Despite having spoken to EA DICE’s Andreas Almström not too long ago, I found that there was more to learn about the inside of DICE’s audio team. So I reached out to Ben Minto, the company’s Sound Director to ask for an interview, and he obliged. You can read our chat below, where we talk about his work in the industry, Mirror’s Edge, Star Wars, and more.
Hi Ben. Can you talk about your beginnings in audio and how you ended up at DICE?
Whilst working as a Pro Tools installation engineer in London, one of my clients and soon-to-be future bosses, Stephen Root, persuaded me to join him, working as a sound designer out of Acclaim Entertainment’s studio in Croydon. Over time, Acclaim UK gradually shrunk in size until I was one of only four people left working out of their London offices, finishing up the audio on some of their third party projects. Criterion Games, a developer who had previously worked with Acclaim to develop and publish TrickStyle, wanted to improve the audio quality of their projects, so they offered to hire the small remaining audio team from Acclaim as a ready-made solution – we all accepted! Whilst working at Criterion Games, I helped develop many games including two of my favourite classics “Burnout 3” and “Black”, both of which were published by Electronic Arts. EA eventually went on to buy Criterion back in 2004.
Having made racing games at Criterion for seven years (and for a few years before that whilst at Acclaim), you can eventually become fatigued making similar titles over and over. It was a perfect time for me to shift from the Burnout (racing games) to the Black (FPS) team. Whilst we were working on the pre-production for “Black 2′′, it was decided to give the game a bit more time to see where the next generation of consoles would take us. In the meantime, I was asked what I wanted to do whilst we waited, and it was suggested that I could take a short secondment within EA. So, I contacted some of the other audio people I knew across EA, and one of the offers that came back was from Magnus Walterstad at DICE, saying that he was working on a project called Mirror’s Edge (released in 2008) and that he needed someone to help him with the guns and Foley. I agreed, thinking I’d work here for about six months and then return ʻhomeʼ to finish “Black 2″. Nine years later, I’m still here (laughs).
And you work as the Sound Director at DICE, correct?
Yes. Although I might add that each project can have a different Sound Director. For “Mirrors Edge” it was James Slavin. On the current “Battlefield 1” it’s Ben Pajor. On “Star Wars Battlefront” it’s me. In addition to my director role, I also look after the entire audio department in general, along with the Audio Line Manager, Björn Hedberg.
I’ve heard that you received a degree in Computational Fluid Dynamics, which sounds advanced to say the least. Has this field of study been applicable to what you do today?
Very much so, since it has a lot to do with problem solving and crafting elegant, yet optimal solutions. I’ve always enjoyed the certainty of mathematics, which contrasts very much to the open-ended nature of creative sound design. You know that 1 + 1 is always going to be 2, but you can have many different ideas and opinions on how, for example, the sound of an exploding mutant chicken should sound.
What I like about my current role is that it offers me the chance to work in both the technical and creative worlds. Also, the way we work at DICE is very much the cradle-to- grave approach. If someone is working on vehicles, they’ll start by looking at the vehicles specifications from the game design and what sounds are needed to support that, and then they need to come up with an overall sound design plan for the work, go out to record and collect source material, create the sound assets needed, implement these assets within the engine via the editor, mix the vehicle components also within the engine and then balance the completed vehicle sound model against the already existing sounds in the title. So even in that simple example there’s quite a huge breadth of creative and technical aspects to the work that we do.
I’ve found at DICE that all sound designers here are more technically proficient than the industry average. This is essential when using a start-to-finish approach, versus splitting work up along its path, and giving each part to different specialist individuals. It also helps us keep a high level of consistency, ownership and quality across each work area.
Since your sound designers all have their own proficiency and ways of working, what happens when there’s a conflict between you and a member of your team? How do you diffuse that?
Making mistakes is important (making them quickly and cheaply is even better!), and it’s hard to learn from other people’s mistakes; we all find it easier to learn from our own mistakes. Learning to diffuse and avoid conflict takes time. If I need someone to design an ambience for the first time, I need to be patient enough, and give them time, to allow them to learn how to do it their way. I can offer mentoring and guidance, but I must be careful not to enforce my own understanding and process on them and insist that they work how I do. It’s easy to fall into the “old man” syndrome after you’ve been in the industry a while, where you strongly resist deviating from a set way of working. I try to avoid that because I know that in the games industry we must discard the technology we use every five years or so as new platforms come out. So being open to change and new ways of thinking is key to remaining at the edge of game development. The processes we developed for the original Xbox are still slightly relevant, but are not as important as the innovations we need to develop for the Xbox One.
Since you touched on technology easily becoming irrelevant, I want to ask about game hardware. Console specs seems to have advanced to the point where problems like RAM limitation isn’t the issue it used to be in the early 2000s. What are the new challenges for you guys now that the new generation of consoles has an increased capacity in it’s resources?
