Designing Sound Interview: Big Sounds on Little Devices

I did an interview for Designing Sound recently, here it is in full; By Mike Taylor

Andrew Quinn, sound designer at Splash Damage, was kind enough to speak to Designing Sound about his work on the recently announced mobile strategy title RAD Soldiers on the new social label WarChest. The music for the game was produced by Marc Canham of Nimrod Productions.

DS: Can you tell us a little about how you got into game audio, and your audio career so far?

AQ: I always had an interest in sound and music. In my youth I played guitar in local bands, recorded music with friend’s bands and generally made a racket. This messing with sound and music led to me studying a BSc in Creative Music and Sound Technology at Leeds Metropolitan University. During the course I got a chance to delve into post-production and more importantly game audio in the third year and I really enjoyed it. I stayed on another year at Leeds to do an MSc in Sound and Music for Interactive Games under the expert tutelage of Richard Stevens and David Raybould.

After I graduated from the masters, I really struggled to find a job in the games industry. Luckily, the university was looking for a part-time lecturer on their audio course and they took me on. As it was only part-time it gave me a bit of time to work on my own projects and get a portfolio of work together. One project I got to work on was the Game Audio Tutorial book by the aforementioned Leeds-based lecturers Richard Stevens and David Raybould. I ended up creating the tutorial levels and sound library bundled with the book.

That summer I decided to attend the Develop audio track in Brighton to do a bit of networking and generally get my portfolio about. I must have done something right as a few weeks later I secured a couple of interviews and later a job offer.

I joined Splash Damage just before BRINK shipped and I’ve been there just over a year now.

DS: Is there an area of sound that you’re particularly drawn to?

AQ: My main focus is sound design and implementation, that’s what I do. I particularly enjoy creating creatures and weapons.

DS: How did you approach pre-production for a mobile title such as RAD Soldiers? How did this differ from your work on a console title?

AQ: Pre-production for this title was very short. The game had already been going a little while when I was brought on, there was quite a bit of concept art, some of the characters and environments were being worked on and some of the base gameplay was already in. After I joined the rest of the team and I spent some of time working on the overall direction of the sound design and music. I came up with some style examples for the music and did a few pre-sonics for some of the ambience and weapons. I also wrote a document with some initial ideas for cool little audio systems we could have if we had the time to implement them.

In general though it’s very similar or I should say my approach is very similar, but scaled down. For instance, rather than ten variations of a knife stab or punch, we’ll have two. Instead of having all the characters speak localised dialogue, we’ll have very general barks, grunts and vocalisations that could be interpreted in any language. We may not have the same amount of time or budget as a AAA game but I still approach every sound with the question “How do I make this as good as possible with the resources available?”

DS: How large an influence did the Strategy genre and multiplayer aspects of the game have on your decisions?

AQ: We took a bit of inspiration from some strategy games, the Command and Conquer series and Worms being two notable examples. This was more their tongue-in-cheek approach to rather than a particular style.

DS: How do you approach communication with the other disciplines on the team? How closely do you work with the other departments?

AQ: During development I was sat with the team working on a pair of headphones rather than hidden away in a studio, so communication was pretty easy and free flowing. The team has always been fairly small (at its largest 8-10 people), so there was never the issue of not knowing what other people were working on or doing. It created a nice dynamic where you could iterate relatively quickly on content and make the game better.

DS: What do you feel is the hardest part of creating sound for interactive media on devices such as smartphones or tablets? What were the main creative / technical challenges you faced in achieving your vision?

AQ: Delivering a compelling and interesting audio experience on a mobile device is quite a challenge, however there were a few things inherent in the game that helped. The asynchronous turn-based gameplay meant that the amount of sound playing at any one time was largely predictable. This enabled me to orchestrate events in a semi-linear fashion, so the overall design ended up being pretty clean. The mix never really gets too busy which can be a problem in strategy/multiplayer games and would be an absolute nightmare on a mobile device. Additionally, for the most part the game has a fixed perspective and player view, so we didn’t have to deal with shifting distances or multiple player perspectives on the same actions which would have complicated the mix and increased the amount of sound playing back. So in the end we managed to avoid quite a few headaches that can be inherent of strategy and multiplayer games.

