Sound Byte: Meet Little Big Planet 2's Audio Lead - Kenny Young
The "Play. Create. Share." mantra extends to the audio department too in Little Big Planet 2.
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Sackboy is back on another new adventure in Little Big Planet 2, which is being released on January 18. Once again, you'll be able to use the in-game creation tools to make your own wacky levels and share them with the world. New to LBP2 are a host of musical features so that you can tap that inner Beethoven and compose to your heart's content. I was able to send some questions over to Kenny Young, Media Molecule's audio and music lead, and he explains (in great detail) the music of LBP2 and the new additions. It's a long one, but if you're interested in getting into sound design at some point, read on!
GameSpot: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in LBP2?
Kenny Young: My name is Kenny Young, and I'm the audio lead at Media Molecule. I'm responsible for making our games sound good. That requires me to have a finger in any pie that is to be filled or decorated with sound, music, or voice, which is pretty much every aspect of a game apart from the servers. Hopefully, this gives me the perspective necessary to steer all the different audio elements towards the common goal of an engaging player experience. This is particularly important when working with multiple audio personnel, be they in-house or freelance--for LBP2 I directed an army of composers and a team of sound designers to create and implement all the content. On top of managing those people and processes, I head up the design of the audio-centric features in the game, manage the creative side of the music licensing process, handle the audio for any videos the studio outputs, and try to find time to write music, create sounds, and implement them in the game.
GS: How did you get into video game music/audio?
KY: I had a strong musical background, played the violin since the age of 6 blah, blah, blah, but never really got a massive kick out of performance. My playing was never as good as I wanted it to be, and I had better things to do than practice, like play video games. So after high school I did an undergraduate degree in music technology, which seemed like a good fit for my musicyness and geekyness. I was still music-focused at this stage, but that course opened my eyes and ears to the world of sound. Creating soundscapes and electroacoustic music compositions are rather academic pursuits, but they're a great starting point for getting people to think about working creatively with sound. I had the epiphany that people actually get paid to work with sound. I can remember seeing the term "sound designer" in the credits roll of a film and thinking, "I have no idea what that means but, OMG, I want that job."
But the more I researched the film industry, the less attractive it seemed. So, naturally, I then started looking at sound for video games. There aren't many entry-level jobs in game audio, but compared to an entry-level job working in postproduction, getting paid minimum wage making cups of tea for people whilst living in one of the most expensive cities in the world with no guarantee of a better job at the end of a six-month stint in a stale industry which was decimated in the UK a loooooong time ago, versus a full-time job with a vaguely acceptable graduate salary in a young, exciting, fast-paced industry with plenty of room for growth and new ideas--I think it's fair to say it was a no-brainer. But I knew I didn't have enough experience or knowledge (I certainly wouldn't have hired me!), so I went on to do a master's degree in sound design for the moving image. That course was geared towards traditional linear media, but wherever I could I bent my learning towards interactive media, primarily through extracurricular activities (including some paid work), and spent the year researching the games industry and the job market. At that point (we're talking eight years ago, when the PlayStation 2 was starting to hit its stride) there were around five junior positions in the UK in any given year. So, slim pickings, but I was prepared to move anywhere to get my foot in the door. I applied for a few jobs in Europe, had a couple of interviews, and ended up at Sony's London Studio.
That was a great first job in the industry. London Studio has a large number of teams working on different projects all under the same roof and, certainly whilst I was there, that included sports titles and action games in addition to the social games they've now specialized in. Those projects were all catered for by a centralized audio department, which was often in-sourced to help out other first-party or second-party Sony studios, all of which meant that I got a boatload of experience on a wide range of projects and genres. I worked on the sound for over a dozen titles in three and a half years, plus countless VO sessions for many other games. Which is exactly what a noob needs. The downside of working in a centralized department is that you're super-busy all the time, and it can be hard to integrate with the dev team. I found myself wanting to be more involved in the development of the projects I was working on, not just populating them with pretty sounds, so I started looking for an opportunity to do that. When I saw Mark and Alex's GDC '07 Little Big Planet presentation, I was totally smitten with both the project and them. Fortunately they were looking for an audio designer; I got that job and moved to sunny Guildford. And here we are two projects and nearly four years later.
