GDC 2016 Recap

GDC_30_logos_v2Last month I attended the 30th annual Game Developers Conference out in San Francisco. This was my second time going out to the event and this time I was able to attend for the entire week. There was a lot to see and do, so I kept myself very busy throughout the week.

I arrived in San Francisco a few days before the convention since I was part of the Indie Train Jam, which I’ll be writing about in more detail later. It turned out that the hostel I was staying out was one of the go-to places to stay for most of the indie game developers. So before the main event had even started I got to chat and mingle with a bunch of cool people in the game industry.

Once the convention started on Monday, I didn’t waste time getting involved in events. One of the meet-ups that I found out about during last year’s GDC was the early morning game audio gathering at a coffee shop called Sightglass. This was a meet-up where members of the game audio community would discuss the upcoming events at GDC that concerned our discipline as well as share the knowledge we had gained from attending sessions the day before. These took place again this year and it was great to be able to participate for the whole week this time around.

These meetings were especially helpful for me since I did not have the more expensive Audio Track Pass for GDC but the Expo Pass, which would only get me into the main halls and a handful of sponsored talks. Being able to arrive at Sightglass every morning and hear the specifics about the talks that I couldn’t attend was immensely helpful to me, but it also promoted further conversation about the topics that were covered.

This GDC was a big year for the promotion of virtual reality or VR tech. We had plenty of discussions about audio’s importance in VR experiences and many of the difficulties involved with making believable and immersive experiences. One of the interesting discussions we had was about music and whether it could be present without feeling jarring to the player in the virtual world. There are clearly a lot of questions and unknowns about the new technology and it was great to hear different opinions from professionals in the field about these new challenges.

Wednesday of the GDC week saw the opening of the expo floor and as I suspected the big thing was VR. Sony ended up announcing the price of their VR headset to compete with the other companies. I had the chance to check out the Google Cardboard VR, the cheapest of the options, and the Samsung VR headset which only works with Samsung’s phones. Even though they were the cheaper and less high-tech options for VR, the effects were still present. Each set worked well even if they weren’t as impressive as the Oculus Rift models I’ve tried out before. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to try out the Sony VR or the HTC Vive at the show. Personally, I’m still skeptical about how well these headsets will do as the new must-have gaming devices, but we’ll see what happens.

Oculus GDC

One of the events that I was able to attend this year was the Game Audio Network Guild ( or G.A.N.G.) Awards. Just like any big award show there were tons of categories, including awards for sound, audio design, and best original soundtrack. This year’s big winners were Jessica Curry for her amazing work on the music for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gareth Cocker who also received recognition for his soundtrack for Ori and the Blind Forest. The game Gathering Sky also won three awards that night. To end the evening, Marty O’Donnell, composer for the Halo series, received the G.A.N.G. Lifetime Achievement Award. It was fun to be in the audience and to watch many of the game audio people that I look up to receive recognition for their work.

O'Donnell Award

Outside of the main events of GDC I spent plenty of time talking and networking with fellow game audio people. There were a few parties including a pre-GDC bar crawl event and the IASIG (Interactive Audio Special Interest Group) mixer on Wednesday night at the Thirsty Bear. They were a great opportunity to chat with other people in the field, talk about projects that we were working on, and just a great way to have a good time. Much like the early morning meetings at Sightglass everyone was incredibly friendly and willing to share knowledge about various subjects within the field. I met people involved with voice acting, sound design, audio programming, and of course fellow composers.

The big thing that will continue to stick with me from this year’s experience is how amazing and welcoming people in the game audio community are. Everyone was helpful and friendly, always willing to share their knowledge, and they made me feel like a part of the community. I made a lot of connections and new friends that I will honestly miss hanging out with. This GDC was a fantastic experience and I can’t wait for the next time that I can meet up with these people again. In the meantime, I have plenty of work to do and hopefully some new projects coming down the pipeline.

