Frédéric Devanlay is a Parisian sound design and foley artist who’s work in the video game world dates to the early 90s, and prior to that he was releasing music on major labels and working as a touring musician in the 80s. I recently paid his Big Wheels Studios a visit to talk about his sound design and foley work on games like “Far Cry 2“, “Splinter Cell“, “Watch Dogs” and “Life is Strange“.
– Hi Frédéric. Thanks for having me over. I heard that you did three years of music school back in the 80s. As someone who currently teaches classes at ISART, what’s the biggest difference between music schools now and 30 years ago?
It’s hard to say – I teach sound design at ISART, which is a school that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Also, I spent three years studying music theory before learning anything about instruments, and I found that process to be frustrating. In fact, my guitar teacher didn’t like that I played left-handed because I had to reverse the guitar (laughs). Things are different in music education today; many of my students are multi-instrumentalists who have a good sense of music before they even enroll in school, so they have a head-start compared to how it was for me.
– Is it true that you worked as a session musician and played in a band in the 80s?
Yes, during the New Wave movement. My band was called Bleu Nuit and made music similar to acts like Depeche Mode. Some of our ideas were good, but we weren’t great musicians to be honest (laughs). We had fun playing concerts and had a few EP releases on Phonogram, which is now a part of Universal Music. The releases didn’t sell a lot, but I went on to do other things after that anyway.
As a session musician, I played with artists like Christophe and Indochine in the 80s. Later in the 90s I worked with a lot of DJs like Claude Monnet and Martin Solveig, doing drum and synth programming. I’ve even done sessions with them at my current studio, and Claude is still one of my best friends to this day.
– What was the first notable game project you worked on as a sound designer?
My first major project was for the children’s game, “Adibou“. I had my first studio in Vincennes, near Montreuil, and during a session in 1993 a guy came by and asked me if I was interested in doing sound design. I hadn’t worked with that before, but he gave me the number of a girl who was working on “Adibou” and I gave her a call. She was willing to hire me even though we weren’t sure it would work, and I ended up working on multiple volumes of the game, which was cool.
I would later reach out to Ubisoft and send them my CV in hopes of getting more work in the game industry, but I didn’t hear back from them for a long time. Three years later, the phone unexpectedly rang and it was Ubisoft. They offered me a job, which is how I got my start in working for major studios.
– That sounds great. And did “Adibou” do well commercially?
Yes, it did. A lot of kids who grew up in the 90s played it and it’s still well-known in France.
– Another 90s game you worked on was “Atlantis II“. You’ve said in past interviews that your studio setup at the time was mainly an Akai S900 sampler and an Atari computer, running Cubase. What was it like doing sound design with that kind of gear?
I did start on an Atari ST with Windows 3.11 and Cubase, but by the time I was asked to work on “Atlantis II”, I’d moved on to a PC. I had the Akai S900 and the S1000, and would record my sound effects to analog tape, though I later switched to DAT. I’d be given floppy disks that contained game animations which I had to dub with sound effects, so I’d record my sounds into the Akai S1000 and sequence the sounds using MIDI from either the Atari ST or the PC. Then I’d record it to DAT and mail the tape to the game developer.
– Aside from “Atlantis II”, what were you doing through-out the 90s before you started working with Ubisoft?
I just kept working on “Adibou” titles. That was an ongoing project for about seven years, with several titles like “Adibou 1”, “2” and “3”, as well as “Adiboud’chou” (his little brother), and the “Adi” series (his older brother).
– And what were your first projects at Ubisoft?
My first real project with Ubisoft came in 2000 with “Donald Duck: Quack Attack“, and the follow-up was “Donald Duck PK” in 2002. Whilst working on those games, I had mentioned to my boss that I really liked the recent “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell“, so he called me about it some months later. When I answered my phone, he asked, “Are you sitting down?“, and I was like, “No, I’m standing “, so he said “I think you should take a seat “. So I did, and he then said “You’re going to be working on the next Splinter Cell “. It was pretty exciting revelation, and was the best thing he could have told me. The first title we did was “Ghost Recon 2” before moving on to “Pandora Tomorrow“.
– Didn’t you get a BAFTA Nomination for your work on the Tom Clancy games?
Yes, for “Pandora Tomorrow”, “Double Agent“, “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter” and “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2“. I never won anything, but I’m happy that I was nominated.
– And then came “Far Cry 2”, which sold a few million copies.
Yes, but I worked on voice recordings for the first “Far Cry” as well, and then did all the vehicle recordings for “Far Cry 2“.