GS: What are some of your fondest memories when it comes to music?
KY: -Making up mix tapes for long car journeys when I was a kid, complete with a chipmunk DJ created using some kind of hack on the high-speed dub record facility of the tape deck.
-Pretending to be a rock star whilst playing in a covers band at school.
-Thinking up crazy musical ideas and then working with outrageously talented composers who can make them a reality.
-Making music into the wee small hours in the Blue Ridge Mountains amongst friends and fireflies (www.swangathering.com).
-Finding that perfect piece of music, out of the thousands you've listened to, that helps bring an aspect of the game to life, and getting a kick out of seeing people's reactions to it when they play the game.
-A magical jazz concert in Edinburgh where there were so few people in attendance that the saxophonist came down off the stage and walked amongst the audience as he played. He was so close to us, I could smell the brass and literally feel the air moving around.
-Writing music knowing that millions of people are going to hear it and that three of them will like it so much they'll spend time capturing it out of the game and putting it on YouTube in lieu of an official soundtrack album.
-Listening to my mum and dad sing together.
-Jamming with the molecules.
-The three-note tune my wife whistles when she's content--usually witnessed when she's in the kitchen, happy because I have been banned from entering and "taking over" (humph, whatever).
GS: What were some of the challenges regarding the audio and the music in the original LBP, and has that changed your approach with LBP2?
KY: With LBP1 my goal was to make it easy for players to add sound and music to their creations, so that's where all the effort went. One of the main challenges was establishing which things we would do "automatically" for the player versus those things we'd give them explicit control over. For example, I spent a long time developing and iterating on our physics audio system with our audio programmer, Matt Willis, because the physicality of the objects in LBP was clearly something that needed to be backed up with appropriate sounds. Those physical sounds of collisions, rolling, and scrapes all happen without the player having to add them. They "just work," which is good as the objects concerned are indeed colliding with each other. Whereas the sound and music objects are an easy way for creators to specify when they want a sound or a piece of music to play, they "don't work unless you make them," which is good as only the creator knows the specifics of what they've made and when these events are important or necessary. That was all fine and dandy within the constraints of what LBP1 was designed to be--a physical sandbox with a strong platforming bent based around controlling Sackboy. But over time, as the community got to grips with the tools, they became more and more adventurous, knowledgeable, and cunning. This was awesome--we'd always considered that the creation of things that we couldn't have foreseen or even imagined were possible was the ultimate validation of the project, but whatever expectations we might have had were quickly blown away very soon after launch. However, the flip side to the community's insane ingenuity and ability to make LBP1 do things that it was never intentionally designed to do is that rather than empowering people, the tools became a hindrance that the community were fighting against in their pursuit of awesomeness. So, LBP2 is made with all this experience in mind--we've simplified things which the community were having to jump through hoops to achieve in LBP1, and we've tried to keep the tools as flexible as we can to empower the community to go nuts with them. And looking at the results of the beta, that's working out well, so the future looks bright.
But just to tie this in to the audio, if we go back to the notion of "automatic" audio, this ended up being a double-edged sword. Small things that were really useful in the platforming world of LBP1, such as turning up the fire sound whenever there's a large amount of fire onscreen or playing an appropriate sound when a piece of metal hits a piece of polystyrene, aren't actually that helpful if you're trying to create an imaginary world that isn't meant to be the physical world that Sackboy lives in and experiences. For example, in a cinematic, dialogue is king, so we've added a way for creators to turn off the automatic fire sounds and other ambient effects and added a mixer so that they can mix the sound, music, dialogue, and background ambience as they see fit. Or in a level where you are flying a spaceship, it's not necessarily desirable that every time you hit an asteroid it makes a wooden impact sound, so creators can turn off the physics sounds of a particular object if they so wish, leave it silent, or add something they deem to be more appropriate.
