Creating the Sound Of Looney Tunes for Warner Bros. Online
< below photo - Jody Gray and Michael C. Lau >

Composer/Producer Jody Gray and Music Supervisor/Sound Designer Michael C. Lau of New York based scoring house; Gray Noise Music, have discovered that scoring music, creating sound design and mixing the final elements for the Web using Macromedia's Flash medium, offers interesting challenges.

It's been an animated, "Stalling-esque" year for the company, (Gray also composes the music for Cartoon Network's hit series, "Courage the Cowardly Dog.") In March he scored, orchestrated and conducted full orchestral open and closing themes for CN's "The Chuck Jones Show" anthology series, using Carl Stalling's inspiring work as a template. Outside of the usual strings and winds, the ensemble featured yodeler, solo tuba and bass trombone, banjo and accordion as well as techo -flavored loops. Lau's sound design brought an awesome, edgy quality to the party, combining classic WB Sfx with broad, post-modern flourishes.

Carl Stalling's classic WB scores continue to define and influence music for animation. So, when Warner Bros. Online approached the company to create original music and sound design for twenty-six entirely new Looney Tunes for the Web, they jumped at the chance.

But unlike "normal" scoring there are synchronization issues inherent in interactivity that need to be addressed.

Flash is not a consistent, linear medium, where everything runs at 30 fps. It's limited to the speed of the host computer running the shockwave file (or swf). In most cases, Flash animation is set to 10-15 fps. But on the average machine the lower frame rate can cause "jumpiness" in the animation, due to the computer's unending struggle to keep up. This is most apparent when audio is present and also dependent on the complexity of the content.

With "Gotham Girls," Gray Noise Music's first WBOL project the emphasis was concentrated on creating small, 2-4 bar, easily loopable events. Gradually these events became more daring. Although the loop scenario is still a big part of what they do, it's more often about scoring in a traditional, linear manner, although they deal with the final result somewhat differently.

Audio can either be set to 'stream' or play freely setting to 'event' or 'start'. The former can cause the animation to drop frames, the latter allows the audio and animation to run independently and not drop frames.

Because of their vast TV experience, the team was used to scoring and creating effects on a grand scale, lots of parts/elements with myriad accents that need to be synched precisely to picture. In a linear medium such as video (TV), it's relatively simple: you create a stereo mix and lay it in. With Flash you must "break" the audio."

Music, for example, must be split into separate parts. Any transitional swells (cymbal and timpani rolls) used before or after a given cue are mixed and made into a separate file. Drum loops are broken into 2-4 bar elements that can be looped until the scene is over. Any instrumentation occurring over a loop is also mixed to a separate file. This "breaking" up into primary elements allows for a few things:

1) The audio can be set to event/start and run independently while allowing the animation to drop the least frames and to remain in synch, each audio element is placed where it needs to synch up or start and stop.

2) It grants the animators the freedom to adjust the animation once the music is approved and mixed, providing flexibility without having to re-score or adjust.

3) Whether set to stream or event/start, it allows the maximum amount of mixing ability within the Flash application. This is especially useful when you listen to the final MP3 compression and realize that something needs to be louder.

There are additional issues with Interactivity. Often each episode has more than one ending and/or the viewer has the option of choosing a different object to fall on Daffy, for example. Multiple versions of music and sound effects must be created. But the biggest challenge is making sure that the scored audio doesn't spill over into the next scene, since that scene usually precedes the one the viewer selected. In a sense, everything must be written and pieced together in a modular, compartmentalized fashion.

Like the music, the sound effects can also be extremely complex. Everything is layered. An Sfx Pro Tools session can sometimes use 15 to 24 stereo tracks! Many sound designers use samplers but the boys at Gray Noise find that seeing the waveform, then chopping and placing it is the most user-friendly way to work. Lots easier than doing it to a bunch of samples in a sampler, let alone the loading time. Each effect is usually 5-10 elements deep, for each part or action. There's the attack, the body of the sound and the decay,

Panning each element becomes challenging too, as only a few pan points are allowed. For instance, in a long racecar scene, each car effect must be broken out and panned separately to create the illusion of perception and space.

Once sub-mixes are completed, the music and sound effects are recorded into ProTools and mastered: the audio is run through Waves Renaissance EQs and LI+ Maximizer. If "funking up" the audio is requested, additional Pro Tools plug-ins are employed. All of the audio files are bounced to stereo, 16 bit 441 kHz AIF files to be placed into Flash.

Next the audio is imported into Flash where the real mixing begins. Here the primary elements are still separate allowing for level tweaking later. In addition, the music and effects are set to stream or "event," whichever is appropriate for the action of the scene. When mixing in Flash they always take into account any final VO tweaks and the absence of VU meters or faders. All mixing is done with lines, and each side, left or right, is moved independently. The final result is 6-8 audio tracks in Flash.

Once all of the audio is mixed and locked it's uploaded to a central FTP site at WB, where Director Steve Belfer and animator Carlos Palazio make any final animation and level tweaks. All audio, including the VO is MP3 compressed. Generally, the VO and music are compressed at a higher bit rate than the sound effects.

Steve and the crew at WBOL continue to push the Flash envelope. It's rare to have 80MB Flash files, but they've set the bar very high. Flash was never designed to handle files of this size, illustrated by the constant crashes on the Mac version of the program once the files sizes balloon past 50 MB.

In short, creating music and sound design for Looney Tunes with Flash is much like designing audio for video games, sans the surround element. It probably won't be long before the creative minds at Warner Bros Online will want to push that envelope as well. Hint, hint!

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