Assault: Musical Layers and Dynamic DSP Effects inside FMOD (Spoilers, Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

  • Spoilers below! If you haven’t played the game yet and would like to, you can find links at the bottom, otherwise feel free to read on
Screenshot of the rave scene

In this post I’ll be talking about the concept of this track along with its design process and implementation inside of FMOD.

This is probably the track I dreaded writing the most for The Other Half. I knew that the dev at Studio Egg Roll would be picky about its aesthetics, and also that finding a balance between bizarre, tactful, and ominous would be challenging. Up until this point in the game, the player has been following Daniel and Annalise’s friendship through Daniel’s letters and noticing an undercurrent of uneasiness in his interactions with her. In the scene where “Assault” plays, it’s finally revealed to the player that Daniel sexually assaulted Annalise after being rejected by her.

Throughout the game, the entire narrative is told from Daniel’s perspective. For this scene – essentially the climax of Daniel’s delusional idea of his relationship with Annalise, it was important to me that I included Annalise’s voice in the music. Although the developer’s aim was to tell this story from the perpetrator’s perspective, I felt really strongly that Annalise also needed to have a clear voice and agency in the game. I decided to build the entire track around sampled bits of Annalise’s musical themes as a sort of subconscious reminder that Annalise was present throughout the scene.

Screenshot of my session for sample materials

I cut and edited parts of “Annalise”, “The Garden”, and “Daniel’s Idealization”. Some of the samples I reversed, others I edited in other ways – affecting time and pitch in order to create a cohesive track. I ended up making 4 or 5 Kontakt instruments out of the materials I edited. All together, more than half of the tonal instruments in the track ended up being samples from Annalise’s themes, and they play an important part in holding the track together musically. I also pulled some sound effects I had already made for the game to add some sampled percussive elements. Below you can check out a bit of the track soloing just sampled instruments.

Conceptually, I wanted to make sure that the track reflected the bizarre visuals of the scene and Daniel’s delusions without condoning what he was saying. In the track you can hear a lot of pitch variation/warping- this was a deliberate decision I made to help the track feel like there’s always something *off* even in the very beginning. You can hear the music oscillate between on and off pitch and I wanted to try to give it a tactile feel of a broken record. I used a plugin by iZotope called Vinyl on a several tracks to add pitch warping and electric/mechanical noise to actually emulate the sound of an older record.

Before I even started writing the track, I had a long chat with the developer about musical intentions – what we wanted the music to say and what kind of experience we wanted to craft for the audience. We also talked about technical aspects. We knew there would be four phases of the music and each one would increase in levels of chaos and weirdness as Daniel’s narration progresses simultaneously. Pretty quickly I settled on using layers to amp up the intensity. Layers seemed like the best option because I knew the music was going to be a bit bizarre and I wanted to be able to transition to the next phase at any time without a transition – I wanted it to feel like an organic evolution of the track.

Parts of the rave event inside FMOD

After I had sequenced some rough layers I got them hooked up in FMOD and Unity asap to see how they were working. One of the things I was looking for was that each layer felt significant in what it was adding to each phase. Recently at GDC 2019, a game audio peer gave a small talk about getting sfx into the game as soon as possible to weed out what doesn’t work, and that’s absolutely true of music as well (especially interactive music). As soon as you get it into the game, you immediately learn things that you might not have expected and may influence how you continue writing/planning the music. In this case I learned two things, first our music wasn’t looping entirely seamlessly, and second that the final phase wasn’t quite intense enough yet.

The looping issue ended up being two separate problems. First, the audio files needed to be set to decompressed on load instead of streaming. Streaming is typically used for larger files like music, but when things need to sync accurately, it’s not the right option. Second, this is a looping issue familiar to a lot of people who use FMOD, but I was still surprised by it because I hadn’t run into it in this project yet, but sometimes FMOD just has issues looping sounds in the timeline. The fix for that is just to place your files inside a parameter and loop them there. I don’t know exactly what the issue is in technical terms, but it seems like sometimes when you’re looping inside the timeline, the cursor just lags when getting to the beginning of the clip again. If you loop inside of a parameter, you don’t have this issue.

Empty timeline for rave phase 2
The fix: stick your audio files inside a parameter and loop them there

I decided to make use of FMOD’s dsp effects to help out with my second issue – phase 4 not being intense enough. I started off with some pretty distorted and heavy layers (intentionally bad sounding) and began automating and adding different effects to instruments in phase four including pitch, delay, distortion, etc. To transition into phase 4 from phase 3, I did end up making a transition event to make the automated effects more seamless, but the other phase transitions are simple fade ins/outs that happen every two bars.

An example of an instrument with and without the additional FMOD effects
Percussion track with and without FMOD effects

Morphing different instrument tracks within FMOD to create something more chaotic and wild was really a lot of fun. I could have achieved a similar effect inside my DAW, but doing it inside FMOD allowed me to have a bit of randomization, and quite frankly saved me the effort of having to bounce stems with baked in automation over and over while testing and trying to create the appropriate effect. One thing I wished I could have done differently was actually bouncing out individual stems for each phase like I did for phase 4. Phases 1-3 are really layers, but inside FMOD they operate a bit more like branches because I ended up running into DAW issues (do NOT try to use DP on Windows… live and learn) and the thought of trying to wrangle DP into exporting more stems out while it was constantly crashing was…. daunting. If my DAW had been slightly more cooperative, I would have really liked to have created individual stems for different percussive instruments, and be able to bring in individual instruments at will vs strictly transitioning from phase to phase. Here’s how the whole event plays out in FMOD:

Screen capture of the event playback in FMOD

Thanks for reading!

Play The Other Half here: