A Decade Later, What I’ve Learned

thefadein-1A decade later I’m here. In the business of making games. Recording, designing, implementing sounds into these things we call interactive entertainment. Ten years deep. Has it gotten any easier? Barely. The quality bar runs tightly parallel to the experience gained. The never ending journey of perfection. I’m still dreaming in full surround (or now Dolby atmos), seeing soundscape schemes. Hearing palettes and tones beyond just concepts. Determined to someday make a perfectly sculpted sonic experience. There is so much ground left to cover.

In the beginning there was dialogue editing and mastering. Lots of it. In retrospect this gave me the tools to sharpen my hearing more than any one exercise. Sharpening my listening skills like a razor. Birthing confidence and  knowing what works, but most importantly what doesn’t.

After years of apprenticing as a dialogue specialist, the opportunity to better my sound design skills presented itself. Finally stacking sounds, timing pulses, giving a voice to an otherwise silent experience. Bleeding sound through the veins of the game. Putting heart into every beat. Truly a dream come true. With a history of learning on the job, I can confidently say I rarely know what I’m doing until I’m doing it. That said I practice sound design a lot, with hard drives full of loosely named side projects and many Test_ and Temp_ sessions.

It was never about the sprint, but the marathon. Developing techniques to speed up the process, as well as honing new tools that lend themselves to the specific project. I can’t attribute my success to a single plug-in or middleware. Good monitors sure I’ve used plenty, DAW’s as well. Not even my most trusted mentor can be given all the credit. But rather my non-contentedness, or one might call it being stubborn. I’m rarely entirely happy with what I’ve created. Sure I have genius-like moments. Feeling like Kanye comparing himself to Walt Disney, but it is quickly outlived after hearing my work in a room full of more talented peers. The singular thought of how can we make it better is always present. How can we better shape the sound without making it louder. How can we optimize implementation without compromising the end product. The end’s not near, it’s continuous. A continuous randomized loop. Our work as creatives isn’t built into a single project, but rather a lifelong journey of experiments and collaborations molded into snapshots, shrink wrapped, distributed or downloaded. We dream, bleed, cry and eventually run out of time. The end product might be the end of that product, but the desire to do better shouldn’t be. The desire to make the perfect thing. The thing peers use as references. The thing users want to use more of.

The thought of being a hack terrifies me. It’s one of those thoughts that creeps up late at night when you’re the most vulnerable. Tired and dry on inspiration, reaching for tried and true techniques. I hate it… But what about those days when creating something that everyone likes with little effort? My most industry praised sound is an ambience-like effect thrown together at the eleventh hour. As if something came over me and directed the layers like a conductor. I could heard it in my head, knowing exactly what to do. Mind you I had no choice, time was a factor. I assure you this is not the norm. Every day is a struggle, creatively, technically, emotionally. There is no average day. Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t. That is the process. I love the process. I live for the process. The process is not knowing shit. Trying shit. Breaking shit. Fixing shit. Over and over and over. Eventually you know a little more shit. That extra means you can objectively listen. Knowing that good enough isn’t good enough, but also knowing when it is. They don’t teach ya that in school.

Ten years deep and in a strange place. Far from an intern and even further from a veteran. Where the future will lead who knows. All I know is I was destine for this journey. Every step along the way was crucial. Every relationship affected me one way or another. Every article read, tutorial followed and conversation had.. it is all part of the process. I don’t know shit, but I’m optimistic that tomorrow I may know a little more.

WINGS! The New Sound Library by Bonson.

When you think of the most talented people in the industry, often they are equally skilled in self promotion. But what about the skilled sound designers that hide in the shadow, only producing noise through a .wav. The humble creators. Bless you.

One of those lab rats is the anonymous bonson.ca. One of the best sound designers I know and have had the opportunity to record (and be recorded by). With an impressive credit list, you have undoubtedly heard his work. That said I’m proud to interview Bonson.ca on his first large sound library release: WINGS!

WINGS is your first large sound library release. I had a chance to listen to it and the first things I noticed is how good the designed elements are. Was any reference material used and what inspired the processing?

Thanks for the compliments Alex. I spent a lot time researching. I watched and analyzed as many movies as I could that contained wings… Jurassic Park, A bugs Life, Harry Potters, LOTR, etc, etc. I tried to cover all angles with as much variations as possible. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to produce a sequence for a film or video game, and not having enough source material!

I began my career in post-production doing TV commercials and after 10 years I made the switch to Video Games (and have been there for the past 10 years). I understand very well the difficulties of working under pressure with the high expectations of clients. I wanted to create a good enough sound library that you could just grab a sound and use it in your production. Or if time permits use the Source category to build and customize your our wings. By no means did I invent this structure, there are great sound libraries that apply this concept. I honestly think that it was the proper way to release WINGS. More work for us, but worth it!

