Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Activision
The reveal trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare uses a brand-new game engine that allows for more detailed environments, more accurate lighting, more photo-realistic images, and precise object tracing — all contributing to a higher degree of visual realism. On the sound side, this led Infinity Ward’s sound team to push boundaries as well, giving the player a more reactive environment that responds in realistic and varied ways.
So far, the efforts are paying off. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare just won ‘Best Audio Design’ at The Game Awards, won best ‘Original Score – Video Game’ at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, and was named ‘Best Online Multiplayer’ at the Game Critic Awards. Plus, it’s earned five other nominations so far for best action game.
Here, Infinity Ward’s audio director Stephen Miller, principal sound designer Stuart Provine, senior lead technical sound designer Tim Stasica, senior lead audio designer Dave Rowe, lead dialogue recordist and editor Dave Natale, and supervising dialogue editor Chrissy Arya discuss their approach to weapons recording and implementation, designing non-combat missions, Foley, dialogue, and how they used these elements to create a visceral and immersive narrative experience that’s more than just an FPS.
Stephen, you’ve worked on all five Modern Warfare releases, correct? What did you want to do differently for this latest release? What did you want to carry forward from other games in this series?
Stephen Miller (SM): All except for Modern Warfare Remastered.
I joined Infinity Ward as a sound designer at the beginning of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s production in 2006. Going back to the Modern Warfare franchise was incredibly exciting. It also raised the question of how do we outdo ourselves, while remaining true to our love for the original series? This new epic told a story with a raw, gritty feel. We brought that to our sound design as well, stepping away from the classic cinematic-style for a more modern approach. We were certainly able to lean hard on new technology, given that a lot has changed since 2007 when the first Modern Warfare released. This new realism and grit is something we plan to carry forward into the future of this series.
The weapons are a main focus in an FPS. Can you tell me about your approach to the guns in this game?
Stuart Provine (SP): The goals were, first and foremost, do whatever could be done to differentiate the guns and turn them into unique “characters.”
Second, don’t overly diverge from people’s historical expectations (audiences have seen and heard these weapons depicted in hundreds of previous films and games).
And third, make every effort to simultaneously raise the bar in terms of realism. Of course, this must be accomplished within the confines of game memory and audio technical features supported by the game engine.
How many/what types of weapons did you record?
SP: We probably recorded sounds for about fifty weapons including pistols, select-fire assault rifles, submachine guns, bolt-action sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and more. We recorded those same weapons again with suppressors attached whenever possible. It was a lot of work, but we had the help of some amazing recordists and expert armorers.
Where did you do the gun recordings? What did your mic setups look like for the record sessions? What elements of each weapon did you want to capture to use in your designs later?
SP: Our biggest live-fire recording session took place in Arizona, but we also recorded various things in other spots both locally and across the country. John Paul Fasal, Charles Maynes, Bryan Watkins and Mitch Osias from Warner Brothers, and a bunch of the IW audio team all pitched in for the primary shoot in Arizona.
From the beginning, I wanted our weapon recording trips to be open to different recording approaches and styles. There were things we needed, but how to “get there” wasn’t something I wanted to dictate.
Two recording trips were dedicated solely to getting sound reflections, one of which we did at a very unique location in Florida with Watson Wu. Additionally, I would go out on solo trips with some really tolerant (and patient!) friends to record “character bits” — sounds that needed a little extra spice and perhaps more experimentation with environments and mic placement than we had time for during the larger sessions. Some of those outings produced great results that are featured prominently in the game.
From the beginning, I wanted our weapon recording trips to be open to different recording approaches and styles. There were things we needed, but how to “get there” wasn’t something I wanted to dictate. I’ve known Charles, Bryan, and John for many years because I used to work with those guys occasionally in the film industry. Charles and I have been great friends for fifteen years or so now. He’s one-of-a-kind, amazingly talented, and a truly wonderful human being. Each of these gentlemen have a unique and proven style that has been defining what weapons are “supposed” to sound like for decades. I wanted them to “imprint” their instincts into the recordings. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid listening to movies, games, and television for the last thirty-plus years you’ve already heard their excellent work. They are role models and teachers, and my respect and appreciation for them is beyond my ability to express with words.
