After taking a break from doing game audio-focused interviews, I've gotten back into talking to my favorite companies in the industry. Here's an interview I did recently with one of Stockholm's gemstones in the world of game developers, DICE. You immediately realize the kind of caliber of game company we're dealing with when you consider their resume of Battlefield and Mirror's Edge titles. As such, I was happy to talk to Andreas Almström, their Lead Sound Designer, about his work on Battlefield titles.
Hi Andreas. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I typically start by asking about people's background's in the industry, but this time I think I'll try a slightly different introductory question. Many people trying to get into the game industry possess varying levels of ability, in spite of whatever passion they might have. When you started working at DICE, did you feel that you were unqualified, overqualified or just right for the job?
I was brought into DICE to work on the Battlefield Play4Free game in 2010. I'd been talking to the DICE guys for some time prior to that, due to being interested in their sound design on previous titles like Battlefield: Bad Company. So whilst I was writing my thesis on "Looping Models In Automatic Weapons" I reached out DICE's sound team to talk to them. I had also worked on 3 games before joining DICE, which were two shooters and a Swedish magic game. As a result, they already knew about me and actually wanted to talk about the work I'd done, and that led to me being hired. It can be hard otherwise to just hire a lesser-known person with no experience in working on AAA titles, and ask them to suddenly jump into developing Battlefield 3.
When started at DICE, I had experience and some skills, but you're always going to be a bit nervous regardless in a situation like that. I wouldn't say I was over or under qualified, because the challenge of delivering a game that size would have been immense regardless. Thankfully, it didn't take me long to learn the systems needed to do a good job.
As a sound designer, what tasks would you say your job encompasses?
I do everything from rigging mics and recording audio to mixing the assets, building the logic behind how they run in the game, and putting the audio into the game itself. As a sound designer today, I think you have to be able to chip in on the entire chain of events. The pieces have to match perfectly for everything to work, so not understanding certain elements can be a draw-back in this line of work.
You've said in past interviews that vehicles and weapons audio is your area of expertise. Can you expand on that?
They call me "Mr Guns" at DICE, haha. I've been working with it for the past 10-15 years. I started my career in sound design doing mods of games like Half-Life. I recorded all my own sounds. My father hunts, so whenever I'd go out with him, even as a kid, I'd bring my recorder. Just using someone else's recording will eventually cause you to sound just like everyone else. When I was in the army, I'd be recording all kinds of things, since I feel that every sound designer should have his own library. It's also important to be exposed to the process how these weapons sound in real life so that you translate them into accurate game sounds.
I've interviewed Charles Deenen, who used to work at EA, and he told me a story about how whilst working on "Need For Speed: Shift", he created a focus group that was meant to listen to car sounds from the game that sounded like real-life car sounds and another set of sounds that had been distorted to sound bigger and louder. Then he asked the focus group to pick which one sounded more realistic, and everyone always picked the more exaggerated one. But Stefan Strandberg, DICE's Game Director, gave an interview in 2011 release where he said that DICE strove keep the audio sounding natural in Battlefield 3, in order to achieve a cohesive sound through-out the game. So how do game companies reconcile the fact that fans are more receptive to loud, distorted sounds, but studios may want to go for a more natural sound?
If you bring a small cup of super-sweet soda, it could taste really good. But a full cup won't work. It's the same principle here. You don't want to create hearing fatigue for the player when he's gonna spend multiple 8+ hour sessions playing a game that might be a total of 200+ hours. He won't be able to last very long. Trailers are another story. They're about impressions, whilst the game itself is about being able to decode a world and traverse through it. So it makes sense that Charles' audience would go for loud sounds when listening to his trailers, yet also feel comfortable with the sounds that we put into our final products.
Having said all this, Battlefield 4 was slightly more aggressive than BF3. We made it sound edgier to differentiate it from BF3 by saturating the sounds more.
Stefan also mentioned in his 2011 interview that DICE's audio team aren't afraid to be seen as a bit silly when recording sounds. You'll strap on fake weapons and run around parks in the winter to record the sound of footsteps in the snow.
Haha, that's right. We do most of our foley recordings outdoors. I agree that it can look silly when grown men are running around in thick boots with stuff dangling from their bodies and mics stuck to their chests. But if you want to get the sound right, it's the best way to do it. We strapped the mics fairly close to our ear height, and recorded things that way. Even though we add in ambience and other things to the recordings when we get back to the studio, it gives us a good starting point.
