Mark Petty is a musician, engineer and sound designer. He is currently the Audio Director for Gearbox. This article was created in association with Dolby.
In early development of Borderlands 3 the audio team got together and discussed goals for the franchise moving forward. From an audio perspective we were looking for ways to be more expressive and dynamic with the sound scape.
Ok, so what do we mean by expressive? Good question!
First off, we wanted to build upon the weapon system, being a game that has a bazillion weapon combinations the challenge is to convey to the player that the attachments/combinations feel unique and add a new expression sonically. The weapon system that we put in place does exactly this. In working with my lead sound designer Brian Fieser, we started to dissect the weapon parts and create a more granular approach. Breaking the shot, for example, down to individual buckets of content. So, the mech, barrel, muzzle, and tail within each manufacturer and weapon type provided opportunities to have varied combinations sound unique, not only in source content but also in dynamic mix perspective. This approach carried over into every individual weapon part and includes reloads, mechs and iron sights.
One of the other goals was Atmos support. While we didn’t have a 7.1.4 mix environment at the onset of development, our thoughts and goals with regards to implementation were based on this being our mix format. We dove into how we were attaching sounds to creatures, characters, weapons and the environments. We experimented with how we were tagging animations. Moving away from attaching sounds to the root of the asset and instead looking for opportunities where the sound could travel with the action. A prime example of this would be boss type creatures. Attaching the whoosh to a large monster’s hand instead of the root meant that if that action passed over the players head then height as well as horizontal plane information were more pronounced.
Once we had the Atmos mix room up and running we discovered a couple of things. The implementation adjustments we made to support this format really paid off. The addition of heights really seemed to tie together the realism of objects in the world and positional information for the player. On the other side of that, we also were able to use the height information to fine tune the mix, make decisions to intentionally propagate content to the heights, as well as understand assets that weren’t spatializing correctly. The thing about being more positional with tagging asset locations, and listening in 7.1, is there was no way to know what was hitting the heights. Weapon reload and player foley were hitting the height channels and now needed to be adjusted to focus more on LRC. Basically, we had more information so we were able to refine the level of spatial detail beyond the 7.1 environment.
People often bring up the point of “Yeah, but how many people actually have Atmos setups at home?”. In my opinion it doesn’t matter. From an authoring and mixing standpoint, the more information we have, the more we can improve the accuracy of the mix, regardless of end user format. After testing in stereo, we found that the mix felt cleaner and more focused.
I think the unexpected find for us is that Atmos became a tool, a way to raise the level of detail and provide an overall better player experience.