it's often more clumsy and uncontrollable.