Asbjoern Andersen


Studio MDHR's first game, Cuphead, was released just over a week ago, and it has been receiving a lot of attention for its uncanny visual replication of '30s cartoons. But it is the sound design in Cuphead that has really sealed the deal in making players feel like they're experiencing something straight out of Talkertoons - all thanks to the Sweet Justice audio studio!

In this interview, you'll hear from Samuel Justice, co-founder of Sweet Justice (along with Chris Sweetman), about creating and mixing the sound effects for this unique indie project and how the team gave Cuphead a true Golden Age cartoon sound.


Written by Adriane Kuzminski, images courtesy of Studio MDHR, sounds courtesy of Sweet Justice
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Hi Samuel, could you please introduce yourself?

Samuel Justice: Thanks for having me! My name’s Samuel Justice, I’m a co-founder of Sweet Justice and one of the sound designers on Cuphead.

 

When did Sweet Justice first get involved in the sound design of Cuphead?

SJ: We had heard rumblings of the game first back in 2014 – it was shown at E3 then but only during a montage of upcoming games at the Xbox stage show. Like many others, even though only about 2-3 seconds of gameplay flashed on screen, we were all taken aback. What was this game?! Soon after we found out about Chad and Jared, the Moldenhauer brothers based in Canada behind Studio MDHR, who were creating Cuphead. Initially it was a small passion project, but after the response they’d received they decided to hedge all their bets on it – they quit their jobs, remortgaged and went full steam into creating the game.

We’ve been actively trying to seek out up-and-coming studios to help them with audio support and guidance, as there’s so much unrealised potential still in this industry.

Soon after we found out about the brothers, we sent them an email explaining who we were and how intriguing the game was. We weren’t expecting to hear much back – it was more just an email showing support of how unique and interesting the game was, being big fans of the sound and visuals from cartoons of the era ourselves. We like to keep our fingers on the pulse of the industry, not only in terms of games but also the trends of gameplay and what people are leaning towards in games today. We knew that there was (and still is) quite a big pushback against what are considered “easy” games, with the popularity of titles such as Dark Souls, Bloodborne, the raids in Destiny, etc. There is a definite lean towards challenging games at the moment – and Cuphead ’s gameplay married with the art style is a great example of a fantastic experience arriving at the perfect time. We knew that it was going to be a special project. We’ve been actively trying to seek out up-and-coming studios to help them with audio support and guidance, as there’s so much unrealised potential still in this industry.

About 11 months(!!) later we received a reply from Chad Moldenhauer, expressing interest in having us on board for the project. We replied saying how we’d be very excited to be involved and then didn’t hear back for a further 3-4 months. After a very slow back-and-forth, we eventually found ourselves working on the game in roughly 2016. However, most of the audio development and sound design occurred 4-5 months prior to release.

 

Cuphead faces evil pointy-toothed fairgrounds rides

 

The game has been getting great reception for its lovable ‘30s style sound design and animation. What films, TV series, and sound designers did you study for inspiration?

It was important to us to give the feeling of a 1930s cartoon, rather than directly replicate it.

SJ: We were quite careful to not directly reference any individual cartoons or pieces – as it was important to us to give the feeling of a 1930s cartoon, rather than directly replicate it. Sound-wise our big influencers were people such as Treg Brown, Jimmy MacDonald and the folks who pioneered the memorable cartoon sound still prevalent today. We wanted the game to be a love letter to the amazing work they had done. However, the music and sound effects were so inherently married in those cartoons, always being in sync with one another and usually in the same key or tone. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury on Cuphead – the arcade nature of the game coupled with the busy music meant that the sound design was only to be used for the most important gameplay “notifications” (warning players of attack patterns, letting players know progress, etc.). That was our major limitation when creating the sound for the game – if there is a sequel we have plans to get around this, but unfortunately due to the size of the team on the project and the small budget, we were unable to create the system that would allow sound and music to be synchronised in a way that would further the sound towards the original cartoons.

