So You Wanna Make Games?? | Episode 8: Sound Design
Sound. Sound is easy to take for granted in a game. But it plays a critical role in every game experience. I mean, even a simple sound can set the entire mood of a scene. Take for instance the sound of a door opening. The mood can be changed so it sounds happy… or sad… or terrifying. O-o-okay, um, okay stop… Okay, start the episode please! Sound design is critical to game development. It reinforces the gameplay experience and the core thematic of a game in a way that’s truly satisfying and deeply emotional. Plus, there’s like explosions and stuff! Let’s break down the goal of sound design into three parts. Providing gameplay cues, giving the player feedback, and driving the core emotion of a game. Sound design provides cues that clarify and reinforce what’s happening to or around you. Things like: whether your ability is ready yet, if there’s damage being dealt to you, if you’ve been spotted by an enemy, or if you’ve constructed enough pylons. You must construct additional– Shut up I know! Sound is a powerful way to give a player feedback on the decisions they’re making in a game, be they good… or bad. Sound design is a core emotional driver that works to pull you into the experience, like the bleak atmosphere created by the sounds in “Papers, Please,” or the terrifying sound of someone following you in “Outlast 2,” or the immersive nuanced sound of a car’s engine, in “Project CARS 2.” Ultimately, sound design is really powerful for a game development team. It’s just kind of hard to give feedback on, like how do I say if I think a whoosh sound needs more… whooshiness? Many people find it difficult to talk about sound design. It can be hard to describe parts of a sound without knowing the technical words we use. But honestly a lot of the time we don’t necessarily use… words. Well, maybe we should learn some of the technical terms just in case. So, what is a sound frequency? You could think of sound frequency as like a color spectrum. A frequency is basically the rate at which a vibration is going to occur. The slower the rate, the lower the pitch. The faster the rate, the higher the pitch. Oh! Okay, so kind of like how each part of the light spectrum produces a different color, there’s a whole spectrum of sound frequencies that each produce a unique tone. So is each sound one frequency? Sounds are rarely just one frequency. In fact, sounds occupy a large range of frequencies. Oh yeah, like this explosion sound. Now let’s listen to some frequency bands. Up next: sound envelopes. So… what is that? You can think of an envelope of sound as the visualization of a sound from beginning to end, or the actual waveform. We like to break a sound into four parts. The attack, the decay, the sustain, and the release. A, D, S, R. So what would the attack, sustain, decay, and release be of this punch sound? The attack represents the time it takes to go from silence to max intensity, or volume. The decay is the drop in intensity that happens after the attack peaks, and lasts until the sound reaches the sustain. The sustain is basically how loud the sound is for the majority of its lifetime. Finally, the release is how long it takes for the sound to fade to silence after the sustain. So, all sounds have different ADSR breakdowns, and that’s called the dynamics of sound. Small tweaks to the dynamics can have a dramatic effect on how sounds feel, or what emotion and context comes through. Let’s check out out the envelope of the punch we broke down earlier. If we increase the length on the attack of the punch, we get more of a lead up and maybe more of an anticipation to the actual punch. Oh! And we could increase the length of the release, and make it sound like it’s punching through a brick wall. Alright, we learned some terms. Now let’s dive into the sound designer’s toolbox. Every sound effect has some sort of attenuation. In games, attenuation refers to the reduction in the strength of a signal as you get closer or farther from the source of the sound. Hi there! [quieter] Hi there! In some stealth games, this concept is even visualized in the user interface. Some sounds have a very long attenuation, which means you can hear them from very far away, like a gunshot, or a roar, while others have a very short attentuation. Oh! Yeah, like things you’d only hear really close up, like footsteps, or the sound of someone breathing. The attenuation curve also tells us how the sound changes as you get closer or further from it. Let’s use a gunshot sound as an example. By giving the high frequencies in the sound a short attenuation, and the low frequencies of the sound a long attenuation, an up-close gunshot will sound like this, and a far away gunshot will sound like this. One sound effect, multiple attenuations for different frequencies. That is so cool! And