Silent Hill composer tunes into perfect sound

GDC 2010: Akira Yamaoka of Grasshopper Manufacture discusses how the human brain works and what techniques are effective when creating a memorable audio experience.


Who Was There: Akira Yamaoka, who is best known for his music in the Silent Hill series, leveraged his 20 years of experience in video game production to discuss audio design in games from a producer's perspective. He has worked not only as a composer, but also as a sound designer, sound director, and producer. Having recently left longtime employer Konami, Yamaoka is currently working with Suda51 on a new game at Grasshopper Manufacture that will be published by EA Partners.

Akira Yamaoka
Akira Yamaoka

What They Talked About: Yamaoka's 2010 Game Developers Conference session began with a few slides that highlighted some facts of Japan, including the number of islands (6,852) and coastal line (comparable to that of Australia). Yamaoka wanted go over his background and heritage because the attention to detail that is part of the Japanese culture ties in closely to what he ultimately strives for: perfection.

"We care about details. That's the culture," he said through a translator. "We are married to perfection, to details. I hope that links with the world of games."

Yamaoka wanted to be a designer after entering the world of computer games. Computer graphics were still considered new at the time, and his original goal was to focus on graphics but then switched after he bought a PC.

"I wasn't very serious and was having fun," he explained. "I discovered that with a computer, you can compose music, so I switched to [making] computer music instead of computer graphics."

Currently, Yamaoka uses MAX/MSP to compose, but the interface wasn't as accessible 20 years ago. He says that nowadays, anyone can create music, but for him, it's a matter of going beyond that. Comparisons were made to film, but he stated that dramatic films don't have the same interactive communication that video games do.

The composer went on to discuss how humans rely on visuals for stimulation, but what he wanted to do was find a way to stimulate or "tickle" a player's emotion with sound. Because humans have other senses as well, he hoped that later down the road, gamers can be "tickled" by taste and scents as well.

Yamaoka's theory for controlling a person's emotions is based on psychology. He explained how humans feel unstable when they turn clockwise and that there's a psychological uncertainty there. Understanding what humans naturally fear is something that is used in games to create anxiety.

Having worked on the Silent Hill series since its inception, Yamaoka talked about how he would bring in sound three frames ahead to induce intensity or anxiety. The opposite would result when audio came after the visual cues, which instead provided security and comfort.

Early audio cues induce anxiety.
Early audio cues induce anxiety.

Contrasting sounds also leave a lasting impression on a listener. An example that he used was to introduce a beautiful piano melody, followed by a frightening sound. Each sound becomes more vivid and the same trick is used in visuals as well.

Based on Yamaoka's audio research, he explained that when the brain hears a sound that is followed by silence, the sound remains even after it has been cut off, which leaves a powerful impact on the listener.

"It's the lack of sound that impresses humans more than the beautiful music," he said.

The final part of Yamaoka's talk was focused on the MAX audio software and how simple it was for him to use when composing and creating sounds. To demonstrate, he brought out his electric guitar and played for several minutes.

At the end of the presentation, he left the audience with a quote from his favorite architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who said, "God is in the detail of the arts." He feels that to achieve what he wants, it's in the details and through that, originality and uniqueness can be delivered.

Quote: "God is in the detail of the arts."--Akira Yamaoka, quote originally by famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Takeaway: Silence can often be more effective than noise, depending on how it is used. Understanding how humans digest and process sound can help audio designers create something that is more powerful and memorable.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 29 comments about this story
29 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
GameSpot has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to toxic conduct in comments. Any abusive, racist, sexist, threatening, bullying, vulgar, and otherwise objectionable behavior will result in moderation and/or account termination. Please keep your discussion civil.

Avatar image for slayerSS-3

Akira Yamaoka a f**** master of music in games.

Avatar image for k83

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for nefphlegm

I agree that sound is very important to any media genre. Take for example the movie Resident Evil... not many know but Marlyn Manson produced the music. And when most people watched the movie it was a totally unique experienced. Continuing with this example the following Resident Evil movies didn't have that unique feeling. Could be a personal thing but I totally dig everything this article talked about.

