Keeping Sound at the Cutting Edge of Games

BAFTA award winning Audio Director Adele Cutting is the founder of audio production company Soundcuts. She started the business in 2011 and has worked on over 100 productions, providing sound design, music, and speech production! Her work includes the likes of  The Quarry, Room for Old Sins, Planet Zoo, Quantum Break, Sunless Skies, Elite Dangerous, Planet Coaster and Lego Dimensions, to name but a few.



Cuttings first job in sound was as an assistant sound editor at Reelsound (now Sound24). “I studied sound at the National Film and Television School and as part of my course I had placements, one of which was at Reelsound who then offered me a job. EA also contacted the NFTS to see if anyone would be interested in designing sound for cutscenes (the linear sequences in games) and I loved animation, mainly because you started with NO sound at all, so even though I’d already started a job, the Head of Audio, Andrew Bolton contacted me and mentioned the opportunity.” She went on to work a short contract at EA, and they offered her a position ….the rest is history.


Prior to even going to NFTS she had already had work experience in audio, which she did during school and university holidays. “I was fortunate to know from around the age of 15/16 that I wanted to work with sound in some shape or form.. thanks to ‘Singing in the Rain’ and amateur video recordings of stage shows I’d been in, which had rubbish sound, so I wanted to improve it.”


Soundcuts came about after EA closed the studio. “I was working as a Senior Audio Director at EA, and unfortunately – after a series of redundancies, they decided to close the entire studio. I’d been thinking about starting my own audio outsourcing company for a while and this was the kick up the bum I needed to do it! I was a Mum of two really young kids, and I didn’t like working late or weekends and not being with them, so I wanted to be able to work from home (I have a studio in my garden). I didn’t want to be a sole freelancer, as I loved working with a team, so the idea was always for it to be a company. It started as just me back in 2011, but within a year I had my first fulltime staff member and it’s just snowballed since then. We have a core team of fulltime staff, and additional team members on contract, last year at our maximum, we were 20 people.”


When asked what has been one of her biggest career highlights, Cutting finds it difficult to choose. However one in particular does come to mind. “I think winning the BAFTA for the sound on Theme Park World was probably the biggest. It was the EA’s audio team’s first win. Then following on from that winning our first Develop award as Soundcuts for audio outsourcing, which I was immensely proud about, but then there’s also work hi-lights such as recording F1 cars at the Circuit de Catalunya, recording stadium crowds at Wembley, directing Ralph Fiennes for a game and Giancarlo Esposito for an audio drama…to small things. Recently we had a booth at the Develop conference and a lot of the team came down, at one point I looked to my side and there were 4 Soundcuts team members all smiling and engaging with people at our booth, talking about our work, with a queue of people waiting to speak to us, that made me feel incredibly proud…Plus seeing the teams successes – Greg and Lewis have both been nominated at the Game Dev Heroes awards and seeing Ross doing an amazing speech on ‘As Dusk Falls’ at Develop….There are tonnes.”


As for the most bizarre project Cutting says that every game has an individual set of challenges. “I’d say one of the most recent tricky projects was ‘As Dusk Falls’, the visual style is painted stills, a mix of 2D characters in 3D environments, which only update between 0.4secs to 5secs depending on the action in the scene. The Audio’s job was not only to support the story and emotion, but also to make the game feel like a continuous experience. The team wanted it to feel like a Netflix show similar to Breaking Bad in style. We had to experiment to discover when a sound needed to play in the scene to feel real and continuous, rather than just ‘too much sound’, so that the resulted in a cluttered soundtrack. So a half-way house between TV sound and audio drama was adopted.”


“I’ve also worked on ‘audio only’ games, which sound like a sound designers dream, but actually are very difficult, as there are many tricks you use when working to visuals to make a sound ‘big’, but these don’t work when visuals aren’t present, they confuse the audio image you’re creating. So you have to adopt a different mind-set.”


When approaching a game Cutting always asks how we can make it sound awesome. “We work different ways with different clients, for some like ‘The Quarry’ by Supermassive Games, or Interior Night’s ‘As Dusk Falls’ we are their audio team. So we function just like an in-house team would do. So in both those cases, it’s a case of defining the style/audio direction for the project in line with the Creative Directors vision. They were both very similar - Narrative branching games, with QTE’s, but the audio style for each one is very different, one is understated and the other is bombastic as they’re appealing to different audiences and have very different stories, despite having a similar gameplay framework.”


