I got the the chance to speak with HITMAN audio designer Bjørn Jacobsen, about the creative process behind the audio for the game, his favorite sounds in the series – and his essential sound design tools:
Hi Bjørn, what’s your overall vision for the sound of the HITMAN series? And what are some of the most challenging sounds to get right?
The overall sound vision for HITMAN is to support the visuals and overall well-played experience of the game. We’re taking a much more natural and realistic-sounding approach to the soundscape than that of its predecessor, HITMAN Absolution. When working on a heavily processed or an almost-not-processed soundscape, the size of issues at hand are the same. They may be different because of the type of sound you want to achieve, but the amount of issues are the same. Getting something to sound realistic and natural is neither easier nor harder to do – it’s just different. One of our greatest challenges is to get the overall soundscape of a location to be true to the visuals.
Getting something to sound realistic and natural is neither easier nor harder to do – it’s just different
In particular here in episode two, Sapienza, where the player moves from an open, outside-location in a typical Mediterranean Italian town, to indoor mansions, cliffs and a large cave with a bio lab inside. The feeling must be right and sound like you are actually there when walking down the streets and alleys of the town – while during the mission, the player will also enter the mansion and its various rooms and basement, along with the (almost sci-fi style) giant field lab in the cave.
The challenge is to get the transition from place to place right and each place to sound just right once you are there.
Has moving into the episodic format of the series changed anything in your approach to the sound design?
Yes, and no. When working on a “normal” game which goes from pre-production, into production and post-production until final release, you may experience that there is more or less to do in certain periods, as sound design can often be blocked from production by other factors in the pipeline. However, when working on an episodic game or any other game that has a constant release plan (like EVE Online, which I used to work on), you constantly move between pre, post and production, so the lines between them get blurred out.
It gives you more to do on average, I think, but it also gets rid of the more extreme crunching periods. So yes, something is different, but no you don’t really feel it in your everyday cycle of work.
The launch trailer for HITMAN episode 2: Sapienza
You’ve just released HITMAN Episode 2 – could you share the story behind the sound design and sound workflow for that one?
Episode two, Sapienza, takes place in a fictional town by the same name, right off the western coast of Italy. The town is also the location of the Caruso family, whose family head, Silvio, is running a series of genetic experiments from his Mansion in the centre of town.
The sound design story here is to make sure that the town sounds like a town off the coast of Italy. We have quite an extensive list of videos, photos and drawings to get inspiration from, and the sound design as a whole is about making sure that the player goes from the most ordinary and simple outdoor feeling of a warm summer day to a hectic sci-fi experience in the laboratory while trying to corrupt the research of the main target.
I was the track owner of Sapienza, so most of the level is set up by me and most of the ambient sounds there are done by me. It was a great level to set up, so many challenges and different locations in one level, and with the help from the rest of the team I think we really pulled off a nice sounding level here.
The workflow of the level was first to get an overview of the entire thing, as it is quite a big level, then add the basics of sounds to it and then on the flow approach, each section of the level to make sure that it sounded right.
For this particular level we spent a lot of time getting the feeling of warmth right
For this particular level we spent a lot of time getting the feeling of warmth right, especially when on the Mansion grounds. Most of the cicadas there are heavily filtered sounds and nicely modulated sounds of a lot of other things than cicadas and you really get the sense of the warm air and the coastal location right there.
I also did quite a bit of room recordings during my holiday in New York City, which is the majority of the rooms in the Mansion and also spent quite a long time mixing distant waves and coastline recordings to get them just right when navigating the town areas close to the sea.
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One great effect for Sapienza in particular is the change from an indoors to outdoors experience. When in a windy area of the level, we made a small system which has divided the wind sounds into small grains of wind, combined with a layer of distorting wind directly into the microphone. This was done to really empathize the fact that the player just moved from the calm indoors to the windy outdoors. Also, when moving from a secluded area of a cave or along a wall into a more open area of the level, where wind would come in stronger, this really helped to get the feeling of the Cliffside and the top of the church towers just right.
With such a long-running franchise, do you have a large arsenal of sounds to draw from, or are you continuously recording and designing new material?
