Ben Minto Unplugged

Ben Minto Unplugged
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

October 2nd 2009 at 12:00PM

John Broomhall speaks to one of DICEâ??s audio directors, Ben Mintoâ?¦

With a maths and physics background in computational fluid dynamics, Ben Minto should, by rights, be working for British Aerospace.  However, thanks to his university pastime – fixing and re-selling car-boot analogue synth bargains – he eventually found himself transported from Future Music’s classifieds to London’s TSC working as a Pro Tools tech, where customer and game audio manager Stephen Root was sufficiently intrigued by Minto’s interest in ‘making noises’ to offer him a job at Acclaim.

With Chris Sweetman also joining the department, the production nucleus that formed has gone down in the annals of game audio history. A dream-team later reformed at Criterion where, just as racing games became a yearly iteration for the studio, along came an FPS called Black, and with it a chance to create award-winning audio.

“It was definitely a highlight,” says Minto. “Four different sound designers, each with their own unique style, and four dedicated audio programmers. It was a case of the right people, at the right time, on the right project. Together we squeezed some amazing performance and fidelity out of the PS2.”

For Minto, career highlights are as much about people as products. “I’m amazed by the level of skills people have – every sound person I meet has a unique skill set and feel for how it should sound. It’s very rare to come across truly original ideas. Usually the ‘new’ idea is an amalgamation of two or more great ideas. That’s where the majority, and the spark, for most of my thinking comes from.”

One of Minto’s key areas of expertise is field recording. “You actually feel the sound in situ, and can appreciate how loud it is,” he enthuses. “Sit next to a Howitzer letting rip, or in a Pagini Zonda at 180mph, and the sensation of sound is unbelievable. You have to ascertain how to communicate that sensation.

“Trial and error’s really important, you learn by making mistakes. I once tried to do the Terminator 2 liquid metal effect using canned dog food. Criterion had just built a new live room where I’d set up eight expensive microphones. I bought the biggest tin of cheap dog food, opened both ends of the can to record the slipping wetness, but the contents wouldn’t move. So I’m there, holding my breath, shaking this tin and suddenly it all slides out – without a whisper of sound, hitting the ground and spraying chunks of meat all over the mics.  The studio stank for three weeks and all I got was a ‘thunk’!”

This spirit also pervades Minto’s project approach. “At the outset, disregard the potential constraints or you’ll hobble your creativity.  I capture game footage, and tracklay it like a movie, without considering limitations.  Ignore that you’re making a game and just work out what sound experience you want to portray, then later figure out how to do it in game. In Battlefield 1943, I used real recorded plane-passes, because the game screamed out for those amazing throbbing bys. We had to decipher some code tweaks to do with timing, but it’s so much better than a loop model with game Doppler imposed – it’s alive!”

Minto is enthusiastic about audio’s potential for driving emotional responses, through sound choice and run-time mixing, believing that modeling the real world is not necessarily what’s required dramatically.

“I remember when we had the technology and the RAM to play too many sounds. When ducking and culling didn’t cut it, we needed a dynamic mixer to deal with our defined snapshot states. This evoked questions: sure, you can turn crash sounds up and change the pitch, but what emotion do you want to create? Do you want the crashes to feel rewarding, or convey fear? Are you in the real world, or isolated in your own space?

“In the real world, you hear somebody’s brakes lock up and it’s almost like there’s a perfect silence as you wait for the next sound. You’re expecting the worst. You experience complete clarity and focus as your brain cuts out the background noise.

“War veterans came out of the movie Saving Private Ryan saying they remembered that’s how storming the Normandy beaches had sounded – but it wasn’t. Gary Rydstrom’s team emotionally mixed those scenes. There were planes overhead and boats zooming past, but the most important sounds were the bullets that were probably going to kill you and your friend. That’s what was heard in the mix, and what the veterans recall.”

With years of audio success ahead, does Minto see himself continuing to work in games?

“Yes, definitely. We don’t have limits anymore. The public are more critical and mediocrity won’t do. If you’ve got the budget and time, you can do anything.

“I still get my biggest buzz from true sound effect creation – not the everyday impacts or footsteps, but when you need to make something and you can’t. I like it when it goes wrong, because it means you’ve got to learn something. Experimentation is needed along with some playing about. You’ve got to push yourself and do something new.”