Soundscapes – Interview with Rob Blake, lead audio for Mass Effect 3

Previously we lobbied that Mass Effect 3 might be the best sounding game of all time. This is thanks to the bold design decisions of Rob Blake and his audio team at Bioware, who have created a benchmark in game audio. Technically it has a wider dynamic range and deeper bass than almost all other games out there and they wielded the tools with significantly better dramatic effect than in previous Mass Effect games. No other game studio has made such great advances in sound quality between titles. The upgrade in sound quality going from Mass Effect 2 to 3 is not subtle. I had the opportunity to talk to Rob Blake about how the sound was made, the design choices and the unintentional problems they created during the development of Mass Effect 3.

NMM: How long have you been working at Bioware and how has your role changed during the projects you’ve worked on?

Rob Blake: I’m just about to hit year four at Bioware. Things have changed a great deal in the audio team over the years. We have an amazing team here and I think we’ve all grown a lot over this time. Because of that I think my role as lead has changed; on ME2 I was a lot more hands on, but as we’ve all grown I’ve been able to step back and focus on the big picture rather than obsessing over the details.

NMM: One of the most distinctive aspects of the audio in Mass Effect 3 is the wide dynamic range. Am I correct in assuming that this had a profound effect on how the game audio was mixed compared to earlier projects? How did you decide on the amount of dynamic range the game should use for all the scenes?

Rob Blake: It was definitely a conscious decision very early on in the project. ME2 was a great achievement for us having switched audio engines, it was like a completely new game for us in Audio. On ME3 we just focused on making it better rather than reinventing the wheel again. We really wanted to increase the impact and clarity of the mix, so an increased dynamic range was a big part of that. As story focused games, the entire mix of the ME games are built around the dialog, it’s the foundation that all other sounds are referenced against. So by turning down the VO across the board it forced us to turn the other audio elements down but left us with a lot of headroom for when we wanted to go very loud.

NMM: Did the wider dynamic range cause any unforeseen problems during development, or did it all work out just fine?

Rob Blake: Absolutely, there were a bunch of issues with this. The first and most obvious one is that the average level of the game is obviously quieter. If people didn’t, or couldn’t, turn up the volume to make up for the quieter signal I worried that they’d think the game lacked the impact that we were originally trying to get. My hope was that people would just turn the volume up, as you’d expect, but I’d still get the occasional ‘why is everything so quiet’ complaint. People playing on laptops have valid issues here as often laptop speakers cannot play back very loudly.
There was also the issue of OS notifications, for example the PS3 trophy sound is pretty loud and cannot be turned down… so it sounded jarringly loud when you received a trophy on PS3, I certainly didn’t predict that being an issue. Another issue was that it was really easy for the audio team to put in a sound that was ridiculously loud, so we had to police ourselves pretty heavily and make some new asset and parameter standards to ensure this didn’t happen.

NMM: When designing the audio for a game do you have some sound systems you assume the player will be using? For example TV speakers, home theater in a box and a reference system?

Rob Blake: We have telemetry from our games that says about 25% of our players play back in surround, so that means that most people are in stereo, probably using their TV’s. So we check the game on as many systems as possible and even implemented the ‘dynamic range’ mode in order to help people out on lower grade systems. However, I’ve generally found that as our mixing has got better the issue of clarity on different systems becomes less of a concern… things just sound better without the need for the dynamic range option. That said, you are never going to get around the fact that most TV’s do not have good bass response, so we have to ensure that if we’re doing something with lots of bass there is also a high frequency component to the sound to ensure these people still hear something. This is part of the reason that ‘bass drops’ are so popular, they will spike your sound system in some way no matter how bad it is… but we tried to avoid too many bass drops as they’re pretty cliché now, and instead focused on making sounds with clearly defined but complex sonic signatures.

NMM: The sound in Mass Effect 3 struck me as being designed for a higher end audio system than earlier Bioware games given the amount of deep bass the Reapers make for example. Was this the intent?

