Weapon sounds are arguably the most important element in the audio soundscape of the first person shooter. Your connection to the virtual world, the weapon spends most - if not all - the game experience on screen and its sound is directly proportional to the excitement the player experiences.
Here, Chris Sweetman tells us about his involvement in creating the award-winning weapon audio for Black.
A CHOIR OF GUNS
Chris: I have lost count of the times I have eagerly awaited a new weapon in an FPS, finally being rewarded with a beautifully modelled assault rifle and...
...wait a minute, it sounds like a pea being shaken in a tin can. That can't be right! (Check speaker connections - something must be wrong.)
The illusion is broken. The game suddenly becomes less of an experience, the senses are dulled and it is now a generic bog standard FPS.
Don't get me wrong, I love playing games of all genres but there's just something about the three letters FPS that gets me excited. Perhaps it's my love of 80s action movies with Commando and Predator leading the charge. Or the unrealised James Bond missions that took place in the playground.
So when I saw an article on this new FPS title from Criterion called Black in a copy of Edge magazine it elicited an immediate reaction.
"I want to be the sound designer on that."
The project sounded so brash, new, fresh and exciting.
I had been lucky enough to have previously worked with the audio director at Criterion, Stephen Root, when he hired me at Acclaim and one of the sound designers at Criterion was one of my closest friends. So when I found out they were looking for a lead sound designer to work on the project fulltime the trap was set.
IF IT BLEEDS, WE CAN KILL IT
In September 2004 I officially joined the team and immediately began working on the weapon sound design. Being a huge fan of action movies in general I immersed myself in research for a good while.
I listened to movies, gleaning information on how they handle the sound design of weaponry. I played all the competitors' products to get a idea of what direction they had taken and what it would take to make Black the best sounding FPS in the history of the genre.
One thing soon became very clear - realism was just not that important to me.
Some sound effects take shape straight away, some take a lot of iteration. Many times I have spent days designing the sound for a weapon, found it didn't work and just threw it all away and started again. For example, while the Uzi used in Black took 15 minutes until it was perfect, the Ak47 took 2 weeks of constant chopping and changing until I was happy.
I initially started creating pistol and sniper rifle sounds with animalistic elements to them. I scoured through hundreds of animal sounds in our in-house sound library and banked every interesting one I could find.
Eventually I developed a folder of animal sounds that I then played with in Pro-Tools (our Digital editing tool of choice) and added it to the weapon track to see if it added anything sonically exciting.
After spending weeks adding animalistic elements to the weapons and making them sound really good I decided that while it was an interesting approach, it was the wrong direction for Black.
The weapons started to sound a little too stylised and not exactly what I was after so I moved on. (The sniper rifle was the only weapon that actually made it in with those original animal sounds.)
Instead, I wanted the weapons to sound more realistic but also maintain a sense of hyper realism. I wanted to give the player a real sense that this sounds like an action movie and so developed a list of the best sounding weapons from movies and TV.
We came up with literally dozens of them and a few were Bruce Willis's Mp5 on the roof in Die Hard, Jack Bauer's pistol in season one of 24 and Arnie’s Uzi in True Lies.
These became the basis for the weapons in Black.
I EAT GREEN BERETS FOR BREAKFAST
One of the biggest and most heartbreaking issues in sound design for video games that you come up against on the PS2 is the Vag compression. This requires you to shrink the size of a sample so you can fit all the sounds into sound ram.
One of the problems with this is that it removes a lot of the high frequencies in the sound and as a result it ends up sounding muffled and low fidelity.
One thing I insisted on was that the weapons I created in Pro-tools had to sound exactly the same quality in software... no small task.
After lots of discussions the answer came from the lead sound designer on Burnout Revenge, Lewis Griffin.
His ingenious idea was to use a broadband phase EQ to split the frequencies of the weapon sound. The high frequency portion would play off the EE (another part of the CPU) uncompressed and the low frequency component would play as per the norm on the sound ram.
Our lead audio programmer, David Steptoe, then coded it so these elements would play simultaneously in runtime - and there we had it. Gun sounds that were clearer and more defined than any other FPS. Magic! And it became our HF/LF solution.
NINE MILLION TERRORISTS IN THE WORLD
Another big challenge in the audio journey of an FPS is the mix.
Weapon sounds are made up of literally dozens of different elements. There might be a chamber click or the attack of an explosion pitched up and mixed in but one key factor that you have to be aware of is clutter.
Too many sounds in the mix just dilute the impact of the weapon so it's important to be willing to take away elements that are not adding anything to the mix.
The majority of FPS never gets it right. You have too many sounds and music all jostling for position and it ends up sounding a complete mess. We were determined that this was not going to happen to Black.
One of the key areas for us in achieving the ultimate mix was the "choir of guns."
The premise here is that each enemy firing at you should be a member of a choir. He should have his own distinct voice and when played with other members of the choir it should be a harmony - not cacophony.
The norm in games is that if you are faced with 3 enemies these 3 enemies will use exactly the same weapon sample (because they are using exactly the same weapon model). So you have 3 guys all firing an AK47 in close proximity. The result is a complete mess.
We decided early on to break with tradition and create a system which would allow us to disregard what weapon model was being used and create a sonically exciting fire fight.
The system is incredibly simple (I find the best ideas always are). We would disregard the weapon model and assign each enemy a different timbre of weapon.
So one guy would have a low weapon, another would have a middle and the last guy would have a high. What this gave us was unparalleled clarity in the mix. You can hear distinctly in 3d space where each enemy is firing from and this not only aids the mix it also gives you clear feedback from the game on where you are being fired at from.
There are a lot of other aspects to the Black audio production that I have not mentioned. Explosions, our unique method of playing back enemy weapons, the bullet impacts and ricochets, the decision to never use music in fire fights (except for one unique area!!)
All these played a part in Black being regarded as one of the best sounding first person shooters in the history of the genre.