And then there's the biggie: music. I genuinely thought we might be able to appease people's thirst for new music by expanding their library with DLC, which we tried, but when you've got over 3 million levels, any content you throw out there is just a drop in the ocean. Initially, I investigated ways of providing large amounts of music to the community, such as Internet radio, but because LBP is a global platform, there isn't a one-stop solution that can provide the required quantity, quality, and breadth of content and roll it out to all territories, so that was a no go. It became clear that the only way the community would have access to a large amount of music was if they wrote it themselves. Looking at what some members of the community were already doing--building physical music sequencers and writing music using the sound objects--the will was there; we just had to throw them a bone to lower the barrier to entry.
GS: How do you find that balance between original music and licensed tracks in the game?
KY: My main concerns have always been to try and have the most appropriate music in our story levels whilst also providing the community with an eclectic mix of tracks to suit as many different applications and tastes as possible. Sometimes those goals pull in different directions, but as long as I don't have two tracks which are essentially doing exactly the same thing (tempo, intensity, emotion, genre), then I know I'm not going to end up shooting myself in the foot and wasting an opportunity to expand the library. So I try and maintain that variety whilst also conforming to the creative brief I've set for each theme in the game. This is heavily influenced by Kareem's (Kareem Ettouney, LBP2 art director) art brief. I'm trying to get the audio to back up the visual aesthetic of a location and the characters that inhabit it. I enjoy bringing it all together, but it's a ton of work, so I'm glad that people are responding well to the end result.
So, to answer the question, if you come at it from the angle of what the game requires, and for LBP2 that is a crazy, left-field mix of tracks, then you naturally end up with a balance skewed towards licensed music. That's how I get the biggest variety of sounds and styles in the soundtrack, because no matter how talented a composer is, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. I will always favor original music over licensed music in an original IP, but the sheer practicality of achieving what I think LBP2 needs gives us a 70/30 split (or whatever it is) in licensed music's favor. There were seven composers working on LBP2 (see here) for similar reasons of variety and playing to each composer's strength, but I couldn't have coped with more than that. It certainly wasn't practical to have 30 composers working on a track each, even if that is the theoretically ideal way of achieving a large, eclectic, high-quality soundtrack.
But, of course, there is also a great deal of things that original music allows you to do that licensed music cannot. I would never have been able to find preexisting music that fitted the brief I gave the composers for LBP2. Renaissance music mashed up against glitchy beats? 1950s electronic sci-fi meets Pathe newsreel via big-band swing? Good luck with that! And then there's the flexibility offered by interactive music…
GS: What was your selection process when it came to finding the right musicians for LBP2?
KY: I need to be familiar enough with their existing work to know that they are capable of writing music to the standard that I expect, but also that they are a likely stylistic match for my brief. Prior interactive audio experience is a must for anyone who's going to be writing interactive music; otherwise, it's going to be a massive time sink for me holding their hand or, worse, poor end results. And, just a simple thing, but it's easy to skip this if you're busy and you're relying on a recommendation, is that it's really important to meet them. If you're going to be working together, then you need to understand each other and you need to respect each other, and the best way to test that out is to get to know each other a bit and find some common ground.
GS: One of the new features in LBP2 is the ability to create your own cinematics, which include themed cinematic music to choose from. Could you describe the process when coming up with the different dramatic themes?
KY: Believe it or not, most of the music tracks were finished long before the cinematics that used them were. Even if it sounds like they are scoring the events happening in a particular cinematic (and I hope that they do!), this was achieved with careful planning, cunning implementation, and a fair bit of tweaking the cinematics to retrospectively match the music. So, props go to Jeremy Mayne, one of my sound designers, for implementing the audio in the cinematics and pulling this off.
