Interview: Blizzard Entertainment Audio Team

By SamGame Audio InterviewsLeave a Comment

blizzardWhether you’re one of the 90′s babies who grew up playing Blizzard Entertainment’s iconic games, or a current day teen who just bought Diablo III, it’s quite easy to understand why the company will be going down in history as one of the pioneers of modern-day online and PC gaming. It’s of great interest to me to step outside conventional blog topics to learn from the kind of experienced veterans that work on Blizzard’s audio material, be it music, voice-overs or sound effects. I managed to get key members of the sound team on board for a Q&A about what they do and how they’ve applied their skills to creating some of the most loved titles in the world. Make sure to also check out their behind-the-scenes video about Diablo III, at the end of the interview.

Russell Brower – Senior Director Of Audio

As someone who has had careers at Disney, Warner Bros, DIC Entertainment and more, what are some  of the most valuable lessons that you’ve been able to carry over from your previous jobs into your work at Blizzard?

Managing change is very important, and I am grateful (in retrospect, at least) to have been  compelled to reinvent myself several times. I’ve always focused on music and sound, but the variety of mediums and the differing work environments have kept me fresh, a problem-solver, agile, and just the  right amount of the “good kind of crazy.” This all applies equally to the art, craft, and commerce, and in working with people, especially teams.

How are you able to juggle the role of composer with your job as Senior Director of Audio? I would guess that the tasks involved in these 2 jobs don’t necessarily overlap all the time.

There’s no such thing as “multitasking,” so in order to write music, I pursue those efforts mostly on my own time, evenings and weekends. This allows me to compose at home, at my own piano, without the hustle and bustle of the office. It’s hard to do both jobs, but I love them both, and I also figure I should “walk the walk” and contribute to the games as our awesome staff does.

In what way does your work as Senior Director of Audio differ when working on the Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo series respectively? And are any franchises more of an interest to you than others?

When the department was smaller, my role(s) had me closer to each title, creatively. As Blizzard began to increase its concurrency of franchise development, and the sound team grew in numbers, leaders within the team emerged to focus on each franchise and provide the appropriate mindshare and attention to detail. I have held on to the lead composer role for World of Warcraft, mainly because it’s the best fit for my aesthetic style. I still contribute to the other games, but only when an assignment comes up that would benefit from the sort of music I write best.

I’ve noticed that much of Blizzard’s music is handled by an in-house team, or contracted professionals. Has the company ever licensed other people’s music as a part of the game’s soundtrack?

It doesn’t happen very often. The most notable exception was the playlist for the jukebox in “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty”. Even then, we created new arrangements, in some cases in collaboration with the original composer(s). We have used some authentic modern “movie trailer-style” music for a few of our promotional videos, as the goal was to catch the listener’s ear with that well-established style which works so well with fast-cut video content.

What kind of budget does Blizzard set aside for its games? By the looks of some of the soundtrack work for Diablo III, it would seem that you guys go all out with seemingly few restrictions.

While I can’t comment on specific budget amounts, I appreciate your characterization that  we “seem to go all-out,” because we definitely believe in Blizzard’s core value of “Commit to Quality.” Things don’t always have to be expensive to sound good, thankfully! It’s more about having great melodies, being prepared, and then hiring some great musicians. The rest of the musical pipeline is actually quite modest in most cases. A great melody is just that, whether played on a music box or by a symphony orchestra, and a fine musician can make the simplest music evoke strong emotions.

Are there any plans/hopes for Blizzard’s sound team be involved in the music for the live-action “Warcraft” film that’s in development?

The best focus for us is to continue to inspire the film by putting the best and most compelling music and sound we can into the game. That responsibility is right now and very real for us.

If someone wanted to work for Blizzard’s audio team, what kind of qualities would you look for in them, beyond the expected good work ethic and musical/audio knowledge?

Passion for our games and an empathy for our players’ perspective are traits each team member must possess. It can’t be faked or “phoned-in.” We create the games we want to play ourselves, and we are our own strongest critics. This means being open to iteration, collaboration, and realizing that the products are bigger than any single person or ego. It sounds like an obvious answer, but it’s truly significant. You mentioned earlier that I’ve worked many places; that fact is why I have come to know an awesome organization when I’m fortunate enough to contribute to it—this is a great gig, and I truly believe that Blizzard leaves the world just a bit better than we found it.

