Set Lasers to Stun

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Set Lasers to Stun is a behind-the-scenes article by Chris Michie which appeared in special "sound for picture" supplement in the April 1996 issue of Mix Magazine, a trade publication covering professional sound and music production. It covers the work which went into the sound design of Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom.



Set Lasers to Stun

Audio for "Wing Commander IV"

By Chris Michie

The scene opens in deep space as an unarmed hospital ship loaded with refugees glides majestically across the screen. A fighter pilot assigned to escort duty exchanges flirtatious banter with an unseen female in the ship's communications deck. The richly detailed space vehicles glimmer in the starlight, and only the futuristic hum of spacecraft in flight and occasional radio chatter disturb the serenity of this far corner of the galaxy.

Suddenly, the peace is shattered as menacing fighters materialize from hyperspace, right on the tails of the unwary escorts. Warnings from the communications deck are in vain, as the intruders quickly dispatch the three escort fighters with point-blank rocket fire and set an electromagnetic mine on the hospital ship's metallic skin. The radioed pleas of the defenseless noncombatants are drowned in static as the hospital ship and all souls aboard are consumed in a space-rivening thunderclap. The bandits make their escape, leaving only slowly spinning space junk as evidence of their dastardly crime.

So opens the latest installment of "Wing Commander", one of the world's most popular video games. Released in February in a six-CD-ROM package for the PC (recommended configuration includes an Intel 486/66+ MHz processor, double-speed CD-ROM drive, 8 MB of RAM, 256-color VGA, and digital sound board), Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is the latest in a series that has set new standards in production values for the PC-CD format. Previous installments in the Wing Commander series have topped PC game charts worldwide and gathered an armful of awards for its creators, Origin Systems (Austin, Texas), a division of Electronic Arts. The production budget of Wing IV has been estimated at between $9 million and $12 million, almost certainly the highest figure ever spent on a PC game.

Four Hours of Film

Employing traditional film techniques and a full crew, game creator and director/executive producer Chris Roberts directed a nine-week shoot at RedMar lot in Hollywood to create the unprecedented amount of live footage that accompanies and informs the player's progress through the complex and multilayered game. The all-star cast includes Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, Jason Bernard, Tom Wilson and John Rhys-Davies, and the finished game includes almost four hours of film footage, two to three times as much as in most full-length features. (Players do not necessarily see all of the footage, as much of it consists of "branches," alternate scenes and plot lines that reflect the player's game strategy. In fact, a player can take as long as 50 hours to play the game, depending on skill level.)

Roberts also placed strong emphasis on sound; in many respects, the audio production for the game followed the pattern for a conventional theatrical release, right down to the Dolby Surround mix. But the accelerated production schedule, which included versions for French- and German-language markets, posed significant logistical problems, which were ably tackled by Murray Allen, director of video and audio operations for Origin Systems' corporate parent, Electronic Arts of San Mateo, Calif.

Crowd-Screaming Walla

According to Allen, the post-production editing team created a final cut on the Avid Media Composer and shipped a dozen reels to Electronic Arts' San Mateo (EASM) studios over a seven-week period starting in late July. Avid AudioVision was used to autoconform the production audio, which had been recorded on timecode DAT. PAL conversions from the new master audio/video reels were made for French and German versions, and resulting D1 tapes were sent to Studio Lincoln in Paris, France, and FPS in Munich, Germany, for dialog replacement. At the same time, digital Betacam tapes were struck for use in ADR sessions with the original actors, who looped their lines at Larson Sound in Los Angeles and Pacific Ocean Post in Santa Monica.

All of the dialog was then transferred to ADAT tracks, with each actor on a separate track "so that we could [later] EQ each one separately and add echo, or process each one individually without affecting the total," explains Allen. "We also brought in gangs of actors to do what we call gang Foley--crowds screaming and doing what we call walla." Allen's team also created new backgrounds at Larson and in-house at EASM.

In late August, Allen started five weeks of Foley recording with engineer Rich Duane at Fantasy Studios (Berkeley, Calif.) The Foley tracks were recorded on 24-track analog tape with Dolby SR and then sent to Poolside Recording in San Francisco, where Dave Nelson edited the Foley to picture and made a premix to eight tracks of ADAT. "Now we had all the dialog and all the background sounds," says Allen.

