Here is an interview I had with Jamey, talking about his work on Gears of War 1 and 2 from Epic games. Hope you enjoy it!
Designing Sound: How did you get involved with Gears of War?
Jamey Scott: I started doing sound design work for Epic in 2002 for Unreal Tournament 2003. I was living in San Diego and was working with voice director Lani Minella. She used my studio to record her voice actors from time to time and luck of the draw landed the UT2003 recording gig in my lap. I met Cliff Bleszinski during those sessions and the topic came up of the dialog processing, which he needed matched to the previous game’s dialog. I offered to do it and I think my ability to match it proved to him my value because he then started asking me for original sound designs, which I was happy to take on. Heh… I was a bit consumed by the original UT just a few months prior, so you could say that I was a bit of a fan. I did a lot of work on that game and continued to do odds and ends for them on games like UT Championship 2, and Unreal 2. I didn’t hear from them for a while after that until they needed help on an E3 trailer for Unreal Tournament 3 (then called UT2007). I turned around that trailer in a couple of days and they all seemed to really like it because they offered me the lead sound design gig for Gears of War just a few days later. I hadn’t seen the game at that point but I figured it would be pretty good being from Epic, so I accepted and that was it.
DS: How was your relationship and collaboration with other members of the audio team? and what about the rest of dev teams?
JS:Well, Epic hasn’t always had a traditional audio team like most developers. In fact, they didn’t have anybody when I first started working for them; they contracted out all audio content and the LDs implemented audio. I would work directly with Cliff during those years. They hired Mike Larson as their audio director at the tail end of UC2 sometime in 2004. Mike hired me to do the UT3 trailer and consequently for Gears of War. Mike is a good sound designer and musician in his own right, but at Epic he’s an audio director, so he deals with a lot of the implementation and logistics of the games so not as much of the design or music. That’s were I came in. But then, content is only part of the chain. The work that Mike does as an integrator of my sounds is vital to the process and is a very large part of why the games sound so good. The sound for Gears1 was done pretty much just by him and me; there really wasn’t anyone else involved in a large capacity. Kevin Riepl did the music and I did the vast majority of the sound design and dialog designs. I also designed and mixed the cinematics.
DS: There’s a lot of story on the Gears of War in-game cinematics. How did you deal with them in the sound design side? And what about the process in the cinematics?
JS: The Gears cinematics are really great and they’re a blast to work on. I did all of the sound and mix for the original Gears cinematics and I was pretty much on my own with them, eventually working and fine-tuning the mixes with the game’s cinematic director, Jerry O’Flaherty. Since I had made most of the sounds for the game and had been deeply engrossed in that world for 16 months prior, the concept was already established in my mind, so staying true to the world was easy to do. I think it gave the cinematics a great consistency with the in-game audio. Interestingly, they didn’t give me the cinematics gig because I was the game’s sound designer. In fact, I know that they originally did not have plans of having me do them because they were already getting bids from bigger post houses when I told Mike that I wanted to audition for it. They let me audition and thankfully, they ended up liking mine the most so they gave me the gig; but it was definitely not given to me out of convenience. I had to really fight for it and win the privilege.
In terms of process, my workflow was pretty much exactly how I work on feature films and shorts. I start out working on the stems individually and then bring it all into a master protools session to mix. These mixes get REALLY big. For Gears1, I was using an HD3 system on a G5 at the time and I was constantly pushing the capacity. I would have to bounce out some of the large backgrounds and bring them into my sessions as mixed stems because otherwise it would choke; too many tracks and too many plugins. I’ve since started working on 2 PT HD Intel Mac systems and a dedicated video machine so I can keep more things live throughout the mix. At some point, Avid is going to have to come up with a freeze track scheme to facilitate big mixes, but until then, this is how I work and it’s going fine. In regard to a stem-based workflow, I start out with a protools session dedicated to the backgrounds. Then I work on Foley, then FX, then Dialog, and then music, so it’s a very compartmentalized production process. For Gears1, Kevin didn’t score them specifically because it was late in the production and the orchestra date had long passed. Instead, he gave me ideas of edits of the ingame music and then I ended up doing a bit of music editing to get it to work. After all of my stem work is done, then I bring it all into a master session and start mixing away.
DS: Having some similarities with your previous projects (ie: Unreal Tournament -big guys, big guns, destruction, battles-) how do you approached the sound on Gears of War to develop a unique sounding game?
JS: Well technically, my previous work on UT was a bit of a warm-up for Gears. The kind of design that I did prior to working with Epic was very controlled and had a lot of dynamic range, so it was a bit of an adjustment when I started working for Cliff. I would deliver what I would consider really big sounds and he would say things like “weak sauce. try again”, so I would have to shift my paradigm of what “big” really was in the context of Unreal. It was a bit startling because I was all about clean, precise audio, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because he was hiring me for sound content and I needed to deliver, so I just started pushing it all to an extreme. I started using a lot of sub-harmonic generators and squashing the living hell out of things to make these sounds speak to Cliff and eventually I just got used to making sounds like that. It’s definitely over the top but it can be fun to do. Personally, I think a lot of the sounds that I made for UT3 are some of my best work. They’re so big and beefy and exciting. Lots of hardware and ballistic craziness, and a lot of it is frankly very original and unique. Although technically similar, the conceptual designs for Gears were stylized in an entirely different way from UT however. Whereas UT was sci-fi and exciting texturally in the high end, Gears was mostly textural in the low end. We had a mantra of “Destroyed Beauty” when we designed the sound for that game, so there was no high-tech design at all. Pretty much the exact opposite. The beefiness was similar to UT in that I had to make everything feel weighty, but that’s where the similarities ended.
DS: What were the new challenges in Gears of War 2? What did you do to enhance the sound of the game?
JS: Gears2 was a second chance to try and top what we did on Gears1. There was the obvious stuff of making new sounds for new content that matched the stylization of Gears1, but there were opportunities to take things farther. We had some new tech in the engine that allowed us to do more interesting things like stereo playback and more layers of sound, so that opened up a richer sonic experience. The audio team grew a little bit on Gears2, so I didn’t have quite the broad canvas that I did with Gears1, but I still managed to do some things that I found interesting. The highlights in my mind were the larger creatures such as the leviathan and the torture barge. Those were behemoth tasks that took a long time to develop. Some of the other creatures that I did were pretty cool such as the tickers, reavers, and the giant riftworm. They upped the game just in the scale of the sound and the effort that I was able to put into them and these new creatures required a lot of attention to detail. The hydra was a big task as well. I developed hundreds of sounds for all of these creatures. In fact, I did most of the creatures in the game, so coming up with unique concepts for so many creatures is a challenge in itself. It’s really tough not to do the same thing over and over because I’ve only got one throat and there are only so many ways to process voice so that it sounds like “a monster”. All of these creatures need to be scary, so that even further confines what I can do, so I end up really searching for new and creative ways to make creatures emote in scary ways. I end up spending a lot of time searching for “a hook” before I can really develop the creature as a whole. They have to be unique and interesting in a way that separates them from the last creature I did so starting with a hook helps define those variables before I develop the whole creature. Gears2 was a lot grosser than Gears1 too, so I ended up doing several gore recording sessions to expand my palette of source material. There’s one level that takes place inside the riftworm, so all of the object sounds and ambients inside of it had to be really gross and goopy. There was so much more time spent on goop and gore than Gears1, that’s for sure!
DS: All the weapons in Gears of War are very detailed. Could you talk us about your workflow on creating weapon sounds for the game?
JS: I did all of the weapons in Gears1 and about half of them for Gears2. For Gears1, the weapons were the primary focus throughout the game’s development. For Cliff, the sounds of the weapons, specifically the fire sounds, are the most important sounds in the game, so it can be really really tough to come up with stuff that he likes and approves. Each of the weapons were iterated many many times and a lot of them had multiple concepts proposed for direction before the iteration even began. Sometimes we would go through a huge iterative process and nail something down but then a month later, Cliff would get bored with it so we’d have to restart the process. On the rare occasion that I would get something approved on 2 or 3 tries, I would celebrate!
My workflow on all of the weapons was a heavily layered design that would combine a lot of library recordings, custom recordings, and a lot of synthesis to glue it all together. So much attention is paid to the initial attacks and the tails. I spent a lot of time studying movie guns throughout history. In fact, understanding gun sounds is a lifetime pursuit and a few years of study really only cracks the first few pages of the book. Still, I did the best I could with the knowledge that I had obtained at the time and the intense study that I underwent before and during the development of Gears really helped me evolve the concepts of the guns that ended up in the game. I grabbed a huge collection of movie gun sounds off of DVDs and tried to match them but I never ripped anything off of movie things. I just took the knowledge learned in recreating them and applied that to the concepts as I was developing them. The one consistent element of all the Gears guns is that they’re all basically canons at their core. I always started with a ballistic explosion of some sort and beefed them out using either subharmonic generators or reverbs with bassy collections and lots of compression, limiting, and eq’ing. then I’d work on the mid-range elements, which is where all of the crack lies. Then I’d focus on the high end detail and the tails, which is where all of the character sits in a big mix, so those two things took the most time and thought.
DS: There are a lot of big elements in Gears of War games, including giant creatures, robots, heavy ambiences, etc. How was your approach on the size and perspective of the elements of the game? Any specific method or technique to design and mix all these huge sounds?