Derek Duke – Project Music Director/Composer

As a composer who’s done extensive work for Blizzard, what kind of studio setup have you built up over the years, in terms of gear, synths, instruments, etc?

Multiple computers, multiple DAWs, and lots of virtual instruments and effects. I have always relied heavily on outboard reverbs and effects processing, so personally I’ve had my own Eventides since the ’90s (probably used on the original StarCraft). I’ve also have an esoteric collection of hardware sequencers, noise boxes, and other musical toys. I really enjoy that kind of direct interaction with music/sound that you get from dedicated hardware devices. I also have a real piano.

What are some of your favorite software and hardware tools to use for composing music?

The piano’s probably my favorite hardware for composing. Being an acoustic instrument, hearing how pitches interact with one another directly gives a way more honest representation of how they will sound on real instruments, rather than sampled instruments through monitors. I also rely a lot on alternate interfaces, having a multitude of grids, fingerboards, and more esoteric controllers. I like these devices for their level of expression and the ability to constantly change the way I interact with them when creating music.

How does your composition techniques, ethic and mindset differ from one Blizzard game to the next? Are there any particularly challenging in interesting ways?

My approach is always evolving, while also informed by everything else I’ve done in the past and absorbed through experience. The challenge is always staying true to the game universe that the music’s being created for. It’s my imagination that gets me the most mileage here. That and just the sheer number of years working on these franchises. There are obviously technical differences in the game engines of the three main franchises, so ultimately how the music will be delivered may be an influence, but any limitation or constraint can be turned to an advantage.

Have there ever been any particular themes, tracks or pieces that made you feel pressured to deliver?

I’ve been composing my whole life, or at least since I was 14, and I’ve always put a huge amount of pressure on myself. I think you’ll find Blizzard is full of these kinds of people. We are compelled to do what we do. With each new game, expansion, or patch, it’s always about how to take it to the next level. I’m never satisfied myself, so that keeps the pressure on and drives me to constantly improve and evolve. The goal is really to continually create timeless music that’s deep enough and connected enough to its game’s emotions, story, and atmosphere to stand the test of time.

You’ve stated in the past that you played most of your Diablo III’s music live. Does this mean you’re only dealing with audio? How do you feel about sequencing things through MIDI? Do you accomplish anything with that?

Yes, it was about capturing that realtime-performance musicality in the audio, to really bring the “organic” out in the music. We’ve taken that a lot further in “Reaper of Souls“. The majority of its score being orchestral, it was recorded without click tracks in order to maximize the musicality and get the organic tempos and dynamics from the players. We recorded choir together with orchestra in order to better capture the energy of all the musicians. We also tried using some more specialized contemporary music techniques to invite random and controlled chaos into the score, where individual players could make certain musical choices in reaction to other players’ choices, though always to a very specific musical end. All this trying to maximize the organic musical energy that comes from a live/real performance. There are always sequencers and midi involved at some point, but that’s not where most of the editing happens.

Can you share any of the production techniques that you found most useful in creating or processing some the sounds and music you created for Diablo III?

For me, the most important production techniques at work in the music for Sanctuary [the fantasy world that Diablo is set in] was not to over-edit or over- correct. Allowing a certain amount of dirt and grit to remain in the music. Sanctuary is a dark, dirty, and “smelly” place, and the music has gotten fouler in “Reaper of Souls”. So chair creaks, breathing, and other imperfections are simply more layers of intricacy in the music. Sometimes there’s a magic in a take played less than perfectly, and that’s when we’re most cautious to never edit it away.

Joseph Lawrence – Lead Sound Designer

I’ve heard that a large part of your work for Diablo III is creating sound effects. What does this process look like for you? Do you find yourself making use of synthesized sounds more, or field recordings?

