Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of EA & Solid Audioworks
EA Sports Madden NFL 18, out now on PS4 and Xbox One, offers players a new experience that no Madden game has yet — story mode. In Longshot story mode, the player takes on the role of Devin Wade, a top-rated high school quarterback who seeks a spot in the NFL. The story journeys through his youth, where the player must successfully complete pivotal games, into the present where Devin faces off in a televised competition against other NFL hopefuls. The player must also make character decisions that ultimately affect Devin’s chances of being picked for the NFL Draft.
Last year, Solid Audioworks in Edinburgh, Scotland handled the sound of Madden NFL 17, which followed the traditional Madden gameplay of team-building and gridiron battles in a quest for Super Bowl victory. Their sound work focused on the broadcast commentators and crowd reactions, and covered all of the on-field activity, from footwork to impacts and everything in between.
Madden NFL 18: Longshot needed a completely different, more nuanced approach. Award-winning audio directors Will Morton and Craig Conner and their team at Solid Audioworks created storytelling sound that brings the player into Devin’s world. For instance, their Foley details helped to articulate Devin’s intimidating first encounter with the press. Morton says, “We paid particular attention to this throughout the whole of Madden NFL 18: Longshot ‘s audio design.”
Here, Morton and Conner talk about their work on the EA Sports Madden NFL franchise, and share details about their approach to designing and mixing cinema-quality sound for Longshot.
You’re a British sound team hired to bring something new to the sound of a quintessentially American game — NFL football. How did you prepare for working on the Madden franchise?
Will Morton (WM): When we were brought onto Madden it was really exciting for us. We were quite open about the fact that we knew nothing about the sport at that time but the directors at EA liked our sounds and ideas, and that we were bringing a very fresh perspective to the audio.
We watched a lot of NFL games to get a feel for the sound and why certain things are exciting, but learning the rules of the game didn’t really happen until we actually got hands-on with Madden itself. We’re definitely fans of the sport now!
Will and Conner share a short montage from their work on another EA Sports title, NBA Live 18
On Madden NFL 17, you recorded Foley at Pinewood Studios. But for this project, you custom-built your own Foley stage as opposed to renting one. Can you share details about your stage? What were the advantages of having your own Foley stage?
WM: On Madden 17 we directed Foley sessions out-of-house at studios normally associated with feature films, but for Madden 18 Longshot ‘s cinematics we decided to have part of our studio converted into a Foley stage. We have four pits with gravel, rubble, sand, etc, and a set of interchangeable panels for surfaces like tiles, carpet, etc., plus an ever-growing prop room. Currently we’ve got builders and joiners expanding the Foley set-up further, with a small water pool and more surfaces.
Game development is way more organic than making a movie, so there’s really no such thing as getting a rough cut of the game and being able to do the sound for it. It’s a constantly evolving product and you need to evolve with it.
Having a decent Foley room at your disposal is an incredible asset. Game development is way more organic than making a movie, so there’s really no such thing as getting a rough cut of the game and being able to do the sound for it. It’s a constantly evolving product and you need to evolve with it. Having our own Foley setup meant that we could get assets recorded at a moment’s notice as often as we needed, which was essential on something the size of Longshot.
Almost everything in Longshot was designed and recorded by us here in Scotland. We did, however, have recordists in Texas capturing authentic ambiences and crowd walla sounds for us, and a recordist in San Diego who sourced and recorded some specific ‘rattly, American-truck body’ sounds for us.
A behind-the-scenes look at the team’s work on Madden NFL 17
Colt’s truck in Longshot is almost a character in itself. We really wanted to give the truck its own sound, treating it as a character that could also help tell the story. We ended up creating a unique ‘hybrid’ engine sound from existing recordings and new recordings, and really detailed ‘non-engine’ sounds. We have the ticking of the engine cooling down, the well-worn springs in the seats, the hiss of steam escaping from the front grill, and the creaks and tapping of the bodywork. It all came together to reinforce Colt’s character — that he loves and will always look after the important things in his life more than he cares about himself. He’s a real genuine friend for life.
Craig, what was your goal for the dialogue and how did you achieve the sound you were looking for?
