DIY Game audio on a very tight Budget

Wallet clamped ShutIn the world of small studio Indie game development money is not exactly in abundance. In my experience the vast majority of your budget will be spent mostly on advertising/promotional materials like banners, business cards etc. With this in mind it’s clear to see that from within the barren wasteland of your Indie developer wallet, there are few funds left for expensive purchases like top class audio equipment or anything else for that matter. There are many studios who through some twist of fate or plain old soul selling have managed to secure millions of funding from investors but I can promise you, those Alchemists are few and far between. If you’re entering the games industry with the belief that you can make the games you want and still get millions of funding, you’re deluded. The truth is, in my experience, investors don’t care for games and as someone aptly put it to me “The games industry could go die in a fire for all they care!”. This may sound extreme but speaking from a certain level of experience now, I have to admit there is truth in that statement. Now that we’re all on the same page, I’ll go through how I, as a broke ass indie developer get through the day by making the best with the equipment I have around me, well, from an audio perspective at least.
First things first, extremely expensive audio equipment does not always yield extremely good results. You may think when setting out on your audio career that you absolutely need that €5,000.00 mixing desk, the two grand iMac, a €1000.00 Rhode shotgun Mic and those sweet €55,000.00 pair of Seinnheiser studio headphones to get the quality audio you need; again, hold up there, glance once more at the desolation that is your wallet/bank balance and you’re back down to earth.  
Now bear in mind that I’m not saying that good quality recording equipment doesn’t yield great quality audio. While expensive equipment may not necessarily make you a pro sound engineer by default, having good quality tools at your disposal can and will make your job considerably easier and can, in turn get you the results you want much more efficiently. However, again, speaking purely from personal experience, most indies don’t have the budget for that sort of equipment and so, it’s time for us to get creative and venture into the ever messy world of DIY sound effects.

Software
I discussed briefly how expensive equipment isn’t really an option but I forgot to mention software; yet another thorn in the side of the indie dev’s bank balance. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software can be quite pricy for the audio beginner. A yearly subscription to Pro Tools right now will set you back about $300.00, a slightly fairer but still expensive option being the standard version of Ableton Live which will cost you €349.00 right now. Let’s be honest, 350 quid for a software package is just not an option, and do you really need such expensive software for starting out? If you’ve resolved that this is beyond your budget and no worries, there are so many awesome free, open source tools out there which can get you extremely good results. The first I’d like to mention is Audacity, it’s a free, open source audio recording and editing sweet which comes with loads of free effects and features. If you’re completely new to audio and want to dip your toe, go try audacity and be amazed at the stuff you can do with it. Next thing you may need is a full-featured DAW with virtual instruments and MIDI controller support to compose your own music; well, you’re in luck, there’s a great suite called Reaper which is free to try for 60 Days and after which your expected to purchase a license but you may continue using it for personal projects regardless.  I cannot stress how awesome Reaper is; it’s a fully professional, feature rich audio production suite available for next to nothing.  The only thing you need now are some VSTs/VSTIs (Virtual Instruments) so you can start making music and effects well guess what, there are free alternatives for that also. The main sites I’ve used for sourcing my instruments are VST4FREE and DSKMusic, both of which have a ton of useful effects and instruments available for free and the best part, Reaper supports these.

Hardware
Zoom H1 Handy RecorderYou’ll notice I haven’t touched on PCs but I’m assuming that if you’re part time dev, part time audio guy like me, you probably already have some sort of half (or quarter)-decent machine for that anyway; if not, how are you reading this?
Ok so software is easy enough to keep the cost low on, Google is full of free solutions to your audio software problems but I’m afraid hardware is where you’ll have to bite the bullet a little. Unless you live in some sort of blissful utopia where audio equipment is freely available and money’s no object, I’m afraid there’s no way out of a little expense. My advice in this field is to assess your budget and most importantly “Buy well, buy once!”. In order to know what you need, it’s helpful to know what you would like to achieve. For me, I wanted to record some sound effects using objects so I needed some sort of recorder; I was lucky enough to have over a hundred euro burning a hole in my pocket at the time so I bought the cheapest recorder I could afford, the Zoom H1 handy recorder. The H1 is a fantastic little device for the price. It has two condenser mics that pick up full stereo audio and can even record at relatively high sample rates. If you need a small portable recorder that can yield good quality results, save up and splash on the H1, it’s not perfect but it’s a great starter piece of kit.
 