Video Thumbnail

A vintage Disney feature on cartoon Foley sounds


Cuphead is simply loaded with charming textures and prop foley. Would you be willing to share some of the techniques you used to design your creations? Did you happen to dig up any long-lost methods along the way?

SJ: The audio back then was such a great celebration of creativity, not only the creation of props to create individual sounds, but also the use of audio that at the time might’ve been considered abstract (but is now considered normal), such as using a fast car-by for a character rushing across the screen. During the opening of the game, the player speaks to the “Elder Kettle” – his vocalisations were made quite literally by speaking into a big pot and rattling the lid in the process. The sound of the player completing a level and the flag popping out of the ground is reminiscent of the xylophone rise, but was instead recreated by using small drumsticks on porcelain cups. The game is full of little nods to the past but recreated for the style of Cuphead.

The celebratory flag raise after you *finally* beat that boss

 

Did you use any cartoon sound libraries from the era? (And did I catch a shortened Wilhelm scream in the Funfair Fever level?)

SJ: Ha! It does sound quite Wilhelm-ish now thinking about it. We occasionally used from libraries, but we endeavoured to create as much as possible as we could from scratch. We referenced the libraries a lot – but a lot of the fun is also reverse engineering things, imagining how those sounds were created and then adding your own spin to it.

 

Cuphead runs across the ceiling as toy cars and ducks charge at him

 

As far as focusing the mix, Cuphead presents some very tricky situations. As a “run and gun” game, there is a lot going on in each scene: the main character is constantly shooting and dodging a dizzyingly amount of enemies, and even the big band tracks are quite busy. Plus, to maintain that ‘30s aesthetic, you worked in a relatively limited frequency range for the sound effects. How did you achieve such a clean mix in these challenging circumstances?

So whilst our aesthetic reference was the old cartoon audio, our mix reference was those old games.

SJ: For the first few levels we would create sounds for every animation and thing on screen; it was way, way, way too much. In the final game, you’re probably hearing about 30% of the audio we created for the game. When we were mixing the game, it became more about removing sounds than anything else. The most important sounds were the ones that help notify the player of either enemy intentions or their own (whether they had built up their super weapons, etc.). Gameplay-wise it’s a total throwback to games such as Megaman, Contra and the old console arcade shooters.

Video Thumbnail

The music for Cuphead also captures that ’30s sound – here’s a look at one of the recording sessions


So whilst our aesthetic reference was the old cartoon audio, our mix reference was those old games – but again in the same approach of creating the feeling rather than directly trying to copy, as those games can vary quite a bit in terms of what information the player is given sonically. The music itself is such a huge character and driving force in the game that it needed to be the star of the show for the most part, with the sound design being the force to communicate messages to the player during the chaos.
 

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In communicating to the player during the chaos, what was your approach to emphasizing sound events that were important for the gameplay?

SJ: Luckily when we had stripped back the sound heavily, we found that things didn’t need increasing in level to poke through – we had set up some in-game busses that allowed for sounds that passed over a certain threshold to drive other busses (either positively or negatively) similar to sidechain dynamic shaping, although we had to be careful with that so it wouldn’t cause issues with the runtime mastering of the game, which was the essential glue to the whole mix.

The boss rush nature of the game means that not only does the sound need to inform, it also needs to be non-repetitive but at the same time “catchy” and fun to hear multiple times over.

The game is brutally hard – the visuals lull potential players into thinking it’ll be a simple game, but by no means is this true. It’s widely reported as one of the most challenging games made in the last few years. For this reason as well, players will be replaying the same segments over and over trying to get through levels, and the boss rush nature of the game means that not only does the sound need to inform, it also needs to be non-repetitive but at the same time “catchy” and fun to hear multiple times over. Even when I say this I know how crazy that sounds – it was certainly a challenge! “How do we make X sound enjoyable the 50th time someone has heard it?” I think a lot of it comes down to the simplicity and fun nature of the sound design itself: it’s not intrusive or fighting with the music, it’s only there when needed, and then removed when not.