JS: Heh.. yep. Every task is bigger than the thing that I just did. I think if there’s one thing that I’ve learned the most from Gears sound design is that there’s always something you can do to make a sound bigger, or at least seem bigger. Not that that pursuit is the most desirable for a sound designer, but in terms of pushing yourself as a sound craftsman, there’s always a new challenge in this area. There were some really big creatures in Gears1 and my mandate was to exaggerate their size, so it always seemed like I was making the hugest sounds ever, but then the next creature would come down and that would be even bigger, so I had to figure out how to make that one bigger than the last. Gears2 upped the ante in creature size, and then Gears3 has even bigger creatures, so it’s a continuing effort to try to adequately describe these creature’s size and mass within the confines of digital audio production.
Specifically, I spend a lot of time tweaking the bass frequencies to describe the creatures mass, but also I tweak the acoustic properties of how that mass influences the environment. Tough to do because I can really only make one sound pack per item that has to be multi-purpose in terms of its location (interior, exterior, in a bathroom stall, etc), but I still have to use delays and reverbs to help describe the item’s acoustic footprint. I typically end up using a lot of delays and early reflections and keep reverb tails to a minimum. There’s reverb tails in the game engine, so printing that into the source confuses the issue. For creatures, footsteps and body sounds describe the mass so I focus a lot on that. I typically make distant versions of footsteps which usually consist of low end rumbles and some mid-range texture, but not too much high freqs. On the close version, I typically deal with some low end, but I keep it short and tight but then I focus a lot of attention on the high-mid texture. If it’s a really big creature, I use things like cracking concrete and dust bits to relay the feeling that this guy is so big the ground can’t support his weight. I use explosive sounds a lot too. If the creature is really big, I’ll do a stereo sound with a lot of sub-harmonic freq detail that gets steered into the sub for a huge, ground-shaking earthquake type of effect. This has to be used for specific effect though, because you can’t spatialize stereo sounds in UE3 and the rules in multi-player confine me to mono most of the time. When there are specific situations where we can use stereo to great effect, we do it and it makes things significantly bigger. That’s one area where we’ve really stepped it up on Gears3; lots of specific situations where stereo sound gets used for bigger effect.
DS: And what about the creatures of the game? There are a lot of amazing monsters and lots of different sounds on them. Could you tell us about the conceptual beginning and recording/design process of the creatures.
JS: Gears creatures have a specific sound to them and I think the unifying characteristic that links them all together is that most of them are me. lol :)
There’s a bunch of different ways to create creature sounds, but obviously none of them include sticking a mic in front of a 20 foot, man-eating creature and waiting for them to emote angrily. There really is no guideline for what is “authentic” in this area. The traditional role set forth by everyone’s idol Ben Burtt is to mix and mash a bunch of animal sounds. I did employ that process quite a bit in the Gears universe, but generally, I needed a means of doing things with a lot of variety and expressiveness that would have been prohibitive culling together with animal sounds so I ended up going the route of recording myself grunting and cackling into the mic and then manipulating it digitally. I used a TON of plugins to come up with each individual monster and it would frequently require hours and hours of experimentation and tweaking until the process and what I was doing with my voice congealed into a monster with personality and emotional range. As I stated previously, I’m just one guy with one set of chords so coming up with different concepts for different monsters required that I develop new ways of contorting my vocal passageway and mouth. I’ve developed some pretty serious skills in this area over the years and I’ve got some unique talents that have evolved specifically for this purpose. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really benefit me in other areas of life too frequently unless I’m at a gathering of game nerds. Then of course, I’m the life of the party, but short of that, there’s really very few venues in real life where I get to show off this fantastic collection of acquired skills.
DS: Also… I know you guys worked with an amazing team of voice actors, including the voice over master Fred Tatasciore, who made some vocalizations for “Locust”…
JS: The voice talent that they work with is phenomenal. I really love all of the guys who act in these games. It’s always been the core group of guys, Fred Tatasciore, John DiMaggio, Carlos Ferro, and Lester Speight, but they’ve brought on some really great colorful cast members throughout the series. Gears3 really ups the ante with some very recognizable actors and a lot more personalities from the stranded community.
I come up with the fx processes and final master all of the dialog for the games so I have a very close relationship to the games dialog, however I have never met any of the actors. I’ve never been to a recording session (even though they record at a place that is walking distance from my studio), and I’ve never even met any of the core group who deals with the casting and recording of the game’s dialog. In fact, I wonder if they even know that I exist and play such a vital role in the chain… Sometimes I feel as though I’m just a dialog mastering vending machine out in the ether… hahaha! But as anyone who has done any serious dialog mastering work will tell you, it is a behemoth task and requires a very refined level of technical skill, organizational skill, and critical listening mastery. I’m the last step for the dialog before it goes into the game so I have to make sure that every single line of dialog is processed with the right effect, eq’ed properly, matches all previous dialog (from all 3 games), and is leveled perfectly. Dialog is by far the most important aspect of a game’s overall soundtrack so it’s extremely important that it’s done right and has gone through a very meticulous process which includes several stages of quality control and error checking. I don’t batch process dialog because it’s so important. I go through every single file and adjust accordingly, tweaking things down to the phoneme level. It’s a lot of effort but ultimately, I ensure that every line gets delivered consistently crystal clear, which is critical for gameplay. If there are clues being given to progress in a game and the dialog isn’t perfectly legible, then that’s a failure in the soundtrack, so critical attention is absolutely essential.