One of the major issues we encountered was caused by the devices’ ability to only decode .wav or .mp3. Wav is obviously really nice, but for most instances, the size of the file is just too big for a mobile device. Most of the implementation work in Unity was done on a PC that compresses sounds in Ogg, which is lovely. The Ogg compression seemed to hold up pretty well, even at ridiculously low bit rates. However when the build gets deployed to a device, all the sound gets re-compressed into MP3, which created all sorts of interesting problems. Listening back to the sounds on the devices was night and day; there was aliasing, artefacts and all sorts of other compression nasties. The guns and ambiences were particularly affected by this. In the end, I had to spend a bit of time working out what sort of compression values didn’t degrade the quality on a sound by sound basis. In some cases the Mp3 compression bit rate had to be a great deal higher than the Ogg versions to get the same quality.

Strangely, the usual game audio memory limitations haven’t seemed to be as much of an issue as they usually are. The devices themselves have a decent amount of memory, and being sensible about the amount of sound used has meant we haven’t had to go through assets purging quality. Saying that, it’s not like we have skimped on the amount of sound – in fact, we managed to squeeze over 1000 sounds into the base game.

DS: What are the Splash Damage audio team preferred tools for working with? Do you have any software suites, plugins or apps that you use regularly?

AQ: We use Sound Forge/Protools and a combination of WavesGRM ToolsMcDSP and Sound Toys plugins for content creation. Implementation in RAD Soldiers was done within the Unity Engine with some extra custom in-house audio components. On our other projects we’re running an Unreal-Wwise combo.

DS: What do you feel is the most satisfying part of creating sound for games?

AQ: Sound for games poses a unique challenge that I really enjoy. Not only do you have to create the sound asset but you also have to make it work in an interactive environment. When you have hundreds of events, states, parameters, dsp’s and files being triggered dynamically, just getting a sound playing back in-game as intended is a big win.

DS: Do you have a favorite sound or audio system from any game?

AQ: I can’t really put any one down, but I can mention a couple that impressed me recently. Mass Effect 3 did a great job of selling the scale of the war happening around you in the ambient audio, and the big audio events featuring the reapers were really cool. Portal 2 just generally impressed me audio wise, the gels had some really cool little music systems attached to them and the processing on GlaDos’s and Cave’s voices were really great. Oh and Battlefield 3 in its entirety (damn you, DICE, I want my life back).

DS: What was your personal favourite sound or audio system from RAD Soldiers that we can look forward to?

AQ: I had a lot of fun with the weapon and ability audio, it’s mostly hyper-realistic, overdesigned stuff. They were really fun to create.

Another group of sounds I enjoyed creating was for the UAV character. He’s a plucky little robot that enjoys nothing more than a bit of casual leg humping. The sound of his voice was made using a recording of a screwdriver being fed into a little plastic desk fan and some processing with Sound Toy’s Crystallizer.

Under the hood, RAD Soldiers is pretty simple. There were a couple of little audio systems that I was pretty keen to get in from the start of the project. One of these was a simple ducking system to try and make the big events shine through. It’s essentially a very basic snapshot system that allows us to duck a group of sounds when another sound is playing. We can define the attack, duration, depth and release of the snapshot, and snapshots can layer on top of one another. It’s something that big, grown-up engines have been able to do for a while that I wanted to have.

Oh and seeing as the game is set in London, it would be a shame not to have a working Big Ben!

DS:What developments in game audio would you like to see in the future?

AQ:There is some interesting research going on into sound propagation, I’d like to see some systems that approach real acoustic modelling appearing. However with that, I’d still like to be able to tweak and tune how sound plays back within a space rather than having a one stop reality model.

DS: Thank you for your time, Andrew. We look forward to hearing the game in action!

A (Sort of) Interview About Sound & Games

So recently I got interviewed for the Splash Damage website, it kinda answers a few questions I get answered often so I thought I'd re post it here.

Andrew 'DingoBongo' Quinn

Sound Designer

Joining us, Up From The Depths, Thirty Stories High, Breathing Fire, His Head In The Sky (along with Quinzuuukiiii, his adorable younger, not-quite-able-to-fly sidekick) comes Andrew 'DingoBongo' Quinn. This is a - if you will - Quinntroduction to the man, the myth, the moo, the map. Due to territorial IP issues, not all of them may be visible to you, where you are, browing, reading this, facially.

