The following article is an excerpt from “The future of sound design” lectures done during GDC, VFS and DFF between the periods of 2006-2007 by Charles Deenen. Rewritten for “DesigningSound.org”.
The Future of Sound Design in Video Games, Part 2
Every day in our life, sounds occur. Our brain thinks about virtually every sound we hear, and depending on how we’re connected with that sound, either (unknowing) react, translate, notice or feel something. On each sound we hear, we connect a space, event or happening to it, thereby learning how or when these sounds occur. Each human experiences sound every day, and learn about them, just like we learn a language. Some sounds are artificial, yet we connect a certain “moment” to them (i.e. computer graphic beeps in movies)
Now, you probably think “blah blah, yeah, yeah, where the heck are you going with this”. As a sound designer our job is to learn that language, transcribe it, understand it, and enhance it. You can easily make use of the human learned language of “experienced” sound. Fundamentals in sounds can be used together to form a combined emotion.
As an example, I’m sure you sometimes hear a distant fighter jet come by. By hearing it’s fantastic air-distorted rippling effect you instantly know it’s going incredibly fast without seeing it. When you hear a wasp buzzing, your instinct probably says “holy crap, swat it!”, all due to your brain associating a previous reaction/learning to that sound.
So, lets put this in practice by listening to some examples. The following is an example of standalone sweetners which would be used to add to parts of a car-by sound. It’s various ways of adding a “scream”, “howl”, “pain” or other sense of emotion to a car-by sound. Something probably that most of you have done, but why you did this is really the question:
As sound designers, we often try to emulate a certain sensation we’ve heard in real-life. Instead of using the real thing, we can reproduce the same effect by mimicking the feeling we want to chase. In this case we’re after alternate ways to add a sensation of speed to a car by. First sound is a regular Jet-by, followed by the pictured sounds, finished off by the car-by with the added ‘speed’ layers (example contains sounds from various sources)
￼To quickly grab a sound “feeling” in the future, one of the things I did a long time ago is make a list of various sounds which moved me somehow. Then I wrote down the feeling they impressed on me, and some ideas on how to use them.
Every time when I was in a rush, with little time to think about sound design and feelings, I pull up the list and scan it for my previous thoughts. Usually I find some ideas in it, especially in relationship to expressing a certain (combo) emotion.
- Make a list of “experienced” sounds and the emotion you feel when you hear them, with possible ideas on how to use them
“Fighter Jet fast By” – Speed sensation – Car by Sweetners
“Jail Cell Door close” – “Closed off feeling” – Logo slam
- Create some new sounds by using the character of what defines the “experienced” sound, in combo with some “plain” sounds.￼
S(t)imulating Learned Ear Deficiencies
The ear is an odd looking piece of human isn’t it? On some, it sticks out like a TV dish, shaped like a weird alien disformed growth, freezes when you’re in Montreal during the winter and oh yeah, does this awesome thing with sound. The ear behaves in weird ways sometimes. Now, this is not scientific in any way, so please don’t rant to me about it. It’s purely my own speculation on what happens.
Have you ever noticed that your ear seems to “compress” or partially shut-down the high-frequencies when it hears an instant loud sound? Or how it seems to “warble” when there’s a lot of low frequency build-up in the real world?
There’s a few tricks you can use (and maybe use already), which mimmic this ear behaviour, thereby tricking the listener into believing they are really hearing something much “bigger”
- ‘Low frequency Distortion’ is read as “loud” by the ear. It mimics the high frequency compression that’s happening when you’re listening to very loud sounds, and at the same time adds to the air distortion that happens between the source and your ear. The first sound in the below example is an indication of this (that sound btw was simply made by boosting the low-end by an incredible amount, running it through a crappy (behringer) compressor which freaked out about this low end, and then reducing the low-end back down.
- I believe your ear and brain have learned to translate spiked high-frequency sounds going into mid-range/low-end as “loud”. It’s a similar scenario that happens on guns & explosions. You can easily mimic these sounds by simulating an ear “shutdown” where it rejects higher frequencies after a brief moment. Lets call this the “Hi/Lo offset technique”; offsetting high frequency sounds, followed by a mid/low frequency sound. Try it out, and realize why does this sound “loud” to you?
Build-ups… ok, no rocket science here :) Any sound rises can be used to create a build-up of tension. There is a large variety of ways to do “rises”. Many of these techniques are used in Film Trailers daily. Not all are commonly used in gaming though;
- Music rises (the most obvious one)
- Building Rhythmic sound effect (i.e. pulse growing in size over time). Very effective to draw attention.
- Pitch / Frequency increase, effective in denser layers as you’ll certainly notice these through a dense layer of “noise”.
- Volume increasing over time
- Repetition frequency increase (i.e. pulse speeding up). The most overused sound attached to this is probably the heartbeat (yikes ! :)
In gaming I’m usually only hearing music used as a way to build intensity over time, yet the combo of delayed animation spawning combined with the above can create such a nice build-up of tension.
Now the cool thing is that the opposite (the descend), creates the opposite feeling. The feeling of calming down, loosing, “letting go” etc. can all be enhanced or created in that way.
Example of some “pitch” and “Volume” rises back to back. Some of these have been used in games. Starting with the most known “rise”.
Hopefully some of this was useful or interesting to you. My hopes for this article are that you consciously use these “experienced sounds” in your daily sound design, and hopefully better understand why we actually use them, or shape certain sounds to begin with. Shoot me any comments you might have.
All movies and sound contained in this article are (c) Charles Deenen and cannot be distributed or used in any way without prior written consent.
Tyler Pearson says
Great article. Loved reading some of the ways you enhance regular sounds with other emotion evoking sounds.
Hope things are going well for you. Are you still working with EA? I recorded some songs with Jesus Delgado recently which was fun.
We’re doing lots of interesting things at DCM Studios and were always interested in new and exciting projects. Last year I did all the sound design and mix for a war documentary about paratroopers similar to the guys from “Band of Brothers” called “The Forgotten Battalion”. http://www.theforgottenbattalion.com
Jean-Edouard Miclot says
Thanks Charles for sharing all this. ANOTHER GREAT POST!
I’m always looking for any way / concepts to enhance the subjective loudness of sounds without falling into the easy overall volume increase. This “Hi/Lo offset technique” is going to be really helpful for sure.
I’ve actually done a list like you did and realized how much faster it would be if I had it within my libraries. Since I have Soundminer, I’ve commented my sounds in a Metadata field just by describing its emotional characteristic / content with one or two words. For example, a baby cry could actually sound “HAPPY”, a door creak could seem “SAD” or a Doberman growl could appear to be “FUNNY”. I usually don’t use that field while I’m searching in my libraries unless I want to dial in the “out of context” material, then I have a field that can help me to convey subjective emotion. I’m still learning it but I try to remember everyday that sound has that great particularity to sneak you from the back door while the picture is limited to the front one.