Craig Conner (CC): Moving from Madden 17 to Madden 18 was a fun experience. On Madden 17, we did a large overhaul of the game’s audio and only touched on the cinematics during the opening interactive experience when you first load the game. At that point, Madden didn’t have a story-mode.
On Longshot, we were solely concentrated on the cinematics. We were hoping to maintain consistency but also go with an entirely new sound. We kept the same commentary sound for Brandon Gaudin (play-by-play voice) and Charles Davis (analyst), so that the commentary was consistent not just through the different modes of the game but also through different editions of the game.
However for the college games in Longshot, we created a different sound for the commentators. We still retaining the close-mic’d compressed VO sound but tried to avoid the ‘sheen’ that a TV broadcast commentary has.
As an overall stylistic approach, we treated Longshot as a movie rather than a game, and went to great lengths to give it a movie sound. Almost all the dialogue was recorded on the mo-cap stage, so conditions were obviously fantastic and that meant we had amazingly consistent and clean assets to work with. But, given the fact that Longshot is set in a small dusty town in Texas and it’s about two guys working their way up from the bottom, we really wanted to ‘dirty up’ the sound a bit and make it sound more like it was recorded on-location.
Some games and films which are ADR-heavy can have a ‘booth’ sound to them, but the visuals and characters of Longshot are so real and the story so engaging we wanted to make the sound match that. We spent a lot of time analyzing dialogue from films that we liked the sound of, testing mics and analyzing the results, and trying to work out the exact effect sound had on different mic capsules in different situations. In the end we were very happy. We got a believable sound for the dialogue. A bit of natural grittiness goes a long way!
The story travels back to Devin’s high school days and the player has to participate in those games. How does the sound of Devin’s past games compare to the sound of gameplay in the present?
WM: The flashback scenes to Devin’s childhood and high school days had a different sound from the rest of the game. The ambiences were different, the crowds were different. We went to great lengths to make the NFL games sound huge, almost like the crowd could swallow you whole. We really wanted to capture the enormity and ‘grandness’ of the NFL games, but for the games when Devin was younger, we made the sound feel more intimate without losing the excitement of the bigger games.
Longshot is this televised football competition series. Sound-wise, what was your approach there? Did you want that show to sound different from a regular NFL game?
WM: The idea of Longshot being a fictitious TV show within the game was brilliant, and was really fun to work on. We composed a ‘TV theme’ for the show and did an epic orchestral version for the Longshot finale episode where Devin gets to play with the football legends.
Mike and Brian had a really clear vision from the start about how Longshot should look, feel, and sound and it was great to be able to sculpt the audio to help realize their vision.
There was also a lot of sci-fi-like ‘whoosh and boom’ for the motion graphics, with the TV stage being revealed, etc. It was all about capturing the excitement of a reality game show. There were also sections with a lot of dialogue choices and cuts to and from the TV studio, so there was a lot of work that went into ensuring a consistent flow — not just from the audio but the performance of the actors too. Mike Young (writer and director of Longshot), Brian Murray (Director of Presentation), and Robin Cowie (Producer) did an amazing job of making that all run like clockwork and giving us a great palette of visuals to work with. Mike and Brian had a really clear vision from the start about how Longshot should look, feel, and sound and it was great to be able to sculpt the audio to help realize their vision.
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In Madden 17, you designed the sound so that each camera angle has a unique sound perspective. As the camera angle changes, the sound also changes to reflect the distance of the camera to action. How did you expand on this concept for Madden 18? On a technical level, how did you achieve this perspective change?
WM: Every angle in every scene was treated differently. We’ve always approached our work in a way that doesn’t just make our sound real; we want to make it sound relevant, which is especially important when we’re working on something with a rich narrative like Longshot. It involves so many things, from transient designers and click removal software to soften sounds to make them sound less close-mic’d to massive automation envelopes controlling reverb, spread, and EQ. We put together a toolbox of plug-ins that we couldn’t live without (well, that’s maybe a bit dramatic, but you know what I mean!). A few standout pieces are: Native Instruments Reaktor, NUGEN Audio Halo Upmix, and Renoise (digital audio-workstation).
For our dialogue, ambience, etc., we built a saturation and distortion module in Reaktor based on what we had learned from analyzing broadcast gear, talking to TV sound crews, and analyzing mic and preamp signals.