Rob Blake: Our goal was really to just make a better sounding game, so naturally that means people with good sound systems are going to get more out of it. But we did some things that we knew most people weren’t going to hear. The Reaper sounds are a good example, there is a serious amount of sub bass in some of the Reaper sounds, in some cases going down to 20Hz (the deepest sounds humans can hear) and so we knew people with decent systems would benefit from that.

NMM: Headphones are rising in popularity and certainly on the PC one can assume that many players will be using headphones. How much effort is spent on making the game sound great with headphones compared to speakers? Have you looked at binaural techniques (the most accurate method for virtual surround over headphones) for a dedicated “headphone mode” for future games?

Rob Blake: That’s an interesting question! Like I said earlier, we spent a lot of time listening on different systems, including headphones, to ensure it sounded as good as possible on all speakers. Binaural positioning wasn’t something that was ever on the cards, but it’s something we’d be interested in investigating if there was a demand for it. One issue with binaural effects is that they are based around an average model of the human ear and head, so naturally some people will have a better experience than others. I must have whacky ears because I’ve never found binaural audio convincing, I even find it quite unpleasant at times! That said, I have noticed that many of our players are using surround headphones so we’ll do what we can to create a great experience for these players… and that may include binaural audio in the future.

NMM: Mass Effect 3 was a large project made in a relatively short amount of time for a game of its scope and production values. How many people work on the audio and how is the work spread out? I assume that you don’t personally assign voice over files to each line of text for example. But with a wide dynamic range the volume of all sound elements have to be carefully balanced. How do you make sure the design intent doesn’t fall apart?

Rob Blake: We maxed out at about 13 sound designers, the majority of which work purely on the sound design. We have a separate team that works specifically with the dialog and we work closely with them to define the technical specs for recording and any mastering requirements. We have a rather complicated matrix for different types of dialog, but generally it’s pretty straight forward and is based around us demanding certain equipment is used and that the dialog be mastered to a specific level. It’s actually less of an issue that people usually think. The real challenge is building the tool that grabs all the dialog and puts it in the game, that is a whole separate article right there!
Once all the dialog is in the right place we try to build our audio around it, with the number one goal of supporting the experience while ensuring the dialog is audible. I went through the game at the end of the project and did a mix pass, but generally there isn’t as much time to do this as we’d like.

NMM: How were the sounds created for the game? Were all the sounds based on live recordings, or were some completely synthetic?

Rob Blake: We did a huge amount of recordings early on in development and these were used to create many of the final sounds. Most of the interesting sounds were at one point original recordings, but we usually heavily process our files to take them in a different direction and give them real character. We still do a lot of purely synth based sounds though, the biotics for example were entirely synthesized, so it’s a mixed bag depending on the content and context. We use a lot of the Native Instrument software, as well as Alchemy and Ableton to create many of our sounds.

NMM: Every other game trailer that comes out these days uses a dubstep soundtrack. Did it ever come up during the development of Mass Effect 3 to use dubstep, for example in the club?

Rob Blake: Ha ha, I was totally waiting for our marketing department to create a dubstep trailer but thankfully it never happened so I didn’t have to have ‘that’ conversation!

NMM: What is your favorite sound effect or audio moment in Mass Effect 3?

Rob Blake: There are lots of moments in the game that I really enjoy, but one of my favorite was the way we handled the end of the Genophage campaign. There are a few different endings to this scene and we did some quite clever tricks to really emphasize the differences. In the ‘triumphant’ ending we had visceral explosions, rousing music and alarms blaring creating essentially a ‘Hollywood’ ending against the odds. In the ‘sad’ ending we pulled out all the sound effects, brought the music down to just a simple piano and changed the reverb so that the characters final moments echo off into time emphasizing the intensity. It’s a really great moment that was really aided by some careful audio choices and the fans seemed to really enjoy it too, which is really why we do all this.

NMM: Thanks for your time!

Further reading: An article about “dynamic range” that should help make clear what it is and why it matters. More info on “Binaural techniques”.