Recently, when I was reviewing the work of another sound designer, I pulled up some of their raw samples and noticed that they had left about half a second’s worth of silence at the end of some of the samples. That doesn’t matter too much these days, since that amount of sample data doesn’t take up much space, and the compression formats we use deal with silence very effectively. It’s just that my old ways of thinking from back when RAM was an issue drew my attention to it. It also reminded me that certain things don’t matter so much today as they used to. In theory, the sound for a game could utilize around about 500MB of RAM on the PS4 if that was needed. That’s like loading up a whole album of uncompressed music to play at the same time, but as a combination of music, sound effects and VO! So, as you said, our challenges have changed. RAM is a manageable resource these days, but it’s a lot less of the constraint that it was ten years ago. Today, CPU and optimization is where we must be vigilant.
When you look at a screenshot of a Frostbite engine patch, you’ll see that part of our CPU cost is due to running multiple instances of a massive amount of connections, logic, samplers, DSP and mixing within each patch. However, our sound design demands can be roughly two to three times more complex than what those patches show, so we must optimize, be clever and get the desired results in other ways. It’s nice to build behaviorally complex, reactive and good-sounding systems for our sounds, but if it’s going to take two months to implement, be expensive at run-time, and have many similar versions running at the same time within one level, then it’s safe to say it’s overkill. So, spending too much of your CPU budget on overly complex systems for every sound isn’t the way to go. Some sounds can be treated simply, whilst others will require that extra level of implementation to deliver the sound experience we want. These barriers always seem to be short-term issues and in a few more generations, like RAM before it, this won’t be so much of an issue.
Today we also have many human and large data challenges. If you’re making a car game with 1000 cars, how are you going to maintain the audio for that, in terms of consistency, quality and feel? If you make one car a day, then by the 1000th day, your idea of what a good car sounds like will be totally different from when you started, so you’d have to re-tackle your initial cars to bring them up to the new level of quality and direction that you applied to your 1000th car model. To handle this at DICE , we have implemented hierarchical systems, based on parent and child patches. For example, in a first-person shooter game, we could start with a parent “Weapon”, and that might split into an “Automatic” and “Non-Automatic”, and “Automatic” might lead into an “SMG”, an “Assault Rifle” and so on. If at a later stage we want to add a “Silencer” or maybe a filter to all our weapons, we could add it at the parent stage, so that it then propagates down through the generations to all the children patches. Previously, without this workflow, this could mean that we would have to individually add the functionality to each child patch or create a whole new series of unique patches, which is of course time consuming and error prone. When designing new core systems, we now utilize the power of inherited configurations and shared content. As an example, whilst the initial “bang” of a pistol could sound unique and be made from a unique sample set, the tail and reflection could be shared and be commonly used amongst a group of similar pistols. This reduces the initial amount of work needed to be done and the time needed to maintain such systems, whilst maintaining a consistent feel and sound to the patches within that family, and when it’s time to add additional content via updates or DLC, you just need to add the new unique elements and logic for a specific item, since the default core elements already exist and can be reused.
When games come out, you see a lot of reviews about the title in general, but not much is said about the audio in particular. How do you feel about the fact that the average consumer hasn’t developed the capacity to appreciate the effort dedicated to game audio? I mean, a nice-sounding fire from a game in 2008 would be hard for the average gamer to distinguish from one made in 2016, right? So are audio teams sometimes striving to achieve audio quality for it’s own sake, rather than for a functional purpose in the game?
There are two things I’d address in that question. Your description of the “average consumer” may very well be correct, but we both know that you only have to read a few Reddit posts after you have released a title to see that certain people dig through the game to find out what’s behind your creation, at which point they could have a similar understanding to you about the games’ technical aspects. We’ve seen online conversations that go deeper than the ones we have amongst our own staff. Sometimes we hear sounds in the game that we don’t even know we made, since the audio experience is a complex interaction of random elements combined at run-time. So the scale of player awareness, from someone who doesn’t even play with the sound on, to someone who dissects the title over many hours of gameplay and makes in-depth reviews of their findings, is huge.
Secondly, about whether we do things for our own sake, I look at three different groups of listeners: the public, the press and our peers. These different groups are always present in your mind as you work, and you know that each one will have a different perception of the work you’re creating. Let’s talk about your comment on a fire sound in 2008: that fire would have probably been mono, static and short looping in nature; you’d have heard the same thing again and again. Had there been three fires near each other, there could have been phasing between the audio. Also, the burning of the wet wood would have sounded exactly the same as the dry wood. If the wind was blowing, the fire wouldn’t have reacted at all to that. Most people might not care about that sort of thing in terms of sound, but it’s bigger than just sound; you could encode information into the fire. For example, a change in the wind or weather might be indicated by what was burning, how long it had been burning, and if the fire suddenly flared up in a certain way.
