If the sounds in the games are perfect, usually not much people notices because they feel as they are natural. But the lots of work stays behind the whole sound designing process although not many people notices.
Rob Carr used to work many years as a sound designer in the Rockstar Games studio, which is well known for Grand Theft Auto series. Right now he is working in Brno’s Wargaming office. He is responsible for the creating sounds itself and also designing the whole audio systems in games. As he says, „I do everything that makes a sound in the videogame“.
How long it takes to make the perfect sound?
Oh, how long is a piece of string? Audio is very similar to how an artist see a picture. There is always something to improve. So typically, it depends on the scale of what you are looking at. So introducing a bird song for example depends on how you want to do it. Anybody can just go out and record birds and play that back. It can take about an hour. But to be interesting and evolving and non repetetive, it can take longer. For example vehicles in Forza Horizon, racing game, where all the vehicle sounds has to be taken from real vehicles. The whole proces can take about six months. And if you have two hundered vehicles, it can take two or three years just to source the sounds. But sometimes you just need very easy sounds so it depends.
Is it possible to make some parts of the process easier?
You can use some sounds also to something else. You can also take shortcuts on technical side. Good example is ambient sound. If I would like to create the sound in a park I would create the birds singing. I’ll record single tweets and create unique bird song using the tools and I would play the sounds randomly in the area. That allows me to have unique bird song in this area, which is never repeated. The whole system is quite a big.
Do you use this system for other situations too?
If we decide not to be in the park but to be in the battleground, where there is a war going on, we just replace the bird song with gunshots. So it’s exactly the same system so it doesn’t take any more time. We have already built a system and now we can just replace the sounds to make these sort of ambiences. My job isn’t just about creating sounds but also about making a system which I can use to make original things.
Do you need also programming for creating these systems?
It depends. I can’t programme and I’m not good at maths. I don’t know any coding language at all. But most of the game engines these days are modular and really user friendly. I work with Unreal Engine for example and it’s very modular. In this engine I can just make this box to make this sound in that box with these coordinates. I need only little bit of maths there.
Don’t you think the players never notices the perfect sounds? Isn’t it shame that players doesn’t notice how much work is behind creation of sounds?
The best compliment the sound designer can get is being completely ignored. As an example, what is the best sounding videogame or film you have ever seen? Most people are just like „I don’t know“ but if you ask about the worst they can remember much more. So the best for sound designer is if nobody notices. That means they have created the perfect sound. It’s especially important for sci-fi games where some things doesn’t actually exists at all. For example if you have sci-fi environment and nothing there really exists in real life. So if you can make these sounds in the way they sounds actually normal, it’s the best compliment for sound designer team.
And if the game is the sci-fi as you say, how are you thinking about creating these sounds?
In audio we can make anything sound like something else. Using for example frying bacon to sound of rain and typically for audio we use a lot of things to make different sounds. A friend of mine, she was using a tape from casette to make a sound of squeaky door. Absolutely crazy that you can come up with the things to make the particular sound and then you mix those sounds to make other sounds. And then you can mix that sounds with other sounds to make even different sounds. The only limit you have is your imagination.
So you must be really creative…
Yea, that’s the reason why I love this job. I need to be really creative and think outside the box. Only sometimes I need to look for existing libraries and find the sound for example for explosion. Because I can’t usually go in the middle of nowhere and blow up the tank to get the sound. So sometimes we have to use other’s sounds but I’m trying to do most of things by myself.
What was the most difficult sound you have created so far?
If you mean diffictult by source we had to use, it was the interior of one specific tank. My brother is working in the museum where they have many of military vehicles so we had to go in tanks and record the many different sounds so it was quite interesting. And the most difficult about implementation was probably the occlusion system for the new project we are working on. The occlusion is if for example if somebody is behind the door and the sound he is making while talking to you through the door sounds different then normal. So we had to create the occlusion system to make the sound different if it comes from building or if the player hear it through the other obstacle. It was quite a pain.
Do you think that indie game studio can get the same quality of audio as the big game devoper companies?
It depends on sound designer. Most of the sound designers I know have their own sound libraries. And there are a lot of industry libraries, lot of vehicle libraries and so on. You can buy a set of libraries and as your career progresses you can record your own sounds. You can add them to those libraries then. So you can buy 20 gigabytes of sounds and after 2 years they have terabytes of sounds. So it usually doesn’t matter if you are big or small studio.
If they would like to create their own sounds is it expensive for them?
