EA DICE – Andreas Almström [Lead Sound Designer]

After taking a break from doing game audio interviews, I’ve gotten back into it. Despite having talked to Ben Minto at EA DICE, I still felt compelled to chat with another one of their employees, Andreas Almström, about his extensive experience with the “Battlefield” games.

Hi Andreas. Tell me how you got started at DICE. When you started, did you feel 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, as I was interested in their sound design on previous titles like “Battlefield: Bad Company“. I’d reached out thier sound team whilst I was writing my thesis on “Looping Models In Automatic Weapons”. I had also worked on three games before joining DICE – two shooters and a 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 hire a lesser-known person with no experience of 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 in a situation like that. I wouldn’t say I was over- or underqualified, 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 do your job cover?

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 are your area of expertise. Can you expand on that?

They call me “Mr Guns” at DICE (laughs). 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“, for which 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. When I was in the army, I’d record all kinds of things, since I felt that every sound designer should have his own library. It’s also important to be exposed to the process how weapons sound in real life so that you translate them into accurate game sounds later.

I’ve interviewed Charles Deenen, who used to work at EA, and he told me a story about how he created a focus group to compare realistic car sounds from “Need For Speed” to another set of car sounds that had been distorted to sound louder. Then he asked the focus group to pick which one was more appealing, and everyone picked the distorted sounds. But Stefan Strandberg, DICE’s Game Director, gave an interview in 2011 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. Why do you think fans are more receptive to loud, distorted sounds, whilst studios want to go for more natural ones?

If you drink 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 ear fatigue for the player when he’s going to spend multiple eight-hour sessions playing a game that might be a total of 200+ hours; he won’t be able to last very long. It’s not the same with trailers, which is what I think Charles was working on. 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 “Battlefield 3”. We made it sound edgier in order to differentiate it from “Battlefield 3” by saturating the sounds more.

Stefan also mentioned 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.

That’s right (laughs). 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 ears, 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? Isn’t it hard to obtain and record the types of vehicles used in the “Battlefield” games?

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. This is because we need to be able to alter parameters in-game, depending on what the vehicle is doing.

blast(Photo of a tank that Andreas recorded for “Battlefield 3”)

How do you record explosives like grenades?

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.

How do the eighth-generation consoles like PS4 and Xbox One affect how DICE’s audio team does their work? Have you adjusted to the specifications of the new consoles?

Since we’re still chained to the last generation, so 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 onto the old consoles because you’re still shipping games for them. We’ve increased our 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 foley artists recording audio for games, and they don’t seem to be using much vintage gear. They don’t seem to get caught up with that sort of thing the way audio engineers in the music industry do. Am I correct?

Usually when recording, the quickest way is the best way. 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 fit 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; 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 mos, and third-person solider foley for the AI might not be the most important thing.

andreas

(Above: Andreas Almström)

Stefan also said that recording foley was only a third of the audio work. Making the sound fit 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 third 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 low-end. For example, if you want to indicate that an unseen opponent is using a .50 caliber weapon, and you solely use bass frequencies to convey that, most gamers won’t be able to hear it. 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 fired, 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. I think Waves have a ton of good stuff too.

Do you have any ambitions to move on from being DICE’s Lead Sound Designer to 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 in different areas of game-making and can be extensively involved in the game-making process. So I’ll be staying here for a little while longer.

(All photos in the interview by Rob Blom)