Crytek is behind some of the most acclaimed games of the last two decades, namely the “Far Cry“ and “Crysis“ series, and with the arrival of a new generation of consoles, they’re releasing the Xbox One launch title, “Ryse: Son Of Rome“, which boasts some of the most stunning visuals of any game this year. My interest in the company led to a recent sit-down with their Audio Directors, Simon Pressey and Florian Füsslin, as well as their composer, Borislav Slavov.
Hi Simon, Florian and Borislav. Can you tell me a bit about your respective audio backgrounds and how you got into working with audio and Crytek in general?
Simon: Singing in a choir that was recorded for BBC radio spawned my early interest in recording. Realizing fairly early that I was not as musically talented as many unemployed musicians, I quit college early to work as a tape-op apprentice for a London studio called RG Jones. They did a lot of work for the BBC, and I worked on a huge variety of different projects, from orchestras, to comedy, to documentaries, and even pop music. I spent the next twenty years mostly in pop music production, moving to Canada and becoming Chief Engineer at Le Studio in Morin Heights, a state-of-the-art studio that had the first SSL console in North America. During that time, I garnered credits as engineer and producer on about 70 albums, with combined sales somewhere around 40 million albums.
My game audio career started in 2000 at Ubisoft Montreal, where I quickly learnt that video game audio was the ultimate challenge, allowing me to use every skill I had developed in the previous twenty years. The challenge of creating a dynamic real-time audio universe became my driving passion. I headed up building of the Ubisoft Montreal Sound Studio, as the Director of Audio, and developed the Tom Clancy series of games (Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, and Ghost Recon), the Prince of Persia series, Myst and Assassin’s Creed. I later moved on to become Audio Director of Bioware, delivering Mass Effect and Dragon Age. I took the post of Director of Audio at Crytek last year, with Ryse being the first and a very challenging project.
Florian: I’ve been doing music for quite some years. I started with the flute at age six, and moved on to piano and drums, which allowed me to join a band when I was in school. My interest in audio engineering came after that. After graduating high school, I took some audio engineering courses, and whilst pursuing my Bachelors Degree I figured that I should really think about what I wanted to do within the audio world. I had been a gamer all my life, and so I wrote an email to Crytek, asking them if they needed an audio intern and they actually replied. Since then, I’ve been working here for eight years.
Borislav: I joined Crytek in 2009, as an audio lead and composer for one of the Crytek studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. Around this time, I also joined the “Crysis 2” development as the Lead Composer and Music Director. After this, I decided to continue to work my way up at Crytek as a composer, and later became the principle composer responsible for “Crysis 3“, “Warface” and “Ryse”.
As people who have worked their way up in the audio part of the game industry, what do you guys feel are the single most important qualities that helped you reach your current positions?
Simon: For me, the most important thing is knowing how to work in a team, which happens a lot in the music world. Large-scale AAA projects are all about teamwork and communication, so I use those skills a lot. From an engineering point of view, it was helpful to have the fundamentals that I learned whilst at BBC, such as recording with one microphone instead of six, or recording without using EQ or compression, yet still getting a good quality recording. I’ve continued using such lessons through-out all my work. Also, being diligent in having a good sound source when recording is important, as well as recording your sounds as neutrally as possible. Then you can manipulate it as much as you want afterwards.
Florian: My experience isn’t as broad as Simon’s, but I’ve been through different positions within Crytek, and that helps me on an everyday level to understand what other staff members do. Being at the company for a long time has allowed me to grow with not only the audio department, but other disciplines as well.
Given that Crytek is known for it’s visually impressive games, how have you guys been able to bridge the gap between great graphics and equally formidable audio?
Simon: Our role in audio is to support what’s going on in the gameplay. So if the sound is right, then the visuals shine brighter. Crytek has always had high standards for audio, but people might not notice that because, by definition, the audio is doing exactly what it should. Graphics are historically a big talking point in video games, but doing good audio is every bit as important for Crytek, which is one of the main reasons I came to work here.
After having spoken with a number of game companies, it’s become common for me to hear how the audio team often have their work being delayed by other game departments, since they have to wait until other media has been completed, before they can add sound to it. Is something you guys experience as well?
Simon: We work as much in parallel with the other departments as possible. There’s normally someone from the audio department involved from the very first stage of a new game, so we’re producing audio concepts simultaneously as other team member are creating visual concepts. We try to do that hand in hand, and play off each other. We could make a gun sound, and then the visual team might say “Wow, that makes the weapon sound bigger!“, and then they make a larger weapon as a result.
