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Video game audio design not just for guys

Summers Drumming
Summers Drumming
Chanel Summers

Young women with the desire to explore video game audio design may be interested in a summer program taught by Chanel Summers. The class promises to be an experience of unique instruction that is anything but the typical summer workshop model.

Summers has recently begun her second annual summer program aimed at exposing young women to the career opportunities offered by game audio design. Located in Bellevue, Washington at the Forest Ridge School of Sacred Heart we recently had the opportunity to ask Summers about her experiences within the video game industry and discover more about the four week long workshop.

Jesse Tannous: Why is it important to you to get women interested in audio design?

Chanel Summers: As there are such few women in the field of video game audio, fewer are even aware of the opportunities. We are on a mission to try and change that. So, we are trying to introduce this field as a career option to young women and show that women can lead in this field and be highly successful — and perhaps even change the complexion of the video game industry. Even if they don't choose to go into the field of creating audio for video games, they will be able to use the skills learned in this workshop to enhance their learning experiences in other areas, as we will be fostering strong skills in the areas of critical listening and analysis, technical and analytical writing, creative thinking, problem solving, communication and expression, and scientific and artistic experimentation, which are important skill sets for any career path that one might choose. And they will definitely learn how to collaborate and work in teams which again is an incredibly important skill for whatever endeavor they take on.

JT: How did you get involved in audio design?

CS: Prior to my career in interactive audio and audio production, I started off as a designer and producer, working on everything from 3D vehicle simulations, to platform games, to hardware peripherals while working at early industry-leading companies such as Mindscape, Velocity and Mattel Media. But then I was recruited by Microsoft when they were just starting to push into video games. And after I helped ship their first massively multiplayer online game, I transitioned into the Windows side of the house as the company's first ever developer evangelist for audio technologies where I launched innovative interactive audio technologies such as DirectMusic and DirectSound 3D and dramatically increased the use of Windows as a platform for audio creation, at a time when Mac really ruled the audio world. That was the beginning of my journey into audio production.

I was a very early member of the original Xbox development team, and I helped develop the specifications for the console's ground breaking audio subsystem, and then created the industry's first support team for content creators - aimed at sound designers, composers, game designers, and graphic artists to assist them in taking full advantage of the Xbox's capabilities. This was something that had never been done before. We wanted to be able the help the content creators be strong and really take advantage of the technology and be super-creative, successful and ultimately usher in the next generation of gaming.

So I was doing a lot of work with others in a kind of advisory and educational capacity around the world to make their audio and content in their products better - which I absolutely love to do. But I wanted to take my knowledge and experience of dynamic, adaptive audio, sound design, music composition and songwriting, and create and produce audio for projects myself. So after I left Microsoft I worked on more direct applications of audio, first as a recording and touring drummer and then at my own company, Syndicate 17.

JT: Tell me about your experience working at Microsoft.

CS: I started off at Microsoft as a program manager where I was responsible for the release of that company's first multiplayer Internet game, Fighter Ace, a precursor to the rise of online gaming. While working on Fighter Ace, though, I became enamored of the company's transformative interactive audio technologies, and transitioned into a role as the company's first Audio Technical Software Evangelist and then was brought over to the original Xbox team to help design the audio subsystem. So, my work at Microsoft focused primarily in the area of interactive audio technology development and evangelism for digital media vs. audio content production.

JT: Do you feel your experience was at all different being a woman?

CS: My experience wasn’t different at all being a woman. At the time, it didn't really dawn on me or make a big impact on me that the fields or areas I was interested in were male-dominated. I think I have always been more attracted to those fields from game design and game production to technology development to audio design and audio production to drumming even. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. And I actually enjoyed working with and competing with men, possibly subconsciously showing that I was either just as good or better. But I have always been comfortable in my own skin and this just seemed to be the natural order of things.

So, as a woman who has built her own career on a platform of game audio, game design & game production, I am passionate about programs that teach and empower women to follow a similar path. This is why I created the "Artistic Expression in Game Audio Design” workshop that I am currently teaching at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.

The workshop is centered on giving young women an artistic and technical foundation in audio for interactive media and exposing them to the career possibilities in video game audio. So, this workshop will introduce you to the possibilities and potential of audio and will provide a foundation for crafting deeper emotional resonance by focusing on the principles of audio aesthetics and will supply a rich toolkit of artistic techniques derived from examples found in nearly all forms of art (whether it be painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, radio, etc.). The course will aim to demonstrate how sound can be utilized in the design process as a fundamental storytelling agent, opening up previously unexplored paths in order to create truly remarkable works of art.

I want to point out that this is a very experimental class. Not your typical, run-of-the-mill "how do we make audio for games” class. It focuses on the aesthetics and artistic side of working with sound. It’s a very “mad scientist meets art” type of class. I also want to point out that this workshop is incredibly unique and there is nothing like it of its kind, as it is based on the class that I personally created for USC's Interactive Media & Games Division in the School of Cinematic Arts. I took the actual semester long course that I teach at USC and made it into an intensive one month long workshop for Forest Ridge.