In terms of the end results of all this recording, I wanted to have the broadest palette possible from which to draw ideas because each gun needed a unique sound signature — some “personality trait” that would set it apart from the rest. The reality is that dry and literal recordings of guns can sound very similar to one another. This compounds when you have many guns firing the same caliber ammunition. Since there are largely standardized ammunition specifications for rifles and pistol calibers, and many of the most prolific military-issued weapons fire this limited range of ammo, avoiding “sameness” becomes a distinct challenge. Additionally, there is no way to realistically capture and reproduce the sound pressure levels and concussive force of a firearm going off. It’s an experience that’s felt as much as it is heard, especially for the person firing the weapon. Even if you could reproduce it realistically, people would hate it. Imagine 160 dB transient bangs coming from your TV! The audience for true realism would be, to put it mildly… limited.
The reality is that dry and literal recordings of guns can sound very similar to one another. This compounds when you have many guns firing the same caliber ammunition.
As for microphones and gear, it was highly variable. Everybody used what they were comfortable with, but we also did experiment with a lot of stuff. We have a nice complement of recorders and microphones at IW, and I used a fair amount of personally-owned equipment too.
Did you also capture IRs for each space you shot/recorded in? How did you use these IRs when creating the guns in-game? (Was the reverb pre-processed onto each shot? Or is the reverb real-time audio processing?)
SM: We don’t support IR’s in our audio engine at the moment. We do have multiple in-game reverbs running, but convolution reverbs cost more CPU cycles than we could afford to spend with current generation hardware. The COD franchise demands fast and fluid gameplay, and any feature that compromises this would represent a step backward. Hopefully in the future we can do something like this.
A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare by The Hollywood Reporter
What were your biggest challenges when designing the guns? Creatively? Technically?
SP: From a creative standpoint, my biggest challenge was making each of the guns feel powerful and rewarding to use yet sound as realistic as possible. Call of Duty players don’t like it when the guns feel weak! It helps that I’m knowledgeable about firearms, having been around them my whole life. Each weapon required a new approach. There wasn’t any magic plug-in or standard effects chain. No particular microphone, preamp, recorder, or anything else that could be relied on to deliver consistently successful results. Perhaps there was an easier way besides reinventing the wheel for each gun, but I wasn’t able to find it. It was a long process, and I needed to become comfortable with failure. I’ve been accused of being my own harshest critic, but at the same time I had a clear idea of how I wanted things to sound. Hopefully people enjoy it!
From a creative standpoint, my biggest challenge was making each of the guns feel powerful and rewarding to use yet sound as realistic as possible.
With the rock-solid support of our Audio Director, Stephen Miller, I also lobbied for realistic gun features that have never been in a Call of Duty game before. Things such as trigger reset / disconnector sounds, open-bolt mechanics for appropriate machine guns, hammer / striker effects that play separately from the rest of the weapon, pistol slides and bolt carriers locking back on the last round, and more. Our Lead Technical Sound Designer Tim Stasica and I collaborated closely on a lot of the features. He’s simply incredible at what he does. Tim and I would talk about a problem, and he would find a way to create a solution. Sometimes what I was asking for would be pretty abstract, and he would either fix it himself or translate my request into something the code team could work with. Former Infinity Ward Audio Director Mark Ganus also helped with some of the gun assets, and on top of being a great guy, he was an important part of creating Modern Warfare’s soundscape. Without the other members of the IW audio team believing in taking it to the next level and having the skills and talent to make it happen, we wouldn’t have the same game. We still have a list of weapon-related things that we’re hoping to add, so it’ll get even better.
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What was your approach to implementing the gun sounds into the game? What are the elements that went into each shot?
