Brink Developer Interview on the science behind Sound Design

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Do you want to work in the gaming industry or is your job just so awful that any job sounds exotic and awesome in comparison?

Well then this canned interview is for you, I received this developer interview from Bethesda this morning from their audio director, Chris Sweetman.

Personally I struggle to tell the difference between similar sounds so I would possibly be the worst audio engineer on the planet but maybe this is right up your alley? Be warned it’s lengthy…

Introduction
I’m Chris Sweetman, Audio Director at Splash Damage, and this developer diary is all about Brink’s sound design. What does an Audio Director do all day?  Well, I’m responsible for the quality of everything that is heard in our games, including music, dialogue, and sound design. This can be broken down into various areas, including in-game gameplay, cut scenes, trailers and tons of other stuff.

I work with composers on music and licensing, actors on dialogue, and myself on sound design.  I also have Simon Price – our dedicated Audio Programmer – working with me, without whom none of this would be possible.

Sonic Space
Having played many single player and multiplayer shooters, there was one thing that always concerned me¬ – sonic space. In other words, how do you overcome the problem of having too many sounds all playing at the same time?  When you have music, gunfire, dialogue, Foley, explosions, and ambient sounds all going off simultaneously, you’re generally left with aural mush. This was a problem we were determined to solve when beginning work on Brink.

I’d made some progress working on BLACK with the Choir of Guns concept, but it was evident early on that with Brink’s focus on blurring the lines between single and multiplayer, we had to up the ante . We wanted every sound in Brink to be heard perfectly, whether it was a Molotov cocktail exploding, a mini gun winding up, or a heavy body-type player coming round the corner to stomp on your face. These sounds were only going to be heard properly with enough space in the audio mix. If you consider that it’s entirely plausible to have 16 players in the same part of a level, all triggering the same sounds, then the true scope of this challenge becomes clear.

In addition to this, we gave ourselves three high-level challenges for Brink (apart from making everything sound cool, of course):

  • We wanted to use audio to enhance gameplay. It can be very easy to fall into a trap of just attaching sounds to actions, however, it’s incredibly important to collaborate with level designers and not be afraid to say “that does not need a sound at this time.”
  • Since SMART was going to be such a significant part of the player’s interaction with the game world, I wanted to really make it feel grounded through the use of Foley.
  • Finally, because Brink is a FPS, weapon sounds were obviously high on the priority list. The player’s gun is essentially your lead actor as it’s on-screen 95% of the time, so you want them to have a good voice!

A Choir of Guns
Solving the problem of having up to 16 players firing weapons and hearing the same blast in close proximity required an artful approach.

First, we sonically split the weapons up into our two factions, the Security and the Resistance. We had already decided our weapons would look different depending on which side you chose to play on, so this seemed like a logical step to take. The weapons of the Security faction sound like they’re very well-maintained, so the resulting blast sounds well-lubricated, snappy and precise. Meanwhile the Resistance version of the same gun sounds a lot more worn and weathered, so the blast sounds sloppy and rattling.

Then, in the concept phase, the weapon sounds were designed in different timbres, almost like a choir (i.e. alto, baritone, tenor). The idea was that if weapons of a similar sound were played in close proximity, they would actually harmonise rather than drown each other out.

  1. Then on top of that, we gave each weapon three distinct stages of distance:
    A close-up third person sound – what you would hear if another player was right next to you.
  2. A mid-range sample – which would be played about 15 to 20 ft away from the firing player.
  3. A far sample – which would be played above and beyond 20 ft from the firing player.

These samples crossfade seamlessly and they incidentally help evolve the ambience of the battle based on what’s actually happening during gameplay.
Because they are not baked into an ambient soundscape, the three stages of distance actually create an interactive battle ambience. The player is able to tell exactly where a fight is happening and how far away it is.

Making Movement Sound Good
Our SMART movement system presented an interesting challenge, as we needed to make sure that the player would be able to hear their progress across a map, from vaults and slides to mantling up walls and jumping off them. Also, chatting with some hardcore PC players revealed a little secret: when playing online matches on the PC, they would disable all ambient sounds so they could hear the footsteps of their enemies.

This spawned some new, interesting directions. Clearly our movement noises would need to narrate the gameplay, and inform players as to the state of play. With this in mind, we arranged a two-day session with Glen Gathard at Shepperton Studios, including Andrea King as the Foley artist. Armed with a rather large list, we recorded everything from the Foley of clothing (which actually changes depending on how much clothing you have on your character) to the sounds of turrets spinning.