“Following on from that we look at what tools/pipelines are required, which audio middleware we’re going to use. In the case of Supermassive, they already had an in-house sound team working on their other projects, so the ‘tech’ element was already set up, so it was a case of any additional requirements specifically needed for ‘The Quarry’. For other clients we might just provide one area of the soundtrack – Composition, cutscene sound design, ambience, UI, other projects we undertake speech production (Casting, direction, recording, editing, post-pro) and we work alongside their in-house team, so we’re following an already set direction and the tools are set up.”


As for workflow, Cutting doesn’t have a particular process as every game is different. “Each company has a different workflow and tools pipeline, different game engines, different or no middleware. This can even come down to what DAWS we use, many games companies have now adopted Reaper, but we’ve also been asked to work in Protools, Logic and others. Some companies just want us to create assets and they take on all the integration.”


As a company they document all the different pipelines on projects. For many projects the team is required to ramp up and down, so it’s essential that they document pipelines so that team members can get up to speed quickly. All pipelines and documentation are kept in Miro.


“Generally the sound is dictated by the story, emotion and visuals, so when working on a game in pre-production, we’ll use pre-vis images and game captures to tracklay different ideas and try different styles before we begin integrating into the game. Then generating mock-ups of systems we’re going to use in Wwise.”


The games industry is always pushing the boundaries and evolving so Cutting and her team have to keep up with advancements. “I think especially in the outsourcing/freelance world you work on so many different game engines and pipelines the learning curve is off the charts, far more so than when I worked in-house – where things were also updating and improving all the time, but looking back now it feels at a glacial pace, as generally you’re only working on one project for many years. Across our team we work on multiple projects simultaneously, some are a few weeks, whilst others are years.  We’re normally at the sharp end of the knife learning and using the tech as it’s being made. We’re lucky that there are technical sound designers (some are programmers too) at Soundcuts, and they love getting new toys to play with, so they can deep dive and then report back to the rest of the team. The whole team is passionate about audio, so if anyone finds anything interesting they’re shared across the whole team.”


Dialogue production is important to the mission design, story architecture and needs to be one of the tightest and most organized elements of audio production, yet remain completely fluid and open to change. We asked how she manages this. “Master Script Databases and file naming conventions! They’re essential. It’s absolutely essential to track all changes as it can get out of hand really quickly, especially when localisation is involved. Bigger companies normally have this all in-hand, for smaller Indies; if we’re on a project we’ll create one of these. We have our own ‘Soundcuts Speech tool’, which was programmed specifically for this. It helps us manage changes and helps with recording assets, making sure nothing is missed, continuity between lines work from a performance point of view and that the file naming convention is sorted etc. Some games can have huge amounts of lines, e.g. around 50k plus (some large games can go incredibly high!); when you multiply that by 7 languages it’s a lot to manage.”


“In some games you might start with Robo Speech – maybe to get a rough footprint for the size of the dialogue, or for super rough timings or to help the game designers with logic and flow. Then you might go onto Placeholder speech, which is when the team (audio or game dev) or in rare cases actors record the script, again it’s mainly for timings before the final speech or performance capture is recorded or to help with script re-writes. Game scripts can change right up to and including at the recording session itself.  Once you get the final recordings, it’s important to make sure these are all organised correctly as you don’t want Robo speech appearing in the final game. Sometimes this is done via source control (as filenames are likely to be the same when VO), or it can be done with folder structures and tools trickery.”


How does Cutting manage a game where the performance requires a variety of dialogue including screams and shouting to whispers and crying and what mic set ups does she use? “The mic is usually set up for the ‘normal’ game level – the voice performance level for the majority of the dialogue in that specific game, then during the recording you’ll change the levels depending on what’s happening. You can use two mics, one with a pad on, so that if screams peak on one, you can switch to the other one. We have situations where we’ve used 3 mics too, a Neumann U87, a 416 slightly further away and a dpa head mic. Again, we approach every game differently. The key thing is always getting great source recordings, you can change levels between screaming, whispering and normal speech in post production, but what you don’t want is super low recording levels for whispering, so that you’re bringing up noise floors in post. I personally prefer actors to ‘stage whisper’ than actually whisper, but that’s a direction note, not technical set-up.”