This approach is important--it wouldn't have been acceptable for us to score our cinematics like a movie and then hand the assets to the community and expect them to be able to do the same thing with them in their own cinematics. This is a rule we applied to the whole project--for example, all our levels and cinematics are built with the in-game tools, and the vast majority of the art assets were created up front to create a library which the level designers and artists could draw from. So, with the cinematic music, the goal was to create a library of tracks that we could make use of in our story and in doing so demonstrate to the community how the assets and tools could be used.
Initially, we started out by analyzing the cinematic scripts and sketches/animatics to determine what emotions and dramatic contexts we would be likely to encounter and get an idea of the quantity of music required. Based on these calculations I settled on the target of 30 tracks in the cinematic music library, which turned out to be a pretty good estimate. That allowed me to brief cinematic composer Paul Thomson on the first few bits of music, which were those no-brainer pieces safe from even high-level story changes (such as the "meanies" theme). And so we carried on in that manner, sending Paul briefs for tracks once I thought a piece of music was a "safe" bet. This started to get more and more risky, and we eventually reached a point, somewhere about 50 percent complete, where Paul was asking for more work but the cinematics and story hadn't made enough progress to be able to make any more vaguely safe calls. So, I just bit the bullet, looked at the emotional and dramatic holes in the existing library and asked Paul to write those "missing" themes. If you think that's nuts, you're probably right, but it's a pretty good way of finding out if the library of music you're creating is going to be of any use. Indeed, music is rather malleable stuff, and we ended up using most of these themes in our story cinematics. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing how the community makes use of them.
GS: Another new addition is the music sequencer. How does that work, and what do you hope will come out of it?
KY: The music sequencer was always one of those ideas we had simmering away in the background. Alex (Alex Evans, Media Molecule tech director/cofounder) had included it in the original LBP pitch to Phil Harrison back in 2006 to help demonstrate "creative gaming." But it was never a serious consideration for LBP1 because it's a massive undertaking, essentially a whole app in and of itself, and with the first game we were trying to run before we could sprint. Actually, Sony was pretty keen that we do it as a separate product altogether, and I can certainly understand the thinking behind that, but we like the fact that once you load LBP, it offers you a suite of creative tools all in one place, not to mention that the whole point of the sequencer is to solve the problem of providing music for those millions of community levels.
Alex and I both had pretty strong feelings about how the note editing should work and what features the sequencer should have, so we worked closely together on coming up with something we were both happy with. But then we hit a barrier which was how to make the sequencer work within the confines and established paradigms of POPIT (the game's create UI). Creating a whole other application and UI within LBP was going to be too time consuming to code, so the feature sat in limbo for quite a few months with the threat of it being dropped lingering over our heads. But, certainly within the audio la-la land that is my reality bubble, if there's one feature LBP needed, it was a music sequencer, because it solves a major shortfall of the first game. So, with a bit of backup from Siobhan (Siobhan Reddy, Media Molecule studio director), we managed to keep the concept alive even though no progress was being made and the feature didn't really exist--it was too important to drop even though we were running out of time. But then, like some kind of beardy, ponytailed angel, David Smith (LBP2 tech director) got involved and worked out a way to reuse a whole bunch of existing POPIT code to solve our bottleneck. That's why the music sequencer uses LBP2's circuit board and silicon chip paradigm. Big thanks to Alex, Dave, and Matt for making it all happen. The other important thing which came out of this is the gameplay sequencer (which, truth be told, was the carrot on the stick that got Dave to solve our music sequencer woes). That turned out to be an absolute lifesaver for the cinematics team and level designers who, up until that point, had been relying upon a tangled mess of wires and timers to trigger sequenced events. I love it when a plan comes together!
