John Broomhall talks to DICE audio director Ben Minto about the challenge of creating quality content for 'possibly the world’s most hallowed IP.'
Electronic Arts’ DICE is the illustrious Stockholm-based game development studio renowned for the massively successful military first-person shooter series Battlefield. Among its umpteen accolades are an unprecedented two consecutive BAFTA Best Game Audio wins. The DICE audio ethos that respected sound designer and audio director Ben Minto espouses is famed – creating interactive sound is very much a team activity and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A thoughtful audio design approach and strong cross-disciplinary collaboration facilitate not only audio excellence, but also an overall world-class videogame experience.
Meanwhile, a mantelpiece crammed with audio awards engenders robust corporate backing. At the outset of his eight-year tenure, Minto could surely never have imagined his path leading to such a prestigious opportunity – namely heading up interactive audio production for possibly the world’s most hallowed IP – one that resonates with him ‘deeply’. The reality kicked in when he came face-to-face with personal sound design heroes and masters of Star Wars audio Ben Burtt and Matt Wood. During an ‘audio summit’ at Skywalker Ranch early on in the 18-month project, they agreed to give DICE VIP access to stems from the first six films (music, SFX, dialogue, aliens, etc). Minto describes the process of sifting through the original recordings (complete with slates) as “a dream; a unique and humbling experience”. But that was just the beginning…
Minto explains: “In films, a single sound might be reused many times and involve one perspective, for example most blaster shots are ‘third person’ and fairly close. But we needed to extend from that to cover our more diverse game requirements – ‘first-person’, various distances, and modelling how the blasters sound in different environments. We sent detailed requests for SFX ‘pulls’ (where we knew it might be hard to isolate them or where we needed multiple variants) – this provided many new perfect source elements. We also conducted sessions with Star Wars Foley royalty Dennie Thorpe and Jana Vance to get us the right movement and surfaces source. Then we made our own unique sounds combining the aforementioned with new recordings (such as Icelandic lava fields for the Sullust levels) and existing material from our own huge DICE library.
“We don’t create final assets in a DAW – we ‘build’ most sounds at run-time by breaking them down into layers and altering the content and playback (amplitude, pitch, etc) of each layer depending on the game parameters. It’s more like working inside MaxMSP or Reaktor, than Pro Tools or Nuendo. With this run-time sound design, what you hear for a given event is a combination of elements mixed and effected on-the-fly to deliver a unique hybrid sound for that instance – it’s almost infinitely variable.”
Above: The original John Williams score was licensed and recordings lovingly edited to fit game requirements, supplemented by 62 minutes of ‘new’ music recorded with the 96-piece London Symphony Orchestra in Abbey Road Studio One
The game is built on an in-house EA game engine dubbed Frostbite – a highly complex system of interlocking computer code modules handling 3D graphics, AI, game logic, etc, and of course a sophisticated audio system that adroitly manages and manipulates huge amounts of digital audio data, calculating and mixing moment-to-moment potentially hundreds of ‘live’ audio channels with send and insert effects, and dynamic fader moves, which conform with mix ‘rules’ and respond to game events and ‘states’.
Minto continues: “Frostbite is constantly updated and added to by a centralised group. When we start a project we take the latest version, explore the most recent upgrades/additions and crosscheck with other teams using it for anything they’ve created locally which may be beneficial. Specifically for Battlefront, we added third-person and split-screen extensions and mixing, harvested and further enhanced an improved obstruction/occlusion system. We also added a new ‘area type’ manager (which adds an extra layer of complexity, allowing us to better place sounds in the world in the type of environment in which they occur relative to the listener) plus some new DSP and logic modules.
“However the biggest change was moving to an object-based audio system, requiring new thinking on reverbs and DSP mastering – this move was driven by being the first Dolby Atmos-enabled title. On PC, the game offers a 64-object Atmos option, made up of a traditional 7.1 bed (eight fixed objects in the traditional positions) and then up to a maximum of 56 additional freemoving objects. On PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One we offer a 7.1 mix and our own enhanced stereo mix.”
