Designers from id Software, Splash Damage, and Bethesda talk game audio
QuakeCon 2010: Sound designers from three different studios discuss the specifics, and the philosophy, behind audio design for games.
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Who was there: Four audio designers from three studios: Christian Sweetman of Splash Damage Studios; Zack Quarles and Christian Antkow (also known as the announcer of Quake III: Arena and Quake Live) of id Software; and Mark Lampert of Bethesda Softworks.
What they talked about: QuakeCon's "Let There Be Sound" panel was an open-ended discussion on sound design for video games, covering topics such as audio recording techniques, best practices, sources of inspiration, and the inevitable question of how to get a job in the game industry as a sound designer.
To begin with, the panel of designers discussed the importance of vocalization to sound design, pointing out that the human voice is more versatile than any other instrument, tool, or software to directly emulate any sort of sound or to create new sounds along the lines of what designers conceive of. To demonstrate, Quarles played a sound sample of the growling gladiator monster from Quake 4, which the designer explained was nothing more than him belching after downing four Cherry Cokes.
As a follow-up, Sweetman suggested that vocalization is a key skill to have in a sound designer job interview, and he pointed out that during his tenure at EA Criterion studios, he had hired a junior sound designer for the shooter Black based on that young man's ability to vocalize the sound of gunshots and explosions, and warned that the "embarrassment factor" of not wanting to look silly making funny noises in a job interview can mean the difference between being hired and being ignored. The Splash Damage sound designer also pointed out that the "voice" of Star Wars droid R2-D2 came about after sound designer Ben Burtt originally experimented with synthetic effects but ultimately decided to add his vocalization in order to give the character a more relatable, human element.
When asked about specific sound effects that the designer felt truly "clicked" with the game in which they were featured, Antkow replied that he tended to key in on subtle effects, such as "the little things, like picking up items, weapon sounds, and alerts that let you know you've hit your opponents" in the recent Quake games. Sweetman then jumped in with his own experience developing Black, which, as he explained it, he designed with EA Criterion's Alex Ward to be a tribute to the over-the-top action movies of the 1980s and 1990s. In order to get the gun sounds right, both Sweetman and Ward compiled sound files of their favorite guns from their favorite action movies (the designer pointed out that Black's MP5 sound sample came from the rooftop scene in Die Hard, for instance), pooled the sound files, and picked and chose from them so that when people played the game, they might actually recognize the distinctive gun reports and effects they'd heard in all their favorite movies.
The panel was then asked how each designer goes about creating a vision for a game's sound design, and each member of the group pointed out that a crucial step in this process involves discussing the high-level vision for the game with the game's design leads, discussing the look, feel, and theme of the game in order to outline the major directions for the game's sound design. Bethesda's Lampert suggested that the visual themes and color palettes of some games he's worked on have also informed his choices. His work on Oblivion, for instance, was inspired by the game's lush, open fields, which led the designer to conceive of an audio profile that was "usually 10 percent ambient noise of wind and birds chirping, leaving the rest to be filled by the player fighting or casting spells." The designer also suggested that his work on Fallout 3 was influenced by the game's postapocalyptic aesthetic, which led him to focus on sound effects that were "metallic, rusty, and rattle-y."
When asked about other important sources of audio material beyond vocalization, the panel agreed that, as long as the project's budget allows it, field recording "is a must." Sweetman pointed out that all the weapon fire in Brink was recorded from scratch on location in Las Vegas with a weapons expert, for the specific purpose of making sure that the game's gunfire sounded completely unique and in no way reminiscent of any other game. Lampert suggested that being constantly vigilant about new sources of audio can pay dividends--the designer apparently went so far as to record the sound of all the doors in his hotel room opening and shutting, not necessarily for any specific project, but simply to have them on file. Sweetman also pointed out the advances in recordings made with "contact microphones"--small microphones that can be used to pick up audio on objects by attaching them with adhesive. He mentioned that many contact mic advances were made by late film sound designer Alan Splet, whose work includes a great many films with director David Lynch, and that these days, contact microphones have advanced to the point where even a cheap, consumer-grade contact mic that can be purchased in the neighborhood of $60 or so can work wonders.