It’s true that “Far Cry 2” sold well, but personally, I think it’s the worst entry of the series. The first one was groundbreaking, but the sequel was a bit boring and didn’t have a lot of action in it. But the later entries were much better, in my opinion.
– To what extent do you think sound design affects the success of a game?
A video game is a collective creation, so if it turns out bad, it’s not because of just one thing. Obviously, good sound design is better than bad sound design, but I’ve never seen a situation where excellent sound design changed people’s opinions about a poorly-received game. The Metacritic ratings and reviews usually don’t mention people on the audio team anyway.
– “Life is Strange” is a game that was well-received for defying conventional gameplay. How did you end up working on that, and how does the unconventional nature of the game affect your work process?
Thanks to my time at Ubisoft, I knew the guys in the audio department of the developer, Dontnod Entertainment. The video game industry is like a merry-go-round where people move between companies quite often, so the community stays pretty small. We’d worked together on past games, and they called me in to do foley and sound design work on “Life Is Strange“.
The game required me to make a lot of foley assets that set the right atmosphere. When two people are talking in a room, they usually stand close to each other and their movements have to reflect that. So the audio assets need the proper intensity of footsteps and body movements. The sound team and I would work for two months on an episode, take a one month break, and then start another episode, which was a major difference from my past games. With “Splinter Cell”, I’d work four to six months at a time, and for “Dishonored 2” it was a two-year process. But with “Life is Strange”, we took our time and went episode by episode in order to understand the story and get the details of our recordings right.
– Did your work process change with “Life Is Strange 2“?
No, it largely remained the same. We just had to re-record foley, textures and atmospheres because the story and settings are different from the first game. Also, since the plot is set in Seattle instead of Oregon, we went looking for new nature recordings of things like the wind and the ocean, as well as animal noises that better reflect that setting.
– What’s the typical size of the sound teams you’ve worked on in the past?
We had five people on the audio team for “Life Is Strange”, in addition to the programmers who integrate the assets into Wwise; I think that’s a typical size for a sound team.
By the way, the term “sound designer” is something I get called less and less nowadays. The label “Audio Artist” gets used instead, since I make the audio assets. The programmers who are responsible for integrating those assets into Wwise or FMOD are now being called “sound designers”. It’s an interesting shift.
– How do people in France generally view the work of sound designers for games?
We love music and audio in France, but I don’t think the French media give sound designers the kind of credit they get in the UK and US. In France, the game reviews might say something like, “The audio team did such and such “; all the audio professionals get lumped together in one group, whether it’s a sound designer, audio director or foley artist. The critics here mainly review the music and have little interest in talking about other aspects of audio, and we don’t have any awards for sound design or foley, like the BAFTAs do. Not that I have any problem with that – I’m happy that I have a job and can be a part of interesting projects.
– Tell me about the prominent game companies that exist in France.
In Paris, the big one is Ubisoft, but we also have Dontnod (“Life Is Strange”, “Vampyr“), Quantic Dream (“Detroit: Becoming Human“), Spiders (“GreedFall“) and Amplitude Studios (“Endless Space 2“). There’s also some game studios in Lyon, like Arkane Studios (“Dishonored 2“, “Prey“) and Ivory Tower (“The Crew“), although they were bought up by Ubisoft in 2015.
– Given their size and reputation, what was it like working with a major studio like Ubisoft? Does the work of the Paris branch differ from the ones in other countries?
When I worked with Ubisoft in the 2000s, the Paris offices were asked to handle the audio tasks of other branches; we were so well-staffed that we had to reinforce the foreign branches on their games. But as the company grew, the different branches all created their own sound departments with an in-house Audio Director and their own sound designers. So now they only use the Paris offices for support during crunch time.
– When you have a major French studio like Ubisoft that can impact the video game industry by buying smaller companies or hiring a lot of talent, how does that affect the game audio scene in Paris?
Y’know, people don’t even consider Ubisoft to be a French company anymore since most of their work is done in Quebec and Montreal now. But as far as their effect on game audio, I don’t really know because I’m not an employee there anymore. Even if it means less work during the year, I now prefer to be a freelancer rather than work as a full-time employee at a major studio. I can keep my independence, and if I get contracted to work with a developer like Dontnod I might only spend a few days at their studio for the fun of meeting my colleagues. I don’t have to liaise with the company’s production pipeline like the artists or animators. I just take my orders from the Audio Director and deliver my assets to him.
– How would you rate the experience of working with major studios versus indie ones?
