Gameology | Game Development Analytical Media | Conversation with Erik Kraber (Titanfall 2 Audio Director)
You can listen to the audio version of this conversation on our YouTube channel.
This episode of Gameology Conversations is all about sound. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of Titanfall 2 and in my opinion it’s one of the finest First person shooters of this generation. Aside from a crazy fast paced gameplay and the amazing visual, Titanfall 2 is a remarkable achievement in sound. So I decided to know more about it by talking with one of the greatest sound designers of the industry, Erik Kraber. Erik started his career at DreamWorks Interactive and for many years he’s been the senior audio director of Electronic Arts. He has been involved in projects like Medal of Honor series, Battlefield, Crysis, Red Alert and the awesome Titanfall.
He is the audio director at Respawn right now and I have to say, what a cool studio Respawn is. Everybody there is so cool and friendly and I have to thank Jay Frechette, community manager at respawn to make this interview possible.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Hello and welcome to our podcast Erik! How are you?
Erik Kraber: I’m good! How are you?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you so much I’m good! It’s awesome talking to you man. Congratulations on Titanfall 2. It’s a little late but I’ve got the game recently and I can’t stop playing. It’s amazing, especially the sounds and it’s really energetic.
Erik Kraber: Cool! Thank you!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Let’s start this. So how did you become a sound designer and what was the first serious gig for you?
Erik Kraber: Well, I guess the first serious gig out of school was, I got an internship at a post film house called Saul Zaentz Film Center. I interned there for two weeks working on feature films and after the two weeks they hired me on as a junior sound guy and I worked my way through the ranks there for a while and that was the first official gig that I got and that was prior the games and I kind of kept in the film industry for a while, I guess five or six years maybe working on feature films but I’ve always been a big fan of games and I was interested in it and I started a company with my friend…he started a company and I joined him doing post sound down here in Los Angles. I was at the bay area for a while and we started a small sound design company and the first gig we landed was with DreamWorks Interactive working on a Jurassic Park game and in retrospect we probably were ill-equipped to handle the project (Laugh), but we were very excited that we got it and had beaten out bunch of other high profile sound houses and in that time there was a lot of outsourcing in sound design work as still is but much more prevalent back then.
That was sort of my first introduction to video game sounds and I remember spending a lot of time over at DreamWorks Interactive because I realized that doing the sound design is only kind of half of it and as soon as I handed it off to engineers who didn’t really have an ear for sound work and didn’t understand the potentials and details… and I was giving them instruction but it wasn’t being implemented right so I was like “God Implementation is such a big important part of all this, I really need to be there for all of it” so, you know there was a period about a year basically I had an office there but I wasn’t officially part of DreamWorks Interactive and at that point I just loved the company and I loved the people and I just loved the vibe of the team that was there more so than I’d probably enjoyed the film work at that time. So I talked to their creative director there, Patrick Gilmore and I said, can I just be official cause we have started a sound department in here? (Laugh) cause the outsourcing doesn’t really work because half of the creative process is there because you guys do a great sound work and it gets poorly implemented and it doesn’t sound good. So that’s when my game career started and I became the audio director for DreamWorks Interactive back in the late mid-90s.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: That’s great! Please tell us, What is the job and the routine of an Audio Director?
Erik Kraber: I guess my job is anything that makes noise in a game at some capacity along with my team. But it kind of breaks down into three main categories of Dialogue, Music and Sound Effects. So on the dialogue side I’m responsible for the casting of a project, working with the creative director to figure out what the cast should be, what requirements are there, going through the casting process, being in the session and directing the sessions to get the best performances out of the actor and then you know working with my sound team on the implementation and animators, game designers and that kind of thing to make sure the dialogue gets into the game and it has high quality and it’s a right performance, it fits the emotion of the scene and all that kind of stuff and then on the music side I work with the composers that we hired for the projects so I give them both technical and creative direction in terms of here what we need, how many minutes we need this music to be able to make a transition into that kind of music. Here is the emotion and feel. Here is the story of what’s going on and then review the work and give notes until the composer comes with something that we all agree that this is the right feel and right fit and then work with the team for a proper implementation of all that music into the game and then the third bucket, sound effects are anything from Foley sounds, footsteps, gear movement to creature, weapon design, ambiences of levels, atmosphere … so doing all that stuff and working with a team that I do a lot of sound design work with and I kind of give them direction on how I think it should work and what the main decision points are, emotionally what should it convey, technically how does this need to work within the game engine and the implementation of it, and then overall doing the mix balanced for the game you know I take all the elements that everybody implemented and I try to come up with the best sounding balance of elements in the game which with a game like Titanfall it ends up being a battle, there is so much chaos going on constantly in the game. So that’s generally my responsibility.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: That’s a really heavy responsibility. So, how is the process of sound designing a game like Titanfall 2? Where do you start and how do you proceed?
