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Sounds Of The Snow
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Sounds Of The Snow

March 20, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this article, Finnish game sound designer Tapio Liukkonen (Broken Alliance) writes passionately about the need for authentic winter sound recording in games. While we're on the cusp of spring in North America, Western Europe and Asia, it's a good exercise to stop and think about how sound recording could be accomplished in games -- with field recording an invigorating technique.]

This article will focus on winter recording. You may ask why. I have lived almost all my life in Finland where we have four totally different seasons. Summer temperature can be as high as 104F (40C) and winter as low as -40F (-40C). Weather changes between these boundaries are huge. Snow, rain, slush, heat -- you name it.

To me, winter means a lot. I like winter and everything that you can do then. It also has extremely wide and specific soundscapes. Lots of things affect the soundscape, like temperature, quality of snow, location, etc.

I prefer the real sound of snow instead of Foley sounds, because you can't create as unique a sound with Foley as with real field recording. My goal is to explain why, and introduce general problems of winter field recording in this article.

Studio or Field?

There are two places to record sound effects -- the studio and the field. Both places have their own strengths. The studio is always quiet, easy to control and you can collect your Foley material near to you. Work can be done fast.

On the other hand, a studio can be too small, sometimes hard to control, and presents a lack of surprises. In the field you can try new things, and you always have space to do things -- but sometimes they can be too noisy, the location can be too remote, or work may happen too slowly.

Everybody talks a lot about Foley work. I feel that field recording is underestimated -- there are so many stories about the sound design of Hollywood blockbuster movies and how similar sounds have been created in big game studios.

Maybe it is more glamorous if you work in a nice, big studio -- but you can create quality sounds in the field, too. You can easily find realistic sounds and you don't have to find good material for the Foley. There is also something "extreme" about going to nature and recording things. It is more rewarding than just sitting in the studio with mic and recording.

Lots of games and movies try to be loudest product of the year. I have to admit that this is cool. You can crank your volume up and shoot those alien freaks back to space! But I also like soundtracks which have some kind of idea -- details in the sound, something unique. One way to create something unique is field recording. There are lots of sounds which wait for recording. They can be good as how they sound or something new when you edit them.

It is faster to work in a studio because everything is close and there aren't any unwanted noises. In the field things can go badly, and it can take time. But if you know how to record sounds and you are aware what you need, you can save time in the editing and mixing processes. Real sound can fit as it is -- but studio recordings probably need editing.

For example, if you record footsteps in 5F (-15C) weather, you can record it from the right distance, you get the right surface and quality of snow, and you'll have the natural ambience.

Creating the same sound in a studio environment can be tricky. You have to eliminate room tone, you have to have the right items to make a sound which sounds like snow, and you have to get the right ambience. By ambience I don't mean background noises and whatever -- I mean the ambience which characterizes the sound itself, so that it isn't too "dry".

So if you can't easily create it in the studio, or you can't find the sound in commercial sound effects libraries, then you have to go to field and record it! For that matter, why to bother to even check out libraries? Nobody can blame you repeating sounds or similarity to others' work, if you build your own sounds.

Of course there are money and timetable issues, but people should know that if they want something original and unique then they might have to be patient, and aware of the value of sounds.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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