These days I like to describe my main role on Diablo as an aesthetic policeman. While I did a lot of sound design early on, to define the direction I wanted the audio to travel, I’m mostly now engage in keeping my ear on the global scope of the overall game sound. I’m always working toward supporting the fun and replayability of the game, to ensure that everything, including music, sound effects, and dialogue all come together in a cohesive manner. I conduct weekly feedback sessions with each of the talented sound designers on the Diablo team to review their work, offering input when necessary to support them.

While my preference for sound sources for Diablo strongly sways toward using field recordings, synthesis is another tool that is not used as often but still has its place. We really try to avoid using certain types of processing because they tend to stick out like a sore thumb and pull the player out of the experience. Those tend to be time-based effects such as chorus or flange. One strong design pillar for Diablo sound that we try to stick to is something I like to call “implied realism.” In life, we generally don’t encounter a molten arrow or mini black hole being shot at us. But what we want players in Diablo to experience is something that has one foot in the door of reality. If you were to hear that same sound in real life, even though it would be something totally alien to you, the sound would be believable. That’s the type of sound that we try to create in the game. It’s because of this that synthesized source isn’t always as useful in achieving our goal of believability, whereas something recorded in a real environment might be a better starting place.

I saw some of the cool field recordings you did for fire sounds on the Behind-The-Scenes DVD of Diablo III. What are some of the things you did for getting water and wind sounds?

For wind, there was an interesting source that I gathered right here at Blizzard headquarters—inside the front entrance. When the Santa Ana winds are gusting, the two double glass entrance doors make an incredible whistling/howling wind sound if they are propped open just so. The problem was that since it was the main entrance, there was always too much activity around the doors to get any good captures, and I certainly couldn’t close the area off during business hours. Finally, I happened to be in the office on a Saturday when the wind was blowing and was able to record it successfully. We used that material in a number of places in the game. It turned out to be very versatile stuff.

I’ve also gathered quite a bit of wind and water sounds on our numerous trips to some of the many not- so-travelled places that California has to offer. Darwin Falls in the Panamint Springs area of Death Valley is one such place. It’s a great environment for recording due to its extreme lack of human activity, sans the occasional F-18 flybys. We also got some incredible bubbling, gurgling, steamy source from some hot springs around the Salton Sea.

Overall, what were some of the most creative things you did in creating sound effects for Diablo III?

One particular method that we have employed a few times that we continue to build upon involves masking tape and gunpowder. We create little winding trails of gunpowder encased in masking tape. When lit, they make extremely detailed and sometimes percussive sizzling fire sounds. These are all over Diablo and other Blizzard titles and have been used extensively for skill sound effects in Diablo III.

There are usually two basic needs we are trying to satisfy when doing our source recording. One is that we are just trying to fill a broad category of sound effects that we know will be useful for lots of things like fire or gooey sloppy sounds. In other cases, the need for a specific sound comes first and then we have to go about finding a way to make it.

A great deal of experimentation is often necessary to get useful material, and we also welcome as well as enjoy the happy accidents that are usually accompanied by trial and error. Many times in the past a simple trip to the hardware store or local grocery store has been a great way to generate ideas. A basic chemistry experiment book can be a good source for ideas as well.

What are some of the tools you use for creating your sound effects, such as digital audio workstations, plugins, microphones, and foley instruments?

When it comes to DAWs, we don’t force people to conform to any particular platform, though the majority of us use Pro Tools with some Ableton and Nuendo users sprinkled in. There are also a few Kyma system spelunkers amongst us. I’m personally fond of getting unorthodox sounds from orthodox instruments and keep a collection of old broken down instruments. A few of my favorites are a trumpet, accordion, trombone, violin, and waterphone. And don’t forget, if you apply enough rosin, almost anything can be bowed. By far one of the most valuable tools for me has been my field recording rig. I use a Sound Devices 722 with a Neumann RSM 191 as my primary setup. I also have an eclectic collection of various mics including lavs, contact mics, hydrophones, PZMs etc. I don’t always use them for their intended purpose.

Do you handle the mixing of sound effects into Blizzard games? If so, what are some things you ar particularly attentive of in your mixing sessions?