Lampert pointed out that again, a source of good audio can come from just about anywhere and that a good sound designer will always be recording things. Antkow confided that over the course of the Rage project at id, the designer realized that the team needed sound effects for the game's vehicles getting shot up so badly that metal panels fly off of them. He revealed the source of this sound--the old metal barbecue in his backyard, which he one day just "started beating up" and which yielded sounds that could believably represent metal panels getting torn off of a dune buggy by gunfire. Lampert continued by pointing out that while he's often asked whether he uses sound libraries, he prefers to not frequently use public domain sound effects--the kind that are often heard in commercials and movies--as is. Instead, he prefers to edit or filter them to create a new sound, pointing out that "there's no shame in messing with existing stuff." Antkow described this process of appropriating and then editing existing sound effects as "a blender, where you toss sounds into, and you don't recognize the results." The id designer went on to explain that this kind of editing is important because hearing the same sound effect you've heard a million times in a brand-new game can break your sense of immersion.
As a counterpoint, the designers also discussed "iconic" game sounds. Lampert put forth the example of the "VATS activating" sound effect used in Fallout 3, which he ended up simply recording from Fallout 2, since it was the same sound effect used in that game to signal that a battle was starting or ending. Said the designer, "It's not like I couldn't top it or anything…I just wanted to keep the sound because it was recognizable, and you hear it all the time." In agreement, Antkow offered his own voice-over as the announcer in Quake III: Arena, which was copied over identically to Quake Live because it was so recognizable. "You don't have to try to improve everything or change everything for the sake of change," said the id designer.
When asked about the importance of iconic sounds, the designers diverged on opinion, some pointing out the counterexample of footsteps, which are arguably the single most generic sound effect in any video game, yet are entirely necessary in any game in which players spend any amount of time walking around on a world at all similar to the planet Earth. Several designers explained footstep recording as being a laborious process that requires multiple passes and multiple versions to include monsters or non-player characters walking, as well as sneaking or running, and on different surfaces with different properties. Sweetman disagreed and stated that he quite enjoyed the process of footstep recording, but he returned to the original point about iconic sound effects by mentioning an argument he'd recently had with a colleague, who pointed out that the most iconic sound effects become so well-known because they appear in successful games--not necessarily because they're great sound effects.
As a change of pace, the panel was asked about the greatest challenges they faced as sound designers. Each one agreed that one of the most important steps in sound design is being proactive about immediately cataloging any newly recorded sounds and setting about using them--otherwise, when sounds are recorded and left to sit there on the recorder, designers frequently forget what made those sounds so special and why they recorded them in the first place. The panel also pointed out that another challenge in designing audio for games is getting outside their own heads, either by coming back the next day to relisten to their previously recorded audio or presenting the sounds to other listeners for their feedback. "This is a terrible thing to say, I know," confided Antkow, "but by the time we finished making Doom 3, even though it was a great game, I just…I literally couldn't listen to it. I'd just heard the audio in the game so many times, over and over."
The panel was then asked to discuss their backgrounds, which were diverse but ultimately involved some hobbyist or professional experience either in film audio, game audio, or music. The designers then took questions from the audience, including one frequently asked question about getting into the business as a voice actor. The designers explained that the vast majority of all voice acting work does not come from internal hires at studios, but rather through agencies that work with the Screen Actors Guild. Quarles explained that casting for video game voice-overs generally involves game studios drafting highly specific outlines for the kinds of roles and voices they're looking for and sending the outlines to their agencies, at which point the agencies work with the SAG on auditions. The designers were also asked several questions about breaking into the business and having a good portfolio.
Regarding the other frequently asked question of getting a job as a game sound designer, the panelists had several insightful tips, such as creating a solid demo reel, familiarizing oneself with modern audio software, and not plagiarizing anyone else's work. With regard to an actual demo reel and portfolio, the sound designers all agreed that the best portfolios show a range of sound--not just loud explosions, but also medium-audio effects and quieter, subtler effects. Sweetman offered that one of the best ways he knew to build a sound design portfolio was to attempt to "tell a story with no video, only audio," and he cited the demo reel that got him his job at Splash Damage: an audio track that told the story of a car bomb going off in a parking lot, which shocked the onlookers in the area.
Takeaway: Being a successful video game sound designer involves not only having a keen ear, but also having a good working knowledge of modern software; a strong work ethic that includes being vigilant about constantly looking for new sources of new sounds; a willingness to be creative and to experiment; and the ability to show range beyond a single explosion or the Wilhelm scream.
Quote: "Whenever I work on a new project, I create a 'sonic bible' for it as reference material. Sure, things change, and I throw a bunch of sutt out later, but it lets me get into the world space so it's cohesive." --Quarles, on how to create an overarching plan for how to design sound in a new game.