Blizzard Entertainment established their presence in the 90s with games whose shelf life seems to have no expiry date. With titles like “Diablo” and “Starcraft” still going strong, the company shows no sign of slowing down its reign as one of the most successful game developers around. I recently managed to get key members of the Audio Team on board for a Q&A about what they do and how they’ve applied their skills to creating some of their games.
Russell Brower – Senior Director Of Audio
– As someone who has had careers at Disney and Warner Bros Animation, what are some of the lessons 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 to have been compelled to reinvent myself several times. I’ve always focused on music and sound, but the varying mediums and work environments have kept me fresh, agile, and just the right amount of the “good kind of crazy.” This all applies equally to the art, commerce, and in working with people, especially teams.
– How are you able to juggle the role of being a composer with your job as Senior Director of Audio? The tasks in those jobs don’t necessarily overlap all the time.
There’s no such thing as “multitasking”, so in order to write music, I pursue that mostly on my own time, on 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 feel like I should “walk the walk” and contribute to the games as our staff does.
– In what way does your work as Senior Director of Audio differ when working on the Warcraft, StarCraft or Diablo series? And are any franchises more of an interest to you than others?
When the department was smaller, my roles had me being creatively closer to each title. As Blizzard began to expand its franchise development, and the sound team grew, leaders within the team emerged to focus on each franchise. I’ve 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 composers. We’ve also used some trailer-style music for a few of our promotional videos, as the goal was to catch the listener’s ear with a style that works well with fast-cut video content.
– What kind of budget does Blizzard set aside for its games? By looking at the soundtrack for “Diablo III”, it would seem that you guys go all out.
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 and 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 for Blizzard’s sound team to 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.
– 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 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’re 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; it’s because of those jobs that I know an awesome organization when I see one. 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 and Composer
– Hi Derek. 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’ve always relied heavily on outboard reverbs and effects processing, so personally I’ve had my own Eventides since the 90s, and probably used them on the original “StarCraft“. I also have an esoteric collection of hardware sequencers, noise boxes, and other musical toys. I really enjoy that kind of direct interaction with music and sound that you get from dedicated hardware devices.
– 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 more honest representation of how they will sound, rather than sampled instruments through monitors. I also rely a lot on alternate interfaces, as well as 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 do your composition techniques and mindset differ from one Blizzard game to the next?
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, which influences how the music will be delivered, but any limitation or constraint can be turned to an advantage.
– You’ve stated in the past that you played most of “Diablo III’s” music live. Does this mean you’re only dealing with audio? How do you feel about sequencing things through MIDI?
For “Diablo III“, it was about capturing a real-time performance in the audio, to really bring the “organic” out in the music. We’ve taken that a lot further in “Diablo: Reaper of Souls“. The majority of the score is orchestral, and was recorded without click tracks in order to 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. 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 of the sounds and music you created for “Diablo III”?
For me, the most important production techniques in the music for the “Diablo” was not to over-edit, and to allow a certain amount of dirt and grit to remain in the music. The world of “Diablo” is a dark and dirty 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 magic in a take played less-than-perfectly, and that’s what 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, I’m now engaged mostly in keeping my ear on the global scope of the game sound. I’m always working toward supporting the replay value of the game by ensuring that music, sound effects, and dialogue all come together in a cohesive manner. So I conduct weekly feedback sessions with each of the sound designers on the “Diablo” team to review their work, offering input when necessary to support them.
My preference for sound sources strongly sways toward using field recordings, but synthesis is a tool that 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 acoustic pillar for “Diablo” 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, it should sound believable; that’s the type of sound that we try to create in the game. That’s why synthesized sources aren’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 field recordings you did of fire sounds on the Behind-The-Scenes DVD of “Diablo III”. What are some of the things you did for getting wind and water sounds?
For wind, there was an interesting source that I recorded 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 and howling wind sound when they’re propped open. But since it was the main entrance, there was always too much activity around the doors to get any good recordings, and I 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, and it turned out to be very versatile stuff.
I’ve also gathered quite a bit of wind and water sounds on our trips to some of the not-so-traveled places in California. Darwin Falls in the Panamint Springs area of Death Valley is one such place. It’s a great environment for recording due to its lack of human activity, save the occasional F-18 flyby. We also got some incredible bubbling, gurgling, steamy sounds 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 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’re trying to satisfy when doing our source recording: one is that we’re just trying to fill a broad category of sound effects that we know will be useful for different things. 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, but we welcome the happy accidents that lead to that. Many times in the past a simple trip to the hardware or 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?
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 users too. I’m personally fond of getting unorthodox sounds from orthodox instruments, which is why I keep a collection of old broken-down instruments. A few of my favorites are a trumpet, accordion, trombone, violin, and waterphone.
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 a collection of various mics including lavaliers, contact mics, hydrophones, pressure zone mics, etc. I don’t always use them for their intended purpose either.