In the past we all had to work on many titles, but as our department has grown, I have completely focused my efforts on Diablo, and mixing is certainly a large part of what I do. Most of it is weighted toward the end of the project. We are definitely cognizant at every step of the way of getting a general balance going early on, but there are just too many variables in a game like Diablo to fine tune until most of the key elements are in the game.

Kris Giampa and I handle the bulk of the mixing process. It’s quite a challenge to mix a game in which you can go from being alone on the screen to suddenly getting surrounded by 25 monsters trying to kill you—all while still having the most important sounds be discernible. A lot of our mixing process involves doing a great deal of play-testing, using every skill on every hero in many environments. One big challenge is created by design. We intentionally build in a broad dynamic range in the music, which may seem to be more like ambience at times, giving the listener a much needed respite from the intensity. So when the music does heat up it is a far more effective tool at creating satisfying emotional responses in players.

For anyone looking to get into your field of work, what are some skills that you’d advise them to pick up, be it audio-related or otherwise? Any things in particular which you’ve found indispensable?

Always be creating something,; some sample presets for later use, a song, some sound effects, anything. You don’t always need an agenda when doing so. The simple act of starting something new that you have no idea where the end of the path might take you can often lead to interesting and surprising results. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or get stuck on allowing fidelity to trump originality or discovery. You don’t have to have the best gear to create good work. There is no singular place that you arrive at in your career where you can just say, “I’m done, I know everything there is to know now.” There are always new techniques and skills to discover.

For example, when booting up Pro Tools, one way in which I challenge myself and also focus my creativity is by making alternate versions of my plugin folder containing only three plugins chosen somewhat haphazardly. We are absolutely inundated with a tidal wave of plugin options, and this can force me to do a number of things I wouldn’t normally do, such as find new editing techniques and discover interesting quirks in certain plugins. It really helps me get the most out of very few choices. A great attitude will take you a long way. I also feel very strongly, and this is true for anything, if you don’t have a sincere passion and enthusiasm for a given trade, you should try something else. Deadlines and milestones are an inevitable part of the gaming business; if you are able to meet them with poise and professionalism, you’ll do fine.

Andrea Toyias – Casting & Voice Director

You said in the Behind-the-Scenes video that Diablo III was Blizzard’s largest voice-over undertaking. What made this the case? Was it purely the scope and length of the game, or was there a more intricate story element that required more dialogue?

Diablo III was by far Blizzard’s largest VO undertaking for two main reasons. First, there was the sheer expanse of lines. We introduced 10 new hero characters — five classes with male and female versions of each — who all had myriad of comments as they reacted to the world and the characters that surrounded them. To give you an idea what that means, the StarCraft chapters tend to have around 3,000 lines. Each World of Warcraft expansion has approximately 6,000 to 8,000 lines. For Diablo III, we were upwards of the 18,000 mark — so it was quite an experience.

The second reason for the extensive line count is that the writers spent a great amount of time thinking about how each hero would interact with the environment and the story. With such detailed individualism for our heroes comes a lot of in-depth commentary and reactions from each one of them. With a smaller or more limited line count, it would have been much harder to really explore why, for example, the Demon Hunters are so determined to eradicate evil or why the Witch Doctors had a more holistic response to the same evil. Thorough character development means more time needs to be spent investigating and playing with our heroes personalities. Recording over 18,000 lines was intense…but it was an amazing journey.

What does the casting process look like when you need new voices? I’ve heard that Blizzard turns to organizations like Screen Actors Guild for help with that.

It is often said that the magic of a great performance, whether for voiceover or on-camera, really comes from great casting. Ninety percent of your work should be spent on casting. The other 10 percent is the fun part where the actors and the creative team get to play and bring the characters to life. If you get the right voice and right actor for just the right role, then all the rest will be easy. When we cast for new characters, I personally look far and wide to find just the right person for the role.