Great, kid. Don't get cocky
Such a complex real-time audio scenario provides plenty of opportunity for errors to creep in and non-linear gameplay makes audio testing a thorny task: “The entire dev-team play-tests daily, rotating across PS4, Xbox One and PC to ensure consistency,” Minto says. “They provide a range of precious customer-level feedback – from a vague but emotive ‘X doesn’t sound right’ to really insightful comments to make any Star Wars geek proud – all feedback is actively encouraged. Within Audio, we rotate through different hardware set-ups, stereo/surround/Atmos, consumer and professional monitoring, various headphones. We play as many different scenarios as possible; altering our own settings within the game (dynamic range/speaker settings) to help ensure the best balanced and mixed experience for all listeners. This also helps us create default audio settings, and define in-game audio menu options.
“Overall, the audio benchmark for Star Wars: Battlefront was the original trilogy; if it ‘sounded like the films’ – no mean feat – then we’d achieved our goal. A simple extension to this was to embrace the Star Wars source material, legacy, methods and be true to its origins, i.e. don’t create new; build on what exists. Next, extend from those points to make all sounds sit together in the world, as part of the same family. And finally, enhance the aural experience by utilising as much from the Star Wars universe as possible to really flesh out and enrich the soundscape beyond the visually verifiable, and fill the game with many audio ‘nods’. In parts we were painting by numbers, but huge swathes of the canvas were blank so our task was to make everything, whether old or new, work together as one coherent whole that made sense and was believably Star Wars.”
• 1 audio director
• 3 sound designers (plus one to cover Minto’s sound design work during paternity leave) – roughly split to cover core systems, technical and the missions, but with plenty of overlap and sharing of tasks
• 2 voice-over designers – one full-time, others brought in during the busy recording, editing and implementation phases
• 1 audio programmer – team-based (in addition to Frostbite engine support)
• 1 audio analyst
• Dolby Labs: Spencer Hooks and team, Atmos support
• Formosa Interactive and SIDE UK: dialogue recording
• Skywalker Sound: Foley sessions, additional source material and guidance
• Source Sound: Charles Deenen and team – trailers and in-game cutscenes
Ben Minto’s Go-To-Gear
Despite time and lack of recall disadvantages, where possible Minto went fully analogue trying to stay as true to the original creation process as possible. However, where batch processing of a large number of files would be needed, he would start analogue to get the right sound and then substitute those paths out for plug-in chains.
• Eurorack modular synth and other vintage synths including EMS VCS 3’s. “On the modular I replicated most of the ARP2600 patches (where I could find notes and pictures to start from) previously used to create synth tones (originally named Electronic Tonalities, as a nod to Louis and Bebe Barron’s work on Forbidden Planet, in the library we were supplied), and could build upon these patches to add more complexity, variations and new layers. The most useful modules were Ring Modulators (which could be swapped out for Frequency Shifters to add a similar yet different quality), and Self Resonating Filters (how Ben Burtt generated sine waves on the ARP 2600, which had no sine output from its oscillators).”
• Spring Reverbs, Bridge Bucket Delays and various Vacuum Tube modules.
• Slinky springs, long cardboard and plastic tubes, powerballs, wobbly metal sheets, VLF detectors made from wire and hula hoops, a bat detector, RF coils and Minto’s own son (pre- and post-birth) all played their own part too.
• iZotope’s RX paired with Waves WNS - essential in splitting original multi-tracked composites into their individual clean layers.
• Zynaptiq’s Unveil and Unfilter – For removing just the right amount of ‘70s haze to bring a recording’s fidelity up-to-date while retaining original character and analogue feel.
• Prosoniq’s Morph – “One of the most interesting and inspiring plug-ins I’ve ever worked with.”
• Waves HEQ & Reel ADT, FabFilter Bundle