 
 

HDTZ HT81 Shotgun Microphone
Secondly, you may want to focus on very specific areas when recording audio, for this you need a shotgun mic and these can be expensive depending on what you’re looking for.  If you just want something basic but directional, ebay may or may not be your best friend. There are some Chinese shotgun mics you can pick up for less than 30 quid if you’re really stuck. The two models you’ll find on there are unbranded mics that go by the models HDTZ HT81 and HDTZ HT320a. Both of these mics take a single AA battery for power and come with an XLR to 3.5mm cable. Do not connect these mics to a phantom power source as I’m not certain they can handle the 48V and may end up dying on you; the only power they need is provided by the battery.  I’m not saying these are professional mics but you can get some very decent results with some good setup and mic technique.
Last but not least, you may want to record some dialog or vocals, in which case you’ll need a phantom powered condenser mic to get that rich vocal quality. Again, these can be somewhat expensive but if you’re starting out and are looking for something cheap and cheerful, Ebay has a few solutions. There are unbranded condenser mics you all over ebay and amazon entitled the BM800 sometimes with the name, Shengyue on them. These can cost anything from €15-€30 depending on how hard you look. Don’t spend any more than €25 on one of these mics as there are many more reputable brand mics available for around the €50-€60 mark like the Behringer C-1 and if you have the money I would say go with the Behringer. Shengyue BM800 Microphone

However, this aside, the BM800 is a nice little mic to play around with. They usually come with a shockmount, foam windshield and an xlr to 3.5mm cable. Now a word of warning, this is a phantom powered mic and as such, plugging it directly into your pc’s mic port won’t work well at all. This mic needs to be powered before you’ll start hearing anything audible from it. To fix this you can buy a mini 48v Phantom power unit on ebay or amazon that will give you the voltage you need, just look around and you’ll find some dirt cheap units out there.  Bear in mind you’ll also need a female to male xlr cable also to plug the mic into the power unit and then use the provided cable to plug the unit into your PC.
Last but not least, you may need some extras such as deadcats(windshields), popshields, shockmounts and mic stands. Again you can find some great affordable things on ebay as long as you’re willing to wait the minimum 3 weeks for delivery from China. My tip for finding great deals on ebay is to search the item’s name, set the sorting to “Lowest first” and then on the left sidebar, check “Free Postage”. You should now have a list of extremely cheap results from China. If you’re ever in doubt of the product’s quality or effectiveness, look for reviews of it on youtube and then judge whether or not it’s for you.  



Special equipment
Our studio is currently working on a deep sea action adventure game called Sub-Species in which you pilot a submarine exploring the deepest trenches of the world’s oceans. With this came some interesting challenges; one of which was the need for underwater/water sounds. After searching online for some solutions I discovered that I needed a hydrophone, but they were too expensive for me at the time. Not one to give up I started to Google how to make a diy one and found some great stuff that pointed me in the right direction. In the end I bought some Piezo discs on ebay along with a 25ft stereo cable and build my own by soldering them together and sealing the mic inside a film canister using 2-part epoxy resin. This was messy work but after I had it built, I had a fully functional hydrophone for less than €10.00, as opposed to the hundred I could have paid for one.

DIY Hydropone
I’ve played around with the mic by filling a bath and dipping the hydrophone into it, then recording the result by plugging the mic into the H1, the results weren’t half bad:

 




 Conclusion
Long story short, indie game development is underfunded and difficult, but where funding stops, creativity begins. Many would turn their nose up at the concept of using a microphone purchased on ebay or built by themselves, but such people are, in my opinion missing the point slightly. To quote an overstated but ever truthful statement “It’s not about the cost but rather it’s about choosing the right mic for the job!”.  If you’re starting out in the audio field and haven’t a lot of money, I’d say experiment. You don’t have the option of expensive tools right now so why not buy what you can and build what you need. You may surprise yourself.
 
(P.S.: If anyone knows of how to get a decent quote for audio equipment in Ireland, please let me know; I have emailed everywhere in the country and nowhere seems interested in providing one.)  
Twitter: @Occivius
Email: stevenKelly@howlinghamster.com