[Written by Rodney Gates for Designing Sound]
Nothing can be more peaceful than sitting quietly for several minutes at a time in a unique location recording the living world in front of you. Your eyes and ears are alert and observant of everything that’s happening as the recorder captures it all. There is a calm that comes over you and for the first time in a while, you feel relaxed and contemplative.
Then an airplane shows up. Or a chainsaw. Or a leaf blower, car horn, traffic, tractor, weed-eater, or any other man-made contraption that strives to ruin your recording. You find yourself recording much longer than you would normally need to in order to have enough material to edit out all of these man-made sounds and end up with a seamless representation. Regular, non-audio people don’t realize just how noisy the world around them is until they try to do something like this. Your brain may filter out these distractions without you realizing it, but the microphones don’t lie.
On the flip side, my personal field recording sessions can also leave the “pristine” natural world behind to purposefully seek out a particular noise source, or happen upon one. I always bring the recorders for unique settings like a cruise ship, or a Civil War re-enactment. Maybe it’s foot traffic in the reverberant Mayo Clinic lobby or a busy city street during an unexpected parade. You just never know when recordings of these kinds of things will come in handy, and that is half of the joy of doing it. They may sit dormant for several years until just the right circumstance comes along and you can pull them out of your sleeve.
Making the Most of It
With my wife into photography, we both usually bring our respective equipment along with us whenever we go places. My current recording rig is a “Frankenstein” system comprised of a Rode NT4 stereo mic running into a Sound Devices MixPre, which I use as the front end for an M-Audio MicroTrack. I power both the preamp and MicroTrack with a cool 8800mAh battery I found on eBay that outputs selectable DC and USB current simultaneously.
I also use my portable Sony PCM-D50 recorder, which has even greater battery life, without skimping on quality.
We’ll take nature walks or whatever and stop to shoot and record the environment or objects of interest along the way. A lot of the time she helps me with the recordings, such as stepping on frozen puddles to get some great glass-like cracking sounds. In one example, I used these sounds in a cinematic fight cutscene between Bourne and O’Connor in “RL’s The Bourne Conspiracy” as he was being slammed up against a window that’s starting to give way (6:52 at this link).
On a road trip that took us through northern New Mexico, we sat out on the patio of our earthship home bed & breakfast while I recorded the forceful wind sweeping through the desert plants and shrubs, which I have used repeatedly for things needing that great gusting, slight-buffeting-of-the-microphone-capsule sound (this was used as an element used in “DC Universe Online’s” tornado effect for Flash-based powers).
Even on our honeymoon cruise, during spare moments, I was topside trying to get some good recordings. I also used a lot of this material in “Robert Luldlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy” for the Wombosi yacht mission. It’s kind of tough to hear now, as we dressed that level with a lot of stormy sea and rain, but most of the room tones, smokestack and other areas I recorded are intact.
Lately I have been thinking about the games we have coming up at SOE. There are two very different projects that will most likely require quite opposite approaches. One game will be a classic exploratory world, requiring a lot of varied, unique sound while the other a fast-paced action title that will probably need to be scaled back in lieu of getting too muddy.
I have been recording all sorts of things over the years from birds in the backyard as they wake up for the day on a quiet Sunday morning, to lush, breezy grass fields and trees during the summer in Minnesota. Other locales as varied as the placid, frozen countryside in Flagstaff during a harsh winter to the flowing creek at my aunt’s forest cabin northeast of Payson. From the windswept high desert in late-afternoon Taos to the stifling heat of California’s Anza-Borrego desert with all of its harsh beauty and strange, clicky insects.
Many of these ambient recordings will one day have a home in these games, once they are carefully edited into immersive surround beds, with additive point-source emitters either extracted from these recordings or generated from other source, and other random sounds that play in the three-dimensional space around you as you traverse through the worlds.
Listening to Other Games
I always try to listen to the backgrounds that Sounds Designers on other projects are creating. You can learn a lot from other games as to what works and what might sound too busy, in accordance with the kind of gameplay that’s featured.
Listening to “Mass Effect 2” is easy because you can just sit waiting to say something with the dialog selector and hear what was built into the background of the environment without any other gameplay happening.
“Rainbow 6 Vegas” had crickets in potted plants / trees near one of the casino entrances that I was surprisingly able to pick out during a huge street gunfight. I loved that small touch.
Though I’m definitely biased, I feel “Transformers: War for Cybertron” has some beautifully-blended synthetic & organic ambient work put into it by the team, if you take the time to check it out in between hostile engagements.
“Alan Wake” is a game rich with ambient detail, horrific and otherwise, as you guide yourself through the story which is set in the creepy woods of the Pacific Northwest.
“Dead Space” has such a synergy of sound and game design to begin with, that nearly any moment throughout the game is highly effective in its horrific, cold outer-space, setting. The near-silent, low-passed, atmosphere-less sections of gameplay are suffocating.
“Red Dead Redemption” is set in a large open southwestern desert that you can explore and experience not only its immersive ambient soundtrack but also its weather patterns and time of day in beautifully-blended detail.
In my opinion, nothing brings a game to life quite like solidly-built ambience. With proper pacing and storytelling, you have many opportunities to showcase some cool work. It truly glues a reality and believability into the game experience.
Unless, of course, your game is a hardcore SHOOTER and then you never hear any of it anyway. ;-)