JT: As a musically inclined and trained individual, what is your favorite personal experience with audio design in games?

CS: I am doing a lot of work in the emerging technology space and audio, and one of the projects that I worked on recently was particularly exciting to me. It was with Intel labs called "Leviathan: The Evolution of Storytelling". This is a very cool, large-scale augmented reality project that will change the way stories are told and how games will be played going forward and was inspired by the rich steampunk world of Scott Westerfeld’s novels. “Leviathan" is a transmedia storytelling experiment that shatters the membrane between audience and content. Created by the World Building Media Lab at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, in collaboration with Intel Labs, “Leviathan" creates an immersive world in which creators and audiences can engage and physically explore a fictional, digitally constructed environment.

My team and I brought this rich world to life through audio, creating the audio design, musical score, and mix (I was the audio director) for Intel for this year's Consumer Electronics Show. This demo was featured in the keynote speech by Intel's CEO and also a more developed out and longer version of the project was in Intel's booth at the conference (in which the Leviathan spews out these octopus-like creatures called Huxleys that you can control like a virtual pet on your Intel-powered tablets).

We also had to create this full audioscape for such an ambitious and large-scale project within an extremely tight schedule and developed a very successful iterative audio approach. We also did a lot of work with the manipulation of frequencies in order to communicate emotions & feelings within a noisy conference background environment.

JT: Tell me what you think are some of the greatest potentials behind audio in games?

CS: I think games, and game audio in particular, should aspire to far greater artistic goals than any other medium. Having said that right now I do feel that game audio trails other art forms when it comes to artistic expression. Game audio can and should aspire to delivering more impactful experiences than any other medium that’s come before. Now, game audio has come a long way over the last 10 - 15 years when measured by quality of execution and advancements in technology - it's no longer little bleeps and bloops and synthetic musical melodies. We’ve got all of these wonderful tools and technologies out there, such as procedural audio, real-time effects processing, and dynamic, real-time mixing.

You can place sounds anywhere in 3D space. There are games supporting surround sound technologies. Composers are recording epic scores with live, large orchestras at sample rates comparable to film sound. So, despite all our technical advancements and all this cool sounding stuff, game audio today is as technically well-executed as a feature film, but I sincerely believe that game audio hasn't even begun to scratch the surface of what's possible artistically. But there are some people who are really pushing it and going above and beyond to create artistic experiences with the audio in their games - Limbo is a prime example, and I'm certain that over the next few years successful game creators will push into new musical and sonic territories and drive deeper emotional resonance into their creations by beginning to focus on audio aesthetics, just as they have done in recent years by adopting some of the principles of visual aesthetics. This is one of the things I lecture about quite frequently.

This is one of my absolute missions when I lecture at various conferences and educational institutions. Talking about how we can create aesthetic and artistic audio. It's about experimentation and exploring unorthodox paths in order to create truly remarkable works of art. As in any art form, real innovation in game audio doesn’t come from technology, but rather from the creativity and experimentation of the artists who wield it. Employing proper aesthetic principles to drive the latest game audio specific tools, technologies, and techniques will enable game creators to push audio, and games themselves, forward in an emotionally impactful way. At its most basic level, audio aesthetics is about teaching someone the key principles and technologies that will enable them to process, mix and control sound for aesthetic effect in order to craft the story elements of a game, control the pacing of gameplay, enforce the gameplay narrative, elicit and influence emotion, create mood, shape perception and reinforce the way that players experience game characters. But really, I am trying to teach them to become artists.

JT: Are modern games utilizing the potentials available to audio design? If not, what do you think is being lost?

CS: As I just mentioned, one of the best games out there for audio right now is a game called Limbo by Playdead Games. It's a 2D side-scrolling, monochrome game. It's about a boy searching for his lost sister in a dark forest. The game is just unbelievable - the focus is on minimalism with an emphasis on silence and subtlety. The audio designer is a man called Martin Stig Andersen and he basically creates this experience where the "music" emerges from the sounds of the environment.

Rather than relying on a traditional music soundtrack which could be seen as overtly manipulative, the game instead uses sound effects for their "musical" qualities. It's mixed in a way that it is driven by the subjective experience of the character, emphasizing the sounds of upcoming obstacles and environments even before they're visually revealed. Conversely, as the player passes certain objects they may be silenced entirely, even though they may still be on-screen, if the on-screen objects are no longer “important” to the gameplay. It’s non-linear. It’s dynamic.

The sounds are also created using electro-acoustic principles. They use the concept of "ambiguity" which is a great aesthetic principle that games do not normally utilize. Or perhaps I should say that games don’t utilize ambiguity in the way that, say, painters or sculptors do. Great artists use ambiguity extensively, their works are open for interpretation. And Limbo purposely wanted to use that device. They were careful not to manipulate the player. They wanted to use sounds that didn’t have a strong identity or association to something.

As the worldwide gaming community grows, more and more women are interested in contributing their own imaginative input into gaming design and creativity. Even though Summer's never saw herself as a segregated member of audio game design simply because she is a woman in the industry, it appears that the distinct female impact into all things gaming is vital to industry growth.

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