The workflow for writing a piece of music in LBP2 is this: pop down a blank music sequencer object, select an instrument from POPIT and place it on the music sequencer's circuit board, tweak the instrument, and add some notes to it. Add more instruments with more notes. Job done. Obviously, you need to know how to write music to get the most out of it, but to assist players who want to have fun with it or teach themselves how to write music there are a couple of things that they can do which will help. The first is to look at music that other people have written--naturally, some creators will choose to share their music with you via a prize bubble. So, check out some of the sequenced music you've collected, play about with it, change the instruments around, and tweak the track's settings; perhaps take some elements from one piece of sequence music and throw it against elements from another and see how they fit together. It might sound hideous, or you might have found a cool way to remix or mash up a track which you can then share back with the Little Big Planet community. The second will assist you when writing a piece of music from scratch--but before you get started, change the scale of the instrument to be something other than chromatic (e.g. blues or pentatonic), and you'll find it a lot harder to place a "bum" note. This is a nice way to jam within safe confines!
Some things which I hope to see happen with the music sequencer include the establishment of a dedicated sub-community of composers providing work for those people who are better at level design or art and need someone with musical chops to help them out; the fruition of the interesting possibilities offered by the fact that you can put gameplay chips onto a music sequencer circuit board (low bar, flashing lights in time to the music; high bar, a whole level with complex events timed to the music); awesome music videos; people taking their first steps with music composition and going on to do something productive with that (just send me paper money!); and the inevitable "I cannot believe they did that in the music sequencer" moments which will occur over the coming months and years.
GS: Could you tell us about some of the new features that revolve around sound and speech?
KY: The ability to record your own speech via the updated magic mouth tool was driven primarily by the team's desire to have speaking characters in our story. This harks back to our tenet that the community should be able to do the same things that we can. So, it's another powerful tool for user-created audio. I expect some people will use it simply as a method of communicating information in the same way they've been using text to explain and teach things to other members of the community. And there's already a budding cohort of voice actors in the beta promoting their services to people not so confident at recording their own voice.
However, I think it's fair to say that video games are the last place to look for interesting, sophisticated, or subtle uses of voice (which is my passion or, at least, something I wish more games had). So it would really make me happy to see those members of the community who strive to make compelling gameplay experiences not only avoid making the same mistakes that many professional game developers do, such as naively relying on dialogue as a solution to getting players past broken or confusing gameplay, but to actually show us how things should be done. Which relates to Mark Healey's (Media Molecule cofounder) wish that LBP2 empowers someone to create a completely new kind of gameplay experience. That's a beautiful thought.
GS: What advice do you have for others who want to work in video game music or sound design?
KY: For wannabe composers, they've got to know that it's a massive uphill struggle to break into writing music for any medium. It's really hard to get hired without any credible experience to inspire confidence in a client, and clients will go back to the same pool of composers time and again because they've got that trust and established relationship, which is a seemingly impossible chicken and egg situation to crack. Cold calling and pestering people is a mugs game--you've got to get out there and meet people. If you're of a shy or unpleasant disposition, then that's something you need to remedy. It's not just about your musical ability; that's only part of the picture. Consider that writing music is a freelance gig--yes, there are some well-known in-house composers such as Marty O'Donnell and Russell Shaw, but these jobs do not exist, so please don't kid yourself that this is an option open to you. Working freelance means you need business acumen in addition to your musical chops and interpersonal skills.
For wannabe sound designers, I think things are slightly rosier in that there are full-time jobs and there are entry-level positions where you can get your foot in the door and gain training and experience. The option of going freelance is then open to you. But there aren't many of these junior jobs, so the competition is fierce. However, in my experience, there aren't a lot of outstanding junior candidates out there, and most people, even with relevant qualifications, don't show much initiative when it comes to demonstrating their knowledge and passion for interactive audio. So, if you're talented, passionate, and motivated, and you can demonstrate that on your CV/resume and demo reel, then you'll put yourself head and shoulders above the competition. And as with my advice for composers, if you can, meeting people and making a good impression is really important--it won't get you instant results, but it's a small world, and the more people you know in the industry the better. It's much better to be at the forefront of someone's mind and at the top of the job application pile than one of countless, faceless candidates.
Last but not least, if you're a wannabe coder and you have some interest in music or sound, then it's worth exploring audio programming if you haven't already considered specializing in this area. Experienced audio coders are like hens' teeth, which is a desirable job market to try and get into.
Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new and classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here.