Audio does have a lot of dependencies on other things being done, so yes, that does make for a large hump at the end of a project, where we suddenly have the output of 200 other team members to put sound to. Before that point, however, we also try very hard to get the system in place to play the audio. We talk to the programmers and designers, to get a better idea of what we’re supporting and how the sound is going to evolve and interact in the game. Even if you only have a piece of placeholder audio that says “Bang! I’m a gun“, at least you know that the system is playing it properly. But if you start by designing the sound of a gunshot, and have no mechanism to play it, then it becomes redundant because you’re going to have to change it anyway once the mechanism is in place.
Because we designed our audio engine in-house, we know it very well and have a dedicated audio programmer who’s a part of the engine development team.
Much of the praise that has been directed at Crytek’s advanced visuals has been attributed to the audio engine you mentioned, CryEngine. Can you tell me about it?
Simon: There are a few exciting things happening with the engine which I can’t talk about, which will place more control in the hands of our designers and requires for less code support, whilst retaining very tight integration with the game engine. But since it hasn’t been announced yet, I can’t go into it much.
Florian: In the past few years, we’ve focused very much on the reliability part of the CryEngine, as well as building up the production team’s trust. When no-one else is allowed to touch the build anymore, the audio team is still allowed to do mixing work on it, which gives us a couple more weeks to work at the end of the project. This is because the sound system is so reliable.
The latest game project from Crytek was “Ryse”, and it’s been praised for both its stunning visual element and believable audio. What were your highlights in working on that game?
Florian: It was one of the first third-person sword games I’ve worked on, so it was an interesting process, particularly from a recording standpoint. We went out and did a lot of foley recordings of ambiences, sword clashes, wooshes, etc. Our friends from Microsoft also helped out by recording arrow sounds and such. The sheer amount of audio assets we received presented us with a challenge.
Simon: This was my first game with Crytek, and it was a big challenge for me. It was also the first game for our newly assembled team, as well as a new IP and a new console. That made for a steep learning curve. But thanks to having already worked on Assassin’s Creed, I’d been through a somewhat similar process.
This was my first time mixing everything in 7.1 surround sound, which is an audio format for games that gives a much more immersive sound field. Things travel much better around you, and you get a better sense of position. But it does require that we work carefully when you have a mayhem of battle going on. We have to find a point of focus, where you’re hearing what you need to hear, versus everything else that’s being triggered. So your 3D curve becomes very important early on. You might have twenty Roman legionaries running in one direction and a horde of forty Barbarians in another. So how many footsteps do you need? As such, the 7.1 environment presented the challenge of keeping focus on the direction of travel, whilst still providing information about what was happening behind you.
Given than the new generation of consoles features entirely different specs than the older ones, what are some things that you guys have had to do in order to accommodate this upgrade in technology?
Simon: The new consoles are like high-spec PCs, and even better in some aspects, which means there can be significant optimizations going into the graphics engines. We also have a lot more RAM than we’ve ever had, so we can compromise less. This creates more of a PC development environment for us, as opposed to previous generations. But it means that we’re working with high fidelity, and have to deal with managing more resources, and with that comes more responsibility. We now have to to exercise more control over the sound than before, and make more decisions in terms of which sounds take priority.
In the past, Simon has spoken on how the new generation of consoles has created the importance of knowing how to scale back on your choices, in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed with the potential possibilities. How have you guys been able to do this?
Simon: The CryEngine has a mechanism that filters and prioritizes sounds before they flood the it with calls. We spent a lot of testing time to find the right balance for the different situations that might arise in a game. So when you’re being chased by a bunch of Barbarians, we’re only going to play the sounds of the closest six. Before that, we started playing all 30, which was far too much. But then we chopped it down and fine tuned the roll-off curve. Also, we’re mixing to a predetermined loudness level of -23 dB as our average game volume. This helps us establish our benchmark level sounds, like dialogue. So we try to mix as we go along, as well as be disciplined about which sounds get played, so as to not clutter things up.
Florian: We also paid a lot of attention to the amount of variation in sound. It’s very much known that repetitive sounds can be your biggest enemy. Initially, we thought, “Yay, we have lots of RAM. Let’s fill it up!“. So instead of using five footsteps in a particular scene, I threw in 50. But then I realized that we don’t need that many, because the amount of time that I’d need to create and edit them all isn’t worth the effort. So we had to pick our fights by prioritizing the more important sounds, like sword clashes, and gave them more variations if needed.
As audio professionals, what are some of your most useful sequencing, sound design or editing tools that you guys have in your arsenals?
Simon: We use Nuendo all across our studio. It was a difficult choice to make, but it ensures that everyone is using the same platform.
Florian: The Waves plugins are standard on everyone’s computer, as well as Native Instruments Komplete. SpeakerPhone and Altiverb are also used a lot by everyone. Beyond that, it becomes a matter of individual taste. Some people like to experiment with the iPad, for example, and create sounds with that.
