Universe at War: Earth Assault Designer Diary #5 - Alien Sound and Music Design

Noted sound designer Frank Klepacki of Command & Conquer fame discusses the challenges of creating music and sound effects for alien races.

You may never have heard Frank Klepacki's name, but you almost certainly have heard his music. Klepacki has written musical sequences for the Command & Conquer real-time strategy games, including the memorable song "Hell March." Now Klepacki and his coworkers at Petroglyph are busy putting the finishing touches on Universe at War: Earth Assault, an RTS game in which you'll play as one of three alien factions battling it out on Earth. The familiar RTS concepts of resource gathering, economy building, and raising armies to crush your opponent are still here, but they're also vastly different thanks to the three unique races. With the game shipping next month, Klepacki described to us the process of creating audio for a brand-new franchise.

Industrial cranes were used as the primary sound source for the Hierarchy's lumbering walkers.

Preparing the Audio Assault

By Frank Klepacki
Audio Director, Petroglyph

When Universe at War was first discussed in concept prior to development, the opportunity to create something new again, not based on any other existing intellectual property, greatly appealed to me. After several meetings, keeping up with design changes, and seeing the first test levels started, once again, as a one-man audio department, I hit the trenches! Fans have long waited for the day that I would return to my "roots" and give them more of my adrenaline-pumping soundtrack style again, and Universe at War was the perfect game to do this with.

I began by taking into account what songs were identified as fan favorites in my past related work (particularly in the original Command & Conquer series), and allowed that influence to shine through in the material I would compose for this game. However, I wanted to assign a specific set of themes and music styles to each of the three factions and give them their own unique personality, since diversity in playing style is what the game is about.

For the Hierarchy--our evil alien race--I went with a more heavy-metal rock influence, to go along with how they stomp all over everything on the map with their massive walker units. Novus--our high-tech, hit-and-run faction--featured more industrial electronica to go along with their futuristic robotic feel. For our third faction, the Masari--our ancient star-faring side--I provided an epic orchestral feel, with worldly influences to reflect their godlike nature and questionable links to our past. One Masari track in particular, "Divine Intervention," would become the central theme to the whole game.

We put in two music modes to choose between. The default mode is interactive, where the music dynamically changes between ambient and battle themes as the situations happen. Alternatively, a shuffle "jukebox mode" can be selected in the audio options menu, so that you can hear all the tracks in the game play randomly, one after another, in their entirety.

Another great thing about doing a game from scratch is the creativity in sound design; it's just as much fun as scoring new music. You get to set the style and tone of the sounds of the races and all their units. A healthy combination of field recording, heavy library manipulation, voice, and foley work went into the creation of all the sounds in the game.

The Novus is a sentient machine race, so expect a high-tech sound.

I wanted the sound effects for Hierarchy to sound unnatural. Almost every sound has an effect or combination of sounds to create their arsenal of mangled noises. Even the explosions are strange. It was decided that the Hierarchy units needed to "sound" alien. With the exception of the main hero characters, I took it upon myself to voice various grunts, growls, mannerisms, and strange vocalizations for the different battle units, and made up my own language for them. For the Hierarchy's different walkers, a combination of heavy cranes recorded with overdriven impacts rounded their stomping sounds. I'm particularly fond of their menacing machinelike breathing sound.

The Novus side is about high-tech and robotic sounds, but also makes use of phase effects on quite a bit of their sounds to stylize it and make it special to their faction and technology. Lots of mechanical movement, electricity, and metal sounds are prominent in this race.

Alien Translation

The Masari sound design was made from using a lot of natural sounds from weather and elements, occasionally magical, but not too stereotypical. They are drawing on power of the past, so that direction made the most sense. Things sound as if they have more weight, thunder, heavy bass rumblings, vortex gusts, and the like.

The Masari have an Earth tone to them, hinting at some mysterious past.

The sound implementation was the most challenging curve to overcome in that the whole game engine had significant changes and additions to the technology that made it impossible to keep things simple on the audio front. The audio had to be placed throughout several different areas in order to function properly with everything from specific effects, abilities, user interface controls, projectile weapons, and the tactical dynamics. Because this game truly has three distinct and different factions and playing styles, the audio had to be implemented in special ways to accommodate it. Let it be known that in this type of situation, audio programming support is a must.