How many recording session did it take to collect all of the source material? Did you record in different locations? How many people were involved?

We had one giant day of foley recording. There were four of us working in one of the best foley studios here in Montreal. There was one engineer, one foley artist, one foley assistant and myself coordinating it all. Before we start recording I send reference material to all the people involved. I let them know what i’m looking for and what to avoid. Organized in an Excel documents with descriptions, video references, etc, etc. They do their research and come back with new ideas, sound props and whatever we could use to generate a wide range of interesting sounds. It was a very collaborative effort.

We ended up with a ridiculous amount of objects to record. From real feathers to umbrellas, leather jackets, mini electric fan, huge heavy blankets. In some cases we needed three people just to grab the blankets and another one to create the movements! Apart from the foley session I’ve been recording material for over a year, around the time I started envisioning the project. I ended up with a huge 32GB session that needed to be edited. The final collection has 4.31 GB for the 192 kHz version. This is the “crème de la crème” of the recorded material.

WINGS is an original concept and finding good source material has always been a challenge. On The Secret World I remember having to record all of my own sounds because pre-existing libraries didn’t have the amount of variation needed for games. What was your inspiration?

My inspiration came from my own experience of not having a single Wings library available. This resulted in having a lack of good sounds to do my 9-5 job (I’m a full time senior sound designer for video games). Also talking with friends, colleagues and hearing their own experiences just like you. Here are some of the props we used.

What type of equipment was used? Can you share any good discoveries or tips?

We use Pro Tools HD and record at 192 kHz, 24 Bits using Neumann TLM 170, DPA 4006, and some of my personal microphones like : Sennheiser MKH 8040, MKH 30, MKH 416 into my Sound Devices 702T. When I was planning the foley session, I didn’t want to overkill with microphone options, but rather focus on a good fat clean sound. As opposed to having several microphones with different perspectives.

For this reason when we recorded the props, all microphones were tested. We changed perspectives, patterns, positions until we found the specific sound we’re looking for. In many cases it was simply one or two microphones. Using different perspectives is great for other types of sources, but for WINGS I wanted to keep it simple and efficient. We then record a single prop using that layout. Once we move on to another prop, we listen if that configuration still works. Or back to the drawing board until we find what we want. Once we find the desired sound, that’s when the magic happens.. We start doing single movements, then doubles, arrivals, passbys, hovers, etc, etc. I rediscovered my love for foley, and now more than ever admire the people doing it professionally (the engineers and foley artist). In my opinion Foley is like playing an instrument, you can have 10 foley artists use the same prop and end up with 10 different versions. A good tip: Get the best foley artist and engineer that you can afford, it is worth every penny.

I noticed Bonson.ca has a few other library packs, the HOCKEY360 and FREE libraries. Can you tell us anything about the HOCKEY360 library?

Sure. The Hockey 360 Library is the product of several recordings I did in Montreal, in one of the biggest indoor stadiums. I recorded with binaural microphones, it’s a perfect fit for this kind of ambience. I’m now working with a Binaural Head. I have the head, ears and wind protection. I also have an Acoustics Engineer friend that will help me calibrate it. All that’s left is to put it all together. Compared to Wings it was definitely more relaxed. It involved less people and the subject wasn’t as ambitious. It was great to see how the fans of Montreal love hockey! The amount of energy in the audience was awesome. The Free Library is from my personal recordings, the idea is to have the community know a little more about how Bonson sounds 😉

What’s next from Bonson.ca? Are you open to collaborations with other field recordists and sound designers?

I have a couple of libraries that are in the process of being edited and mastered. I hope to launch them by the end of the year or early 2015.. And yes, I’m open to collaborations! I’m actually collaborating with some close friends on other libraries. If there are people out there with a good subject and have recordings that deserve the time and effort, please contact me 😉 Thanks for the interview Alex !!!

To pick up the library for your project please visit http://www.bonson.ca/product/wings/ . To receive a 15% discount please fill in the details below.

Make sure to visit http://www.asoundeffect.com/ for all of your independent sound library needs. A resource that should not go unnoticed!

Poll: Field Recorder Shootout

My good friend Michel Marchant, sound design guru,  has built a fantastic portable recording rig. This allows him to simultaneously record with up to four devices. He sent me files about a week ago and asked that I identify my favorite one. He allowed me to share them and see what the community thinks!

After listening to the audio files below, select your top recording in the poll. After voting click here to look behind the curtain.

How It Is Sometimes

Stacked sounds,
. organized chaos,
. . assembled emotion,
. . . controlled space,
. . . . cued subtleties,
. . . . . tone generated,
. . . . . . caffeinated creation,
. . . . . . . amplified illusion,
scripted salutation,
. planned panned,
. . earned reward,
. . . emulated simulation,
. . . . auditory arrow,
. . . . . troubleshooted reward,
. . . . . . stumbling possibility,
. . . . . . . subconscious strike,
making believe.