I can’t remember who did the original locust dialog, but a lot of what makes them sound locust was what I did in processing it. I can make pretty much anyone sound like a locust… including myself, which I’ve had to do on multiple occasions where a specific grunt or phrase needed to be added. I would just imitate it and send it through the locust processing change and walla! :) I’m not SAG, so I generally stay away from spoken lines. Roars and grunts I do a fine job with, but if it’s something that needs to be localized, I leave that to the casted guys. With the exception of the Boomers. On Gears1, we had Dee Baker making some crazy sounds for the monsters. That guy is a freak of nature. I aspire to be able to manipulate my throat like he can. He also did a couple of things for Gears2 but I ended up taking over most of the monster voices and ended up doing the vast majority of them for both Gears2 and Gears3.
Gears1 had something in the order of 28,000 dialog lines, Gears2 was even more, and based on what I’ve done for Gears3, I would say they’ve significantly upped the ante on the dialog front, so dialog is a big job and it always requires my full attention.
DS: What kind of tools did you use for audio implementation and mixing? How was the process in that side?
JS: This is entirely the realm of Mike Larson, Audio Director at Epic. He works really close to the metal so he’s really great at implementing everything. In general, he’s a very important part of the sound design process because he has very specific ideas in terms of what he wants things to sound like. A lot of it comes from Cliff or whoever is designing the thing on the team, but he brings his interpretation to the table when we discuss how things should sound. We typically collaborate very well on this level and he’s got great ideas, but he’s also open to my interpretations as well. It’s a great relationship on that level. In turn, I’ve learned a lot of how he implements over the years too, so I make a lot of decisions in my design phase that accommodate for his specific implementation practices. In addition, he tweaks my designs on his end to make them fit more organically into the game so it’s very symbiotic relationship.
For any real specific information in this area, you’d have to interview Mike, but for the most part he works in UE3 with no middleware. Gears was originally designed as a platform for promoting the UE3 engine to licensees, so it was all about “what you can do with this engine”. We couldn’t use middleware because that would be a false representation of the EU3’s audio capabilities so although the UE3’s audio capabilities aren’t as advanced and evolved as wwise or fmod, the building blocks for a great audio experience are there and Mike and I proved that with Gears1. Granted, we’ve been evolving the engine and adding new capabilities all the while to help us keep pace with these middleware solutions, but in an environment like UE3 where wav file playback is the primary methodology, strong content can play on par and even excel.
DS: Kevin Riepl and Steve Jablonsky definitely did an amazing work on the music score respectively. How was your relationship with them? how was the music approached on Gears of War?
JS: Kevin is a great composer and a good friend. He did a great job with the score on Gears1, creating a concrete vibe and theme for the franchise. He’s a music ninja in all senses of the word. He comes in and cuts music like a surgeon, with perfect precision and mastery. We’ve worked on a lot of projects together and I really enjoy working with him. He has a great sensibility about him in that he knows how to write in context and is always appropriate, so I never feel like the music is trying too hard to call attention to itself. But then in cases where the music is the star, he’s right there with a dominant and clear thematic voice. Steve replaced him on Gears2 for reasons unknown to me, and I think he did a great job in bringing the big-budget film sound to the game. My involvement with him and the music is non-existent though. I’ve never met him and I really don’t get to hear the music until just before the games ship. I haven’t heard anything of Gears3 music and I’m not even sure of it’s current state. Music and sound design are very separate in the pipeline of Gears development. The cool thing is that the Gears universe was designed up front to be a sound dominant game. Music is great and essential, but all of the most important and specific things in the universe unfold in the sound realm.
DS: So… you’re working on the third GoW. Could you give us a sneak peak of what’s new there? What can we expect?
JS: Well, I’ve given some pretty clear indicators throughout so hopefully that will give you something to look forward to, but in general, this is the last of the trilogy and Epic seems to take that very seriously as they’re certainly going out with a bang. There’s a lot of new stuff in Gears3, including tech advancements, story evolutions and realizations, and general more refinements and extrapolations beyond what has already been established in the first 2 games. Personally, I’ve developed 20 new weapons, a dozen new creatures, a bunch of new vehicles, and a ton of other odds and ends. I hope you dig them! :)