DICEâ??s David Möllerstedt and Stefan Strandberg talk sound design on a new Battlefield titleâ?¦

Heard About: Battlefield Bad Company


Formats: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts

The Audio Team:
David Möllerstedt (head of audio), Stefan Strandberg (audio director), Bence Pajor (sound design), Olof Strömqvist (voice-over producer), Tobias Falk (cut scene director), Mikael Karlsson (composer), Please MusicWorks (composers), Jonatan Blomster (audio programmer), Anders Clerwall (audio programmer), Björn Hedberg (audio programmer), Johan Kotlinski (audio programmer)

Discussion of Battlefield’s audio reveals passion, care and enlightened pragmatism which are both refreshing and impressive.

Enjoying a rare opportunity to start from scratch with a brand new game engine, head of audio David Möllerstedt and audio director Stefan Strandberg worked closely with the DICE Tools group to ensure a well-integrated sound functionality. With multi-player environments allowing up to 24 protagonists to blast each other with a variety of noisy weaponry, cacophony was always a clear and present danger in new game Bad Company.

Ensuring a good overall mix was a key focus: “There’s a lot going on and it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen so volume balancing has always been tough. Ducking systems with ‘static’ rules to cover fairly predictable situations aren’t enough – we’d need thousands of those rules,” Möllerstedt (pictured right) explains.

“Instead we have a sophisticated run-time system that deploys the available dynamic range intelligently moment by moment, logically selecting and balancing the loudest sounds for each player,” says Strandberg (pictured right). “From a design perspective, it’s like a movie mix where important sounds are deliberately prioritised and pre-mixed to fill the dynamic range. You may be in the middle of a car chase but if you fire a gun, it can dominate the engine sound temporarily. Other sounds are made to give way. We constantly measure volume at the listener position and continuously scale sounds.”

The resulting output is run-time mastered using in-line compression and EQ. Three presets are available with the original mix left untouched for top end speaker systems, gently processed for ‘Hi-fi’, and for ‘TV’ heavily compressed with low end bass removed.

The team’s approach to perceived volume is worthy of note. Explains Strandberg: “We asked ourselves ‘What is a normal listening level?’ When you play super-loud on a super-amazing system where you can hear all our discrete LFE content, the sound has become very much a physical experience. For players with smaller speakers at regular volume, audio excitement can be lost – it’s good, but not aggressive – a phenomenon compounded by sound designers monitoring at high decibels. Yet curiously, a YouTube video clip can convey a sense of loudness because of clipping and distortion. We want to deliver excitement, hence investing many hours achieving that ‘kind-of-destroyed’ sound without fatiguing the ear – aggressive-sounding at normal listening levels. This philosophy has infiltrated the whole production process from recording to processing. Much of our content is very high fidelity, but equally we’ve not been afraid to embrace the ugly!”

Convention has also been broken by discarding pure 3D-positioning for some sounds. For instance, explosions are stereo. “It seems fundamentally wrong to position explosions,” says Strandberg. “We’re more interested in the sense of what the bang did to the environment – all the reflections building up. These sounds make a huge impression on the world but it’s difficult to detect their exact position – the perceived effect is all around you. The upshot is that by contrast, distant 3D-positioned sounds in Battlefield are very convincing, helping reinforce scale and depth of field. The flip side is when something’s close, a palpable sense of danger prompts the player to react.”

When collecting source sound, the team really got lucky – the Swedish army decided to perform a military exercise running a fake war two weekends in a row in their home town (see pictures above and below). It was the chance of a lifetime to capture the sounds and reflections of various vehicles and guns in urban streets from a variety of perspectives using their trusty MKH-416.

Musically, the game features a combination of orchestral content to support the narrative story in cut scenes, and a series of contemporary tracks played on vehicle radios. “We don’t need adaptive music systems but we do use specific cues to, say, build up to a firefight,” says Möllerstedt. “However, when things kick off, we silence the music allowing weapons to dominate – it’s so much more dramatic. Four styles have been chosen for the radio – surf music, vintage gospel, steel guitar blues and ‘classical’, the flavour of which changes depending on the country you’re in.” No generic rock here.

Strandberg continues: “This approach leads to some really nice creative juxtapositions – the contrast of extremely violent gun sounds as your Humvie is attacked – against a backdrop of vintage gospel or blues is very surreal and very cool! Hearing the game engine create moments like that really makes us smile.”

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