People appreciate the small details that sound designers and artists put into their work. It is possible that our staff could obsess over details, but that’s where my job of keeping everyone on course comes in.
When games achieve appreciable success, the press mainly talk about the commercial aspect, such as sales. In what way do you think the audio experience contributes to that success? I’ve seen cases where certain soundtracks receive praise from reviews, as happened for “Shovel Knight“, but I rarely read about people appreciating the foley or VO. If a game sells well, how much credit do you think goes to the audio?
Sound is hard to gauge, because it rarely exists in isolation. No-one closes their eyes while playing and just listens to the audio (unless they’re hardcore audiophiles). People today are a lot less concerned about breaking down the audio on its own as much as enjoying the whole game experience. If the sound is crap, people will notice. However, if the sound is what it needs to be, people won’t comment on it, since it’s playing its role of being part of the larger game experience. I mean, the average consumer of movies has no clue that most of the audio in a film is replaced in post. Nature programs made me realize this when I was younger; I’d always wonder how the camera-man recorded the lion eating when he’s three miles away. The sound was probably created by a foley person playing with their lunch!
What game titles do you personally think are exemplary for their audio and soundtracks?
Red Dead Redemption was great, and springs to mind as the sequel has just been announced! The original came out around the same time as we shipped BFBC2 and I put quite a few hours into it and thoroughly enjoyed it and “got” the audio and soundtrack, as well as spending way too many hours completing the Hunter Challenges. Games like “Journey” and “Limbo” also have beautifully constructed soundscapes that matches and supports the gameplay, artwork and tone. Then of course, other titles like “The Last Of Us”, “Bioshock” and “Uncharted” are well regarded champions of game audio and rightly so. It’s hard to mention a game that people don’t know about, since the best games tend to garner a lot of attention and win awards. People do respond to good audio.
Personally, “Left For Dead” is one of my favorites because of the audio language it used. Anytime a tank would appear, the game used one of three ways to communicate that to you: a character would shout, “Oh my god, tank!”, or you’d hear the guttural bellow of a tank, or you’d get a music cue warning of the tank’s approach. The beauty of it all was that the game was chaotic with its zombies and violence, but the cues that you needed to navigate that chaos were so simple and didn’t feel forced. Even though other aspects of the audio weren’t the best in world, like the samples used or the mix, I appreciated that the audio filled its role and created a very readable language that gave the players the relevant information about what was happening around them, so they could react and play the game better. I use it as a reference a lot for my work today – is the information that we are encoding into our sounds readable by our players?
Do you feel like certain genres of games tend to be more consistent in delivering compelling audio experiences?
Yes, sort of. Everyone likes a good story, and when the audio is supporting and driving the narrative, the playing experience tends to be more compelling. In “Overwatch“, where the developers talk about how players can play the game just by listening to what’s happening around them, it’s like what I was saying about “Left for Dead”. The audio is not only good, but also functional in that it contains the correct decodable information that allows a player to tell what is happening, or going to happen, around them, thereby giving them the ability to react accordingly.
When you’re the boss of a team of sound designers for a major title like “Star Wars: Battlefront”, what kind of responsibility rests on your shoulders? What’s at stake in terms of your success or failure at mobilizing your team to do their jobs well?
Well, in my experience with other UK and US development teams, your head can very much be on the block and the Audio Director is held responsible for whatever comes out of the speaker. If that’s the kind of hierarchical setup a company wants, where the Audio Director is the boss with minions working under him, then I think that person’s job should very well be on the line if anything goes drastically wrong. Thankfully, DICE isn’t like that. We’re a team that works together, and as much as I’m ready to take the responsibility for potential mistakes that are made in the department, I focus away from ordering people around and more on enabling them, and thankfully, we’ve never shipped a bad sounding game.
I’ve been doing this for 18+ years alongside many other talented people who are veterans in the industry, so we’ve been able to tackle most things quite well. Take “Star Wars:Battlefront” for instance. This was a brand-new IP for us at DICE, and one of the most beloved IPʼs in the world, to the extent that people can tell when individual recordings aren’t the real ones from the films. So, as the DICE audio team, we knew that we had to get it right. Despite the pressure we all felt at delivering a great sounding game, I still felt confident going on paternity leave four months before “Battlefront” shipped. That was possible because the team could keep working despite my absence, since our setup and lack of hierarchy allows everything to keep running even when the “boss” isn’t around.
As someone who plays a part in hiring new talent to your team, do you think the learning curve for aspiring sound designers today is bigger than what you needed in 90s? Because of the constant technological advances since then, wouldn’t a new sound designer need a bigger reservoir of knowledge concerning computers and audio recording than in the past?
