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Noises In The Dark: Exploring The Sounds Of Dead Space

by Ben Reeves on Dec 11, 2009 at 01:00 PM

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Creating a soundtrack for a horror game is no easy task. The genre relies heavily on tension and mood, so every little bump and squeal counts. Great soundtracks go practically unnoticed to players, bleeding into the overall atmosphere becoming a part of the larger experience. If you found your heart racing while walking through the decaying industrial halls of the Ishimura in the original Dead Space, chances are it was because the soundtrack was covertly pulling your strings. How does one shape a facet of a game so integral to the core experience? We talked with Don Veca, the audio director for Visceral Games, about his approach to crafting the Dead Space series’ audio experience.

Fruit Foley

Sound Byte 01: Hivemind Attack

"The Hivemind is the final boss character in Dead Space. This was one of his main attack/taunt sounds. This sound worked great to convey the overall size and nature of the creature. Andy Lackey used mainly elephants and horses for this sound. However, the samples he used were not your typical elephant trumpets or horse whinnies, but more stressed-out or aggravated versions of the animals."
          - Don Veca, Visceral Game’s audio director


For the original Dead Space, the first thing Veca did was go to Safeway. “Our big thing was dismemberment, so I sent e-mails out to the team asking if I could get volunteers for recording those effects,” Veca jokes. “But nobody volunteered, and I had to go to the grocery store and get melons…we bought a whole bunch of fruit – tomatoes, celery, corn – anything we could break and make a mess with.” Veca took his shopping bags full of produce ($400 worth, by some dubious accounts) back to EA Redwood Shore’s in-house recording studio. Like many movies, game studios often employ Foley artists to help engineer the sounds for a game. Since Dead Space was such an alien setting, it required some extensive audio manufacturing. In the course of one eight-hour recording session Veca recorded the brutal destruction of dozens of plant species. “We tried really hard to clean it up at the end of our session,” laughs Veca. “But it reeked, and it reeked for three months. The Sims guys eventually got sick of it and hired a professional cleaner.” Other sessions helped captured moody instrumental effects from Saxophones, cymbals, and different string instruments. At one point a couple of EA interns even climb into a dumpster to record banging and clanging sounds that would be used for Dead Space’s environmental effects.

Only so much material can be captured from planned studio sessions, however. Sometimes the best audio comes from unexpected places. “I got this little portable recorder,” says Veca. “It’s just a small Sony recorder, it's no big deal, but I can carry it anywhere. You never know when you might be sitting in a bar or a restroom or something and hear this kind of bubbling on the pipes that you want to capture. Believe it or not, a lot of the sounds in Dead Space were just from when I was walking down the hall somewhere.” Interestingly, Veca used this portable recorder to capture sounds for one of the Ishimura’s machine rooms while he was riding San Francisco BART train across the bay at night.

Creating Contrast

Capturing audio snippets takes a certain kind of attention and diligence, but taking all those disparate sounds and combining them into what became Dead Space’s atmosphere took a skilled ear. “One thing I really wanted to do with the audio for Dead Space was contrast from very loud to very soft, from eerie abrasive to very smooth,” says Veca. “There was an article I read that scientists had played symphonies for people while monitoring their brainwaves, and they noticed that between the movements was when their brainwaves started going nuts. The reason was because that's when there is nothing there.”

Nowhere in the original Dead Space is this trick of contrast more evident than just after Isaac has exits the confines of the ship and enters Zero-G space for the first time. This is one of the quietest moments in the game; players are able to hear Isaac’s breath and the clank of this boot heels against the hull of the ship, but little else. The very first room Isaac steps into when he reenters the Ishimura is a large mechanical bay filled with flashing lights and an overwhelming cacophony of metal clanging. “It’s the loudest room in the game,” confirms Veca. The urge to turn around after entering this room probably drove several players to set down their controllers and take a break.

Ambient sound tricks devised to tease and scare players aren’t always so overt. However, that doesn’t make the task of designing Dead Space’s audio backdrop any easier. A lot of ambient tracks run as long as two or three minutes. These often continue on a loop until a player enters a new area. The problem with this type of ambient noise is that if a player is doing a lot of exploring, they will hear the same section of music several times and eventually come to anticipate the boom. Veca wanted to devise a system that would do away with this repetition; he didn’t want players growing comfortable with Dead Space’s audio. “I was watching the Saw, and I remember thinking how amazing it was that horror movies could get away with playing these nonsense sounds,” says Veca. “In any other kind of movie, if you hear an ambient sound, it's because something is making that sound, but in horror movies you hear these creepy things floating around. In Dead Space I wanted to have these moving and floating sounds that complemented our streamed looped ambient.”

