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Inside Atari Games - Music and Sounds

Sound is something that's rarely noticed in today's arcades - with the combined din of all the machines going at once it's difficult to make out anything at all.

But even so, Atari takes its sound every bit as seriously as its graphics and game designs - and no-one takes it more seriously than Brad Fuller, Atari's head of audio development and his three-man team. After studying at the Indiana School of Music, Brad went on to write advertising jingles before joining Atari - he's been there for eight years, and has produced the sonics for (among many others), Marble Madness, RoadBlasters, Cyberball, Firefox (based on the Clint Eastwood film), Blasteroids, Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters and now Klax.

Brad's team comprises three composers (including himself), who design and create all the music and sound effects, plus a Design Engineer, whose job it is to ensure that everything is going to plan and works from a technical point of view.

As Brad explains, in the world of coin-op development, sound is anything but an afterthought: "We work very closely with the Project Leader and his team, and make sure to keep up to date with the game - we have to make constant checks, as we never design a particular effect until we see the visual that it has to come from."

With developments in sound technology constantly on the move, Brad's always got something new to work with but at the end of the day he's limited by the technical constraints of the machine itself: "Currently we use PCs, with some Yamaha synths for the keyboard effects.  But when we're actually designing and composing a tune for the first time, we use the old methods. We write it out on score paper and play it on piano before taking it to the computer."

Effects-wise, Brad's team has a large ready-made sound library stored on CD, where the majority of the SFX come from: "We have plenty of gunshots and explosions, and we play around with these to get the desired effect." But it's not always that simple, as Brad often has to get his effects from other - sometimes unlikely - sources: "The klick-klack
sound of the tiles in Klax was created by playing around with the sounds of people's voices, and also from musical wood blocks. The scream that occurs when a tile tails into the abyss is actually Mark Pierce's."

"It's tricky - at first you may have a sound that won't fit, but you can play with it and after a while it works. You can't just look at your sound library and say 'which of these effects sounds like a tile' - and anyway, what does a tile sound like?"

For the purposes of speech, no expense is spared, with Atari hiring professional 'talents' to come in and recite a script that has been produced in the style that the team requires.  Once it's recorded, it's played around with like any other effect until it's perfect.

Brad's views an arcade game's sound as one of its most important aspects - he claims it's as least as important as the sound in a film. And he's proud of what he produces: "I don't want to sound pompous, but I think Atari produces the best coin-op sound. The sound produced by other manufacturers is like pop music, but with us we're creating something more atmospheric. My goal is to produce sound that heightens the overall experience, and to increase the enjoyment value of a game."

Surprisingly, Brad is also quite concerned about coin-op sound - or at least the amount of it: "In the arcades over here, the owners like to turn all the volumes up real loud, to get people interested, but with all the machines going it gets just too loud. I recently measured the level of sound in a few arcades, and it was actually reaching levels that can be harmful to the ear. With Firefox, we included a jack socket that people could plug their headphones into, but that's actually worse, as the kids just turn the volume right up."

As for the future of sound, Brad foresees what he calls 3D sound making an appearance. "Sound effects will be positioned, so that when something happens on-screen, you'll be able to localise the sound effect to that point - it's all done with the positioning of the speakers," he muses. "I think that as technology increases we'll be hearing sound that sounds more like real instruments. The whole experience will be much more film-like."


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