 

A mermaid turns green and has purple Medusa-like snakes for hair

 

The vintage feel from the compression and filters really brings all the madness together. Do you have any tools you’d recommend to sound designers who are looking to achieve a similar sound?

SJ: There were two main methods we did to achieve this. First was the offline mastering: we created a fun chain for the SFX utilizing plugins such as Reel ADT, Kings Microphone, reverbs (we made sure sounds that were too close sounding were pushed back slightly, as though they were recorded in a room a few feet away from the microphone), modeled EQs, etc. I think it was around 10 plugins when all was said and done: some adding a lot of processing, some just adding subtle nuances to help modulate certain elements of the sounds. The few short lines of dialogue were processed in another way to make them feel very extra crunchy and old. Those lines came out great and are some of my favourite sounds in the game.

Funnily enough, some plugins that were designed to recreate old decks and EQs felt too modern, more ‘50s and ‘60s rather than ‘30s. We spent a lot of time experimenting with a large number of plugins, which has proven quite beneficial to learning the unique sound of each one.

We wanted the SFX and music to play with each other in a somewhat unpredictable manner, as though we’d just pulled out a stream of old optical tape, and that anything could happen.

Then the game went through a heavy runtime mastering process – this is the most important feature that makes the title feel like a 1930s cartoon. We wanted the SFX and music to play with each other in a somewhat unpredictable manner, as though we’d just pulled out a stream of old optical tape, and that anything could happen. There’s a lot going on in the mastering chain – I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s overly complex, however, as game engines make handling tasks like this so much fun. We would spend hours just tweaking and fine-tuning it, and every time a little surprise would pop out when we would test it.

Aside from the obvious compression, EQs and processing effects, we spent a lot of time making sure the music and SFX would interact with each other in lots of fun ways. Some were systems driven and others were manipulating the pitch and frequencies domain of groups. Then we topped it off with subtle effects such as modulating flange and sidechain distortion. Between the mastering chain and our in-game FX, the resulting sound could sometimes be untamed and unpredictable, which was quite fun to work with and again added to the surprising results at times.

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The owner of Porkrind’s Emporium says, “Welcome”

 

Since Cuphead has an energy that makes it seem like it was incredibly fun to work on, what scenes were the most enjoyable to design?

SJ: After we established the sound, each designer was given a level or two to really flesh out and make feel their own. It was so much fun to see what everyone came up with and how they interpreted the sound, which is what makes the game such a celebration of the era.

We wanted each boss to sound unique, and the best way to achieve that with the style of sound was to give them individual vocalisations – whereas the platforming run ‘n’ gun levels were more of a celebration of the expected kind of cartoon sounds.

 

What scene are you most proud of?

SJ: We all have our favourite sounds and levels in the game, but what we’re most proud of is how consistently fun the game sounds – even now every level makes me smile. Hannah, one of the sound designers, made a great sound of modulated guitar feedback for the Genie character when a light bulb appears above his head and starts to laugh – it fit the style perfectly and sounded so creative.

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For the Mermaid animation of going down and under the sea, we recorded Hannah gradually lowering her head into a bowl of water whilst laughing. There’s something about performing vocalisations in water that’s really quite amusing.

Cala Maria, the mermaid, laughs as she goes deep to reveal a new trick

One of my favourite levels is the circus platforming level – the music is old ragtime piano and the sound design is all the lovely classic sounds (pops, splats, manipulating instruments, etc.). It all marries together so, so well in that level – it really feels like it was pulled right from an old cartoon.

 

Thank you for giving us a look at the sound in Cuphead – you’ve given us a lot to think about! Where can people follow your team on social media?

SJ: We’re most active on our Twitter at @sweetjusticesnd, Instagram, and of course Facebook.

 

A big thanks to Samuel Justice for giving us a look and listen to the ’30s style sound design of Cuphead – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!

 

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