128-Note Polyphony

Meanwhile, score composer George Oldziey had been working with a VHS tape of the original Avid cut, with time-code. Roberts had specified a "sort of an orchestral 'Star Wars'-type soundtrack," says Oldziey, a requirement that would have been hard to meet using the technology that Oldziey had available on Wing Commander III, which he also scored.

"In Wing III, all the music was composed as MIDI files," says Oldziey. "There were three different versions---one version for General MIDI, another version for Roland MT-32, and also an Ad-Lib version that could be played on SoundBlaster. Each version has certain parameters in terms of the number of notes the sound card will play simultaneously. General MIDI is the best, but even so you can only hear 24 notes at the same time, and some of the sounds I like to use, such as the strings, will use up as many as three or four notes for one sound. So if you want an orchestral sound, you have to be very conservative with picking just the right sound to get a whole effect."

Fortunately for Oldziey, Roberts had decided that for Wing IV all of the music was to be prerecorded, eliminating the limitations of MIDI regeneration. Oldziey first composed the space-flight music heard during "game play" and completed the music for the space-flight portion in April or May. Game-play music, unlike the score that accompanies the filmed sections of the game, may be extended almost indefinitely. Oldziey therefore composed minute-long sequences that can be repeated. "The last part of a one-minute piece sounds like it's segueing to its beginning," he says. "But anywhere within that piece you could be triggered by an event to go to some other piece. For instance, if you blow someone up or get engaged in combat, you could jump to another piece of music that had more tension or is faster-paced."

Typically, Oldziey composes on paper and then fills out the composition in Cakewalk, the sequencer program driving his PC. "We had originally talked about using a live orchestra, so in order to save time when I started composing the space-flight music, I did not limit myself to the amount of notes," says Oldziey. "I wanted to be in a situation where if I entered all these notes on a sequencer, I could then port it over to a printing program and just spit out the parts for a score and orchestra. Then the decision was made not to use the orchestra; instead, we just got some high-end sample players such as the [E-mu] Emulator IV and the Kurzweil K2000. The Emulator IV has 128-note polyphony so I could use as many notes as I wanted."

For most of the movie soundtrack, Oldziey recorded onto a single ADAT in stereo pairs--strings, brass, woodwind and percussion. As soon as he had finished a reel, he sent the music to EASM, either on ADAT or as a Pro Tools session over a T1 line that connects EASM and Origin.

Consistency in Effects

"Now we had dialog, music, walla, Foley, everything but SFX," recalls Allen. The sound effects for Wing IV were planned as a team effort: Allen assigned FX creation to Ken Felton, Tony Berkeley and Marc Farly at EASM. Dave Nelson at Poolside and another four engineers at San Francisco's Music Annex (see sidebar). "We were really in a crunch, and there wasn't enough time to have one studio go all the way through," explains Allen, who rationalized the task by putting reels together based on locations; so, regardless of the order of scenes in the final cut, FX for each location would be created by the same engineers at the same studio, ensuring consistency within each location.

"We did so much preparation and kept very close tabs on what everyone was doing," says Allen. "It would be very hard for anyone outside to listen to one reel or one scene and figure out if it was mixed from a different place than another scene." EASM supplied all of the ambiences (undertones, the rumble of the ships, etc.), and Origin supplied a source reel of sound effects created for use in the space-flight segments of the game.

Final Mix--12 Reels, Three Studios, Four Weeks

As part of the production schedule, computer-generated animation was created at the same time as the film. The final cut included gaps on the edited reels where computer graphics representing scenes impossible to shoot at RedMar (such as space flight) could be inserted later. Once the final reels were assembled with the computer graphics, Oldziey wrote whatever additional music was needed and the FX teams at the various studios created the necessary sound effects and ambiences. Master D1 reels including the computer graphics were then created.

"And then the mixing process started," says Allen. "We decided to have six of the reels mixed at Music Annex, four of the reels mixed at EASM, and two reels mixed at Poolside." In fact, there was a lot of overlapping in the process." "I would be sending reels up to Fantasy for them to be doing Foley on, while at another studio they had a complete set...and they were starting to mix. The entire mixing process started somewhere around the 15th of October and was totally finished in the second week of November. We did the whole thing in four weeks."

