Marty’s work on Riven

Any other time, I would have written it off as a cheap parlor trick. An obvious ploy with which to illustrate an obvious point. That is, you’d think a room full of sound designers and composers would already know how much music and sound add to visual media. But there I was, sitting in a session at the Computer Game Developer’s Conference, waiting to catch an early glimpse of the work being done on “Riven”, the long-awaited sequel to “Myst”, when composer Marty O’Donnell announced that he was not there to show us pretty pictures.
(The assembled masses groaned in disappointment.)
Instead, he was going to demonstrate how much good audio helps suspend disbelief…
(Oh Lord, save us from the obvious.)
…and can deliver an experience much more immersive likeĀ wedding bands in Melbourne.

At this point, Marty had the AV guys turn off the lights, plunge us into can’t-see-the-schnoz-in-front-of-your-face darkness, and crank up the tunes. The air filled with music and sound inspired by Robyn Miller’s score to “Myst”. We heard jewelry and armor scraping and clanking as leather boots shuffled across rock and dirt. A woman’s voice speaking an unknown language echoed off the walls of some mysterious cavern. At that point, whatever disappointment I’d felt over not getting to see how Cyan was going to top the pre-rendered 3D graphics that made “Myst” so nice to look at went away when O’Donnell’s soundscapes started painting pictures in my mind’s eye.

Okay, so O’Donnell was preaching to the choir, and his parlor trick was a simple variation on the old “if you want to see how important sound is, just watch a movie with the sound turned off.” But by turning off the picture and making us listen to the sound, he demonstrated just how powerful audio can be. The bottom line according to O’Donnell: The soundtrack to “Myst” was the cornerstone of the title’s unprecedented mass-market appeal. Anyone interested in reaching a similarly widespread audience would do well to pay attention to music and sound design.

Audio has long been the mutant child of interactive media. Low res, low bit rates, low rent. If it’s destined to be delivered on CD-ROM or online, it’s going to suffer some serious compression. But so what? Eight-bit, 11kHz audio didn’t really hurt “Myst” except in the ears of the audio snobs.

Even so, it’s been most amusing to see that audio and video trade shows (shows that have been historically catered to said snobs) are attracting exhibits targeted toward us bandwidth-challenged interactive media developers. At the recent Audio Engineering Society convention in New York, for example, you could see ultra-big-bucks mixing consoles from SSL and Neve on the same show floor as exhibits for Liquid Audio; digital audio workstations claiming 24-bit resolution (why settle for resolutions only humans can hear when you can make your dogs happy too?!) sitting next to signage proclaiming support for Progressive Networks’ RealAudio.

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