At Sound & Picture we get excited about all the things we touch because we find stories that we want to write. No native advertising, no sneaky click bait links – just content we love and we hope you do, too. At this year’s GameSoundCon Sledgehammer Games, lead sound designer Dave Swenson and senior sound designer Travis Naas were on hand to talk about the company’s philosophy and, more importantly, about the sound design of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. And holy punch-kittens-in-the-face, CoD: AW’s audio is going to be awesome. The 11th installment of the franchise doesn’t hit shelves until November 4, 2014, but we were shown new game footage and learned just how much the Sledgehammer sound team reinvented themselves for this release.
If you never get to meet Swenson or Naas, know that they’re like your best friends who you can sit around and talk video games with all day and not give a flip about anything else. Swenson started off the presentation by introducing the rest of the five-man team, pointing out that they had three years to finish the project. In prep, sound realized it was time to throw everything they’d done before out the window and start fresh.
It’s an enormous undertaking to think about, especially when a great sound library from previous releases is right in front of them. But the team looked at each individual piece of audio for the game and asked themselves: How did we do it last time? – and then set out to do something completely different. What they finished with was an organic and gritty soundtrack layered with realism that could easily be compared to a cinematic adventure.
Swenson reiterated a theme of “I had this buddy” during the walk-through. Meaning, he had a friend, or a friend who knew a friend who allowed them to record the actual weapons, helicopters, and explosions in the game. “It’s amazing how nice people are if you just ask,” says Swenson. “If you don’t, you’ll never know.”Since they had the time for a complete redesign, experimenting and making mistakes became part of the process, which Swenson dubbed “do-overs.” In the past, the franchise would budget nearly $30K to record various weapons with Hollywood sound recordists and make sure it was perfect. This time they took it upon themselves and went on many small shoots using tons of different mic setups to record the action. “As sound designers, we wanted to experience what shooting a .50 caliber sniper rifle was like, or what it’s like to stand on top of a shooting tank. Knowing how it feels, we could then implement that same feeling into the tracks for gamers,” explains Swenson.
Sound recorded tons of weapons, from handguns to Barrett sniper rifles. What they found was that no matter how many mics were placed to capture the shots, it was more about the variety of locations that created a different ambience. When the team went to record gun tails, which adds to a weapon’s power and acoustic character, they used a “do-over.” Their first session had them scattering a bunch of mics around, and after listening to the session tracks, they found the mic placements that worked best and went back to record more. “This was new territory for us, so it was fun to experiment without the weight of an expensive Hollywood session on our shoulders. Our costs were just travel and ammo, and it was a lot more fun,” explains Swenson.
They were given Countryman B3 lavs “from a buddy” who was throwing them away, which were used as stunt mics. Placing them on a board, they asked shooters to get as close as they could to create bullet impacts. Sadly, one didn’t make it out alive, but they were able to capture real sounds in open air. Sound also experimented by placing contact mics on guns, which were later rendered useless, but by positioning DPA lavs in certain areas on the guns, they were able to record all the mechanics and actions of the weapons.
For the game’s explosions, Swenson cold-called a fireworks company and asked if the team could come out the next time they had a show. A few weeks later, they found themselves in the desert with dozens of mics capturing a practice show. Foley was also looked at differently. They went outside the studio and found ground and objects that matched the visuals. They went up to the Redwood forest to record, captured piles of rubble, and even recorded footsteps in what they called the “Hobo Urine Room.” This was basically a small, abandoned building with layers of mud and debris caking the floor that smelled like… you know. The team captured a lot of the footsteps for the game in this location. “The place was really sketchy, but it’s probably the best foley footsteps we’ve ever had,” laughs Swenson.
The designers are allowed to create on any digital audio workstation (DAW), so the only limitation is their imagination. One team member even stems on Vegas Pro 13. If you ever get to work audio for Sledgehammer, they’ll give you a Sony PCM-M10 recorder and ask you to keep it on you at all times. And oddly enough, many of the sounds in #AdvancedWarfare were recorded using this $200 device. One of them was for the game’s Walker, a giant spider-like machine. At the heart of its movement is actually a garage truck’s arm that lifts trash up and over. One morning Swenson was lying in bed and heard the sound coming from outside his window and immediately thought to himself, “That’s Walker.” He ran outside with his PCM-M10 and recorded the mechanism. Swenson actually ended up spending another two hours with the drivers, riding along to capture as much as he could.
Another instance happened when the team was out in the Mexican desert and heard some large helicopters overhead. Swenson wanted to follow them, and they ended up at an airport where five Ospreys were refueling. These sounds became the inspiration for Warbird, an aircraft armed with heavy explosive weapons and dual mini guns. The team looked to heighten the realism in each possible track. For the drop pod sequence, Swenson jumped more than fifty times from a ladder onto a wooden surface covered with debris and glass to create the effect of boots landing on the ground. The footage they showed comparing their field recordings and game footage was awesome. We wish we had copies of it to show you, but for now, you’ll have to trust us.
They put mics on everything they could get their hands on, from Apache helicopters to replica grenades they bought online and let clank around in gravel and dirt. Swenson even found himself inside “his buddy’s” tank to capture the realism and feeling of one. While they had much success recording original content, they still ran into what Swenson calls “unobtanium,” which means audio pieces that are just really hard to record. For these audio anomalies, they didn’t resort to their standby sounds, but took advantage of fresh media libraries they’d never explored before. “We wanted to approach this game with a cinematic focused experience, and make sure all sounds had an appropriate level, instead of just turning the volume up on the ‘L1’. I think we accomplished that with this release,” admits Swenson. Be sure to check out all the new game sounds when it’s released next month.