Erik Kraber: It starts obviously with discussions. When we were working on Titanfall 1, I actually have been working at Electronic Arts as their audio director for long time almost 15 years working on a lot of projects there including majority of Medal of Honor franchise. So when I came over to Respawn, there was discussions with our creative director Steve and we tried to figure out what the static was that we wanted for this because it was science fiction. We both agreed the best way to approach the design was to try to make it a little more grounded and gritty and realistic and not go full sci-fi. We had the rule of no pew, pew! (Laugh) Star Wars can go there but that’s not our territory. We tried to be a modern military plus kind of evolution of the sounds so I think everything gets measured against that as how do we try to give it a sense of grid and realism and grounded I guess.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah it’s a smart move, cause I was playing it and I really noticed that and it was like my ears are familiar with these sounds but there are, you know, a little bit of something into them that makes them more exciting like shooting a gun!
Erik Kraber: Cool! Yeah that was really our approach. We wanted it to be relatable, I also wanted to … through my career I’ve always wanted to make things physically real, the sound, the physics feel “OK, this is a weapon and it’s actually behaving like it would in real world.” So we’re trying to find ways to make sure even though we’re going to the realm of science fiction it should be like that is a laser gun and it should feels like it shoots in that environment at that distance and be modeled in a way that conveys that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Exactly! Looking back at your career you’ve worked on many shooter games, what’s interesting in these specific games for you?
Erik Kraber: Surely it wasn’t something planed. I started off when I was at DreamWorks Interactive initially and a lot of the games we were doing back then were third-person character action and some fighting games and we were doing a lot of Jurassic Park based franchise games and then Medal of Honor was sort of the next thing to come along and we were actually working on a sequel to the Lost World game and Steven Spielberg had just finished doing Saving Private Ryan and he was very interested in us changing the direction and actually trying to create an experience that felt like, what would it be like for an OSS operate to be behind enemy lines during World-War 2. So we kind of stopped everything we were doing on The Lost World on that point and started working on Medal of Honor at that time. That was sort of the big hit for the team and for the DreamWorks Interactive. We ended up doing much more of them and I personally enjoyed that more, I think because I liked the idea of this is coming from the perspective of a human head that everything you experience can be translated to the idea of this is my head and my world and I’m turning and looking at things and there is no removal of you from the experience like looking at a character on screen. You’re fully in trench and living the experience the sonic world around you, to me I found that very compelling to try to create something that feels like how we all experience things, just walking around the world and hearing stuff.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: The sound of guns and generally shooting in Titanfall 2 is so much fun. Why is that? What makes a gun sound great like Titanfall? What’s the key to achieve something like that?
Erik Kraber: Well, thank you! I’m glad you think like that (Laugh) It’s a few things. The first off, the gun to be well designed you need to start with right elements. You need to have good recordings of real world, so we’ve done a number of weapon recording sessions and got a lot of material for that, then there is the sci-fi elements and that revolves around a lot of experimentation, going to the Foley room and trying out different objects hitting things on different objects, scraping, bending and applying materials to other materials and just kind of seeing, you know having the basic of a gun from the recordings and have the layers of more science fiction fantasy that you kind of trying to find to differentiate the sound. You kind of start with that and you layer things and build it.