With all-new and totally different character types in this game, casting the right parts was a challenge. We really needed to hit the mark on the featured story characters to really sell the presence of the heroes in the game and how they factor in the grand scope of the game.

Before final actors are recorded, a necessity of the initial process is recording scratch dialogue--temporary speech to convey the flow of missions and unit responses--until we consider the lines written to be final. It's insanely time-consuming and ever-changing. It keeps getting rewritten, characters' names change, lines get cut, new lines get added, and it can be overwhelming at times.

After locking down the script and defining direction for the characters' personalities, Black Powder Media was contracted to help cast, record, and edit all the final voice over for us. This way it would be easy enough to replace all the scratch dialogue with the final speech, and allow me to work on polish, bug-fixing, and any other last-minute audio additions to the game. Oh, and I needed to help present the game at E3, too.

We came up with creative ideas for how the different factions' voices would be processed. For the Hierarchy, since the majority of their units had their own grunting language, the heroes needed to speak English for the sake of the story campaign and for general battle use for the player. So I came up with the idea of making them sound as if they are telepathically speaking to you, with a back-masking effect on their voices to sound unnatural, as if the words are being channeled straight to your brain rather than being spoken.

Universe at War ships in early December.

Novus was an easy direction since they are all sentient machines. A variety of creative robotic processes among all the units were done; however, one special unit that needed something extra was Mirabel and her "mech" named Viktor. To make this unit special, and to enhance their camaraderie, it was decided Viktor would speak his own robotic language, so I created yet another language just for him. It made for a unique dynamic between the two characters, and sets them apart from the rest of the heroes since when you command them they sometimes speak to each other.

Masari needed to have a good amount of noble- and strong-sounding voices without being too typical or medieval. So the natural strength of the actors' voices was heavily relied upon. A few of the characters were unique, such as the Masari communicator, a young girl's tone of voice with a sparkling reverb added to imply their method of transmission.

Universe at War was certainly the most extensive project I've ever worked on. All the sound effects, music score, scratch dialogue acting, recording, editing, creating alien languages, and unique processing made this project a constant on-your-toes experience for me. There was truly never a dull moment.

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Discussion

13 comments
generalbloke
generalbloke

Once the game starts up, what is the theme that is used as the main menu, as i really enjoyed the music from there. The rest of the game music is excellent, but when i downloaded the music track, I was disapointed to find it wasnt there. Could someone help me out please?

_eDdySON_
_eDdySON_

Have you listened to "Divine Intervention?" Amazing track. And the sound effects in the demo? Brilliant! The voices were also truly awesome. A one man audio department. All I can say is... ...wow.

Mooshu92887
Mooshu92887

Frank Klepacki truly is a great game composer, perhaps one of the best in the industry.

siskokidd
siskokidd

It's really interesting to hear the inside story about the sound that goes into a game and how they figure out what the sound effects should be like depending on the background of the game or each race.

kackarot00
kackarot00

Not a bad game the audio is definatly very good, the factions are diverse yet the slow gameplay and small scale put a real dampener on it for me.

KorJax
KorJax

UaW is an excelent RTS from the beta. The factions are completely different, and orignal. But I am weary of this game. It's taken Microsoft over THREE MONTHS to "authenticate" a beta patch to patch the old August/September build we currently have, thanks in part to Microsoft personally beta-testing the full-on Windows Live stuff on the beta as well. If this says anything, then we might be looking at post-release fixes and updates being as bad as EA with C&C3...

Grandhand
Grandhand

This is gonna be better than SC2

osleyee
osleyee

i download the mp3 songs is a awesome sound track beutiful art work.

Xypl3x
Xypl3x

Interesting to read the nitty gritty of how sound goes into a game ... I remember a study being done that people are more likely to believe something 'looks' right if it sounds right than if you make it 'look' better but it sounds fake.

SHODAN_43893
SHODAN_43893

@generalbloke it is in "surrounding", but the main menu theme only used a part of the music. Listen to full music and you will find it somewhere after 1st minute.