Upping your Arsenal with Aural Awesomeness
Ambiance is one of the easiest most effective ways to enhance your favorite RPG hands down, herein is the beginning of a 3 part series dedicated to enhancing your game with sound. We all know that the best movies are notorious for climactic music, moody oppressive tones that echo at just the right time and overtures that tug at our hearts and minds – so why not use those same elements in your game? Ambiance is a great transparent element for drawing you and your players deeper into the experience whether through subconscious environmental effects or pulse pounding scores during fight sequences.
I am a fan of words believe me, but sometimes mere words cannot do the same justice as an aural sound scape that puts you right inside the action. Ambiance alone can do much more than flavor text can ever touch on at times, which may lend to your players (and your) imaginations and that’s never a bad thing. Ambiance can also lend to creating things on the fly, and may just pry an extra bit of impromptu role playing out of your players! From a lazy DM’s perspective I suppose it could mean you may be able to get away with writing less flavor text, but be prepared (as always) for quick improvisation if you’re allowing ambiance to do more of the talking than you are.
Ambiance done properly does not mean it always has to be frenetic and overbearing battle music or moody tunes from those Halloween sound FX mixes, although these are great at times. Remember ambiance is 100% situational; it is meant to enhance, not distract. Even if the tone is barely noticeable stick to what’s appropriate: crickets chirping, subtle rain or wind, white noise for a distant waterfall, chatter in taverns and bars etc. You can give away clues or hint at pivotal moments without saying a word through ambiance as well; which makes it all the better but try not to give too much away when switching tracks. There are a lot of software tools out there you can use to blend and cross-fade all your sounds together so let’s discuss some of those.
Okay I get it, now where can I find some sounds?!
Now let’s discuss actually grabbing some appropriate music / sound effects, it’s is quick, easy and mostly free in this digital age in which we live. Great sources abound like movie & game soundtracks as well as websites full of free sound effects and music that are copyright free. For classic fantasy RPG’s the sources are endless; and I dare not even begin to name any because you already know a lot of them. The current influx of post apocalyptic games/content may serve well to industrial and barren overtures, or classic rock – basically anything can go in Gamma World . The list goes on but I’d rather not insult your intelligence, you know what music fits your game/setting the best so just keep in mind you can spend hours searching for the perfect tones so set a small notch in your schedule aside before doing so.
Aside from the obvious source of your own music collection, there are lots of great places to grab music from online. Check out the Free Sound Project for a multitude of raw sound effects and noises. These sounds can be mixed into your other ambiance using tools like Scene Sound; more on that later. If you’re looking for music, overtures, undertones and the like then head over to Jamendo and look under the Fantasy, RPG, and Game tags for starters. You can also browse by genre over at the Free Music Archive. For some top notch (but not free) tones & tunes check out what Sonic Legends has to offer over at DriveThruRPG. You can also extract sounds right out of some of your favorite PC games or if you’re lucky they come with their own soundtrack, like the games over at GoG.com.
Tools of the Trade
The following are my top 3 tools for using ambiance in games. I’d venture to say that if you’re reading this article you have ready access to one of them if not all. I find them extremely invaluable and I’ll list them in ‘learning-curve descending’ fashion.
Scene Sound: is a windows software tool (.NET framework) available in 32 and 64 bit flavors that allows you to create a library of audio clips and categorize them as “Environmental” “Sound FX” “Random” and “Universal” all with blending options available. Want to make that ‘chain dragging on the floor’ sound happen every so often while the haunting pipe organ plays in the background? It’s a cakewalk in Scene Sound, you can also hotkey sounds, set up scripts and export portable packages for specific encounters – the possibilities are really endless.
Your Favorite MP3 Player: Foobar2000 is a windows based (though easily emulated elsewhere) MP3 player that has a minimal memory footprint (I DM from a netbook) and a maximum amount of features. The playlist system is great for setting up a cross-faded playlist of ambient music, you can make them tabbed as well. For instance I have a tab for “Battle Music” “Wilderness” “City” “Tavern” etc.
White Noise / Sleep Noise Generator: (Smart phone Apps) I’m no expert on phone apps but I can tell you that the White Noise app by TMSoft for Android / iPhone is phenomenal; it has thunderstorms, rain, fire, clock ticking, wind chimes, waterfalls – the list goes on and on. This is great in a pinch when you may not have other resources at your disposal and also some of the sounds found in these apps are just far better than any I’ve found online. If you have a smart phone I suggest grabbing one of the trial versions of these apps and checking it out, the full purchase is usually cheap and provides a ton more sounds and settings. To top it all off if you have trouble
getting to sleep these can actually help you outside of your game as well! I’m sure there are a ton more of these apps out there in their respective app stores so search around and find one you like best!
At absolute least, you could always take a tape recorder outside (you know, in the real world) and siphon off some of your own sounds for use in your game I suppose, though I wouldn’t really recommend it due to the chance of cars passing by and other modern day disturbances. (Also the sun is a giant ball of fiery gas that is attempting to kill us all, don’t go outside, are you crazy?).
I hope this was a valuable read for some, if by chance it wasn’t and you already consider yourself an ambient audio aficionado stick around and maybe next week I’ll impress you with the best of battle music in part 2 “Aural Assault“, and charge boldly into new DM’ing territory by daring to build an entire encounter from a song in part 3 “Anthemic Encounters”
I do realize I went a little crazy with the titles and a pun or two. A lot of them can be taken out of context if your mind wanders into the gutter, I know. I giggled a bit. I’m mature. But please refrain from leaving comments about it, trying to keep this PG. Thanks!
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Jerry resides in the placid cornfields of Indiana with his Wife and 2 goblinoid minions. His geek credentials sport a Masters in Video Gameology and Computer Geekery. His obsession with D&D started by spending an inconceivable number of hours playing Baldurs Gate and the rest is history. Outside of the gaming world he's an IT Professional & Social Media guy, budding writer, gaming advocate and wannabe designer. You can visit him over at www.dreadgazebo.net or follow him on twitter (@DreadGazeebo)