Weapon Sound Design for ‘Sci-Fi Shooters’

  • May 9, 2015
  • By Somatone Interactive

As published recently in Audio Pro International

Sci-fi weapon sound design is the subject for the next installment of our Game Audio column, in partnership with Somatone Interactive.

This month, executive director Michael Bross and senior sound designer Eric Van Amerongen team up to share their insights into the creative process for this particular gaming genre from their respective positions.

First, Bross addresses the process from a big-picture standpoint…

Bross: Some of the more interesting and challenging sounds to create for a video game are found in weapon audio for Sci-Fi-based shooters. In the sound design process for this genre, there are many intriguing facets to consider.

Most importantly, the audio needs to feel gratifying for the player when shooting the weapon. What’s more, it needs to feel that way over and over again since the player may use their weapons hundreds or even thousands of times over the course of their experience within a particular game.

Sound design for games can be as much about the technical as it is about the creative. In this article, we’ll look at each aspect, and how they are intertwined throughout the process.

Generally, we work within a two-phase process – pre-production and production.

Pre-Production: Discovery and Planning Stage

This is the phase where we ask a lot of questions. It’s a discovery and planning stage. It’s where we first conceive the technical design so we are able to move forward on to content design. Generally, this is done for all audio and music across a game’s experience (not just weapons).

Audio is driven by the game design itself. And also by the limitations of the technical pipeline (and how we can cleverly get around those limitations). In the case of weapons, how a sound is created is also heavily influenced by the animations to which the sounds will be attached.

From a creative standpoint, we are gathering reference. This is for inspiration and also to generate ideas of approach beyond what our own brains may drum up. We are looking at other games on the market (along with film). What supercool weapon designs are we hearing? Doing this helps us to establish a bar and then we figure out what we can be inspired by and aim to exceed.

What’s the creative approach to the weapons that would best serve the game? For example, is it something with more of a ‘laser’ vibe like Star Wars? Or would it be better to do something that models modern-day weapons while adding ‘futuristic’ enhancements? The beauty of creating for sci-fi weapons is that it leaves a lot of room to be creative.

From a technical perspective, many details need to be defined in this phase.

– What type of weapon is it? What are the parameters of the weapon? Does it have a high ROF (rate of fire) or is it slow but powerful like a sniper rifle? What’s the scale of the weapon? Is it a turret or a handheld weapon?

– What are the event types? In games, because we’re thinking about what the player-driven possibilities are, we tend to break it down into ‘events’. A weapon’s events could be: Fire, Reload, Fire empty, Secondary Fire, Overheat, Low Ammo and so on. Approaching it this way allows for all aspects of a weapon’s audio to be covered.

– What is the distance model? It’s the behaviour of the weapon’s sound over a distance (also known as ‘falloff’). For more complex weapon designs, the sound designer will need to come up with near-distance sample sets that flow seamlessly into far-distance sample sets.

Though there are many other questions to be asked, those above represent a good starting point.

Production: Making it Happen

Once the weapon’s tech and creative approach have been conceived, creation of the content itself begins. The best place to start here is with mockups of the weapon, which are usually done to gameplay video captures or animation exports. A mockup helps in conceiving how all the layers and events of a sound will work together. It also aids in selling the idea of what the weapon will sound like to the rest of the team.

A good game sound designer will keep the idea in the back of his/her mind as to how these assets might be stemmed out as game-ready assets.

Variations on certain sound events are essential. Shell casings dropping to the ground is one such event where this is important. Employing variations adds life.

This is the point where implementation of these assets can begin (after the material is stemmed out). We then would import the material into the game-side audio tool (e.g. Wwise or FMOD). This process will typically involve collaborating with other departments such as code engineers or animators to align the sound events with the actual game events that these sounds are matched to. Once this happens, we can finally hear the weapon working in the game.

This is rarely the end of the work and involves further iteration on the both the content and the tech to refine the weapon’s SFX.

And in the big picture, this sound would also be dialed into the overall soundscape in regard to mix.

As you can see, the process of creating sci-fi weapon sounds involves much more than crafting a couple of sound files. It’s a unique, challenging experience that requires us to find solutions to tech and creative challenges that manifest throughout the process of creation. That’s the most exciting part, though. And when we finally hear the game audio in action, and see from a player’s perspective how much depth the sound design adds to the overall gameplay experience, we know we’ve hit the mark spot-on.

Check out this sample of weapon sound design for sci-fi shooters:

And now, from the senior sound designer’s perspective, Van Amerongen (pictured, below) reveals his weapon design approach…

Van Amerongen: With all the pre-production and planning complete, sound design can begin in full-force. A great place to start is gathering key ingredients (sounds). Doing this streamlines the design process, making it easier to focus on each of the design steps.

There are several methods to use for sample gathering:

Library Mining: With all the gathered pre-production information in mind, I begin by combing my immense library, using a combination of keyword searching and random listening because sometimes I’ll find key elements and inspiration in sounds I’d never think of. Once I’ve found samples I like, I’ll either export to external folders under corresponding categories I’ve set up or create a playlist and organize my sounds within my sound library software, in my case Soundminer.

Sampler Mangling: This can work especially well for sci-fi weapons. Taking my key sounds, I’ll load them up in a sampler such as Kontakt or S-Layer. I particularly like S-Layer because all of the parameters that can be easily randomized and attached to LFO’s. With parameters set and LFO’s attached, I start experimenting with random combinations of sounds and effects. Usually after an hour or so, I’ll have a good set of unique sounds to work with all based on the key elements I found from my library.

Synthesis: A lot of sci-fi weapons can be energy-based, other-worldly devices. Synthesis can help us achieve sound elements that are rooted in nature but beyond any natural occurring sounds produced here on earth. There are many methods of synthesis to discuss, too many to cover in just one article, but I think that the most important thing to keep in mind when synthesizing a sound is; expression, character, dynamics and texture. All of these can be achieved by digging into whatever synth you’re using, learning it inside and out and tweaking it until you get what you want.

Field/Foley Recording: This is key to creating unique elements for sci-fii weapons. Sure, there are many sound libraries out there with thousands of sounds, but nothing beats recording your own. I find that shops, cars, junkyards, household items and office furniture all have potential to create that unique sound that will help shape and give an earthly connection to the weapons.

Once I’ve got a good base set of sounds for my weapon, it’s time to start layering and designing within my DAW. The core elements I try to keep in mind are:

(a) Playability: Can this be played over and over again?

(b) Uniqueness: Does it stand out? is it freaking cool sounding?

(c) Punch and Dynamics: Can I feel it, does it have texture, is that texture interesting and does it fit this weapon?

The uniqueness comes from my sample selection and experimenting with different layering combinations. Punch and texture come from mixing and the basic of sound editing, EQ, compression and volume. I listen to each sample and determine its frequency range taking out what’s not necessary, carving room for the other samples. I tend to take whatever sample has the core impact and compress it with a fast attack and slow release, maybe adding a little low-end boost. This can give the weapon a nice punch. After establishing the impact. I like to focus on the tail of the sound, which is where much uniqueness can be established for that weapon.

Once all the samples are in place and the mix is established, I like to use a little compression on the master buss. This glues all the elements together and makes the weapon sound more cohesive. From here, it’s a matter of testing in-game to hear what works. The iteration phase is the most important and often has you coming back to the design phase to tweak things here and there or completely start over again!

Without a doubt, weapon sound design is a challenge, a thrill and an art in and of itself.