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We have it easy in in our audio-only or audio for video worlds. The equipment we work with is capable, when it's working properly, of sound quality far better than the average consumer demands, and there are few limitations preventing us from creating any sonic experience our imaginations can devise. Not so in the computer games market. People working in audio for computer games are faced with severe technical limitations, and have to force their imagination and creativity to work overtime to satisfy the customer within the boundaries these limitations impose. Imagine yourself back in the early 1960s recording onto noisy analogue tape (a grittier, grainier noise than we experience now) with no noise reduction, when the end product is going to be a scratchy, clicky lump of poor quality vinyl played with a blunt stylus through a tiny speaker. Although the problems are different, that's where computer games audio is right now, and getting audio to work in this type of environment requires real engineering skill.
Electronic Arts is a major player in the computer games market, designing games principally for the PC platform, but also for the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. One of their major concerns is to push the pace of development in audio to make game playing a richer experience for all the senses. This involves great care and attention to all three elements of sound - dialogue, sound effects and music. To this end, they have recently completed the building of a new studio at their UK site in Langley, Berkshire and have assembled an in-house team of sound and music specialists to push the leading edge of games development faster and further than ever before. I spoke to Chris Nicholls, Audio Producer at Electronic Arts, who explained to me the development of computer games audio, the current technical limitations, and where Electronic Arts' plans will eventually lead.
In a bygone era - just - of computer games, it was considered normal, and apparently acceptable, for audio quality to be abysmal. Music consisted of simple synthesised waveforms, and effects were limited to the odd crudely sampled explosion or laser blast. People accepted this as the norm since games producers were still able to trade on the novelty value of the experience, and the fact that the player's attention was mostly taken up in trying to avoid being eaten or blown away, and trying desperately to get to the next level. The engine behind the sound in several popular systems was a Yamaha FM chip which could perform basic four operator FM synthesis and had a very modest 64k of sample memory in which the sound designer could place his missiles and explosions, and if you were lucky a set of eight bit drum samples. These FM chips were difficult to program and the production tools available were aimed more towards technically minded people than sound specialists, with inevitable consequences. The amount of effort that had to be put in to achieve even basic results was disproportionate. If you have played any games that use this basic technology then you will undoubtedly remember how shallow and simple the music was. 'Chip music' is how it is sometimes described, and the differences between that and what any non-games player would call music are vast. Fortunately, CD-ROM is now a viable platform for computer games and, when coupled with a well specified PC, a much richer experience can be provided for the player. Each CD-ROM, as you know, can store around 600 Megabytes of game software, graphics and sound, and there is no reason why a game should be limited to just one CD-ROM when the computer's RAM and hard disk can be taken advantage of for further on-line data storage. Even so, as we shall see, there are still technical limitations to be worked around or overcome.