How does it work with vehicles then? You can't get your hands on the types of vehicles used in the Battlefield game, right?
For some of them we actually can, but getting access to military vehicles in general isn't easy. If you need older vehicles, museums might be able to allow you access to their stuff, but at the end of the day, having a military contact is probably the best way to go.
When we record military vehicles, we attach mics on different components of the vehicle to record their individual accents, instead of using one mic to capture the vehicle as a whole. We want to be able to distinguish the sound of the engine from the exhaust and wheels. Then we can distill it down and build a model for it in the game, since we need to be able to alter parameters in-game depending on what the vehicle is doing.
How do you record explosives like grenades and explosives?
It's hard to get your hand on explosives to record, as you can imagine. But we know some specialists in that field, who we can reach out to for that kind of work. Frank Bry is one of them. He lives in Idaho, and has access to things like tannerite and stuff. He blows things up for a living, so we can get things from him.
I've heard that DICE doesn't have a music team, and typically outsources that job to composers outside of the company. Does your work overlap with that?
No. I don't actively work with either Music or VO, beyond giving feedback. I focus on sound design.
How do the 8th-generation consoles like PS4 and Xbox One affect how DICE's audio team tackles it's availability of resources?
Since we're still chained to the last generation, we can't take big leaps. That would require us to rebuild our systems. Every time there's a generation shift, you have to hold on the old consoles if you want to ship to those consoles as well. We can increase DSP and have more RAM to work with, which lets us play larger sounds, but we haven't taken bigger leaps than that. However, "Star Wars: Battlefront" has made the leap to Dolby Atmos, being the first game ever to use that technology.
I've watched some video of game sound designers recording audio for first-person shooters, and I've noticed how they don't seem to be using much in the way of vintage and expensive microphones, pre-amps and other gear. The mentality for recording foley doesn't seem to get caught up with that sort of thing, the way audio engineers/producers in the music industry are. Am I correct?
Usually the quickest way to record what you need is the best. At DICE, we have good Sennheiser mics we use for our foley, but we also use cheap recorders, like the Zoom H4n and Olympus mics. Regardless of what we use, the shortest delay between action and thought is the best in my opinion.
Whilst we do spend a lot of time making the audio assets sit in the game, you can think of audio as being a part of a larger painting. If you make every detail stick out, then it all becomes unfocused. Think of the Mona Lisa painting. Her smile is considered to be the most important thing in that painting. Whether or not the house in the background looks great or not isn't the point. So we put emphasis on what matters the most. So 3rd-person solider foley for the AI might not be the most important thing.
Stefan made another interesting point in his interview when he said that recording foley was only a third of the audio work. Making the sound sit in the game is more important and making it sound good on bad speakers is even harder, since many gamers play on TVs that have underwhelming speakers.
Recording foley is even less than a 3rd of the work, in my opinion, but I agree with Stefan on everything else. Most of our costumers play our games on crappy TV speakers. But if the mix is good, it can still be a good experience, which is why we listen to our audio a lot on bad speakers to get the frequencies right. We also want to make things sound good without relying too much on bass frequencies, because bad speakers traditionally don't have a lot of bass. So you can't always use bass frequencies to convey information to a player. For example, if you want to indicate that an unseen opponent is using a caliber 50 rifle, you solely use bass frequencies to do that, because bad speakers won't convey that. So you'd have to focus on the mid-range frequencies, and also emphasize other parameters, like the length and size of the gunshot tail, the pacing of the rounds firing, and reflections of the gunshot in the environment.
When you do sound design, what are some of your favorite plugins to use?
I use the Fabfilter EQs a lot. They're very useful, as well as iZotope RX. Waves have a ton of good stuff I use too.
Do you have any ambitions to move from DICE's Lead Sound Designer a high position in the gaming world?
I've been asked that several times. I'm doing what I love more than anything, and wouldn't want to lose that. I really enjoy recording, sound design, implementation, etc, To move away from it would be a big risk. It's also a privilege to be a Lead Sound Designer. I get to have a say different areas of game-making and can extensively be involved in the game-making process as a whole. So I'll be staying here for a little while longer.
Can I round up the interview by asking what the quirkiest thing is that you've recorded?
I did my first foley recording session outdoors, and my brother was my assistant. We wanted to make a sound effect called "run to prone", but I hit my chin really hard. I've used that sound in all the games I've worked on, haha. It's the sound of teeth, chin and "ow". It's in all the Battefield games I've worked on.
(All photos in the interview by Rob Blom)