We like to make a lot of our own tools to get the exact sounds we want, and we used Reaktor a lot on Longshot. For our dialogue, ambience, etc., we built a saturation and distortion module in Reaktor based on what we had learned from analyzing broadcast gear, talking to TV sound crews, and analyzing mic and preamp signals. As well as putting us on the right track to the ‘slightly dirty but real film sound’ we were looking for, it also meant that we could forge the sound in exactly the way we wanted and get a unique sound too.
We used NUGEN Audio’s Halo Upmix on our ambiences. We recorded our ambiences in surround where possible, but also had to work with ambiences recorded at different locations at different times which may have been recorded with a different channel count or configuration. With Halo Upmix, it was incredibly easy to get a cohesive surround sound through all the assets, and its channel-reduction compatibility is absolutely rock-solid. It was invaluable when it came to giving each area in the story its own sense of space and size. As well as using reverb to create a sense of space, we also subtly controlled the amount of ‘surround’ our sound had at relevant points in the game to increase tension where the script called for it. It’s very subtle, but little things like that add up to making the overall experience more immersive.
We used Renoise (yes, the DAW!) when creating collision sounds for the football games as part of Longshot long’s story. Renoise has an incredibly versatile sample playback system and you can build patches in moments that would take a lot longer to script in other samplers/software. We loaded it with tons of collision and impact samples we had recorded then set it to play samples randomly from their banks with random variations in pitch and volume and started playing chords and recording the output. We ended up with a lot of variation, and from there we kept the best and used it as a base to form some real bone-crunching hits, tackles, and falls. We did this to retain continuity with the game sound effects, but as these moments in Longshot usually had high importance we wanted to give them extra detail and a slightly different sound.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Madden 18 Longshot ?
WM: There are so many things that make us proud about our work on Longshot. It is a real privilege that we were asked to help shape such an amazing piece of entertainment from the beginning, and we can’t wait for the story to develop. We’re really happy with the movie sound we produced — the dialogue, the overall soundscape, the dynamics of the drama, and gameplay.
We wanted to make the viewer feel that this big guy playing the star position is nervous and intimidated, like he hadn’t learned to come out of his shell.
There are a few scenes that we are really proud of sound-wise. One is when Devin arrives at Longshot and gets out of the car to be surrounded by journalists when he meets Julia to be escorted inside. Devin is a big 6’4″ guy who plays quarterback — an intimidating figure by all accounts, so we slightly increased the ‘weight’ of the sound of Devin moving off the car seat and his feet hitting the ground. But when Devin is surrounded by journalists, we pulled-back on the weight of his footfalls and movement Foley. We wanted to make the viewer feel that this big guy playing the star position is nervous and intimidated, like he hadn’t learned to come out of his shell. It was a beautiful moment in the story, and one where there is no dialogue so the sound could take a front seat in selling the narrative for a moment. Again, it’s very subtle but it works well.
The flashback to Devin’s dad’s accident is another moment we’re really proud of. Mike [Young] and Brian [Murray] did an amazing job on that scene, and we really wanted to do it justice. It was a great scene to work on for so many reasons. Creatively, we were able to mix a lot of ‘real world’ sound design with synthetic sound design — enough manufactured sounds to give the scene a sense of ‘otherworldliness,’ disorientation and being overwhelmed, but we kept it firmly grounded in reality so the player didn’t become disconnected from the story.
Any other sound highlights on this project you’d like to talk about?
WM: There’s Ross’s hoverboard. Ross’s little jerks and movements as he gets used to controlling the board are hilarious and we really needed to match that with the sound. We recorded the sound of a radio-controlled car so that we were able to ‘perform’ this — having a reactive ‘analogue’ motor sound was essential. We recorded the motor of a hospital bed to mix with the remote control car so the hoverboard sounded more solid.
The creaks on Devin’s porch came from twisting an over-tightened coffee table leg.
We used a large feather cushion to record football player body hits, pats on the back and shoulder, etc. Recording these pats for real sounded too ‘clappy’ and not solid enough, but slapping a big feather cushion and then doing a click-removal pass to lessen the crunchiness of the feathers gave us really satisfying body slaps and pats.
A big thanks to Will Morton and Craig Conner for giving us a look at the story-driven sound of Madden NFL 18: Longshot – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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