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People often say that editing for film and television is an almost invisible art. It exists to help tell a story and is the force that flows from camera angle to camera angle, location to location or even across time itself. In most cases, people only notice editing if it’s done poorly. When it comes to games - an art form where player agency controls the flow of what's happening on-screen - sound design is just as important as any other invisible factor.
We all notice graphical pop-in during cutscenes, or moments where a character will clip through geometry. But the whoosh of a vehicle driving past, the click of an empty rifle or footsteps changing on a surface all just happen when they need to, and we as the player never blink an eye.
Taking all that into account, it was incredibly insightful chatting to three sound designers on Halo Infinite about how much work goes into conceptualising, executing and building all the sounds you hear, seemingly just in passing in a normal gameplay session.
It was also quite shocking (literally) to hear how potentially dangerous the job could be…
GAMINGbible: It looks like your job can get quite dangerous at some points. You're in vehicles, you're shooting guns, firing rockets, and at one point, putting disks in a microwave. Can you explain how you tackle these recordings?
Robbie Elias (Senior Sound Designer): We’ve had a lot of talks about it. Kyle (Fraser) comes up with crazy ideas sometimes and then I'm like, ‘well, wait a minute, that sounds dangerous. How are we going to make it a little safer?’ Microwaving a disk was one of those instances where it was something he wanted to try, and he proposed the idea. I had a lot of pushback because I was scared but, eventually, I caved in once I heard the sound.
Kyle Fraser (Lead Sound Designer): We've never had any casualties or any accidents whatsoever. Safety first.
RE: Yeah, we're super safe. Especially gun sessions - we go through the safety protocol 100% and we always have a safety officer. There's a lot of behind the scenes stuff that looks like it's dangerous, like with the explosions and stuff, but everything is a controlled environment. We make sure we hire professionals that instruct us and we always listen to their instructions about safety.
Normally, when consumers like myself think of explosions in media, we often associate them with the filming and reference side. The perceived danger of timed explosives or handling heavy artillery is often something we imagine being filmed for massive action scenes with stuntmen diving out of the way, and not of the idea they are being used to record just the audio. The hard work that goes into creating these sounds is impressive.
KF: I think originally when we were recording them, our ideal purpose was that it would be great to supplement the Grunt emotes. Unfortunately, we kind of had to pivot and that didn't actually pan out due to resources and time and whatnot. So we ended up using a bit of it for the Diggers, the kind of wildlife you'll see on the island. But we do have a plan to use it for an upcoming release, something that I think people will be really excited about, but we can't talk about right now.
RE: And to add to that, we've always wanted to record them [pugs], and we were just fortunate that two people actually had them within the studio. I remember the day it happened, too, because I came into Carl's office just randomly, and I didn't expect anything and there was a pug in there. It was Buddy just grunting and being aggressive and I instantly closed the door and went back to my office and grabbed a mic. I was extremely happy I dropped everything I was doing.
As you can see from the pugs, a lot of the sounds players hear in Halo Infinite don’t actually come from the source you would expect at all. Some vehicles or weapons may have a clear plan from the start, but in the case of the flying UNSC vehicle the Wasp, I was genuinely stunned where the sound originated from…
GB: A simple question, what’s one sound in Halo Infinite you think would surprise players when they find out the source?
RE: Your coffee maker is a good example, right?
Jomo Kangethe (Senior Sound Designer): So, I'd been searching for a sound for a jet thruster for one of the vehicles for some time. I tried quite a few props over a few months, and nothing was really working out. Then one morning, I just happened to be making a coffee and my coffee maker started making this burbling noise. All of a sudden, it just occurred to me like, ‘oh, we need to go and record that.’ So I run to another room, go and pick up a mic, and, with a minor amount of processing… I shouldn't say a minor amount of processing - basically, the underlying sound had the right texture to it. Then with a bit of dynamics processing after the fact, I made it sound much more aggressive. That ended up being the baseline sound that you hear whenever the Wasp is flying forward. Most people would just identify that as, like, ‘oh, it must just be a stock, you know, jet library sound.’ But it's actually something completely unrelated.
KF: A very long time ago, I was messing around with a treadmill, at a community gym, and I was just kind of chucking batteries across it, just for the hell of it.
RE: Just randomly chucking batteries at a treadmill *laughs*.
KF: Just making these really interesting, zipping sounds that had this natural, flangey core sound to it. I was like, ‘man, we could really take that to the next level.’ There's a thrift store right around the corner from our work and he [points to Robbie] was like, ‘man, I found a treadmill’ and I'm like, ‘oh, shit, let's go get it.’
RE: That's what I do. I'll walk through thrift stores and just look for different objects. I'll listen to them. That's how I came up with the Grappleshot sound. I couldn't get a grapple hook, and I didn’t know what I was gonna get. Then I was walking through a thrift store, and I found some stuff like a clothesline that retracts and I was like, ‘oh, this is a great prop’. I draw inspiration just by going for walks. So I saw the treadmill there, and the rest is history.
Halo, of course, is known for its iconic sounds across the board. With a very specific design language for not just the human UNSC weapons and vehicles, but potentially even more for the alien foes, the Covenant. We all know the sharp magical shatter of a combine Needler explosion or the turret fire from a Ghost. This design language isn’t lost on the team when building the sounds again from scratch for the latest release Halo Infinite.
KF: We kind of like to think of different kinds of keywords that we grasp onto that usually correlate to the visuals that you see. So, for example, plasma, you want a lot of things that produce steam or hiss or maybe slightly electric sounds. But then you also want to find things that are just even like even more foreign things that you know, that just have a very strong science fiction feel to it. So, you know, we'll utilise all of the tools and tricks we have at our disposal, modular synths and different types of DSP processing and just start mangling different sounds. Looking for just very organic sounds that you can manipulate or use in a very unconventional way. Because I think you want it to sound sci-fi, but at the same time, you want it to be grounded, you want it to feel like a weapon, and you want it to be able to fit into the world.
JK: We visited a workshop down in California where they do electric engine conversions for everyday vehicles. Through an array of different techniques, we could capture different tones that the ear is not picking up by using EMF mics. So, you take those recordings back and you can sometimes figure out ways to make things like Shepard tones (which is a tone that sounds like it's constantly rising all the time, even though it's a loop). You can form interesting alien loops from organic sources in that manner. That's a good example of like the Ghost.
I could have listened to these guys chat all about how the sounds of Halo Infinite came together for hours. From the (not really) dangerous side of capturing spark effects to recording real firearms, and of course, what was probably one of the best days ever - recording Buddy and Gyoza the pugs. I left the chat not only with higher regard for the work of video game sound designers but also intrigued by what sound they were teasing that the pugs will enact further down the line.
Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios
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