In our monthly look behind the scenes on the audio production of a recently released or upcoming game, John Broomhall speaks to Ninja Theory's Tom Colvin and SCEE's Garry Taylor about the making of music and sound FX in Heavenly Swordâ?¦
Format: PlayStation 3
Developer: Ninja Theory
For Ninja Theory: Tom Colvin (lead audio); Nitin Sawhney (original music score); Dave Sullivan (senior sound designer); Play It By Ear (foley and cut scene sound design); Harvey Cotton (audio programming)
For SCEE Cambridge: Garry Taylor (audio management and cut scene mixing); Lee Banyard, Jeremy Taylor, Andrew Riley (additional sound design); Ed Colyer, Shepperton Studios (additional foley); Dan Bardino, John Broomhall, Kenneth Young, Dave Ranyard (additional audio production); Chip Bell (audio programming)
10GB of sound FX, approximately three and a half hours of music, 4,500 lines of dialogue
With an epic story, epic game and an epic audio production, Heavenly Sword oozes high production values. Even before audio lead Tom Colvin’s personal two and a half year labour of love began, a belief in the power of sound had already been demonstrated by the team’s calling for potential signature sound designers to pitch – a practice more commonly associated with composers.
Colvin explains: “Al Zaleski’s demo work (at audio team Play It By Ear) stood head and shoulders above the others and his movie pedigree speaks for itself. To top that, he was great to work with. I’m really happy with the foley and combat sounds – all vitally important for a game so focused on graceful, agile, martial arts-style sword fighting.
“For me, sound is very ‘immediate’ to the player. Music has a well-established cultural language; sound is much less clearly delineated – but you can get straight to someone’s emotional responses with it – there’s little time for the brain to analyse. Sound is key in making this awesome weapon – the Heavenly Sword – come to life so you can sense its brooding power and almost hear it feeding off each kill.”
The game features a strong narrative exploring the interplay between heroine Nariko, her father, their clan subjugated by an evil king, and their guardianship of the Heavenly Sword, an historical weapon with the power to change their fate. Cut scenes play a vital role but with visual finessing continuing late into the project, the sheer scope of work was a challenge.
SCEE’s Garry Taylor elaborates: “There’s an hour and a half’s worth of cut scenes in eleven languages, so mixing alone was a massive undertaking. That’s why we ‘in-sourced’ all the dialogue mixing to our colleagues in Foster City, USA whilst I focused on the music and effects mix at our new Cambridge-based recording studio. I kept a close eye on continuity issues to avoid any jarring between in-game and cut scene sound – whether ambiences or relative levels or even matching FMOD’s surround positioning. Some cut scenes are very small segments replayed within complex branching structures so we ended up using three-frame audio overhangs at the top and tail to cross-fade on – it works a treat.”
According to Colvin respected music artist Nitin Sawhney was a clear choice as composer: “We wanted someone with a genuine grounding in Eastern culture who was equally at home with contemporary or classical forms, as well as being completely comfortable with the project’s technological setting. With his eclectic talents, Nitin was perfect and enjoyed the opportunity to create for a wide-ranging and diverse set of requirements.
“In-game, we work a lot with his mix stems (e.g. perc, strings, woodwind) bringing them together in response to game events and status. Several factors (e.g. threat level) are weighted and combined to determine the exact music replay – but it isn’t just a universal ‘cross-fade, catch-all’ approach. We make the engine observe the music forms to allow (say) long emotionally-charged vocal phrases to play out properly, rather than being faded out just because the game state’s changed. This allows the music flow to be maintained – it keeps the connection to the action, without compromising musical sense.”
Taylor and Colvin undertook an overall mixing phase during the development’s final stages, again deploying SCEE’s studio as the objective listening environment and using Ninja’s powerful run-time mixing tools. Explains Colvin: “We have the virtual equivalent of a ‘flying faders’ film mixing console with extensive hierarchical grouping and scene snapshots. ‘Live’ editing of audio at this stage is absolutely essential – not just volumes, but proximities, frequency fall-off – even the listener position…”
Taylor continues: “…and also not being afraid to strip things back if necessary. Sometimes when you stand back and take in the overall sound picture, you think - does that really need to be there? Never distract the player’s focus! The machine’s so powerful now – capable of handling so much audio, which is great – but as we all know when you’re mixing, sometimes ‘less is more’.”