– Do you handle the mixing of sound effects into Blizzard games? If so, what are some things you’re particularly attentive to in your mixing sessions?
In the past we all had to work on many titles, but as our department has grown, I’ve completely focused my efforts on “Diablo”, and mixing is certainly a large part of what I do. Most of it happens toward the end of the project. We try to stay aware of the general mix balance early on, but there are just too many variables in a game like “Diablo” to fine-tune things 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, by using every character skill on every hero, in different environments.
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 break from the intensity. So when the music does heat up, it’s 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?
Always be creating something, from sample presets to a song, or sound effects. You don’t always need an agenda when doing so. The simple act of starting something new can often lead to interesting results. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and don’t allow audio fidelity to trump originality. 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, one way in which I challenge myself is by making alternate versions of my Pro Tools plugin folder. I only use three plugins, chosen at random. We’re absolutely inundated with a tidal wave of plugin options nowadays, so using only a few random plugins can force me to do things I wouldn’t normally do, such as find new editing techniques and discovering quirks in certain plugins. It really helps me get the most out of very few choices.
I also feel very strongly that 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, and 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?
“Diablo III” was by far Blizzard’s largest VO undertaking for two main reasons. First, there was the sheer quantity of lines to read. We introduced ten new hero characters who all had a mountain of content that had to be recorded. To give you an idea what that means, the “StarCraft” chapters tend to have around 3000 lines. Each “World of Warcraft” expansion has approximately 6000 to 8000 lines. For “Diablo III”, we recorded upwards of 18000 lines. It was quite an experience.
The second reason for the extensive line count was that the writers spent a lot of time thinking about how each hero would interact with the environment and the story. With such detailed individualism comes a lot of in-depth commentary and reactions from each hero. With a smaller 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. So 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.
The magic of a great performance comes from great casting; ninety percent of your work should be spent on casting. The other ten 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 the rest will be easy.
To get the goblins right in “World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm”, I spent two months in New York casting and recording each of our 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 voice talent in the US. As you know, our next “World of Warcraft” expansion will explore the “Warcraft” universe’s orc clans in-depth. That means voices for many new orcs have to be found. I often joke that, “I know all the orcs in LA” (laughs). In addition, I’ve put feelers out all across the US for new and interesting orc voices. The orc “sound” is by far the hardest one to capture because it has such a unique growl 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.
Also bear in mind that recording sessions can be up to four hours long, and maintaining that orc sound is no easy feat. 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?
I would say that “Mists of Pandaria” was probably the one that challenged me the most. We brought a wide variety of talking animals to life for this chapter, and had to create talking monkeys, fish, tigers, and yak, just to name a few. What does a talking fish sound like? We didn’t know, so we had to brainstorm and collaborate with the talent to find a sound that felt right to us.
Another challenge for me was bringing our beautiful Pandaren characters to life. 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 or silly, so I did as much casting as possible from within the Los Angeles–based Asian theatrical community. No matter their accent or background, I wanted something from each actor’s heritage to come through in our lines. 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 of 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 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. Being a voice actor in general takes amazing talent and an ability to create your character 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 a “demon goat-warrior speaking faux-Latin”. Huh? Yes, that was the direction. And that was exactly what the actor did. To this day, I have no idea how he pulled it off.
Finding actors who can make such sounds isn’t easy. 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; a lot of actors will work really hard to create monster sounds, but it’s a unique kind of person who can come up with out-of-this world sounds and make them sound believable. Generally, I find my creature actors by working with them on other speaking roles, and suddenly hear something in the 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 group of amazing actors who really specialize in making unusual sounds and effects with only their voices. Two of them 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 say aren’t human in any way.
– 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?
The actual lines that the actors read are written by our development teams. Our writers and quest designers flesh out the characters, create their story arcs, and write all the character’s lines of dialogue. Once they’re done, my job is to then find the right actor for the role. But the second part of my job is to direct the actors in the recording booth, much like a film director does with 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. The writers and I will go into the studio with an idea on how a line should sound, and many times the actor will take the line, make it their own and deliver something we never expected.
The most important job of the director is to connect with the actors, guide them accordingly, and give them the inspiration needed 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. I have been asked before if it is hard bringing fantasy performances to life. My answer has always been “no”. Even though the actor might be playing a talking animal 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 recording is secondary to the human emotion we are after.
– What’s the most fun part of working with VO and casting?
Hands down I would say that collaborating with our amazing actors is by far the most fun part of my job. They are truly unbelievable people who make me smile, laugh, and cry. 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. 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 those sessions. He tends to use our scripts as rough “guidelines” for what he needs to say and then does his own thing with it.
(Skip to 1:04:00 in the video below to hear from Blizzard’s audio team about making the music and sounds of “Diablo III”)