On the front line: We talk to the audio team behind ‘Battlefield 1’

The EA DICE reveal some of their techniques for recreating sounds from over a century ago.

Video game developer EA DICE has spent a lot of time in Battlefield games making the world sound as realistic as possible, not only with guns, vehicles and explosions near and far, but also with environmental sound design. Battlefield 1, the latest in the series, required the DICE team to go right back to World War I and needed to sound different to its predecessor Battlefield 4, providing already familiar fans with a new experience.

Since there aren’t many games set during this time period, the team almost had complete freedom to set the scene without too many strong preconceptions from the audience of how it should sound, which EA DICE audio director Bence Pajor found “exhilarating and scary at the same time”. “We felt that we wanted to juxtapose the leap backwards in time by doing something that felt very fresh and contemporary,” says Pajor. “World War I through a modern lens you could say.”

The sound for the game was different in the sense that sounds of WWI are harder to come by and find reference for, posing a challenge for the team, who spent a lot of time tracking down vehicles and weapons from the era and recording them. The sound of the game itself also needed to change and bring the player closer to the action on screen, as lead sound designer Mari Saastamoinen Minto explains: “We wanted it to feel more gritty and brutal, with dust falling down on your clothes and helmet, the taste of dirt, mud and hot metal while the rain falls on your head as you crouch for cover in a trench.”

Sound all around

Yet the strength of the EA DICE team lies in how it handled the unexpectedness and chaotic nature of this non-linear experience, unlike a film where every moment can be orchestrated perfectly for the audience, “so our task was much like letting 64 random people play whatever instrument they want simultaneously, and still having to make it sound good”, reveals Pajor. The instruments in this case were machine guns, cannons, tanks, planes, rifles, grenades, exploding buildings, screaming soldiers, barking dogs, revving motorcycles, whizzing bullets etc.

One of the rule sets that the EA DICE team invented many years ago to deal with some of the most complex elements is something they call “HDR Audio”, which in its simplest form tells a sound how loud it can play, if at all, depending on how loudly other sounds are playing at the same time.

“This way we can play fewer sounds simultaneously making the mix a lot clearer, almost like a real-time film mixer,” Pajor adds. “This also helps to tell the story of some sounds being much louder than others since we don’t have the extreme dynamic range of the reality that we’re trying to portray, from a falling leaf to a 500lb bomb.”

A new system that was introduced in the game however was dynamic weather, which posed a challenge not only from a technical standpoint but also in terms of sound design and time management. “The forest around you, the field ahead of you, the trenches in No Man’s Land and the airship you jump off – all these environments sound different depending on the time of day, year, temperature and weather,” Minto describes.

Picture (from left): Andreas Almstrom, Bence Pajor and Mari Saastamoinen Minto

Banding together

Strong collaboration between design, audio, lighting and VFX was key in creating a strong focus on changing weather, as the team felt that it would have an interesting impact on gameplay. This required the creation of a lot more content but within the same timeframe as previous titles.

“Good team spirit and communications is the base, followed by being able to work cleverly and set deadlines for yourself as a sound designer,” states Minto. “When it came to the sound design between the different weathers we set up some basic guidelines and went back and forth a few times before we decided on a design and method.”

A range of microphones and recording devices were used for different types of sessions during the project. Sound Devices recorders have remained a staple in the DICE team’s arsenal for many years, according to lead sound designer Andreas Almstrom.

“We also use handhelds such as the Olympus LS-5/10/11/100, Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-05, Sony M10/D100 for quick and dirty recordings, and for covering vaster areas during larger shoots,” he says. “Since they are usually fairly small we can put them in the line of fire to capture the sound of bullets and other projectiles whirring by.”

For character Foley, the team mostly used the Sennheiser 418-s stereo shotgun rigged close to the chest, pointed downwards to get the sound of the shoes and other materials at a natural distance when running around: “We did experiment with binaural recordings on Foley and voice early during development,” Almstrom adds, “but we found it difficult to mix binaural recordings with non binaural recordings and still maintain clear spatiality.”

For larger sessions such as vehicle and gun shoots, the DICE team used as many mics as they could handle, including Sennheiser 8040s, Sennheiser 416 and 418s, LineAudio CM3s, SM57s and a Sanken CSS5.

For more specific recordings, Almstrom says that the AKG D112 and DPA’s d:screet 4062 were great for close-ups on weapons and vehicles. A mic that still follows Almstrom along on all shoots however is the Sony ECM-MS907, which, “while the mic itself isn’t all that spectacular, its form factor and inexpensiveness allows you to easily attach it to places where no other mic would be considered.”