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The Art Of Noise

We put an ear to the ground and explore the world of sound effects in gaming

Foley? You mean the Wrestling guy?" Your correspondent's lack of knowledge on the subject was more than apparent. My commissioning editor frowned and prodded me with a pointy stick. "No, fool. Foley sound recording for games. Y'know, when special women tap coconuts together and record it to imitate the sound of horses trotting. Now get to work!" A quest for 'special women' sounded ace. Even better was the discovery of an audio technique that has wormed its way into games like F.E.A.R. and Star Wars: Republic Commando while remaining as mysterious as a tramp up a tree. So Foley, what the hell are you?

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Earcom's Paul Weir, audio man behind games like Discworld Noir and Constantine, attempts an explanation: "Foley is the creation of incidental sounds for a complex and realistic audio experience - clothing movements, footsteps and so on. Foley sounds are all about characters and what you can see on screen, rather than ambient effects."

WHO HE?
It's named after Jack Foley, apparently, a sound engineer for Universal Studios who simulated the sound of 10,000 Roman soldiers marching to battle in the movie Spartacus by jingling a few keyrings together. Spat from the greasy loins of Hollywood, it's now a technique on heavy rotation in gaming - an example of which is readily provided by Remedy Entertainment's Peter Hajba.

"The reloading sounds of the M79 grenade launcher in the first Max Payne were made using a metal tube from a vacuum cleaner which was tapped with hands and scraped with car keys." For the sounds of Payne's pistol clips dropping onto the floor, meanwhile: "An old metal and plastic toy car made some pretty nice sounds when tossed around."

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Mind you, such aural trickery has taken some time to catch on in games. For years, sound fidelity on consoles and PC was more than limited, mainly because of low sample rates and bulimic RAM that couldn't hold down enough audio files.

The result? Atmospheric beeps and bloops, but attempts at Foley that were buried beneath an avalanche of audible crap. As sound fidelity improved, so developers behind games like Call Of Duty began cavorting around shooting ranges, exploding cow carcasses with vintage weapons and recording clip ejects and reloads. Ubisoft even got some real MG42s and pointed a few mics at them for Splinter Cell.

But this isn't simply a 'my weapon's louder than yours' competition. Using Foley techniques, a door lock becomes a cocked trigger, unspoiled audiotape is jungle foliage and compressed air from an air canister emulates a nasty explosion. LucasArts should know - it's been innovating game audio since Ballblazer on the Commodore 128.

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"Well, for Star Wars Battlefront we went hogwild creating tons of audio assets," explains David Collins, LucasArts' lead sound designer. "We had Foley for every move, particularly on the PC because the shackles are removed in terms of memory constraints and you can load a lot of sound for plenty of detail. In Battlefront II there are more characters because the game is bigger, and we've loads more Foley."

Super-posh facilities help. Skywalker Sound, at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, features an enclosed sound stage area with 40ft-high walls and dozens of boxes of bric-a-brac filled with sound props, and has hosted the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy, as well as LucasArts games. Collins continues: "Battlefront II is all about troop combat and our Foley artist at Skywalker had just finished Star Wars: Episode III the movie, so she was very familiar with the sound of stormtroopers. She used a combination of props, belts and American Football pads to create the acrylic squeaks of their uniforms."

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