To get the goblins just right in “World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm”, I spent two months in New York casting and recording each of our sassy new goblin characters. “Mists of Pandaria” was exciting because we did indeed start working with the Screen Actors Guild so we could access their vast representation of amazing voice talent in the US. We’re dedicated to doing whatever we can to find just the right voice to bring our new characters to life in exciting and unexpected ways. As you know, our next World of Warcraft expansion will explore the Warcraft universe’s powerful orc clans in-depth. That means voices for many new orcs must be found—of every variety. I often joke that “I know all the orcs in LA”—it’s so fun saying that!—but it feels like it’s true. I’ll be working with each and every one of them over the next couple months as we dive into Draenor. In addition, I’ve put feelers out all across the U.S., and potentially the globe, for new and interesting orc voices. The orc “sound” is by far the hardest one to capture because it has such a unique growl, weight, and texture to it. Plus, we have some epic stories in the pipeline, so I need to find actors who can tell that story believably . . . while having that slight growl underneath it all. Also bear in mind that recording sessions can be up to 4 hours long, and maintaining that orc sound is no easy feat either. So I’ll be looking for orcs under every nook and cranny! As of late, I’ve even been keeping a journal of potential orc candidates from voices I hear in movies or on TV. You might be surprised where I end up getting them from!

Through-out your time at Blizzard, what games have been the hardest to put together a cast of voice-actors for, and why?

Every game I’ve worked on has had its own unique challenges, but I would say that Mists of Pandaria was probably the one that challenged me the most. First and foremost, we brought a wide variety of talking animals to life for this chapter. We had to find and create talking monkeys, fish, tigers, and yaks—just to name a few. What does a talking fish sound like? We didn’t know, so we had to brainstorm, create, play, and collaborate with the talent to find a sound that felt right to us. It’s an amazing process because you really get to experiment and find all kinds of new vocal and sound “colors” and textures—but it’s also challenging because you want to get it right and not diminish the story we’re telling by having any one sound be too over-the-top or silly. But of course, we do have our hozen— talking monkeys. We let those actors go wild, and it was a blast. I’m smiling even while thinking about them now!

Secondly, and probably most importantly, the biggest challenge of all for me was bringing our beautiful Pandaren to life. I was then—and still am now—deeply in love with each and every one of our Pandaren characters. The minute we decided to create an expansion based upon this noble race, we knew that getting their sound “right” was going to be the lynchpin to really selling our characters and our lore. The pandaren are Asian-influenced, so clearly that background had to be part of their sound. But we wanted to make sure their accent and sound wasn’t cliché, ridiculous, silly, overblown, or any other adjective that could potentially take away from their pride, honor, and beauty. Thus, in order for the accent to ring true, I did as much casting as possible from within the Los Angeles–based Asian theatrical community. No matter their accent, no matter their background, I wanted something from each actor’s heritage to come through in our lines, something personal and unique to their own life experience. I knew we were successful with this when Keone Young, who plays Chen Stormstout, pulled me aside one day after a recording session and expressed how much he enjoyed playing the role Chen. Not only did he really like his character, but he felt he was able to channel the voice of his own Hawaiian/Japanese heritage—his people’s story and their struggles—into Chen’s words and reactions. When Keone told me that, I knew we got it right.

How do you go about deciding which actors to cast for monster/creature roles? Do you have to listen to hours of audition tape of people making grunting noises?

I’m so glad you asked this question. I don’t think people generally realize what goes into bringing our monsters and creatures to life. This is an art form unto itself, one that doesn’t get near the appreciation it deserves. Being a voice actor in general takes amazing talent and an unbelievable ability to play and create uninhibitedly in front of others. But creature actors are a whole other story. In a moment’s notice during a recording session, a creature actor has to come up with the craziest sounds you can possibly imagine. For example, during a creature session for Diablo III, I had to tell an actor to pretend he was — direct quote —a “demon goat warrior speaking faux Latin”. Huh? What? Yes, that was the direction. And that was exactly what the actor did and sounded like. It was amazing to experience that live. To this day, I have no idea how he did it.