Sound Byte 02: Hivemind Scream

"Back when I first joined the project, about a year before Andy Lackey (who created this sound), I went into the studio to create a bunch of crazy sounds that I thought we might be able to use as source audio later on. Amongst other things, I brought in the alto sax I played in high school. I recorded myself making lots of awful squeaks and squawks, put the sounds on our server, and totally forgot all about them. When I was checking out the final Hivemind sounds in Andy’s room, the creature would occasionally get really mad, bend down close to Isaac, and scream out of some smaller-yet-intimidating orifices. The sound he used for this was something I’d never heard before… really shrill and screechy, but still very organic. When I asked what he used for the source material, he told me he found a bunch a squeaky saxaphone sounds on our audio server and used them for this sound!"
          - Don Veca, Visceral Game’s audio director


Veca told his audio team to make their ambient tracks a little shorter, more vanilla, in order to create audio with fewer effects that would catch a player’s attention when looped. The team then wrote some software Veca calls “the creepy ambi-patch.” This little piece of code would play separate small sounds, gradually changing their pitch and volume as they panned around Dead Space’s 3D environments. The effect worked beautifully, ensuring that every moment of Dead Space’s ambient backgounds were different no matter how long a person explored, or how many times they replayed a section.

Another defining aspect of sound in film is how much control the creative team has over what the audience experiences. The sequences in a film are planned out shot-for-shot, so a sound editor knows exactly how to pace the mood music. Games don’t provide that kind of luxury; if a developer wants a big stinger to sound as soon as a player opens a door, they don’t know how long a player might stare at the door beforehand or if the player will chose to turn around and walk in a different direction. To get around this problem Veca placed invisible markers around the environment that emit scary effects. “Every enemy has one of these fear emitters,” explains Veca. “They are basically broadcasting the amount of fear a player will hear. So, if there is a fear emitter on that door, I’ll activate it when I come in the first time, but the fear effects change as your proximity to it changes.” For Dead Space, each fear emitter could have up to four different layers of music that can change as players get closer.

Noise of the Necromorph

Ambient effects help set the stage for fear, but as soon as one of Dead Space’s deformed Necromorphs steps out into the light, the game’s background audio means little. Perfecting the sounds for even one of the game’s twisted beasts could take weeks of planning and iteration. In an effort to make Dead Space scarier, and make its monsters truly terrifying, Veca turned to the one thing on Earth that human’s have historically been afraid of the most – animals.

The sound of a wild dog is something that strikes to the heart of a human’s primal instincts; it sends subconscious messages to different part of the body preparing it for an attack. The sounds of the animal kingdom are a powerful tool in the hands of the right Foley artist. Of course, Veca didn’t want the Necromorphs in Dead Space to sound like lions, tigers, and bears. New sounds were created by layering and interweaving pieces of up to five or six different creatures. These weren’t always your common zoo sounds, either. “The ordinary whinny of a horse just sounds silly,” explains Veca. “But have you ever heard a horse doing it? There are a lot of recordings out there of animals under unique situations making freaky sounds.”

Sound Byte 03: Lurker Attack

“The Lurker is at the other end of the spectrum as far as Dead Space creatures go. It’s one of the smallest enemies, and is almost baby-like. However, the designers really wanted it to sound mean, nasty, and intimidating. This was challenging because it had to sound childlike, yet mean and menacing too. What I wound up using was a mixture of intimidating leopard and lion sounds, carefully edited and mixed with child screams and baby coos. In this example, the first tenth of a second is a baby coo, cross-fading into a mix of leopard roar and child scream, and the final tail of the sound cross-fades into more of a lower lion growl, with bit of processing on some of the elements as well.”
           - Don Veca, Visceral Game’s audio director


The lurkers of Dead Space are a good example of how this kind of sound layering works. According to Dead Space mythology, lurkers were once infants who have been mutated by necromorph biology. They crawl along the walls and produce three long tendrils capable of shooting spikes at the player. “If you listen to the lurker, the very first few hundred milliseconds – maybe the first 300 – of his vocalization is a baby coo,” says Veca. “It’s a really cute baby. When you mix it with the rest of the sounds you don’t hear a baby, but subliminally I think you pick up on some of that.”

Its an old kind of alchemy creating a soundtrack for a horror game – sounds stolen from our world, twisted to sound unrecognizable, and yet subtlety familiar. It’s clear that Veca is preying on the human subconscious. All the little sound tricks used in Dead Space are designed the throw players off guard or make them uncomfortable. Whether we’re aware of it or not, Veca uses these tricks to fool our minds into fear – and we’re happy to keep falling for them.