I think having some sense of … I call it organic mechanical behavior in this gun sounds helps a lot. Every time you pull the trigger it sort of sounds similar but it’s not the same every single time, there is always slight variations that are happening with how the mechanism are moving against each other and what the sound of the pop is of the weapons, so there is always a lot of playing with the delays of multiple elements that are layered on top of each other, playing with EQ, filtering to sort of change the character of a sound to see how things are mixed together and changing the character of that weapon as you change environments. So when I’m in a large metallic room, how’s that sound different than being in a corridor than being in an open field, really changing the character of a weapon based on the environment you’re firing it in, because long ago when we first started weapon recording sessions back on the first Medal of Honors when I hadn’t done any recording sessions – looking back on it now and kind of laughing at it (Laugh) – it became quickly apparent that you know guns are just a pop. The caliber of the weapons and some other factors can maybe sound a little different and there is such a high pressure level sound the way microphones tend to pick it up depending on the microphone you, it ends up being a pop. What ends up defining a character is the environment that you fired it. So over the years are techniques have changed to rather than a lot of coverage of many different weapons in the same location it’s also the caliber sizes trying to move as much as possible. Change the direction and angle you’re firing things that tends to give us good material to kind of sell the environments that you fire everything in, so I think that’s kind of important and I think another thing that we do…some games do and some games don’t and it’s sort of going against making everything as realistic as possible, we oversell the connection of your bullets to targets which I think what gives a lot of a satisfaction of shooting.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah Exactly!
Erik Kraber: It sounds like your gun shot overpowering the sound of a bullet thumping against your target and as soon as the bullet hits against the target we actually dock some of your weapon firing sound a little bit so that really pops out so you can really tell I’m missing or I’m hitting something.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: WOW!
Erik Kraber: I think having the weapon always being able to tell what your weapon is connecting with it’s a successful connection with your target…that feedback I think helps a lot of to that senses you were saying, it feels satisfying and I think that creates some sort of satisfaction. Some games do that very well and other games strangely from my point of view they just totally missing (Laughing). We try hard to over emphasize that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: WOW! That’s amazing! So what’s the key to design a satisfying rewarding sound? Like upgrades, wining, collecting, etc. ?
Erik Kraber: Yeah! Honestly I don’t think I’m very good at it (Laugh) I think that’s one of my weaknesses at my arsenal. I have my guys at my sound team do that stuff. But I think what it ends up being is emotionally you want to say it conveys that sense of success so a lot of times when we’re talking about power up sounds that happen at the end of level or level up which one of our guys at our team, Dave did. We wanted to create something that feels strong and powerful, creating a sense of resolution so there is sometimes music involvements that you have or about pitch of a sounds you can kind of think of people have almost a Pavlovian like response to certain sound cue like coins dropping and your brain thinks money and you kind of think about how to incorporate those type of elements maybe not as directly, you know some of the sounds we had to dial back a little bit, we were thinking OK, what’s the most direct sound that the people have subconscious reaction to and they just instinctively get as soon as they hear it. So try to find that happy spot where it’s not so obvious that you’re feeding them… the sound that they’re just expecting to hear, but kind of bury it under some other layers of other layers of interesting sounds but keep their ears kind of engaged and excited but also give them that responsive like “yesss! I earned something, I know how that feels like” so I think that’s generally the trick.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I’m curious what audio middleware you guys use at Respawn?
