Sound Byte: Meet the Audio Director of Battlefield 3
We talk to Stefan Strandberg about what it takes to create the perfect battlefield sounds.
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Like many editors in the office, I've spent a lot of late nights playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2, aborbed in the intense multiplayer action. Whether you're lacing helicopters with C4 and flying them into the enemy or taking down entire structures with a tank, there are so many ways to create gigantic explosions that leave your ears ringing (like when a smoke grenade somehow winds up at your feet.) Part of what makes the game so fun and immersive is not only the gameplay, environments, and weapons, but also the sounds that depicts the cacaphony of war around you.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 won GameSpot's Best Sound Design award for 2010, and there's a good reason for it. From switching weapons to trudging along the harsh desert sands, every move you make on the battlefield is so clear that you truly feel like you're there. We had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with audio director Stefan Strandberg who worked on Bad Company 2 and is currently in charge of the hotly anticipated Battlefield 3 to find out how he comes up with the perfect sounds.
GameSpot: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do?
Stefan Strandberg: I've been working as one of the audio directors here at EA/DICE in Stockholm for eight years, and I'm trying to make our games sound as immersive as I possibly can, I guess. I'm a gamer like the rest of us, and as much as any other gamer, I want the audio to be everything that it can be.
GS: How did you start working in sound design?
SS: Like so many other sound designers, I'm a musician, although I don't make music for games, which is a common misconception. I actually started modding the sounds for the games I played myself because I could not stand to play them as they were. The quality and the style of sounds were in many of my favorite games [as] just sample CD library sounds, and I hated the fact that no love was spent there. So 10 years ago, that was basically what I was doing and I sold some sounds online as packages. And then, I got hired here at DICE for a racing game way back.
GS: What do you do as a sound designer?
SS: This title means different things in different companies, I would argue. But the basic concept of this labor is to create audio concepts and solutions for the title you are working on. It includes the craft of making noises, but that's only a small part of it if you work inside a studio that is making games. The list of tasks can be long, but it includes a wide variety of recording, editing, mixing, talking, getting the thing to work, banging your head against a wall, and not giving up.
GS: What are some of the craziest things you've had to do to get the sound that you want?
SS: Here at DICE, we take pride in recording a lot of things outdoors, and if we really want something--a specific sound--there is nothing that can stop us. This means that for a game like Battlefield, we have to put ourselves in situations that soldiers are put in but with some sort of recording device attached to us, just to see what it actually sounds like. That doesn't mean we will use it, but it gives us an idea of how it is. Sometimes we just need something really quick and we have no time to do a "proper" recording session. We just need it as soon as possible. So, one example would be when we ran around with weapon replicas in a public park to get snow footsteps and equipment sounds. Let me remind you that there are civilians in almost all parks in Stockholm. Not only does it look extremely silly when two guys [are] running in sync with a lot of recording equipment attached to them, but it would probably make me want to go call the police immediately and report two lunatics with weapons running around, crunching and proning in a park.
GS: What kind of research needs to be done before approaching a big project like Battlefield?
SS: I believe we, as in the sound team at DICE, are quite scientific in the initial stages of the production of a game. We listen and we analyze, and I have said this before, but I really believe in keeping identities from the real world. And we are very careful and aware when breaking those rules. The rules of real-world sounds. Especially in the case of a game that portrays something real. Real hardware, real worlds, real people. Personally, I like to exaggerate things, but it is not always needed since the real world provides so many layers of legibility and recognizable sounds. Once you start manipulating what we as humans know to be true in sounds, you cater to a second layer that only exists within your "made-up universe." And it is much trickier to stay true to that "new reality" once you've established it. We always try [to] create a consistent audio world when we go about making a Battlefield game.
GS: Battlefield: Bad Company 2 received GameSpot's Best Sound Design award of 2010. The sound design was exceptional and made the experience in Bad Company 2 unlike any other. What did you guys do to make this game stand out among so many other shooters out there?
SS: I want to reconnect to the previous statement about consistency. I think one of our key approaches was that we did not construct any sound without matching it to the rest of the sounds. Many people might think that we are trying to create the ultimate weapon sound in every single case, but it is the other way around. We create sounds that match the palette that we have decided upon. So it is not about creating an awesome gun sound; it's about creating a war. This might sound trivial, but it is still a key aspect of the whole sound experience.
GS: What do you have to do to get the right sound, from footsteps to weapon changes?
SS: Out the door. And then we get as intimate as we can with every single aspect of the experience rather than the recording. The recording is only one-third of the task. Or less actually. Getting the right source is key, but getting it to work in the game as we intended is a completely different thing. And then, getting it to sound convincing on a cheap TV and a home cinema system is another challenge. Getting the right sound is actually quite easy, but getting it to play back within the game as intended might throw everything with the recording that you thought were awesome overboard. Getting the right sound? Easy, if you know what you want. Getting it to work in the game? Hard. And that can send you back out the door again.
GS: Does the sound design team work closely with the music team?
SS: There is no music team. We hire external composers early on in the sketching phase to work with early art concepts and themes for the game. But as an audio director, I was working really close to the composers and joined the recording sessions in New York that we did for Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I had the opportunity to get really intimate with the stems and the inner parts of the recording, which helped me in getting it to work with the cutscenes and musical framing of the game later on. So yes, as sound designers, we are really attached to the music that goes into the game and how it is implemented and used is in our hands.
GS: What steps are you taking to make sure the sound is just as good, if not better in Battlefield 3?
SS: It blows my mind to look back at Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which still sounds amazing, and compare it to what Battlefield 3 sounds like. We have done incredible things with the new Frostbite 2 engine, and my fellow sound designer Bence Pajor has done so much polish and expanded on the previous designs of war that I lack words to describe the authenticity and detail that make up the sounds of Battlefield 3. You have got to hear it to believe it. It's real and it works.
GS: What kind of advice do you have for aspiring sound designers?
SS: I think I might have said this before in another interview, and these are my personal preferences when it comes to skill sets and what I value in a sound designer. First, imagination; without it, it's not going to work. Second, passion; without it, you don't want it that much. Third, analytical skills; without it, you don't know why.
GS: Thanks for your time!
Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new or classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here. Follow us on Twitter! @gs_soundbyte