Ambience (/ˈambēəns/) Transition Test

Ambience is the blurring of designed emotion and reality, evoked through your subconscious.

The ability to create a parallel reality without questioning the origin or intention is a unique opportunity. As sound designers, we’re sonic architects with the ability to shape whatever emotion we chose. For game audio it is no longer a technical limitation, but a creative leap.

An ambience transition test… the concept is capturing a location without context. In post, conduct the emotion through processed elements and slowly introduce the locations actual sound. The equivalent to fading from black & white to color.

Stereo 24bit / 96KHz
Fostex FR2
Rode NT4

Recorded in Lachine (Google Maps)

24 Hour Day Cycles

FieldThe concept of recording and using proper day periods within a video game world has always attracted me. By proper I mean capturing a locations actual 24 hour cycle, as opposed to recreating typical soundscapes in post. It’s a concept that’s not always feasible because a) the time required to record and b) library material not always containing same locations at different times of day.

Roomtone is roomtone no matter what time. You may choose to add occluded traffic if in a city apartment, but generally you can build it in post-production. When it comes to forests, jungles, cities, mountains, etc the time of day influences the tone and believability. Mostly through wild life, insects, wind intensity and distant sounds.

This past weekend I decided to test out this concept. I grabbed some gear and hiked outside a small village near Quebec city called St-Antoine-De-Tilly (about 2h30 drive from Montreal). I recorded in four different locations at four different times of day: 5AM, 11AM, 5PM, 11PM. This allowed to build a small library of forest sounds throughout a 24h cycle. An interesting analogy is the way my voice timber changed throughout the day while slating location and time… similar to the way the environment did!

Now that I have my sounds recorded and edited let’s see how we can put these sounds to use in some game audio! Excerpts below.

Stereo 24bit / 96KHz
Fostex FR2
Rode NT4

Creating a Creature: 3 Samples… 2 Tricks… 1 Warcry!

Creating A CreatureWhile editing the 9th floor drones recording, I realized they had a distinct  tonal element… nearly a vocal-like below and I wanted to use the sound as inspiration to quickly create a creature warcry.

– 1x Human vocal
– 1x Horse whine from The Recordists soundcloud Crazy Horse sample (thanks for hooking it up!)
– 1x Mechanical drone (stereo)

[Special note] Melodyne was used to pitch match the three elements. A trick I discovered that works well to help mesh multiple vocal sounds together. And a snapshot using iZotopes x-noise was taken from the vocal tracks and applied against the drone as a type of inverse equalization. Here are the samples from raw to final mix:

Unedited Samples

Edited Samples

Pitch Shifted Samples

Full Mix

Do you have any tricks for creature vocal? Feel free to share in the comments!

Who Are We Catering To?

* This was first published on CreatingSound.com and was edited by Ariel Gross


I had the opportunity to attend GDC this year and to meet some of the people behind the games I play and consider references. I got to pick at their brains and get details about their approach.

One thing they all shared was the need to push the boundaries, refine the processes, or further advance their toolsets. The conversations usually involved a technical challenge, followed by some sort of solution. Some of the solutions were temporary while others were more permanent. The process of constant iteration and improving the pipelines was to achieve the goal of creating a better product and to create a more immersive experience. But to the end user, what does that all mean?

What happens under the hood is a mystery. Even between departments it is sometimes difficult to fully understand what’s going on. Of course, players might understand the concepts of reverb, asset variations, and interactive music, but what really matters to them is what it sounds like.

That’s why some games just work. It’s because they’re designed for the player. They’re not created to be played exclusively by other developers and lost in a jargon of technical approaches. They’re intuitive. They’re challenging, but easy to understand, making the player’s progress fun. That comparison can be seen everywhere, and a good (but extreme) example is architectural functionalism. The core concept is this: Does the design serve it’s purpose?

Who do you design for? The designing process involves me thinking about the player. How will he or she interact, or interpret what they hear; is it clear? There is a part of me that also thinks of how my colleagues will hear it. To create something my peers can enjoy and analyze often helps push the product even further. However, when taken too literally, this can lead to the demise of the design.

When we think next-gen, we think more versatile tools, a more dynamic mix, more variations, more access to gameplay elements. Well, maybe, and I assume this list won’t harm the experience, but what truly makes a great sounding game for the player? I wish I had the answer. Hell, what it sounds like to me depends on so much, time of day, my mood, the listening environment… I don’t think there is just one answer, but i’ll throw one out there and see how it sticks.

Transparency. We prototype, design, and master, constantly refining our toolsets, all while compromising to fit within our technical limitations. All of that just to make things work, but the real challenge is in making it seamless, unnoticeable… as in nobody noticed it. This brings me back to the title question: Who are we catering to? Let’s not forget that.