Well, some of the stuff I was doing 15 years ago is irrelevant today, such as how to make looped material that obeyed proprietary compression formats. But that knowledge was what was needed then and now you need to learn different more relevant skills. To be honest, if you’re already doing sound design today, then you are already probably very tech savvy. Most game audio academic courses have a fair degree of technical studies in there. So, it’s not unreasonable to expect applicants to know the basics. We’re not going to ask someone how well they know Frostbite. It wouldn’t make any sense, since it’s a proprietary system that we don’t share with anyone outside of EA, but it’s not always about hard skills. If someone comes for an interview at DICE and has a ton of knowledge, but is competing against another person with half the knowledge that comes across as a better team fit, I’d go with the latter person. You can teach people technical things as long as they’re open to learning, whereas fitting with an existing team is not something you can necessarily learn or even teach.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that library sounds are part of your sound palette. I’ve heard other sound folks say that they stay away from library sounds, so as to not create a sound signature that’s generic. How do you avoid this if you’re open to using library stuff?
Well, just to clarify, it’s not like I’d use an off-the-shelf general sound effects library, pull out stock sound effect #73 and stick it in a game. It’s not like that. I make use of samples and source material to create other sounds, whether it’s something from a library or one of my own recordings. It’s very rare in my line of work that you find a sound that’s exactly right for the task at hand. It’s either going to need something added to it or taken away, or edited. A library sound can be a great ingredient or part of the final sound. Most of the audio team here know which sounds are overused, and it’s important that you don’t use those sounds in a way that triggers people’s memories of that sound from another game; that would break the experience.
I think the heaviest critique against sound libraries was around 15 years ago when we only had around 10 of them, like Hollywood Edge and Sound Ideas, whereas today we have more material to work with. So, it’s not as taboo as it used to be. I think today’s stigma might be more related to when aspiring sound designers show their demo reels and they have used sound effects straight off common libraries. You wouldn’t like to hear that when reviewing someone’s show-reel, as you get pulled out of the experience that you are trying to review.
The traditional recording industry is still having the “analog” vs “digital” debate when it comes to gear. Sound designers don’t seem to have any aversion to going digital at all, in spite of the sonic changes that it brings when compared to analog. Out of curiosity, I’d like to ask if you think an AAA game can be made using only analog gear?
Analog is great, but at some point, you might need to transfer a session to someone else that you’re working with. For example, someone might want to adjust the reverb track volume, which would normally be an audio bounce on a separate track. If you have had to burn the reverb into the original audio file because you’re using an analog plate reverb, you can’t always ship that plate to your colleague when they need to work on the session. If you have to process 10,000 lines of dialogue with reverb, you don’t want to do it in real-time. And when it’s time to localize all your audio, you don’t want to have to be buying multiple plate reverbs to send to each location around the world. So, while it’s more tactile and usually more satisfying to play with analog gear, for me it’s better suited for the source side of things. If I’m mass processing my audio, I don’t want to have to run it to tape four times and then run it back into my workstation, for that I’d rather use a chain of plugins.
So you think analog and digital sound the same?
No. Definitely not. But it all comes down to what works best for the task at hand. It’s like Max said in his interview, do you add distortion at the recording stage or afterwards? If it sounds good, it is good. Analog is expensive, it’s hard to maintain, and you must be constantly running things back and forth. If you turn it off, and you’re dealing with older gear, it won’t sound the same when you turn it on again, since the temperature changes and components wear down. If you buy the exact same analog unit as I have from the 70s, the difference in the tolerances of the components means that yours could sound different than mine, even if they’re the same brand and model. Sometimes it’s more important to be consistent.
Wrapping up, I’d like to touch on a subject you spoke on in yet another past interview, which was how you had your recorder with you on a trip to Dubai, and took the time to record wind sounds whilst there. You made use of the unique geography of the place to record the sound of the wind blowing against grass and rocks. How have you built up the knowledge for understanding how field recordings are affected by geography?
By listening and making mistakes. If you can make mistakes cheaply and quickly in your free time, do it. If you want to make wind recordings, go and do that in your own city on your own. You might find that it’s hard to do because of the traffic and city noise, so perhaps you’ll aim for coming out in the morning, but then you’ll discover that the birds singing is a problem, and so you’ll have to be increasingly creative with your approach. Also, wind makes no sound on its own, but rather when it interacts with other surfaces. So, if you know that, you’ll start looking for surfaces that interact with the wind, like grass for example. Then you might think, “My hearing is better than the signal to noise ratio on my handheld recorder, so I’d be better off finding a bigger patch of grass that blows more in the wind. And it’ll help the movement if I brush the grass with my hand as the wind blows.” This kind of thinking is how you learn your way forward on your own, but it’s always more fun to learn from and with others.
So what’s next for you now that “Battlefront” is out and doing so well?
Mostly more Star Wars! I’m helping a bit with the DLC for “Battlefront”, and have spent a few months on “Battlefield 1“, but now it’s onwards with the next “Star Wars” title.