I always prefered to record the sounds on my own. Which is cheaper then buying the sound libraries but you have to buy the equipement to record. I was very lucky that I was in the music industry already so I had my own recording studio, I was a music teacher so I was used to work with music and sounds. So that costed me about ten thousand pounds over ten years. But yes, it depends on the money too but there is also many cheap or free software you can use or also some very cheap microphone.
In which part of game developing proces are you making the sounds? Have you to wait to others to create the models first or you create them at the beginning before everything is ready?
Wargaming studio in Brno is a prototype studio. Our entire purpose is to create the brand new ideas and they need the audio from very beginning. Many game studios bringing audio right to the end and they basically trying to force audio in which actually doesn’t sound very good. They bought me at the beginning on the project so they sayed „This is what we are going to do, this is the idea we have“ so we were talking about what are we going to need.
So you have to plan the sounds for the things which doesn’t exist yet?
Yea, for example if we had Mass Effect, what would we need? We would need player sounds, we would need dialogs, we would need spaceship sounds…
So from the beginning it’s great to know what we are working on and that this sound is something you are gonna need. It’s very good because you can be thinking at the beginning how do you gonna implement that sound. And that’s very important part of the process because you need coding support for that. And if you don’t have coding support it’s very limiting for the audio.
How is it limiting?
For example, I tell the coders what the surfaces are. I tell them this is wooden wall, this is concrete, this is grass so they can implement sounds according to the surface. Without coders we couldn’t do something like that.
What are the other limitations of sound design?
In the source side of it it’s difficult to get some of the sounds. Explosions are very good example. There might be a very specific gun you may need sound of. For example some anthique weapon. Typically if you can’t find the source you just try to find alternative. But the biggest limitation of sound design is technical side. People responsible for graphics wants to make the game look wonderful. Everybody spend a lot of time about how the game looks. It’s gonna be photorealistic, it’s gonna be beatiful. But typically people care about how the game looks like but they don’t care how it sounds. Well they don’t care until it sounds like a shit. So we try to make maximum amount of sounds with as little memory usage as possible.
Is the memory usage big problem here?
It depends also on platform you are making the game for. The audio is bigger as the quality is better. So for example in GTA V the audio had 45 gigabytes. Which is huge. When we released the Chinatown Wars for DS, the audio alone was 1.5 gigabytes. The cartrige for Nintendo DS has just over 1 gigabyte. So we had to massively compress audio. How can you compress the audio if you don’t want to lose the quality? That’s the biggest technical limitation.
Do you also have to make music work with the sounds together?
Most of the sound designers I know are also the musicans. So they have good idea how music works. Unfortunatelly for the most of musicans I know, handling music in videogames is job only itself. So if they want to make music work with the dialogs and with the sounds they need to talk with the sound designer specialists and specialists for dialogues. And it also depends if you want interactive music or not. The Mass Effect or Skyrim are good examples of very strong theme music but they are not really interactive. And then there are games like God of War with very interactive music. Emotion of music changes with almost everything you do. it’s dynamic.
Have you ever been in situation where you had to create the sound of something sounds different then in real? For example some care doing crazy sounds in some comedy game?
There is wonderful mission in GTA V. There is a mission with Trevor where you smoke a pipe and got attacked by clowns. And one thing we had to do was to go from real sounds to some crazy cartoon clowns and cooking noises playing with drunking sounds. So I created the system where I replaced the bird singing system with the sounds of childern laughting and crying. Also there was a system where if the many clowns were around the player, the childern were crying. Also if the player kill the clowns, you hear the childerns laughting. So these are very funny things to make.
So the situations like this are more funny then difficult?
Well, it’s different. It’s still not easy. My boss said one great phrase: „Go absolutely crazy, go for most stupid sounding thing you can“ because it’s much more easier to deal back to realistic then making it more crazy. When you realise it’s too crazy it’s always easier to deal back.
How do you like Red Dead Redemption 2 so far?
I’ve not played RDR2 yet, I’m far too busy working on a new project. Also, sadly it’s not out on PC (yet?) so it’ll have to wait until I get a console or it’s released on PC. 😊
Rob Carr (*1982) is a sound designer from Wargaming which is well known for example for creating game like World of Tanks. In the past he was working for places like Pinewood studios & Rockstar Games as the sound designer of many games like GTA V or Max Payne III. Before that, he was also taught music technology at South Notts college and a private music teacher.