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Responsible for the all-out war soundscape of Battlefield, the award-winning audio team at DICE has had its hands full for the past two years making Battlefield 4 sound just right. In this installment of “The Road to Battlefield 4”, our audio experts discuss everything from field recordings of naval units to metaphorical Spaghetti Bolognese.
Try imagining Battlefield without its collective soundscape. You quickly realise how crucial the shouts of squad members, the bullet cracks, jets roaring, or just the sound of your soldier vaulting over a concrete slab, are for the overall Battlefield experience. With several BAFTA, GANG and AIAS awards under their belt, the DICE audio team was confident in taking on Battlefield 4 – but there were many new challenges along the way.
The Battlefield audio team consists of many different divisions. Voice-overs, the sounds of your soldier, Levolution moments, and map ambience all play a part in the soundscape. To shed light on the many elements of Battlefield 4’s sound design, we hand over to Ben Minto (Audio Director), Mari Saastamoinen Minto (Lead Sound Designer), Andreas Almström (Lead Sound Designer), Viktor Israelsson (VO Designer) and Ludvig Kullberg (VO Producer).
Approaching the Sounds of Battlefield 4
As an audio team, we have accumulated great experience in sound design by working on DICE’s previous titles. When a new project comes along, we know we have to evolve but we are confident we are up to the task thanks to our experience. Approaching Battlefield 4 however, many new challenges have presented themselves with features like Levolution, Commander Mode, and Naval Warfare.
Take the falling skyscraper in Siege of Shanghai for example: to achieve something like that, we can’t just get a sound of a collapsing building and add that to the level. We have to find out what it sounds like from different distances. What does it sound like if you’re hundreds of metres away, or actually on top of it? We also need to figure out how the entire map sounds before the building goes down, and what the aftermath sounds like. You can actually tell whether the skyscraper is still there or not, just by listening to the overall character of the soundscape.
The team responsible for the sounds of Battlefield 4, just days away from the launch of the game.
Another vital part of the new audio is the recording of water-based sounds, these have to be up to the same level of quality as those we already have for air and land combat. We needed to gather new sounds for swimming, diving, drowning, water-based combat and much more connected to water. The drowning sounds took a bit of experimenting. Many audio designers make the mistake of using too much to simulate drowning, which produces a cartoonish sound that just makes you laugh. Our audio director, Ben Minto, was convinced that in order to accurately capture the sound of drowning he needed to fill his mouth, nose and throat with water and then cover the mouth and nose to stop the breathing. It was quite painful to force water around in your system like that, as though you are gasping for non-existent air. It took some time but it was worth it. Those sounds really felt right in the end.
Playing Better Thanks to Sound
One of the most important parts of sound in Battlefield 4 is the information it gives you as a player. Your line of sight in the game can only gives you 60-70 degrees of the panorama, but sound is all around you. So it’s our job to fill in the gaps of information. If you can hear a tank behind you, you can decide to run into a building to hide or run to find more ammo for your RPG. It’s about giving players information so they can make decisions.
We don’t want to make it like a pinball game with effects like “DING! You got 10 000 points!”, though. You should have to work a little bit for the information. By making people listen for sounds like enemies running up stairs or deploying a tripod, they engage more, they take part, they listen and filter for information. The Battlefield should be readable through the sound that is happening.
Waves crashing, engines roaring, and guns blazing. All these sound sources are mixed in real-time to give the player an immersive and informative soundscape.
Bullet sounds also give you information of the Battlefield, and we can honestly say that those impress us almost daily, even though we’ve worked with them for several years. The impact of the bullets, the sound of the ricochets… being in a gunfight still seems fresh when we play the game thanks to the quality of the recordings, and all the variations.
Personal, Varied and Close
If there’s one major difference in the audio for Battlefield 4, it’s the fact that it’s more personal and close to the soldier than ever before. We’ve worked a lot with sounds related to the soldier’s clothes, helmet and other gear. The sound of rain, for example, has been expanded this time around. Now you will hear rain, or water from indoor sprinklers, actually dripping on your helmet. To achieve these sounds, we’ve done everything from standing with a helmet in the shower to walking around in real rain with microphones tucked in our hoods.
Recording the “soldier” in Battlefield 4 – basically the sounds of us wearing a military vest – was done from scratch by running around with the vest in different environments. A lot of time was spent just on choosing the right kind of fabric for the vest, to get that modern, rustling sound. There are also a ton of variations of sounds like these. Take the sound of the solider vaulting, for example. There is around ten variations of vault, and these in turn have their own pitch variations. And variety is one of the mantras for Battlefield 4. Every time something happens in-game, it should sound as unique as possible.
The maps themselves also have sounds of their own and we try to give all the Battlefield 4 maps their own unique and realistic tone, based on their environments. Right now we’re working together with the audio team at DICE LA on the new Caspian Border in Second Assault, the upcoming Battlefield 4 expansion, and we need some fitting bird sounds. For Caspian Border in Battlefield 3, we used sounds from swallows that exist in the real Caspian area. But in Second Assault it’s autumn, so we want birds with a more autumn-like sound. We’ve found a bird called Caspian Snowcook, but we’ve already used that in the Alborz Mountain map, so the bird hunt goes on… You can really immerse yourself in things like these as a sound designer.