There are the typical elements of the main transient attack, mechanical sounds, tails, and LFE, but we also change assets based on a number of gameplay situations, such as your current environment, stance, how long you’ve been firing the weapon.
Tim Stasica (TS): Our goal was for every gun shot to be unique to the current gameplay situation. There are the typical elements of the main transient attack, mechanical sounds, tails, and LFE, but we also change assets based on a number of gameplay situations, such as your current environment, stance, how long you’ve been firing the weapon. There are about 25 different sets of elements per weapon before we even get into attachments or caliber conversions. When players use Gunsmith to add under-barrels or silencers, a weapon platform can have hundreds of permutations heard in game.
In addition to the sounds coming from the weapon itself, we wanted to capture how much energy is thrown downrange, echoing around an environment. (I’ll talk about this more later in the interview)
Each time you fire a weapon the sound is going to be different. There are almost an infinite number of possible combinations of the different layers, so in the end the guns sound more realistic than they have ever been in the history of our franchise.
What was your method for adding variation into the weapon sounds?
SP: Each time you fire a weapon the sound is going to be different. There are almost an infinite number of possible combinations of the different layers, so in the end the guns sound more realistic than they have ever been in the history of our franchise. Reflections of gunfire play realistically depending on the distance to buildings and objects, whether you’re inside a space or outdoors, and are different for different guns.
More powerful weapons have more prominent reflections and are different again for when that same weapon is fired suppressed. Between all the various gun-related sounds in the game, there are many thousands of sounds involved. I don’t even know how many at this point. It was a ton of work!
Tell me about your approach to the non-combat mission, guiding a civilian through a terrorist-overrun embassy. What was your approach to sound for this mission? What were your challenges in terms of sound here?
Dave Rowe (DR): One of the important aspects of the game is this sense of civilians being intertwined with wartime conflicts and we wanted to make sure their story was told. We recorded a loop group for the various civilians and enemies you encounter in missions like “The Embassy,” “Piccadilly,” and “Hometown.” We wanted to make sure the player felt like they were responsible for the innocent civilians, and the addition of voice talent helped that emotional connection. In “The Embassy” mission there is a part where you are guiding a civilian while in contact with her on her cell phone. We recorded cell phone handling and cloth movements on an actual cell phone and processed it the same as the voice. This keeps the player emotionally connected to her on-screen and to her panicked desire to escape.
Some of the challenges for “The Embassy” included getting enough iteration time for such a lengthy mission and achieving the real-time effects of sounds on the other side of bulletproof glass. My favorite sound effect assets in the mission are the initial helicopter missile impact and the player mortar ready and fire.
We wanted to make sure the player felt like they were responsible for the innocent civilians, and the addition of voice talent helped that emotional connection.
What was the most challenging mission in terms of sound? What were your challenges?
DR: The most challenging mission was “Clean House.” We decided to take traditional Call of Duty aggressiveness and loudness and strip away sound until we got this awesome player suspense. This also meant being very selective and controlled with the sound that remained. Each event would be absolutely necessary for gameplay or story purposes, so we had to make sure they were of the highest quality and were contextualized properly for the player.
What was your approach to Foley on Modern Warfare? What did the Foley team cover? How did those sounds fit into the game?
Chris Egert (CE): We spent 32 days at the Sony Foley stage with walker Gary Hecker for this project. We focused on capturing great performances to picture as you would with film. The amount of dynamic range in this game is insane — more than we have ever had in any Call of Duty title, and the Foley is a major cornerstone of many big scenes. In the level “Hometown,” the player awakens under a pile of rubble after their village has been bombed.
The Foley in this intro scene … is so much more than mere background noise; it is the entire focal point and the emotional element used to ground the player in the scene.