For me, there’s not much difference between working with independent or major studios. I’m currently working with an independent studio in Taiwan on a small game, and I do my best on that like always. But working with medium-sized studios like Dontnod or Arkane is the most comfortable because you can get to know everybody on the team.
– Let’s talk about your sample library company, Red Libraries, which you created in 2014. What inspired you do to that?
I’d already been creating sound effect packs for names like Zero G, SoundMorph and Big Fish Audio. One of my friends suggested I set up my own company, but I was reluctant to deal with all the day-to-day work of creating metadata for files, setting up a website, managing the sales, etc. After some time, I just gave in and listened to my friends by setting up Red Libraries, and to be honest, I should have started sooner. Today’s technology allows anyone to buy a recorder and make his own effects, so the industry doesn’t need sample libraries the way they used to ten years ago. Also, there are tons of websites that sell sound design tools now, but my sample sales still earn me some money that I reinvest into my work, so I don’t mind doing it. Also, when I make packs for other companies I get a fee when they initially contract me, and then 18%-20% of the royalties. It’s like signing a record deal (laughs).
– What’s been the thought-process for making sound packs? Did you have any ideas for how you wanted to create your product range?
I initially released packs focused on sound textures like wood, water and metal, and then moved on to record things like windmills and medieval atmospheres in castles. I later worked on a movie that required us to record different city sounds in Paris, so I attached microphones to my bike to pick up sounds as I drove around. Those sounds became their own pack. Moving forward, I might focus on sci-fi and stuff that’s heavy on sound design rather than foley and field recordings.
– How have your sound packs been received by the industry? Have you gotten any positive feedback?
I won an award from MusicTech for the CyberStorm pack with Zero G, which felt good. That pack has done well.
– You’ve said in past interviews that you were inspired by movies like “Terminator” and “Transformers” when making the “CyberStorm” pack because you couldn’t find those sounds online. But when I look online, I find lots of those kinds of packs, and they’re very popular nowadays. What did you mean by that?
It wasn’t like that before, especially in the 2000s. I think it’s easier to make those kinds of futuristic sounds nowadays because they don’t require a recorder or microphones. Granular synths and Kontakt samples are enough. Back in the day, futuristic sounds were mainly made from recording acoustic sounds and running them through hardware samplers for processing, in addition to layering in synth sounds. It required a lot more work than today, which is why the number of sci-fi themed packs have increased online.
– How did you make your sound library for SoundMorph, “Future Weapons“?
I started off by mentally creating two separate factions. I might have called one of them “The Resistance” and other one “The Order”. But the point was just to have two camps, with one being more technologically advanced, and the other one more rustic, with Mad-Max type weapons. Making that kind of division in my mind allowed me to create a good contrast of style that I then used to fill out the soundscape for that pack.
– In your opinion, what’s the best store to get sound libraries from?
I really like the stuff Frank Bry releases with The Recordist, as well as HISSandaROAR from Tim Prebble who’s based out of New Zealand. Those are the companies I check first, and afterwards I might visit other websites like SoundMorph or A Sound Effect.
– In the film world, it seems like soundtracks and sound design has become a bit standardized. We hardly see today’s composers having the effect of a John Williams by creating memorable themes, though an exception might be Hans Zimmer. Has that happened in the video game world also, where sound design starts to sound the same in every game?
The thing is, when you get hired to work on a project these days, unless it’s something major like Pirates of the Caribbean, you aren’t given much time to complete your work. That’s why if you’re asked to sing the theme from any recent Marvel movie, you wouldn’t be able to. So much of their music sounds repetitive and a lot of that has to do with short deadlines that force composers to write music that sounds similar to what’s already been successful. In the game world, we saw that kind of change take place after the “Transformers” and “Tron“ movies, which made robotic construct/deconstruct sounds very popular, but I think that phase is over now.
– As someone who’s recorded sound design and foley for a lot of war games, can you tell me what that process is like?
I can tell you about “Ghost Recon” since I did all the sound design and weapons for that one. Getting permission to record guns is quite difficult in France, even when it’s on military property. It’s not like in the US where you can drive out into the desert and record there. France is quite small so recording weapons is easier to do indoors. I spent a lot of time watching war movies and bought different weapons to learn what frequencies were important to focus on, but in the end, I was never able to record a real M16 for “Ghost Recon”. The gun sounds were all approximations of real weapons, but it worked well because I made them as hard-hitting as I could. To be honest, I think the sounds heard in most games are quite tame. Having spent three years in the military, I know how loud gunfire can be, and there seems to be a cut in the mid-range of most game’s gunfire frequencies that smooths out harshness.