Erik Kraber: Well, we have two projects going on but on Titanfall we’re using Miles Sound System. We had initially looked at others like Wwise and Fmod, for what we needed in the performance we needed to get out of our tool … because the game need to be run at 60 FPS and we have a ton of stuff going on, lots of AI, all the levels in addition to 16 players and their Titans all in the battlefield at the same time so there’s a tremendous amount of stuff that’s happening in the level simultaneously so Miles Sound System was really efficient in terms of how it could run audio and Dan over at RAD Tools was the programmer there who works on Miles, he is just awesome, he is incredibly responsible and we started working with him a little bit more than a year, maybe a year and a half before we shipped the second Titanfall and he was great, he basically…we had hundreds of feature requests (Laugh)…for the tool and features and he basically did all of them for us which was great so the tool was heavily steered toward our needs and you know obviously we were always trying to be mindful and have discussions with Dan about making sure that these aren’t just very Titanfall specific requests, these are things that anybody doing anything would probably want to have. We kind of kept measuring our request against that but yeah, we basically created this system for us that did a lot of the things that we were lacking on the first Titanfall, gave us access to DSP, Reverb, EQs and Low Pass Filters, Compression and stuff that in Titanfall 1 we had zero of that, there was literally no DSP at all in the first Titanfall. So he helped us create a great tool and we’ve been working on that ever since.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: You know, when you’re designing a sound there is always this feeling that it could be even better and personally I’m not sure when to stop layering and tweaking a sound. When is the appropriate time to say a sound is done and it doesn’t need any more detail?
Erik Kraber: (Laugh) My guts says never…
Hamidreza Nikoofar: (Laugh)
Erik Kraber: But then I look at the clock and the time runs out…
Hamidreza Nikoofar: The clock tells you when!
Erik Kraber: (Laugh) I totally know what you mean by that man! It’s tough, it really is tough. I think it helps having other people, the thing that helps other designers, it helps to steer you back cause I think I sometimes do this for my team. I’m that guy that when they are spinning on something and they’re keep working with it, I’m like “you had it yesterday, It was great!” So I guess sometimes you need intervening sort of outside perspective to kind of give you a fresh sense of what you’re designing because sometimes you start designing a sound and you have a very specific intention of what you’re trying to achieve and the person that comes in and listens to it doesn’t have that perspective, they don’t know what’s in your head, they just know what you created and a lot of times when you created something potentially is even better than what was in your head, but you’re chasing what you were hearing in your head, sometimes it can send you on a goose chase and you end up never getting to it but you’ve got something great along the way. So I think that helps with like what you were saying layering, one of the first things I do with a lot of guys in my team and myself too was, I’d go to the process of creating a sound and layer and layer and layer and layer… and then it becomes clear that because I was chasing something that I haven’t quite achieve, it ended up sort of blurring the character of the sound that I was trying to create so it’s just a lot of pruning. You know, you have this grown, beautiful tree but now it’s little out of control and we need to kind of branch it here and then to make it look pretty, so I start going through and figuring out. Now, is this really adding anything? I mute it, unmute it and I’m like is that really changing the overall character of the sound? Is it making it punchier or distinct? Is it achieving emotional goal, making it scarier? And I start pulling out and out and guys at my team … I think they’ve got used it now (Laugh) but initially it was really annoying coming to them basically start muting bunch of their stuff and they have 30 layers of things and it ends up being five and I’m like “That’s it! You had it right here!” but It’s tough to have somebody always pull the layers of your work when you’ve spent so much time trying to get it to a point that you wanted to get it to.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: How many people are working in the sound department of Respawn and how’s the process working between co-workers?
Erik Kraber: So, our team here is about eight sound people in the building right now, we have couple of dialogue guys, three sound designers. I’m the audio director and we have another audio director in the building, working on Star Wars franchise. So that’s our team size now and in terms of collaboration…within the team it’s great. We’re all very bounded and I’m very fortunate to have a team of guys that are not only blow you away with their creative talent but you just enjoy to work with. You always kind of have that sense of these are the guys that you’re going to be in trenches with so you better be good friends with them. We could spend a lot of hours here and it feels like a war trying to get a game done (Laugh). I’m like I’m with group of guys that I would fight alongside every day of the week.
Interaction between us is great and even between the projects it’s nice we have a bound. We go out and do activities outside of work with lunches and things and we are all very open about what we share, giving feedback to each other and trying to help each other out. So within the sound team it’s great and then the team in general is really good and everybody is very open to ideas. The design team is always thinking about audio when we have something we want to share. Even when it’s not audio related, when it’s design or art related. There is no sense here at Respawn that you can’t share your opinion cause it’s not your place, there is sort of a mutual respect among everybody and they are like “hey if you have an opinion then share it. So collaboration is really good and it takes a lot of effort to keep the communication going, especially when things are very, very busy but it works really well.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Let’s go geeky now. Please tell us about the tools and plugins you use.
