June happens to be Dynamic Range month over at Designingsound – so I thought I’d look again at an old piece of writing I did a couple of years ago called Dynamics of Narrative for Gamasutra.
Upon re-reading it, it feels nearly there, nearly putting its finger on the issue and essence of sound design itself. Who or what does sound design serve? What makes a good soundtrack or mix? What is the process needed in order to achieve these things? On the whole, I’ve found it quicker to map an overall ‘intensity’ when collaborating, rather than to break things down into sound, music and dialogue – as they all tend, with a few rare exceptions, to follow the same curve.
I often think of ‘dynamic range’ as related to a final mix or mastering stage of production, and also to overall loudness, but mostly as an important aspect of the overall presentational quality of the game or film itself. It is also the end result, the last part, of a process and a journey that was, more often than not, started as a mere conversation or an idea on a piece of paper.
I still think of Sound Design as the process of deciding the effect you wish to achieve and the way in which it is presented to the audience. This is clearly a collaborative process that is done in conjunction with any number of designers, directors and producers and having an easy to relate to tool, such as the intensity graphs in my old gamasutra article, makes this process easier for the overall planning and communication of delivering that overall effect. Technical Sound Design is also a big part of how the data, pipeline and content can be arranged, executed and processed in order to achieve the desired ‘effect’. It is often easy to get too far into the technical side (the ‘how to’) that the ‘design’ part (the ‘why’) is neglected. Good technical solutions always consider the ‘effect’ for the audience first and foremost. This ‘mode’ or ‘awareness’ of considering the causes and effects that have influence on, and are produced-by, your work, is a central part of a collaborative and fluid production ‘culture’ - I’ve been calling this ‘game audio culture’ for now – or at least it is having the responsibility of knowing the ripple-on effects of decisions and communicating them before those ripples reach the next person in the chain. It is also a mode of operating and of knowing that often, it can be easier to change something small further ‘up’ the chain, than to solve it with a twisted technical solution deeper down. The essence is to, where possible, treat the cause, not the symptom. This is an interesting way to look at game design problems using Root Cause Analysis, especially evident from the audio perspective, as sound is last in the hierarchy of production dependencies. Sound designers are in a unique position to look at these problems all the way down the line and to offer solutions from an artistic and often altogether more holistic production viewpoint.
Thinking about production as a series of linked disciplines and tasks can also shed a little light on the segregation that occurs within the audio team and processes itself too. In a similar way, mixing is an intrinsic aspect of sound design, an inseparable one, and is a similarly intrinsic aspect of designing any ‘effect’ for an audience. The industrial nature of production separates these areas of the sound creation process, but I think that is changing. Similarly of course, sound design, dialogue script writing, video editing, music composition or placement are intrinsic parts of a mix, the very stuff of the mix.
When one considers the dynamic range of a game, or film, one may end up mapping out a graph or curve of the intensity of the narrative design, of the story or of the gameplay. You can even map it in LU in Nuendo 6 by turning on the loudness lane. That overall curve might be something that nobody on the team is aware of until it is completed, and at that very end part of production, all the finished pieces come together for the first time and need to be ‘massaged’ in order to make an overall narrative and presentational sense.
Dynamics of course are not just part of the loudness or overall mix of the elements, but they are to be found in the sonic performances, personalities and timbral choices made, the very texture of the soundtrack. A fast nervous dialogue delivery, or spectrum-drenching rock music track can be delivered to the mix stage very quietly, but can have enormous effect on the perceived dynamics of a work.
Collaborating early on in a production can be both enlightening, and challenging. Throw-away work and ideas are everywhere. If you are used to working in the relative certainties of the post-production phase, then the chaos and uncertainty of pre-production can be a dizzying experience, but also a quick teacher. All the different production elements are jostling up against each other as they become realized, either on the page, or further into production as assets are created and placed. Personalities collide and alliances are formed as ideas are tested and given life. That is not to say that this process is an inefficient one, the process itself requires this rejection of and promotion of ideas, removing everything that ‘isn’t’ the game or movie that is being created. The overall dynamic range of a scene, or of the entire experience itself is something that isn’t created by the sound and music teams; it is something that is created by the collaboration between those teams and the production team. Mixers, composers and sound designers can magnify or diminish the dynamics of a piece at a late stage, but it is difficult to change them entirely. As audio designers we might think of the dynamic range of a scene in dB and LU, we might think in terms of sound effects, Foley, dialogue and music, all to varying degrees being foregrounded, or removed at different moments. This is the utopian way in which many of us think of a ‘final mix’, of a period of time whereby all these elements are beautifully mixed together to create a seamless powerful, perfect end result. The reality is often that, in order to get anywhere near a final mix, these kinds of decisions have to have already been made. Music cues played and dialogue lines said at the exact same moment as the biggest explosion are likely to be redundant, lost or wasted unless they are moved out of the way and sequenced. Mapping out dynamics and intensity of a scene in a simple, reductive way, can help craft sequences, and chains of sequences together in a more collaborative way earlier during production, or even pre-production. A ‘mix’, it turns out, is often a process of re-arranging, moving, even re-editing the scene in order to make the dynamics of the piece work, and much of this is political and requires acts of incredible communication and diplomacy. This is why I believe that a mix should be an ongoing part of the process that is constantly being worked on. I’ve yet to work on a ‘final mix’ that didn’t involve massive amounts of new sound design work, dialogue editing and accommodating for changes that should have been locked and prevented from happening. But, this is part of the mix process, and indeed the process for creating a soundtrack. The mix is intrinsic to the development of that soundtrack and also the dynamics of the entire production.
That final ‘effect’ on the audience is one that is carefully crafted by the juxtaposition of many elements; visual, sonic, present and not present. A useful way of thinking about dynamics is as narrative, as ‘storytelling’, and not entirely in decibels or in the frequency domain. Although this is the material we ultimately work with and have control over, the way in which dynamics are expressed and communicated are a pattern, or ripple, from a much deeper narrative pebble. The origins of these patterns are ultimately to be found in the pages of a script, or the ebb and flow of refined gameplay mechanics. The dynamics of a soundtrack are the symptoms created by a design, not the cause. If you want better dynamics, you need to be working at the causal level, not just doing the best you can with the symptoms.
Thanks for reading!