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Foley for me is one of the undiscovered areas of sound design in games, and we have really gone to town on Brink. For starters, each weight class has its own selection of footsteps, so you can hear if that’s a light, medium, or heavy body-type coming around that next corner just by the sound of their footsteps. A lot of time was also spent on the Foley of the weapons, with each weapon having custom sets of sounds for being carried, as well as for when it’s being iron-sighted.

The Right Voice for Our Weapons
The sound of the weapons is one of the biggest challenges you come up against in sound design on a shooter. The first thing we had to do was find source material, and given the scope of our game, I decided there was no point using library CD recordings that have already been in several games. We had to record our own stuff from scratch.
I contacted a friend of mine, Charles Maynes, who is one of the most experienced and talented weapon recordists I know. We arranged to spend two days in the desert just outside Las Vegas recording 35 weapons.

Our weapon “cast list” contained a healthy mix of characters: we chose a variety ranging from absolutely modern weapons to firearms dating back to World War II. The older weapons have a very distinctive and more mechanical sound than the combat weapons of today. WWII-era rifles and machine guns were often machined from solid billets of steel and were fitted with wooden stocks, all of which produce both “dry” weapon operation and “hot” firing sounds — a different resonant quality than that of modern stamped-steel and polymer weapons. When you hear a Browning M1918 medium mach
ine gun chugging, coughing and clacking its way through a belt of .30 ammunition, it sounds very different from a modern weapon like an M249 Minimi firing 5.56mm ammo (but we recorded that too, just in case).

Once back in the studio, these recordings became the basis for all of the weapons the player hears in Brink, and each weapon tends to be designed using an amalgamation of different recordings.

Playing It Back the Right Way
Playback of weapon sounds in an action title is incredibly important. The two most common approaches for this are to use single samples triggered with either code or loop models. Unfortunately, both of these methods have issues. Repeating single shots never really sounds like an automatic weapon being fired. Weapons have inherent mis-timing when they fire and it’s not something you can incorporate into the samples using the single shot method. Loops on the other hand attempt to solve this problem, but the shots that are in the loop always play back in the same order, so there’s no variation at all.

Aware of these issues, we decided to use neither of these systems and instead created a unique solution for Brink. We came up with a granular system that breaks up our recorded weapon burst of roughly 15 rounds into three main groups: Start, Middles, and Ends.

  • The Start is the initial attack; it’s the first shot fired and this sample always stays the same.
  • The Middles are the tiny sections of each shot firing, broken up into pieces.
  • The Ends are the tails of the final shot in a burst; like the Starts, these samples always stay the same.

Using clever code magic, the game checks if the player is firing at any given time and dynamically assembles the firing sound from the above elements. This playback method allows for an incredible amount of variation because we can dynamically assemble the Middles on the fly from our sample pool. It also retains any inherent mistiming in the source recordings, adding to the authenticity of the sound.

Up Close and Personal
Another area that I wanted to explore was the difference in sound when you use iron-sight to fire a weapon from your shoulder as opposed to firing it from the hip.
Previously, games have just played the same sound, but it doesn’t make any sense that your weapon sounds exactly the same whether there’s half the distance between it and your ear, or not. If your ear is that much closer to the internal workings of the weapon and the bulk of the weapon itself is partly occluding the muzzle blast, it sounds different in real life and should in-game too.

With that in mind, we specifically recorded weapons with clear, chunky, clunky operating noises (those heavier WWII-era weapons shone in this regard) and also several silenced and suppressed weapons such as the Stechkin APS, L34A1 Sterling SMG and De Lisle carbine. These unadorned cocking, loading, trigger/hammer and ejecting operating sounds gave me the basis for an entire second range of iron-sighted sounds for each weapon, which feel distinctly more mechanical and “closer to the inner workings” than their hip-shooting counterparts.

Conclusion
As I hope I’ve described, it’s not enough to have lots of cool sounding unique sounds (although obviously you need them to start off with), you also have to present them to the player in a way that makes sense and supports the gameplay. The approaches we’ve taken with Brink have allowed us to create an incredible amount of sonic space, where every sound can be heard as it was intended. Even with 16 players all firing their weapons, you’ll still be able to hear that heavy body-type enemy coming round the corner.

Last Updated: January 21, 2011

Gavin Mannion

I for one welcome our future robotic overlords

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