Erik Kraber: Well, you got to tell me about your plugins. What do you use?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Me!? I work with a DAW, I work with Ableton Live.
Erik Kraber: Yeah I use that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: And I use Fmod as a middleware and bunch of other plugins…mostly for the EQing and stuff I use Fabfilter stuff and that’s all it (Laugh)
Erik Kraber: Nice! I use Ableton at home for my music related things, occasionally I use it for sound design stuff but I …
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It’s a good thing for sound design too.
Erik Kraber: It’s great for sound design, it’s really, really good. We have couple of our guys here use it. But we as the studio for the main DAW we use Nuendo by Steinberg.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Not Protools !?
Erik Kraber: I know…Exactly!(Laugh) I was going to tell this …
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Why is that?
Erik Kraber: We started with…Back in EA Protools was where it was at but it quickly became apparent to me that it was very difficult to get money to buy…we were working in a building where everybody was on a PC, except you, cause they’re buying Macs for you, and it’s for back in the day when you had to buy 888s if you remember those, I don’t know how old or young you are but maybe you don’t remember those days… (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: No! (Laugh)
Erik Kraber: But you had to buy specific dedicated hardware with Protools, you couldn’t just get the software. So it ended up being 20 grants for a person to start getting people going with the audio, so as our team was growing we had 20 audio people so that started becoming harder and harder to justify the cost and then we tried Steinberg Nuendo and just loved it and we were like WOW! We can run this on PC and I can use any audio card I want and software itself doesn’t cost much so it started out as our financial choice but we are now so used to Nuendo and love the features in Nuendo that even at lunch yesterday, Bradly one the sound guys at our team was even commenting on how painful and frustrating it was to go away from Protools but there is so many features that Nuendo does that Pro Tools still doesn’t do but you know I’m sure it’s the same the other way around but he was very frustrated and we have couple of guys on our team that are Protools diehard fans, converted as well but we’re pretty happy using Nuendo.
So we use that as our main DAW and then we use Sound Forge mostly for a single file editor and then plugins we kind of run the range … we have a lot of the Waves bundles, the IZotope, we use RX and bunch of other IZotope plugins, we use Soundtoys tools for heavier designi stuff! So those are the main ones that we use. I’m probably forgetting some right now but … Oh! And Altiverb and Speakerphone which are essentials. I wish they ran better on PC but they’re great, great tools.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Last question. What was the last inspiring game for you considering the sound.
Erik Kraber: That’s always a hard one to answer cause I think when I listen to stuff I feel like …
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It shouldn’t be a game from EA (Laugh)
Erik Kraber: (Laugh) So many games impress me and so many games frustrate me and half the times they’re the same game. For instance, now I’m playing through The Witcher 3 and …
Hamidreza Nikoofar: WOW!
Erik Kraber: It’s really good. I’d look at a game at that scope and listen to the voice performance and I’m like “How did they get such good voice performances across the board?” I mean usually when you have so many characters, so many voices and so many voice actors there is always something cringe worthy, where you’re like “Oooh! That was a bad performance” but in this, it’s just consistence and the sound design is really good in that game as well. So I think historically I don’t have many games in mind that I go with that game… everything about it is brilliant… a game like Battlefield you go like “WOW! The sounds… the weapons are expectacular, or back to the original Thief, like it was sort of the first that really incorporated a lot of sound mechanics and they did that very really well or other games like Limbo, I thought that was brilliant and loved the sound in that and it made me jealous I wasn’t working on indie projects, I was like “damn! I’m working on AAA games, I should do indie. they can be so creative.” (Laugh). So I listen to games and I’m like “They did Foley for that and it’s so good! How can we do that? Their creatures sound so good, how can we do that?”
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you very much Erik and it was a pleasure talking to you and thanks for all the amazing experiences, you and the amazing guys at Respawn created for us.
Erik Kraber: Thank you! I appreciate it. That was great talking to you.