The romantic notion of sound design is what gets a lot people into film and game sound; that idea of creating sounds that no one has heard before and making a visual element become alive is a pursuit which is almost archetypical. The key concept which dominates the endeavor is “emotional impact.” We want our creations to have an innate relevance to the actions which we hope to attach them to.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charles Maynes, I am a sound designer and recordist of sound effects for both feature films and video games. I specialize in military related subjects, so I am around weapons and other military gear more than most people in my field.
As to the design philosophies, the principal difference between a game experience and a film is that the film does not repeat itself. It is told in a linear narrative and can get away with a more exaggerated application of sound. A wonderful example of this is the film Dirty Harry, which set the standard for cinematic gunshot sounds for decades.
In the game experience though, we are dealing with scenarios that are far less linear in most cases, and in a FPS type game, the idea of a “towering” action sound would grow tiring in very short order. This of course does not diminish the absolute requirement for the sound to be interesting and, again, emotionally satisfying.
In the case of the action/adventure/war game, we are presented with some interesting quandaries. First, most playing these games have no direct reference to what battle sounds like; they only have the reference of what they have seen in film, television or other games. They are relying on us professionals to create a believable and exciting world for their entertainment (or in some cases, training). We are also contending with the general lack of experience, in these sorts of venues, of the people who are constructing the presentation.
So, in effect it can be a sort of crazy game of “telephone” in communicating these ideas. In effect, it is as if someone was trying to learn surgery by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is not a bad thing, but if a new and more realistic expression of the battle experience is desired, this is not an easy way to get there.
As I mentioned earlier, I specialize in military subjects, and have henceforth been involved in recording and designing these sorts of sounds for a number of different films and games. I try to take a holistic approach to the process; I have always made it a point for the audio team to be able to experience firing the weapons which were being recorded, so that they will have a practical reference to how these actually feel and emotionally register in real life, and so they can have a point of reference to bring this to the end user - the game player.
In the game milieu, it seems that bigger is also more desirable, but we rapidly run out of headroom to accommodate the most “stupendous” of events. So in this case, we have to find a way to proportionally scale the conceptual presentation of, say, a weapon, or family of weapons, so that again we can give the desired “emotional” experience.
Not all guns sound the same, and they can certainly vary in their calibers, but they are all plenty dramatic when the weapon is in your hands and firing. There are also characteristics present in a lot of weapons which provide unique qualities. Other sounds, like explosions, present challenges as well, the biggest being the containment of the sound energy, which eclipses the capabilities of all sound recording technologies presently available. Devices like “flash bang” grenades have a dynamic range that goes out to about 180db, which exceeds 24 bit recording systems by about 20db.
If during the recording process we set levels and attenuation to be able to capture the maximum loudness of the sound, we will leave the field with something that, upon review, will seem very unsatisfying. This is due to the fact that the amount of time that maximum level is present is but a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall duration of the sound event. So we tend to strike a balance between using dynamic range compression and even distortion to mimic the way our ears and brain take that sound in.
All of this to the game audio person may seem extremely obvious, but I have heard so many gun recordings that sound like popcorn. It saddens my heart. The costs involved in even the most modest of weapons recording sessions are such that to walk away with source that is so far detached from what most people want to see as an end product is something that is difficult to defend from a financial point of view.
For the most part guns sound pretty similar, so I like to use this analogy when describing the contribution of the location: if we were to listen to electric guitars being played without amplification, it would be VERY difficult to tell one from another (this would be the role of the gun).
Now if we plug the guitars into amplifiers, the differences will generally be much greater, because of the way the pickups interact with the amp, with all of it being controlled by the player. And since it is much louder, the acoustic space provides a significant signature. And reverberant spaces can really enhance the “bigness” of the sound.
So with all that behind us, we can get into some techniques to get cool sounds. Doing a gun recording session is an expensive enterprise. When recording anything, we hopefully go out into the field with a good collection of tools so that we can get what we need. The basic breakdown of field gear falls into the following categories: Recorders, Mixer/Pre-Amps, Microphones, Power, and Cabling.