Andrew is our sonic seer, our audio expert, our aural authority. He minutely inspects each and every sound with tiny pliers and rulers, ensuring they all have the correct bevel and camber and aroma. He finds them, creates them, nurtures and nourishes them in special bins, and then releases them from a brass bucket to flap about our heads. All the sounds issue forth from him. He is, if you like, a sort of sonic spigot, audio hose bibb, or sillcock of sound. He's about as far away as the distance between you and him. He's made from a carbon/carbon laminate, and stands 0.01 furlongs high. In his spare time he designs oats and carves votive busts of Hugo "Goodness Gracious" Grotius.

Things You Were Too Afraid To Ask...

Every once in a while, we interrogate one of our own and put their answers up for all the world to see. Read on to find out more about what Andrew does, how he ended up at Splash Damage, and more.

What do you do at Splash Damage?

I'm a Sound Designer which simply means that I design and implement the sounds that go into the game. Sometimes this includes music, too. In reality, it's a bit more complex than that. My job entails working with the Audio Director to define the audio style of the game, field recording, sound design, dialogue editing, music editing, creation and mixing of cut scenes, implementation of game assets, working with the Audio Programmer on features, and being a general audio ninja. (breathe)

Why did you want to work in the games industry and how did you get started?

I didn't really have a firm goal starting out that I wanted to work in games. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to work with audio. I spent a lot of my teenage years playing in and recording music with various bands, and engineering live music in my spare time, so the thought that I could turn it into a job really appealed.

I started off thinking I'd try my hand at being a recording engineer and went to Leeds Metropolitan University to study Creative Music and Sound Technology. During that degree I was introduced to a lot of different aspects of sound production, and I ended up gradually moving away from music and got really into post production (sound for film) which I still really enjoy. In the final year of that course I did a module in game audio and from then on I was hooked. I stayed on for another year at Leeds Met after my degree and did a masters in Sound and Music for Interactive Games. I started applying for jobs after the Masters and worked with a few mod teams and indie devs to gain a bit of experience and improve my portfolio. Whilst I was doing this, I was also doing a bit of lecturing at Leeds Metropolitan University, teaching on the same course I had done a couple of years previously. Finally, after a year and a half of working on my portfolio, lecturing and generally whoring myself out across the internet, I ended up in Bromley at Splash Damage.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to break in?

There's a lot of information on getting into sound design on the net so I won't re-tread well-worn ground here. Essentially make your homepage and hang

As for game audio, break in by doing! Join a mod or indie team and create some sounds, hang around places like, read and listen to the Create a demo reel of work you're happy with, then send it off to as many people who will take it.

Any more than that you'd have to contact me directly - I'm happy to give out a bit of advice.

What other games have you worked on?

I worked on a couple of small mods, a big screen game for BBC Leeds staring a small robot called Fuse Box, an indie game called Primal Carnage and more interestingly a book; an interactive tutorial about game audio delivered in a game called The Game Audio Tutorial (available in all good bookshops). Oh and a tiny ennie weeeeinne bit of BRINK.

Which of your past projects was your favourite to work on, and why?

It has to be The Game Audio Tutorial. It was a really interesting project to work on because it was a bit unusual. The authors (Richard Stevens and Dave Raybould) pretty much gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted with the sound, however there was a restriction for various legal reasons I wasn't allowed to use any commercial sound effects libraries. What this meant was that I pretty much had to go record everything required for the project with next to no budget. This forced me to think in ingenious ways to get the material.

For instance, one of the requirements were some sounds for night birds, owls etc. So one night I went off to a wood near my parents' house in Cumbria in the middle of nowhere to try and record some. I don't know if you've ever sat in a wood in the middle of nowhere, at 1 AM, in the dark, for an hour. I found it pretty terrifying. The more annoying thing about that experience was that I didn't manage to record any night birds. So it was back to the drawing board. In the end, I decided to have a go at listening to real recordings of owls and night birds and then record myself trying vocalize the calls. It kinda worked and made it into the book - see/hear for yourself here. Coming up with little solutions like that and having to beg/borrow/steal stuff to make sounds rather than falling back to traditional library fx was really rewarding.

