That was the challenge Max Lachmann and the team at Pole Position Production faced when they were brought in to create the sound for SNOW, an open-world, free-to-play winter sports game from indie studio Poppermost Productions.
Here is Max with tips, tricks and insights on how they recorded, tweaked and implemented the brilliant winter sound effects you hear in SNOW. But first, a short introductory video:
Max Lachmann on making the sound for SNOW:
In SNOW players can ride down massive mountains exploring the vast environment or spend time in the terrain parks practicing rail and air tricks – and the sound had to be just right.
When Alexander Bergendahl, Poppermost’s CEO initially asked me if I was interested in helping out with the audio bits, I was really excited! Having done mostly vehicles before in my company Pole Position Production, this was a nice challenge, and a possibility for us to get into a wider range of games. At this point there was no budget, but I still decided to put some efforts into it to see what I could do to help Poppermost out. Alexander promised that when there was a budget I would get paid later on. Ever heard that before? Did it ever happen? Well, Alexander sure stood up to his promise!
What’s out there?
So, my first thing to do was to start looking through the libraries I had at hand, realising there was literally nothing I could use from them. No clean skiing sounds, no clean ski resort ambiences without loud voices, really nothing at all.
To get at least something to start to work with, I sent my girlfriend, who is a decent skier unlike myself, out the local slopes with my Olympus LS-5. I got that in the game, along with some foley I did, but the initial feedback from the Poppermost guys was clear. It sounded too icey.
The initial feedback from the Poppermost guys was clear. It sounded too icey. But this was actually a really good start
But this was actually a really good start. It made me realise how serious they are about what they are doing, and they know what they are talking about. So during my spare time, I kept supplying them with a few sounds now and then, created from what I had.
Eventually, Alexander called me and asked if we could have a meeting. It turned out he had finally got some financing for the project, and they wanted to do some proper sound recording. So we had a budget set up that covered something like eight days of recording, and about a month of sound design and implementation. This is quite something for a small indie developer, to show that level of dedication for the project’s audio, and I am very proud that I got to do it for them. At this time I also brought in my colleagues Bernard Löhr and Mats Lundgren from Pole to help out.
The art of indoor skiing
Together with Alexander, we made a long list of sounds that were needed. It covered everything from player foley to surface sounds, rails of different materials, ski lifts of different kinds, ambiences, voice over, UI and much more. We eventually evaluated and updated this list, since it was created in such an early phase of the development.
With this list in mind, we planned the first recording sessions. First out was a foley session in the studio. Bernard, who is a very experienced skier, brought his skiing equipment and we rigged him with microphones. A couple of DPA4061s on his helmet, a pair of Schoeps CMC6 from the sides, and probably a few other mics, all recorded in Pro Tools.
We created over a dozen sounds during the session including clothes rustling, ski poles hitting each other, ski boots creaking, bindings clicking and much more. The sounds from the clothes was the most useful from this session, all the other sounds turned out sounding out of context, and we realised we had to record them outdoors to give them the proper feel.
Rigged from head to toe
The next session was at a ski resort up north. Mats and I started out doing some more foley stuff on the night of the arrival, tumbling in snow, jumping through bushes, banging skis into various things, planting poles in the snow and much more. We used our Neumann RSM191 shotgun and also our two Schoeps, and recorded onto our Sound Devices 702. The next day we started our work with the surface and skiing sounds. Since neither of us had done anything similar before, besides my initial testing with a handheld recording device, it was all about trial and error.
So we rigged Bernard from head to toe. Two DPA4061s on the helmet, a Crown PZM on the top of each ski, two more DPAs on the boots, and a Neumann RSM191 taped to his backpack, like we do with motorcycles. He also carried a Zaxcom Fusion eight track recorder in the backpack.
So finally, we had Bernard going on his own with just the RSM, and a crowd of people staring at him
Listening back to the first runs we quickly realised this was not the route to go. So our next try was with Mats going beside Bernard with the Neumann RSM191. This gave a much more natural and smooth sounding result.
So finally, we had Bernard going on his own with just the RSM, and a of crowd people staring at him. While Mats and Bernard were in the slopes, I walked around with our Schoeps doing ambience recordings, recording lifts, and skiers passing by in the slopes.
A helping hand from Kläppen
After going back to the studio and evaluating the result of the first skiing session, the second session was more thoroughly planned. Poppermost got us set up at the ski resort Kläppen in Sälen, Sweden. Besides nice slopes, they also have an amazing terrain park with all kinds of rails and jumps. The Kläppen staff was extremely nice and helpful. They shut down music for us when recording, they took us up the mountains on snowmobiles after the lifts closed, to record wind and ambiences without disturbances. They let us into the main lift engine building and even started and stopped it for us despite all the people on it.