One of the difficult things to do in a war game is to create gunfire that sounds different between the player’s camp and the enemy camp. They can’t both sound the same or you can’t tell who’s doing the shooting. I think companies like EA DICE do a good job in their “Battlefield” games of sonically separating gunfire from different camps.
– Can you tell me any interesting facts about the following titles you’ve worked on:
Rayman: That was a compilation of different Rayman minigames called “Rayman Raving Rabbids“. It was a collaboration between a bunch of companies, and I just worked on a small part of that.
Watch Dogs: The audio work for that game was shared between different companies, so again, I only worked on a part of it. Most of my work was for the audio related to camera footage shown on your phone during the hacking process.
Remember Me: That was the first game from Dontnod and it was quite futuristic, which required me to use samples from CyberStorm (laughs).
Dishonored 2: That game had a steampunk setting and required a lot of attention to detail due to having objects that were very intricate, like small, luxury cigarette boxes or 18th century typewriters. Doing foley for that kind of thing was meticulous; we had to create a lot of environment and atmospheres sounds, and many of them required additional processing in post-production to sound right.
– Let’s talk sound design. Since you mentioned CyberStorm, can you tell me how you make robot sounds for a game?
The first thing I do is to analyze the animation or images of the robot itself to see what material it’s made of. I want to know what kind of parts it has, how many joints, and what kind of metal it’s made of. Then I search for sounds that match what I see. Only then do I load them into my DAW and start layering.
For robotic construct/deconstruct sounds, I might turn to iZotope Stutter Edit or a synth with a good LFO, but the most important thing is to layer sounds. The main sound is always a composite of layered materials and the stutter sounds are just playing a supporting role. For “Remember Me”, I split one of the robots into five parts: head, body, arms, legs and footsteps. Each split might have been around ten tracks, for a total of about 50.
– And when do you use a synth as opposed to a sampler?
I don’t need any synths for games like “Vampyr” or “Life is Strange” unless I’m creating a low bass rumble for something ominous. But for a game like “Remember Me”, I often used synths to create sci-fi sounds that fit the game; I remember using some Reaktor ensembles to make mangled synth sounds.
For samplers, I use Kontakt now. I recorded all my footsteps for “Life Is Strange” into Kontakt and made different kits for each character. Then I’d trigger them using MIDI notes, line the notes up with the animation, and export them as audio.
– How equipped is Big Wheels Studios to record foley? Are you able to do most of your work there?
I can do a lot in my studio but I prefer to record things like footsteps outside. When I listen to sample packs that contain footsteps I can hear the acoustics of the booth they were recorded in. I don’t like that, so I try to avoid doing the same thing. It feels fake to hear the reflections of a booth on a sound that’s used for an outdoor scene, but it becomes an issue when recording sounds with loud transient; each room has its own sound, so it’s hard to avoid hearing the reflections. But if I have to record footsteps in my studio, I’ll first record the sound of the room and then I import the sample into iZotope RX during post-production. That way, I can use it to de-noise the recording and cancel out as much of the room sound as possible. But it can create undesired artifacts if you over-process the recording, so I have to be careful. RX is very handy – you can even use it to remove bird sounds that were caught in your outdoor recording by accident.
– What are some of the challenges of recording underground versus overground? And what about daytime versus nighttime recording?
The main difference is the acoustics of course, but there’s also the signal-to-noise ratio that exists overground. When I do outdoor recordings, I try to have the same level of volume in my headphone as what I hear in real life because turning up the gain in my headphone becomes problematic when there’s a lot of noise in the environment.
Animals and humans sounds are very different during the day and night, and so are atmosphere and nature sounds, so you have to be mindful of that when recording. That said, certain things like wind or storms aren’t too much affected by the time of day.
I prefer to record footsteps at night because it’s more quiet then. I remember a time when I recorded some footsteps in the grass. There wasn’t much noise going on around me, but for some reason I heard a lot of noise in the recording when I listened back to it. Thankfully, I was able to fix it in post-production with RX – you process each footstep at a time, so after de-noising and adding fades, the final result has very little noise in it, which is great.
– Cool. Can you tell me about the equipment you have in your studio at the moment? What gear are you using?
Things have changed at my studio in recent times. I got rid of my console because I don’t record musicians anymore, and I also can’t imagine having to make recalls every time the development team makes a changes to the game. So I don’t need that much analog gear anymore. I have an Avalon pre-amp and a Tube Tech compressor for recording vocals and single instruments. For soundcards, I have an Apogee and an Apollo from Universal Audio, which have low latency. I sold my Barefoot monitors and bought some Focals and Genelec 5.1 speakers. The rest of my tools are software plugins that I use on my two Macs.
