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Game Audio Focus | Richard Aitken
Richard Aitken is a prime example of how audio professionals can grow, adapt, and thrive through tumultuous change in the gaming and production industries. Through his 15-plus-year career as an audio producer, he has worked on more than 300 high-visibility projects – including music mixing for film scores, game scores, and promotional trailers. His work has been recognized internationally; most recently, he was nominated for an international 2015 Music + Sound Award (MASA) as original composer and music producer on the game “Clumsy Ninja” from Natural Motion.
Aitken got his start in music in the early 90s when he signed with EMI as a song writer for a successful touring rock band. “It was big fun, but instead of pursuing stardom, I moved more into general music production,” he says. Because of his strong background in computer graphics, Aitken gravitated to audio and music production for games. This interest led him to found Nimrod Productions, which went on to become one of the most established and respected audio production companies in the video gaming industry. Some of the industry's biggest titles benefited from Nimrod’s music production, composition, music supervision, voice recording, and orchestral services.
In recent years, Aitken’s career has morphed again. He now operates independently with Nimrod providing studio facilities and a background structure for his work. “Just like other areas of entertainment audio production, big studios have taken a back seat to freelancers when it comes to mixing for games,” he explains. “Working under my own name affords me the latitude to take on an even broader and more diverse range of production work.”
Unlike broadcast audio, which has undergone a major transformation with the emergence of global loudness standards and regulations, audio loudness for gaming is not governed by legal mandates – but the gaming industry is moving towards voluntary adoption of loudness standards in order to improve gamers’ overall experience on a diverse array of mobile devices. As a result, loudness has become an important consideration for gaming and a key factor in Aitken’s work.
“Where mixing for games was once all about making the audio as loud as possible, that approach doesn’t work well now that people are playing games on such a wide range of platforms,” Aitken explains. “We need to give ourselves as much audio headroom as possible to allow for maximum dynamic range and offer the best-possible experience for players on any device. As a Mac user, I needed reliable loudness tools that could help me measure overall loudness.”
Aitken is no stranger to loudness measurement, having used a hardware-based metering system in previous TV production projects. He became aware of the NUGEN Audio tools a few years ago and realized that they offered a much more cost-effective approach, as software plugins, than a hardware meter. He first used NUGEN Audio’s VisLM software metering tool to mix audio for Farm Fighters, a game title published for mobile platforms by Kwalee.com. “With Farm Fighters, we were really testing the water on how to normalize loudness for mobile and online delivery. We found that VisLM was very useful for true peak measurement according to ITU and EBU levels. The gating under ITU is particularly important for games and films with long periods of silence,” he notes.
Aitken reports that VisLM has shortened his daily work cycles by hours, giving him a tangible and repeatable loudness measurement process that can be applied across multiple delivery platforms. Rather than having to do a complete play-through and review to bring a mix into compliance, metering with VisLM allows him to make instant adjustments to the mix. “The built-in standards presets in VisLM are particularly valuable – they make mixing to a specific format, such as EBU 128 or 1770 rev 2 or 3, as easy as dialing up the standard on the meter,” he says. “Also, without VisLM I would be shooting in the dark in terms of setting loudness targets for a given platform such as iOS or Playstation, since true peak limiting requirements vary from platform to platform. As a plug-in for ProTools, VisLM lets me use the preprocessor selection in the ProTools audio suite to get a loudness report on a piece of dialogue to ensure I’m hitting the right targets.”
As time goes by and game loudness on mobile devices becomes more critical, Aitken finds he is relying on VisLM more than ever. “A good loudness target for a mobile gaming app is -16 to -18 LUFS. But VisLM allows me to break the audio down into different components – music, dialogue, explosive effects, special effects – and mix each stem to the level that makes sense for that component while still ending up with an overall threshold of -16,” he explains. “With VisLM, combining each element is a simple matter of moving the stem levels – and it’s a VERY easy way to hit targets and maintain individual, sonically excellent dialogue, music, SFX, and other stems.”
Because he can meter three different audio stems, running on three different machines, with a single VisLM license, Aitken is very pleased with the tool’s cost-effectiveness. “The days of spending thousands of dollars on hardware meters are long over. NUGEN Audio has shown how easy it is to do so much more, while spending much less.”
He adds, “Really, my job comes down to three key elements – a good, comfortable chair, a good environment for speakers, and good metering tools. VisLM is arguably one of the most important tools in my kit, and I rely on it every day.”
Mix & Mastering