Why did you join Splash Damage?

The games, environment, location and more importantly people all agreed with me.

What is it like to work at Splash Damage?

No one day is quite the same; there's always something new and exciting to do, whether that be creating a new sound for some new game asset or making clever little audio systems to make the sound playback in the game. Oh and there's a never ending supply of cake...

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

Best Part: Recording, editing and designing that perfect sound that fits just right and seamlessly works in the game

Worst Part: Editing dialog line 15,729

What was your first gaming experience?

I can't really remember what my first gaming experience was, it was probably something on a friend's Mega Drive. I do however remember the first game I ever owned. When my parents bought their first PC they bought me a game for it out of curiosity called Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. Essentially it was a side scrolling platformer about a little green alien with plungers for hands. I never got off the second level. So it wasn't a great start on my transcendence into becoming a game developer. Shortly after that I was given the demo for Wolfenstein 3D which changed everything for me and I've been shooting things (virtually) ever since.

What types of games do you like, and what's your favourite game of all time?

Typically I'm a bit of an FPS nut, so I've put many hours into your Call-of-Battlefield-Honor-Fortress-Strike-Tournament-7 type action games but I like to branch out into the odd RPG or RTS now and then. Hell, recently I've even been venturing into the cuddly world of indie games and really enjoying it.

As for a favourite game of all time, that's a difficult one. Does "everything Valve has ever made" count as an answer? If I had to pick one it would have to be the original Half-Life. It's probably not the best game Valve have made but for the sheer impact it had on me and the amount of time I put into it it's got to be that game.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not at work?

Mountain biking, skiing, movies, other miscellaneous sports and social stuff and sometimes even playing the odd game.

What's the meaning behind your nickname?

DingoBongo was just a name I started using years ago when playing the original Counterstrike and it kind of stuck. I can't really remember how I came up with it. I think I just stuck two random words together that kind of sounded similar, like some sort of jokey radio call-sign off Top Gun or Hotshots. I find it really annoying that I don't have the DingoBongo Xbox Live tag because I was too late to the party!

via Splash Damage

GAT Worldizing

Worldizing is not a new concept. The term was first coined by Walter Murch as the process of taking recorded and edited sound or music into the field, playing it back then recording the result. The process was developed because of the limitations of the technology back in the day. Nowadays we have high quality convolution reverbs and processors such as Altiverb, TL Space, Waves IR, Space Designer, Speakerphone etc etc which can do a pretty damn good job of replicating a space or piece of equipment. However this stuff isn't perfect and more importantly (in my case) isn't cheap. So for me wordizing is still a technique I turn to when I want a particular sound or effect that I can't quite get with my meagre digital means.

Worldizing Links;

Nice example from Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring;

So where does this all fit into The Game Audio Tutorial? Well for one of the exercises in the book we needed some dialogue to guide the player around the map, this bit of dialogue was going to be delivered by a small radio. Now at this point I could have started adding eq and distortion to the dialogue lines trying to approximate the sound of a small speaker but I already had something a little different in mind.

A couple of years ago I bought one of these (see pic) its a Smokey Amp by Zinky Electronics it has a really thin raspy distorted tone which would be great for a walkie-talkie esque sound.

So finally processing steps;

  1. Original dialogue recorded @ 96k 24bit into Digidesign 003 using a SE Electronics 2200a
  2. For obvious reasons the Smokie Amp doesn't really like line level signals and seemed to produce the best results when run with audio from my iPhone
  3. Worldized dialogue recorded back into Digidesign 003 @ 96k 24bit using a Rode NTG-3

Extra Credits: Video Game Music

Found a little video on video game music over at the escapist Extra Credits is a series of videos by James Portnow, Daniel Floyd and Allison Theus. Each week as they take a deeper look at games; how they are made, what they mean and how we can make them better. I suggest you check them all out they're all pretty interesting.

EDIT 24/01/12 Extra Credits has now moved over to The Penny Arcade

Extra Credits: Video Game Music

Whilst you're there also check out Zero Punctuation by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw possibly the funniest series of game critiques ever created.

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