Poppermost had also arranged with a student, Måns, from a skiing high school nearby, and he and his friends performed all kinds of jumps and tricks for us. So besides some more regular skiing performed by Bernard, again with a handheld RSM191 and a Sound Devices 702, we also got all kinds of amazing stuff. We mounted DPA4061s on the rails, and followed the skiers with both the RSM191, a Telinga dish with a Sennheiser MKH8020 and a Sennheiser MKH8060 and recorded this on our Sound Devices 788.
We worked our way through regular jumps and rails of different materials, and ended the day with recording a bunch of rough stops.
One of the things that amazed me the most was the natural swooshes you could hear when the skiers flew over your head
One of the things that amazed me the most was the natural swooshes you could hear when the skiers flew over your head. All the swooshes in the film about the audio recordings for SNOW are the real deal.
From this trip we got back with a big bulk of useful sounds, such as the sound you get when you fly off a jump and all the rails, not to mention the winds and lift sounds. The noise from the lifts are a bit of a problem when you record in a ski resort, since the sharp tone they make can be heard all over. On the positive side, it’s very constant and most of it can be removed with a hard set eq.
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Getting the ground right
At this point we realised that the actual ground material sounds would be a bit of a problem. We have had pretty much the same weather conditions on both our trips, which was about freezing degrees or slightly less, wind and even rain. So our chances of capturing all of the different materials needed, powder, ice, piste and wind-packed snow were not very good.
Most of what we had recorded so far had a good but a somewhat similar texture. So getting these sounds right took a bit of sound design from Mats, and some iteration after feedback from Poppermost. Mats had to take on different approaches depending on what sound he was going for. We had plenty of source material riding over soft snow and piste. Many times it was all about finding parts of the recordings where there were long enough sequences to be able to create a loopable sample. He used equalisation a lot for controlling the high frequencies, but there wasn’t that much fixing really.
He took these rather short fragments and put them randomly so that they would overlap each other, creating the effect of skis going over packed ice
For icy surfaces it was a little trickier since there were no actual recordings of that. However, from my very early attempts I had recorded some ice-surfaces and Mats was able to use that. What he did was that he took these rather short fragments and put them randomly so that they would overlap each other, creating the effect of skis going over packed ice.
He did also blend in some white noise into it to even out the sound a little bit. This way of overlapping short bits of audio is also how he created the ski-turning sounds.
The most difficult sound to create was that of turning on powder because we had no recording of really soft snow at all, especially not spraying soft snow. So we ended up using some kind of soft plastic foam that sounded like spraying snow when it expanded after being squeezed.
Time for adjustments
The equalizer was the main tool for controlling the interrelation between different surfaces so that they would be perceived as different from each other. For softer surfaces we applied darker eq; for harder surfaces brighter. It took some trial and error to get that right. To control the levels Mats used the Precision Limiter from UAD. He also used Waves Linear Broadband Eq to take out some ugly high frequencies when necessary.
Finally, on top of this I did some additional recordings on a family skiing vacation. I focused on some more skiing, this time with a handheld Sennheiser MKH8060, and some ambiences with a pair of Sennheiser MKH8040s into a Sound Devices 702.
It didn’t take long before the rumours about the weird guy with fluffy things went around the resort again…
Most of the ambiences we had gotten before had people skiing in them, which would sound awkward in the game where the player is usually the only person in sight, so I needed more ambiences but without other people in them.
I also recorded some lift pylons, to get the sound you hear as the lifts pass them. It didn’t take long before the rumours about the weird guy with fluffy things went around the resort again…
Getting the sounds in the game
Once we started getting sounds into the game, Poppermost came up with a bunch of references on how they wanted it to sound. So for the player experience we started with speed wind, clothes rustling in the wind and the actual surface sounds, going straight, turning and stopping.
Using Fmod we set up parameters for player speed, wind speed, turning speed and more. We added ambience winds, poles placed in the ground, jump and landing sounds and so on.
We made sure the different camera angles captured the differences in distances. We added a small jump sound that plays as you leave the edge of the jump, a sound that was clearly prominent in our recordings. For the railing part, we have one sound playing when landing on the rail, and then I created looping sounds using The Mangler, a great granular synthesis tool. This is still work in progress, with plenty of work remaining such as adding detail sound effects like snow spray, swooshes, clothes moving sounds among other things.
We would never have been able to reach the level of authenticity in the game without Poppermost’s determination and dedication, spending the money on recording the real thing. Nothing beats original source material when it comes to sound design, and once you have the bulk recorded, your bought libraries are a great resource to add that little extra to the final design.
It was also a good lesson to learn that from all the eight tracks we recorded in our first attempts, with a mindset similar to our vehicle recordings, it turned out to be too detailed and that a simple handheld shotgun microphone was the best way to create a soundscape similar to what a skier experiences.
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