Simon: It’s important that the different plugins we use are compatible across the board, so that we can work collaboratively. I can do a lot with just the basics of Nuendo. I use the Waves L3 limiter a lot, as well as the McDSP line of plugins, but I also feel comfortable with stock plugins. It’s far more important that the sound team has a standardized set of tools, rather than getting lost in different plugins. The single-most important thing for us is to have a good source recording. If you pay attention to having the right microphone, in the right position, recording the right sound, you’ll be in a much better position than having tons of software.
Borislav: Apart from the tools that Simon and Florian already mentioned, I’m keen on using Sony products, such as Sound Forge and Vegas. My main sequencer is Cakewalk SONAR, which I’ve been using for many years. I also use Waves, and quite a lot of sample libraries. If you can name one, I most probably have it.
Borislav, can you tell me about the process of scoring “Ryse”, and what kind of challenges that sort of game presented you with?
Borislav: Given that “Gladiator” is one of my favorite movies of all time, I was very excited to work on “Ryse”. One of the most exciting things was for me to use my string instruments. One of my biggest passions is to collect different string instruments from all over the world, so I finally got to wipe the dust off of them and play something.
The first thing that comes to mind in terms of challenges was that we had to jump right into this project after “Crysis 3”. We had only a few months to compose, record and implement the music in the game, so delivering a huge score in a limited time frame was a big challenge.
Simon: I think there are around 250 minutes of music in the game. Borislav composed the music along with Peter Antovszki, another composer at Crytek.
Crytek also outsourced composition work for “Ryse” to Tilman Sillescu. Why did Crytek felt the need to outsource music work? Is that normal, despite having in-house composers?
Borislav: Crytek us a big family, and several projects are being developed simultaneously. So a single composer wouldn’t be enough, regardless of how good or fast they are. So we have two in-house composers, and also outsource certain music duties sometimes. For Ryse, we had very limited time to finish the score, and had established a good professional relationship with the Tilman, so we capitalized on that. It was a pleasure to work with him again.
Can you guys talk about the relationship between the audio department and the rest of the game development team? How does that interplay look like?
Borislav: From a technical point of view, it’s important for me to be in contact with the audio team. There might be a point of climax in a cut-scene, and we have to decide what piece of audio will be the focus point. The only way for me to make this work is to be in touch with everyone.
Simon: I think that having Borislav in-house allows me the flexibility to ask him to do music revisions. He’s also very involved with the music integration. He have a sound designer that helps him with that, and that gives us a big advantage over situations where an outsourced composer hands over audio stems to the team. The only other project I’ve worked on where the composer had as much flexibility was on “Mass Effect 2″, where Jack Wall was doing implementation into Wwise directly.
Borislav made this statement in a past interview: “the game industry provides music quality which is comparable to…the movie industry. We will soon witness a moment when both industries will come together“. In what ways do you think the gap between the world of films and game audio has been bridged? Is it making progress in your opinion?
Borislav: Yes, totally. Nowadays, video games are like interactive movies. The cut-scenes in “Ryse” total one hour and forty-five minutes. That’s a full-length movie, right? I also think that what game audio has achieved in the past 30 years is comparable with what movies have achieved in the last 100 years. It’s a huge jump. In terms of visuals, we’re witnessing the same situation.
Does that mean that a game composer could score a film just as easily?
Borislav: I think that would be a completely different challenge, because films are linear media. Games are different, because you have to compose the music in such a way that it doesn’t become repetitive or intrusive after it’s played over and over. We also have to achieve the same production and composition value as film music. Lastly, the gamer’s decisions can’t be calculated, and yet the music needs to be able to adapt to that.
Wrapping up, what kind of advice would you guys give to someone looking to get into your field of work? Are there any skills that new composers need to make it a point to acquire?
Simon: I would suggest that they contact composers who are already in the business and offer to work under them as interns. I think a lot of game composers could use interns, and newcomers could learn a lot from this, as well as be able to get writing credits on soundtracks or scores, if they’re able to write music. Also, don’t send a rap tune to people that are developing a fantasy-RPG game. They won’t hire you. Know who you’re marketing yourself to, and try to give them something that might work in the context of what they’re developing.
Borislav: New guys shouldn’t expect to jump immediately into big projects. I would advise that they build a track record. The best way to do that is to team up with indie developers, of which there are many. Get in touch with them, and offer them your work. Don’t talk about money with them, because they’re in the exact same position as you: people who want to make something cool and build a track record for themselves. Teaming up with indie game developers will allow you to get familiar with the industry, as well as help you understand what interactive music is. Lastly, I’d also advise you to be patient. This can be a slow process; it took me fifteen years. But with passion, luck and motivation, it’s only a matter of time before you succeed.