– Do you still use Nuendo and Wavelab?
Yes I do. I’ve used Steinberg products since the beginning, starting with Cubase and now Nuendo. Personally, I’m not a fan of Pro Tools. It’s the industry standard but not because it’s the best; it’s because Avid was early on the scene and became popular so quickly. Also, I use a lot of MIDI tools which Pro Tools isn’t that good for. Nonetheless, I have Pro Tools in case clients want me to use it, though in the game world I see people using Cubase, Nuendo, and a lot of Reaper, which is a cheap option.
Nuendo is a good compromise between audio and MIDI functionality. It also has some new features like batch-creation, a randomizer for sound creation, and it allows you to create a direct link between your session and Wwise so you can send your audio assets directly into it. I’ve been talking to the guys at Steinberg, and I think they’re aiming to penetrate the game industry with Cubase since Pro Tools is so well-established in film and TV already.
– What kind of microphones do you use in your line of work? Are there any industry standards for that?
I don’t think we have standard mics for foley recordings. It’s all about your budget. The most important thing isn’t the brand of microphone but rather the mic placement. If you have the “best” mic in the world and you put in under a rock, you won’t get a good recording of anything. The best foley artists know where to place their mics. Also, foley artists who work with game audio don’t have a lot of time to capture their recordings like studio engineers do. When I used to work in studios, the drummer would play his kit and the engineer would move back and forth between the drums and the console until he got the sound he wanted – we don’t have that luxury in foley. If you want to record the sound of an approaching train, you can’t wait until you feel comfortable. You’re either ready when it passes by or you aren’t.
– So what kind of gear do you recommend for aspiring foley artists?
A recorder from Sound Devices is a good piece of gear to have. Their mics, pre-amps and converters are usually good, but they can be expensive, in which case you might prefer a small Sony PCM D100. I also like mics from DPA, the Sennheiser MKH 8040, the 8050, the 8060 and the Sanken CO-100K, which is a great contact mic. But your mic preference should depend on what you want to do. If you want be a field recordist, the Sanken is good choice because the range goes up to 100 kHz. That gives you a huge range to time-stretch or pitch the audio if you need to later.
Using a contact mic will allow you to get close to capture the details, so for that I might use my Barcus Berry Planar System. It’s normally used to record pianos or cellos but you can use it for other things like footsteps, alongside a Neumann KMR 82 shotgun mic. You place the Barcus Berry on the floor, aim the Neumann at your feet, record the footsteps, and later adjust the balance between the two recordings. When you record footsteps in a big indoor space like an auditorium, I’d recommend having a close mic to record your feet, but also a room mic that’s five to ten meters away. That way if the game character is ever approaching or leaving a point, you have two recordings that you can adjust to create the impression of distance. But you need a very quiet room for that because the room mic can easily pick up the sound of ventilation or other sounds that the close mic won’t, and that can interfere with using both of them together.
– Tell me about the different categories of mics you need as a foley artist.
You need cardoid, hyper-cardoid and omni-directional mics. I use a cardoid or hyper-cardoid when I record footsteps outdoors. A contact mic can be useful as well for added texture. For ambience, I’ll use two or three cardoid mics in spaced Left-Right or Left-Center-Right triplets, or an omni-directional mic from DPA.
– What’s the most important aspect of a microphone that’s used for foley recording?
The ideal is to have a versatile mic that offers both wideness and precision, but normally you would utilize separate microphones that specialize in different aspects, and combine the recordings afterwards. But like I said, it comes down to your budget. It’s like choosing a speaker – you have to listen to what the equipment sounds like and pick what you like based on what you can afford.
– If you could only choose one mic to use for a foley recording, what would it be?
I would probably take the Neumann U87, because it offers cardoid, omni-, and figure-eight positions. It doesn’t have a huge range, but 20 Hz – 20 kHz is pretty good, and if you have a good pre-amp you should be fine. The DPA 4060 is also great for recording the sound of clothes that people wear as they move around.
– What if you could only use two mics for a recording?
Then I would take one hyper-cardoid, like the Sennheiser 8070 or Neumann KMR 82, along with the U87 or AKG C414.
– Thanks a lot for this interview Frédéric. It was very educational. What does the future hold for you as a sound designer and foley artist?
I’ll continue to work on “Life is Strange 2”, and I may have a new game project coming in the summer also. I never take summer’s off because that’s when new projects start, so I’m looking forward to that.