The sound of a rocket launcher being fired differs a lot in characteristic depending on where you are on the map, and what other sounds exist in your vicinity.
There are also a lot of personal sounds in Battlefield. If there’s an elevator or an alarm in the game, we use the sounds of the elevators and alarms here at DICE for the recordings. When we go on holiday, like when DICE went to Dubai, we record sounds to get exotic birds or the sounds of the desert. That makes it more unique for the player, and more personal for the sound designers who work here.
All these kinds of details may feel like small steps forward, and there’s often a lot of work behind a small step. But they all take you closer to sound that’s really believable.
Real-Time Mixing and Spaghetti Bolognese
It’s hard do give an exact number of how many sounds we have in total, but there are easily over a million files in the DICE sound library: anything from a piece of metal hitting the floor to hour-long recordings of tanks. But the number of audio files isn’t really that relevant. Since we’re using real-time mixing with the help of the Frostbite Engine, the variations of each sound become even greater. The sound of a pistol being fired varies depending on where you are on the map, and the game engine helps us calculate this. An analogy would be that we don’t serve spaghetti bolognese, we create the basic ingredients – pasta, tomatoes, minced meat etc. – and then inside Frostbite we create the recipe, but with an built-in chance for there to be lots of variations in how they are combined.
Different sound variations of one weapon being fired on the Battlefield.
This requires a lot of play testing since there are many combinations of sounds appearing in multiplayer that we can’t predict. As we said, we give players all the basic ingredients, we give them a map and release 64 players into it – and they create mayhem. We can’t test every possible sound permutation beforehand, so we are sometimes surprised how some sounds in multiplayer turn out.
In these playtests we need to ask ourselves a lot of questions. What does it sound like when I’m indoors and a tank drives across and smashes a building across the street? Was there too much glass? Was the bass level too high? Did it feel scary? Is my pistol louder than the tank driving through that building – and should it be? Can I still hear the person that’s sneaking up behind to stab me? Checking things like this takes time, and that’s why many of the sound designers here have over 200 hours of Battlefield 4 playtime.
Recording on the Field
We’ve recorded a lot of the Battlefield 4 sounds in the studio, but of course there’s always the need for field recordings. In the most recent one, we recorded weapons here in Sweden, which became the base of the Battlefield 4 weapon sounds. It’s a huge plus to do your own recordings, since it gives us the control of all the microphones and such. There are recordings that you can buy, but they are recorded with a different mindset, and are mainly designed for movies. We know what versions of sounds will work in the game, that’s why we need the control that own recordings bring.
Voice actors on our “Field of Screams”, working hard to perfect the tone of the Battlefield 4 battle cries.
All different kinds of people here in Sweden have been very helpful by letting us do our field recordings. We’ve been helped by both people with access to military hardware, but also by swimming pools that lend us their facilites and go “sure, we’ll close the pool down for the afternoon so you can practise drowning each other”. That’s been a pleasure.
The Voices Behind the Soldiers
The voice-over work is another huge part of the sound design in Battlefield 4 and the need for world-class, believable VO – both in single player and multiplayer – can’t be underestimated. We’ve been working with a great cast for Battlefield 4, and the actors have done loads of research on their characters. It’s impressive to see how the actors really become their characters; Michael K Williams is Irish, Andrew Lawrence is Pac, and so on. In multiplayer, it’s a different kind of drama. Even though we use voice-over actors here too, the drama is created by the players, since they often have the power of when the characters speak thanks to the Commo Rose.
It’s easy to think that all the voice-over lines consist of screams and hectic dialouge. Sure, since the lines are spoken on a battlefield, a lot of the voices are of course urgent and noisy. If someone’s throwing a grenade, when it’s a matter of life and death, the tone is going to be hectic. But if someone throws you a medkit or revives you, the tone is calmer. So there’s more variety than you might think.
The cast of the Battlefield 4 single player campaign, doing voice-over and motion capture work.
To get that exact temperature and intensity of the actor’s lines is probably the most important part of voice-over work. For example, doing VO for Commander Mode was a real challenge. We wanted to find a tone of voice that wasn’t as intense as the tone of the soldiers fighting on the Battlefield. The sound of a Commander should of course be urgent, but at the same time controlled. The actors nailed it in the end, and by giving the Commander another type of radio sound characteristic, that audio really became distinctive.
The Birth Cry of the Battlefield
The absolute best thing of being part of the Battlefield 4 audio team is something that’s yet to come – and that’s the release of Battlefield 4. Just for the audio department, 12 to 15 people have been working their butts off and doing levels and levels of intricate work during the last couple of years. Even though we work close to each other, we haven’t heard everything that’s been done. To experience all the love, effort and little details that are in the final game – that will be a fantastic part of the process.
Experiencing Battlefield 4 going live with real players, and hearing all their combined actions, is also going to be very exciting. We’ve simulated that in playtests, and we’ve experienced a lot in the Beta. But to be there when the final version come alive with real people, that’s where the joy comes out. It will be like watching a child unwrap christmas presents – and hearing what that sounds like.