My First Step into Audio Recording

Like a number of independent/freelance composers, my music is usually all performed with virtual instruments and samples. Most of my experiences with music writing have involved either writing for live instruments, with music notation software like Sibelius and Finale, or by using virtual instruments in programs like Garage Band or Logic Pro. A number of pieces that I wrote back in college were recorded, but the actual recording process was always handled by someone else. It was something that was considered a separate discipline from music composition and only a few of my peers actually went out of their way to learn some of the basics. To this day I’m not entirely sure why we weren’t all actively encouraged if not required to study it by our professors and instructors. It’s something that I regret not pursuing as much, in hindsight.

For most of the past year, I’ve remained focused on learning more about the mixing and arranging process for music production. As much as I’ve wanted to incorporate live instruments into my pieces, I decided that learning the different plug-ins and interfaces for Logic Pro needed to take priority. There’s no point in getting audio uploaded into the interface if you don’t know how to edit and process it. I wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of my DAW (digital audio workstation) before adding recording equipment into the equation. After gaining some experience producing tracks on Logic, I decided to finally start looking into acquiring some recording equipment.

I began doing research on the different types of microphones and what would work best for my home studio. Specifically I needed something that I could use for recording a variety of different sound sources. I needed good entry-level microphone that would be good for recording vocals, guitar, and my studio piano. The type of microphone that was recommended by most people was a condenser microphone. There’s a good selection of brands to choose from, and I could find a decent condenser microphone for around or below $100. A few microphone models that were recommended to me were the Samson C01, the Behringer B1, and the Audio Technica AT2020. These three became my focus for researching opinions, technical specifications, and reviews.

After talking to some people and debating with myself on which one to get, I finally settled on the Behringer B1. Most of the reviews I read on it were very positive. Even people who thought that it was lacking in some aspects stated that it was a great microphone when compared to other mics in the same price range. Many people reported that it has a very flat EQ response, as advertised, meaning the recordings would be very accurate to the original sound source. The primary criticism that I heard about the microphones, and Behringer products in general, was that they borrow the designs of better mics and keep costs down by manufacturing them in China. Despite this, a majority of people seemed to be pleased with the microphones and many people with their own studios recommended it as a good entry-level microphone, which is exactly what I was looking for.

I ended up ordering the Behringer B1 as well as a small audio mixer, the Xynyx Q802USB. The mixer was needed in order to supply the microphone with 48 volts of power and to transfer the recorded data to the computer via the mixer’s USB interface. Both the microphone and the mixer arrived in about a week.

Behringer B1 Condenser MicThe Behringer B1 came with its own carrying case along with a shock mount and a windscreen. The case is fairly low-grade and lightweight, made of aluminum and plastic, so I don’t think I’ll be using it for traveling anytime soon. It looks like it will work fine for storing the equipment when I’m not using it. The shock mount is well-built and has some padding on the inner ring to protect the mic from getting scratched. The microphone itself has a sturdy nickel-plated brass body and has a heavy solid feel to it. Overall a very well constructed look and design.

Q802USB MixerThe Behringer mixer, much like the carrying case, is very lightweight. A lot of lightweight metal and plastic went into the construction of this mixer, which had me a little worried. For the low price I paid I wasn’t expecting much, but I was still a little skeptical. Once I read through the instruction manuals for the mixer and the mic, I set them up for a test run. I kept the setup fairly simple. I connected the mixer to my computer through the USB cable, plugged in some headphones into the mixer to monitor the sound, and attached the B1 to the first mixer channel. After some minor fiddling with the gain and channel levels, I got a consistent and clear response from the mic. Everything that the mic picked up sounded almost exactly like the original source. The one big thing that I noticed was that the mic was picking up just about every sound that was in its range, no matter how subtle. Hopefully this won’t provide to many problems for actual recording sessions. I may need to do some more soundproofing for the room in the worst case scenario. Everything on the mixer worked very well. My only minor concern is that the mixer did get a little hot after my testing session, but it seemed to cool down relatively quickly. I’m hoping that it won’t cause any problems in the future or during any lengthy recording sessions.

I’ll probably do some other tests with my guitar and external effects at a later date, but for now it looks like I’ve got my new recording studio setup. I’ll need to spend more time with the devices before I can truly give a final verdict or endorsement, but it looks like they’ve been a good investment so far. Both the Behringer B1 and the mixer work great and I can’t wait to start doing some more recording and experimenting with them.