Finding actors who can make such sounds is no easy task. I generally do open casting for our speaking, non-creature roles, meaning I send a casting call out to the voice acting community asking for auditions. I don’t tend to do that for creatures because it is such a unique “muscle” I am looking for. A lot of actors will give it their best shot and work really hard to create monster sounds, but it’s a unique breed of person who can come up with out-of-this world sounds and make them sound believable, cool, and scary. Generally, I will find my creature actors simply working with them on other speaking roles, and suddenly hear something in session that tells me they secretly spend hours in front of the mirror or driving in their car making funny sounds—and sure enough, I’m generally right. I’ll pull them aside on break and ask if they’ve thought about doing creature sounds, and their face will light up because they do indeed have a secret passion for making crazy sounds. That’s how I find a majority of my “new” monsters — but of course there is a small cadre of amazing actors who really specialize in making unusual sounds and effects with only their voices. Two actors who I am still to this day so humbled that I got to work with are Frank Welker and Dee Bradley Baker. Frank can have two completely separate sounds come out of his vocal cords at once. And Dee can make sounds that you would bet your life are absolutely not human in any way, shape, or form. And honestly, I’m not even sure if Frank or Dee are human . . . they’re that good.

Which part of Blizzard creates the dialogue and scripts that the voice actors read from? Do you work with them in any capacity to have creative input on that? How are able to communicate the feel of those lines to the actor?

The actual lines that the actors read are written by our development teams. Our writers and quest designers really flesh out the characters, create their story arcs, and write all the character’s lines of dialogue. The first step of my job is to then find the right actor for the role. But the second part of my job—the part that is so much fun—is to “direct” the actors in the recording booth, much like a film director directs actors on set. I’ve often told people I’m a “universal translator” between our writers and our actors. The writers tell me what they want from each character and each line, and then it is my job to translate that to the actors in a language they understand and can play off of. My main goal is to always give enough room and space for the actor to do their magic. Oftentimes, we—myself and the writers—go into the studio with an idea or a concept on how a line should sound. And many times, the actor will take the line, make it their own, bring their own ideas to it, and deliver something we never expected, which is often far better than we could have ever predicted.

The most important job of the director is, of course, to connect with the actors, guide them accordingly, and give them the words and inspiration they need to create their character. But we also need to know when to stand back and give them the breathing room they need in order to make our characters real—to us, to our players, and to themselves. I have been asked before if it is hard bringing fantasy, meaning non-humanoid, performances to life. My answer has always been “no”. Even though the actor might be playing a talking animal, a talking space creature, or an angry demon, ultimately we are still telling a story. And within every story lies real human emotions. The actual “type” of character we are recoding is secondary to the base human emotion we are after. As long as we get the emotion and humanity right for the line, then no matter the race or creature type, a truth and believability will come through. It is my job to make sure we hit that mark.

What’s the most fun part of working with VO and casting? Any interesting experiences that you can share with me?

Hands down I would say that working and collaborating with our amazing actors is by far the most fun and exciting part of my job. They are truly unbelievable people who make me smile, laugh, and cry almost every day of the year. I can’t even begin to explain to you what it is like to be in the booth and hear Garrosh Hellscream shout out “For the Horde!” live and in person. I get chills even thinking about it now. There are a million similar experiences that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy. One that immediately comes to mind is when we recorded James Hong as Covetous Shen for the first time in Diablo III. I was wholly unprepared for the VO greatness he unleashed in that—and subsequent—sessions. He tends to use our scripts as rough “guidelines” for what he needs to say. I can clearly recall his first session, when he took the script and ran with it and just started doing his thing. We sat in a sort of awed silence, wondering what he was up to as he riffed on what was on the page to construct his own vision of Shen. It didn’t take long before we knew exactly what he was up to: pure genius.

That sounds awesome! I want to extend a big thank you to everyone at Blizzard for pitch in to make this interview a success, from the Audio Team to the PR staff. It’s one of the most extensive ones I’ve done so far, and I’m happy all of you took time to talk to me about our work.

If you’re one of the few people who still haven’t checked out Blizzards games, I hope these interviews and videos make you want to check them out! To get to hear from the Audio Team about what it was like to work on Diablo III check out the behind-the-scenes video below!

(Skip to 1:04:00 to hear from Blizzard’s audio team about making the music and sounds of Diablo III)

SamInterview: Blizzard Entertainment Audio Team

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