Hello fellow pinheads! I'm a music producer, musician, and audio engineer by trade. I own a studio up here in Michigan, away from the over-crowded, over-priced coasts where most of my peers tend to flock. While I'm hyper critical about my audio work, I try to leave it in the studio, and not overanalyze the movies, video games, and pinball machines I play, but sometimes - for better or worse, I can't help myself.
So I'm going to dissect 2 modern machines' sound design. One bad and one good.
Let's get the bad out of the way first.
Unfortunately, it was the recent reveal of Toy Story 4 that got me thinking about bad pinball sound design. I hate to further add to the negative noise around this game's reveal, but when I watched Joe Katz's rule explanation, it quite literally made me feel slightly ill. Not exaggerating, it actually made me feel queasy. My wife felt the same, and considering the fact that she has also spent a good amount of time being a musician, we had a good long discussion about what might be causing our adverse reaction to this pin's sound. I've also read a few other posts here recently about others getting that same uneasy feeling from the audio.
From the perspective of audio engineering, music theory, and writing, I believe Toy Story 4's biggest sound issue comes from clashing keys, tempos, and an overall sense of audio clutter - busy to the point of inducing anxiousness. The game will have a background song on loop, and then play an audio cue for a ramp, or target shot, or jackpot that completely clashes with the base music's key and tempo. They'll cue pieces of songs with different tempos and keys for an important shot. It's jarring, unpleasant, and cluttered. I've noticed this same exact problem with Wonka, and to a bit lesser extent, G&R. Jersey Jack machines seem to have fallen into the "more is more" trap of audio design. It is honestly enough for me to not want these machines, as fun as some of them are - bad audio is a deal-breaker in our house.
I think something a lot of pinball audio designers tend to forget, is that the pinball machines themselves emit a good amount of audio. You are not designing sounds in a vaccum. The sounds of ramps, flippers, pops, drops, rails, vuks, etc. are all colors on your canvas before you even pick up your audio paintbrush, so if you don't take any of that into consideration, it's very easy to make a Jackson Pollock out of your pinball audio.
Now I want to move on to a great example of pinball audio.
Stranger Things. This is a game where the main theme of the show is your default song loop. The real audio genius here is how each of the 4 drop targets is a different note within the key of the main theme. No matter where or when you hit these main targets, they emit a pleasing tone that perfectly compliments the theme. Sometimes you'll hit 2 notes, and they'll make a chord, or even a dissonant cluster, but yet it still works, because it happens, and then it's gone. It doesn't linger. That's the beautify of smart, minimal audio design. If the main theme was more complex, or the drop target notes were more complex, or had their own tempo, it would instantly become cluttered and unpleasant.
There are many other modes in the game, like Total Isolation, where the song is very atmospheric and simple, but the jackpot shots are what add the musical dynamics. The spinner shot, for example, communicates this perfectly them appropriate eerie sound, while also not getting in the way of any of the table's music. To me, Stranger Things is one of the best examples of pinball audio design out there. There are many tables that are simply more fun to listen to, like Monster Bash, Medieval Madness, any of the Elvira games, TNA, Rick & Morty, Attack From Mars, and a lot of the music pins, but Stranger Things employs an extremely clever awareness of key and tempo, and executes it with expert minimal precision.
I would be curious to hear other people's opinions on Bad / Good pinball audio design.