So what are the differences when creating a cinematic soundscape for game and film? “In game you are immersed in the world. You are playing as a character, so are experiencing the environment as that character, in film you are a spectator. I’d say generally ambiences are a lot more detailed in games. Specifically placing objects in a 3D world. For ‘The Quarry’ we wanted a cinematic feel, so we wanted the ambiences to change on each shot cut. But in games, edits change all the time, and we don’t have EDL’s to track these changes. So we needed a system that was flexible, so that we didn’t have to redesign or retime the ambiences. So we had multiple loops playing in a blend container, with a series of states in Wwise which were linked to shot types, Close Up, Mid Shot, Wide Shot, High Shot, Low Shot. Each state would have a different setup regarding EQ, Volume, Filters etc, these would be different on each of the loops. So in the timeline, we’d just have a state change based on the camera type, which we would resync when a new edit was made. We had a stereo loops system for each ambient area, which was slightly pulled back so it bled into the rears. We would have several blend containers for the ‘woods’ depending on which area of the woods you were in."


"We also had a group of quad ambience blend containers acting the same way. Additionally we’d place 3d spot emitters around the world, as you would in an open world game i.e. crickets in grassland or wind/leaf rustle in trees etc. We also had a wind loop that would come in depending on the height of the camera. Finally, we would spot specific loops for certain camera shots. There is a sequence when it’s raining, it’s an extreme close up of a character who is wearing a baseball cap, so whenever it’s was a tight close up, we had a ‘rain on the peak of her baseball cap’ sound effect playing. Both in ‘The Quarry’ and ‘As Dusk Fall’s’ the ambiences are played higher in the mix that you would hear in film or TV, but it’s to help with the emersion of the player.”


Dialogue positioning is also slightly different. “As Dusk Falls went for a much more centred approach in-line with what you’d expect in film, but it worked well because of the visual style. For the Quarry, we still had to have some movement based on where the characters were positioned, as sometimes a character could be behind you and speaking, but we always weighted it to be more centred, so there wasn’t too much dialogue swinging around in the speakers. The attenuation on the voice didn’t echo ‘real life’; the character had to be quite far away before the voice volume began to roll off. But the main difference is as a sound designer in film, you know what’s going to happen. In games, you don’t know what a player is going to do. So you have to plan for every eventuality.”


“With music although positioned in a similar way as you would in a film/TV, the challenge in games is to make sure it changes to the gameplay no matter what choice the player has made. It has to feel bespoke to picture, even though it’s not always possible, as a player could at any point put down the controller and go for a cup of tea! Or could take a long time to make a decision, so for both games this was a mix of loops, overlays and stingers, with some bespoke cues for specific areas.”


What are the biggest sonic challenges when creating cinematic audio for games?

“Mixing – Getting consistent mixing across a game that spans 15 hours is tricky and has to be planned. Levels have to be loaded, which takes time, so you can’t just pop in and out of level to do spot checks. I generally make sure the VO is the same across the game (post-pro and levels in wwise), then the ambiences, and finally the spot sfx and music but that’s just me, I’m sure everyone approaches it differently depending on the type of game you’re working on. Seamless audio experience – Is something else that’s tricky especially across branching games. It’s using a mix of tracklaying as you would linear media and approaching the sound as if an open world game.”


With a diverse range of tools and technology available what does she say is the most important aspect of achieving great performances? “When directing the most important thing to me is believability of the characters. If I don’t believe the actor in the studio it’s just going to become worse in the game. I think the actors need to feel they’re in a safe space, so that they can really get into character, try new things and really throw themselves into a role. I’ve had to direct some scripts which have been super emotional and dealing with tricky content e.g. death of a child. Anything that gives an actor freedom to be in a space without worrying about tech is a good thing.”


What advice would she give up coming audio engineers who want to get into games?

“Play games- it’s surprising how many people are interested in getting into games without having played them. It’s important to see what’s going on and what the community is coming up with, what is the current gold standard, so you can push to be better and learn from them. Resilience – It’s a necessity. Be Adaptable – Things change all the time. Not just the tech, but the game design.”


“You’ve got to be open to change and you can’t be precious about your work. Things are cut all the time. You also have to be open to feedback; especially for us as we’re a service provider, it’s important that the game team you’re working with love the sound you’re creating. It’s a team sport - So leave your ego at home. You need to work as a team (both a sound team and with the wider gamedev team), it’s important to support your team mates. It can be stressful at times, so you need to look after each other, share knowledge and be prepared to jump on board to help others out. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll definitely find it.”



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