Much like in the film world, premixes were crucial and were laid to an analog 24-track with Dolby SR. Dialog was mixed to left-center-right; Foley, music, effects and ambiences were mixed to left, right and surround. Once the stems were complete, they were transferred to 24 tracks of ADAT or PCM-800 (one complication caused by the multistudio mixing schedule was that Music Annex is standardized on PCM-800s, whereas Poolside used ADATs, hence the dual format).

Next up was the foreign language mix. The French and German PAL D1s were transferred back to NTSC at Western Images (San Francisco). The foreign dialog was then laid in against the finished mixed stems. "This was a very easy job," says Allen. "The actors we use in France and Germany are excellent. It just takes a little bit of tweaking--you move a line here, a line there." Of the mix itself, Allen says, " We already had all the music and Foley mixed by this time; the only thing we had to add was a little echo or room sound or processing." The French and German mixes were started after Thanksgiving and finished by December 8.

Finally, director Roberts decided to cut a few minutes from the opening sequence, which necessitated a remix session for all three versions (English, French, German) at Serafine Studios (Venice, Calif.) in mid-January 1996. Seizing the opportunity to make improvements, Roberts asked Origin's Stretch Williams to do some additional effects sound design; Williams duly created an ambitious and exciting 32-voice Pro Tools effects session. "My original task was just to do the interactive sound design, which means the game-play part of the game audio, including sound effects, dialog and any of the ambiences," says Williams. "I used a lot of the sound effects that I'd used for picture in Wing III, so during game-play in Wing IV, you got to hear a lot of the big guns and explosions and ship crashes and ejection noise... from Wing III. Williams credits much of the better sound equality in Wing IV to 22kHz file resolution, an upgrade from Wing III's 11 kHZ.

For the opening-sequence score, Oldziey recorded 24-track on ADATs, allowing for total flexibility in the mix. "I hadn't heard the music with all the other sounds in perspective," he explains. "I wanted to make sure we had the ability to adjust...levels." Oldziey's overall attention to detail is clearly audible: Frank Serafine, no neophyte when it comes to MIDIfied orchestral scoring, expressed the opinion "that George's music was actually the best orchestral electronic score he's ever heard," says Williams. "In fact, he had a hard time believing that it hadn't been sweetened with live orchestral pieces."

"I wasn't restricted by polyphony and General MIDI files," says Oldziey. "I could choose the sounds I wanted to use and was able to get it to sound exactly the way I wanted it to. It's a great step forward being able to have all-digital music throughout, and I think that really is the future of [game] music audio, at least I hope it is."

Chris Michie is Mix's technical editor.

Traditional Post vs. Desktop PC

Much of the audio post-production for Wing Commander IV was done at Music Annex, San Francisco, where engineers Patrick Fitzgerald, Jon Grier, Mary Ellen Perry and Will Harvey created stems and performed final mix-to-picture in Dolby Surround for about half of the 12 reels. (Charlie Stockley and Shannon Mills assisted; the latter was also responsible for some of effects design.) According to Music Annex president David Porter, the project was a "much more complicated piece of post-production than any feature I've ever seen. The number of elements involved, the number of submixes, the sheer number of scenes that had to be treated, the fact that many different facilities were doing separate parts of it...At times, Music Annex had four rooms going, plus somebody working offline in Pro Tools."

Post-production for games or multimedia presents no particularly unusual technical challenges, says Porter, but the organizational task of coordinating all of the elements and facilities for Wing Commander IV was considerable. "Murray Allen was downright amazing in that he was able to get all these different facilities to do their pieces and come out with a very consistent product--a truly amazing feat."

Porter sees EA/Origin's use of film post-production methods and facilities as an inevitable result of the increased sophistication of PC games. "Traditionally, multimedia developers were very proud of the fact that they could do all of their audio and video and data manipulation within their desktop systems--they have looked upon traditional post-production as kind of an unnecessary expense. And, quite frankly, for the early development in games and multimedia what they could do on the desktop was perfectly adequate."

For Wing Commander IV, however, Porter maintains that desktop technology would not have been up to the task. "Murray Allen, having come from a traditional post-production background, said, 'We're not going to be able to do this on the desktop--we're going to go out and use the more traditional post-production tools because we're going to get the job done faster, and ultimately it's going to look and feel like a feature film.' He obviously felt, and I agree with him, that on very large, complicated projects, the traditional post-production facilities are still better equipped. That doesn't mean that two years from now [the multimedia developers] won't be able to sit at their desktop and get really great results. But today this is the best way to get the job done."

---Chris Michie