also why we need to understand equalization. Equalization, or EQ, is the process of adjusting different frequencies within a sound. EQ can manipulate a sound by either boosting or cutting specific frequencies or frequency ranges. This might be used to cut out unwanted background noise, or make certain noises or tones more or less intense. I want to show you something! [more intense] I want to show you something! Let’s talk about reverb! Reverb. Wow, that’s a big discussion and a big topic. Reverb is created when a sound reflects from a surface, or in the environment that it’s in. There are many different ways you can use reverb. For a sound designer, we use it to either put sounds together, so that it would be kind of a gluing mechanism for ourselves. Or to sometimes express more of the environment that that sound should be in. Places where you might hear reverb would be… in a hallway, in the bathroom, in the elevator. Hey man, what floor? Or maybe even a canyon. Hey, what’s up, dude? Being a sound designer on a game means that part of your job is also attaching your sounds to game events. So you could attach dialogue to events like a character entering water: Oh! Ah… that’s refreshing! Or, you could change the background music when a character enters combat. Or, you could make a custom sound reaction when a sleeping enemy is suddenly shot into the air by a balloon. To make all these crazy sounds, sound designers usually find components in extensive sound libraries. But if they can’t find what they need in a sound library, they go to the foley room. The foley room is a magical place with all sorts of materials and objects where sound designers can create sounds themselves. While working on Ivern, I built this foley prop called The Creaker. It’s just two pieces of wood, two hinges, and a rope. We wanted Ivern’s sound to be distinct from Maokai’s, since he’s smaller and older. So we thought creaking would be great, especially for his shield ability. We figured creaking would provide tension and anticipation for players to know when the shield is about to break. Animals have more to offer than warm pelts and meat. Alright, let’s have a quick look what we learned. And now…for some advice! When I was in college, there were a lot of different avenues, but game audio wasn’t really a program that existed. I was a very passionate game audio enthusiast, but I had just never thought about it as a career. So I was pretty mind-blown when I realized it was an actual job that I could do. One thing I wish I did more was actively reach out for advice from people working in the industry. It’s not till I was, like, actively looking up tutorials and not finding very much, but I did find one, one guy was doing a bunch of tutorials on his YouTube channel, and I just said, hey, let me just reach out to him and see…what’s up? And he actually responded, and we actually ended up having a long conversation about just sound design, and working, and all that fun stuff, and, yeah, I wish I did that earlier. Having an internship, and getting into a game studio, and working with people around me, really allowed me an opportunity to find a mentor that I could learn from and grow. Something that helped me when I first started, was just exposing myself to many different type of sound libraries, and not just any sound libraries, just really good sound libraries, because I think it’s important when you first start out in this industry, just to know what good sounds like. So, go out there and listen to libraries by BOOM Libraries, go out to the and listen to The Recordist, or HISSandaROAR. Just go out there and figure out what the industry says this is kind of the standard. There’s so many different things out there right now. There’s videogames, and movies, and trailers, and cinematics, and take something that you, that you find really fun and interesting, and strip the sound out of it, and put some of your own sounds in it. Record something, or make something from your synths, and just put it in there and see how it feels. For example, for me, in college, I did a WALL-E scene. And instead of having all robots, it was all cats and dogs. It was just a really interesting and fun process because you have to think about things in a whole different way, and it doesn’t matter if it’s already sounding cool, like, WALL-E sounds great, but you put your own unique twist into it, and it can really help you grow and learn new things. Something that I wish I would’ve known as I was learning to sound design is that it’s okay to break rules. Whatever sounds good is gonna sound good. Break those rules, discover, find new ways to find how you’re gonna get those sounds. There’s tonality in everything. Stay hungry, stay humble, believe in yourself, learn from your mistakes, and always just try to persevere. Alright, good luck out there.