Avatar image for exber

The music that he made for Silent Hill series are really great.

Avatar image for thecraponahat

sadly it has been announced that shattered memories will be his last game his music made the SH series complete without it will be dulled :(

Avatar image for megatrunks

Silent Hill is simply one of the best.

Avatar image for gamer082009

Silent Hill ftw

Avatar image for buffywan

I don't seem to remember his name on the credits of Silent Hill 1 and someone over at G4 wrote an article/bio saying just this fact(?) Anyways, I think its great that he's moving on from the Silent Hill franchise to work with Suda 51. There could be some really cool stuff coming out of that- and hopefully soon. Silent Hill has been bleeding out for it seems like forever (four was THE last good game), and it would be nice to see some creativity return to Akiras work. He is capable of so much more than regurgitating the same old themes ad. nauseum.

Avatar image for Trogeton

Gotta be the creepiest game franchise ever

Avatar image for AnelZukic

Was he a psychologist :P Akira is a pure genius when it comes to sound and the human mind, he knows what it needs to happen to make anxiety just bigger :)

Avatar image for jeffv541

I am gonna buy this when it comes out for nguage. If they are still planning on making it for nguage, I think that burritos.

Avatar image for TheSnakeBelmont

jmm with suda51 nao?...thats interesing.

Avatar image for pesh_fury

When you say Silent Hill, the first name that comes to my mind is Akira Yamaoka.

Avatar image for 2bitSmOkEy

I think its safe to say this dude knows how to make some creepy music.

Avatar image for Darthkaiser

Indeed if it wasn't for that guy silent hill wouldn't have the suspense it has

Avatar image for Nihonjinjanai

Alot of times the music in Silent Hill scares me more than the game itself. Silent Hill wouldn't be that scary without the music.

Avatar image for parmesanhorn

Someone enlighten me about "Akira Yamaoka of Grasshopper Manufacture" ... this guy's working with Suda51?! Since when would that be?

Avatar image for 8-BitPenguin

Genius, I'm a fan of this guy since the first time I've played SH1 10 years ago.

Avatar image for DionysusBurning

Akira Yamaoka is a pure genius. Love his(SH) music, been a fan for quite a while.

Avatar image for grasshopper6

yea but there's those humans that don't react to things like the rest of population does

Avatar image for crunchb3rry

This guy is truly one of the greats. With Silent Hill kinda petering out, I wish he'd switch fulltime to movies. Scary movies would be 10x more effective if you had someone like him doing the soundtracks rather than typical orchestral scores. His music just blends in so well, because he uses "fear noises." Stuff like air raid sirens, medical equipment, etc. that subconsciously trigger a specific unpleasant feeling.

Avatar image for death_dealerK

i love what he did to the soundtrack on shattered memories. I love that game. It was such a mind **** when you play it for the first time. It was awesome.

Avatar image for shafrox

I became a fan of him after playing Silent Hill 2. This guy is a genius.

Avatar image for brian_13un


Avatar image for rumor_persona

I'm a fan of this guy. His importance to the Silent Hill series is unquestionable. I expect that the series survives well after his departure from Konami. If you want to listen to very different songs composed by him, search for his album iFUTURELIST, whose several songs appeared in the Beatmania IIDX and Pop'n Music series. PS.: I'm a great fan of Beatmania IIDX too.

Avatar image for lynch03

I have to agree sometimes no music makes things much more tense than music does especially when it comes to horror. Walking in a dark hallway only hearing your own footsteps, creaks, wind blowing against the can only break tension in such situations.

Avatar image for PsYcHo_BrOwNiE

Looks kool

Avatar image for llakallaka

i love his tunes but with passing of times is going down! :(

Avatar image for Spartan809

One of the best. Silent Hill will take a significant blow to the franchise if he no longer makes the soundtrack for the series.