We have quite an extensively-sized library, which we also use quite a bit, but we also constantly feed it with new material that we acquire in various ways.
I’m going on vacation to Malta soon and that will most likely result in several recordings of rooms, pool areas, small shops, populated streets, deserted places, ceiling fans, cooking, birds, insects, cats, dogs, beaches and more.
So the library is constantly being fed with new material that we share in between us and use as a department.
“Our sound team is a small, but strong and confident, group of sound designers, which consists of a lead sound designer, Frank Lindeskov, and a senior sound designer, Jonas Breum Jensen, as the leading parts of the team. Two regular sound designers, Oliver Harrison and me, and a junior sound designer, Henriette Lonn Jenssen.
Henriette and I went to school together, at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus with a BA. in Electronic Music Composition, and Jonas, Henriette and I also have the same MSc. in Audio Design from Aarhus University, but not from the same year.
Oliver is a BA. In Creative Music Technology from Bath Spa University, while Frank, our lead, is from a different background in TV and Radio production. We also have a dedicated audio programmer, Stepan Boev.
This gives us a very strong approach to game audio, from the very experienced audio designer to the brand-new
Our video game audio experience is quite different from one another. Oliver has previously worked in England and Sweden on games such as DJ Hero, The Division, Far Cry 3 and more.
Jonas and Frank have been with IO for many years and worked on the previous games here HITMAN Absolution, Kane and Lynch and more.
Henriette joined as an intern and is now our junior sound designer, and my own background is from various smaller games and a few years in Iceland working on EVE Online and EVE: Valkyrie. This gives us a very strong approach to game audio, from the very experienced audio designer to the brand-new and various different creative approaches to solutions of issues.”
What are some of your essential tools when it comes to sound design?
Your ears and your ideas. Knowledge and experience is key and vital to getting to the correct result fast, and hopefully on the very first try. School and classic education is one thing, but knowing how to create something – and how to create it fast with what you have – is the most important thing I can imagine.
School and classic education is one thing, but knowing how to create something – and how to create it fast with what you have – is the most important thing I can imagine
Technically, there is a bunch of software and hardware that is also essential, but those are merely tools that act on your command. Without the ideas of what to command it to do, and without the ears to determine if you are going in the right direction, the software and hardware tools are nothing.
Personally, I use Cubase and Wavelab as my favourite tools of creation, as for a “realistic” and natural sounding game like HITMAN, I spend a lot of time mixing and getting “natural” sounds just right. (Remember what I just said about cicadas? The cicadas are actually a microwave electrical wave pitched down)
Therefore Cubase and Wavelab get the job done on the most part of this, but it was different when I was working on Sci-Fi MMO’s as I did in the past. Here, nothing was natural and most of my time would be spent in max/MSP environments and with weird hardware patch setups to get the noises right. It’s same same but different, really.
From a sound perspective, what are some of your favorite moments in the HITMAN series? And anything in particular to listen for in episode 2?
There is quite a few moments in HITMAN that are worth mentioning – most of them have not been revealed, though, so I cannot speak of them just yet. But in Episode Two there are several moments worth experiencing, as walking around the town and visiting the café can be quite a soothing experience, even without thinking of the murder you are about to do as you approach your target.
Just think of a jacket, a microphone and me looking weird while trying to get the breathing right!
Episode two also contains a very nice smothering sequence with a pillow and a nasty scientist with bad thoughts underneath… who deserves to be smothered more than Joffrey Baratheon! It’s quite satisfying, and when you hear it – just think of a jacket, a microphone and me looking weird while trying to get the breathing right!
My favourite moments in HITMAN are all the situations where it is possible to just walk around and enjoy a level and its audio soundscape and scenery, without the constant fear of being detected or actually playing the game. The Paris level and just walking around, the very accurate feeling of the fashion show, and the feeling of being among the rich and famous at such a party, and the Sapienza level. And, really, just listening to the birds, the wind and the overall soundscape of the level. Those are really the best moments of the game.. well, those, and when you kill your target and hear the high-score counter tick in!
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