As they slowly come to terms with what has transpired, they must claw their way through the debris and very primitively bang on a piece of metal with a rock to alert a nearby rescue team to their location. The Foley in this intro scene is intimate and in your face; we hear the tiniest speck of dust, followed by giant rocks crumbling, footsteps desperately searching, hands digging, and then the jarring sound of a concrete saw cutting rebar to free the player. The Foley here is so much more than mere background noise; it is the entire focal point and the emotional element used to ground the player in the scene. Moments later, as you are pulled from the debris, an explosion rocks the village and chaos ensues. As the scene unfolds, the character and environment Foley are the human elements that glue all the action together, and keep the player immersed in the cinematic experience.
What was your approach to dialogue on Modern Warfare? What did the dialogue team cover? How did those sounds fit into the game?
Dave Natale and Chrissy Arya: We have 40,000+ unique lines of dialogue in Modern Warfare per language, with a total of 11 recorded languages.
We tried a more natural approach to our capturing process by using microphones specifically selected to create the feel and tone of each element. This relates across the entire game based on whether or not it was cinematic, in-game, radio or other unique environments. Recording the dialogue in this natural approach created a sound that is impossible to replicate even with the best plug-ins and IR convolutions. By giving the actors the same physical environment or elements that they are using in-game to communicate with the rest of the other actors it helps to elevate their performance and make it more believable.
Recording the dialogue in this natural approach created a sound that is impossible to replicate even with the best plug-ins and IR convolutions.
For example, we created a custom 3D printed microphone mount for use on all of our gas mask recordings. In essence, our microphones became props for the performance. In certain cases when we captured the actor’s pre-life and the space between words, it often told as much story as the words themselves.
The guns aren’t the only things reacting to the spaces the player is in; the voices and Foley sounds interact with the environment, too. How did you keep the mix sounding clean with all this processing happening?
DR: We always try to keep the player focused towards their next objective without punishing player control of the scene — lead them to where they naturally should go but maintain immersion when they veer off and do their own thing. To do this, we create a lot of audio systems that support different real-time mixing decisions. These become pillars of the mix, and we start by mixing around them.
Another important element is keeping a wide dynamic range. Any mission-critical dialogue and some large set pieces get real-time special treatment. More importantly, not everything is meant to pop through, so you end up with a soundscape that creates diversity, depth perception, and variation to pull the player through the experience.
Modern Warfare uses a new game engine, allowing for more detailed environments, and advanced photogrammetry (for efficiently creating intricate textures). What did this new engine mean for the sound team? What advanced capabilities did it afford you? With clearer, more detailed images, how did that impact the work required from the sound team?
(TS): The hyper real visuals in our new engine led to us push boundaries towards realism in several areas. Since weapons in the game are now actual projectiles instead of hitscan technology, it afforded us the ability to play more realistic whiz-bys, correctly timed with a projectile’s approach, which cut off at the point of impact. The whole game has a concept of the actual speed of sound — sounds at distances have the correct real-world delay on them. This is something we’ve wanted to do in the past but it felt like a bug without the entire game being grounded in reality.
Since weapons in the game are now actual projectiles instead of hitscan technology, it afforded us the ability to play more realistic whiz-bys, correctly timed with a projectile’s approach, which cut off at the point of impact.
With every gunshot or explosion, ray-casts are drawn to find collisions with geometry where positional sound reflections are played in 3D space. These, too, playback with delays according to the speed of sound. The dimensions of your location and the way you hear sound in them brings every environment in the game to life.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare?
SM: The sound design in Modern Warfare helps to draw the player into the reality of the game world. Instead of just being background noise in a bombastic action movie, it sets the stage for a visceral experience — creeping through the rickety hallways of a townhouse, crawling through the dirt and grime of a prison cell, and listening for enemy movements in a mansion. The overall dynamic range supplements this experience, creating a more realistic soundscape that leaves room for a natural eb and flow. From the ambient elements, the realistic echo of your weapon in the distance out a window, to the cohesive sound aesthetics blurring the line between in-game and cinematics, the audio in this game surpassed my own expectations. I’m honored to have been given an opportunity to work with a lot of incredibly smart and talented people. Not just in sound, but all the other aspects as well. It takes a village to complete a game like this, and I’m both grateful and proud to have been a part of it.
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