BRZAP! 5 tips for creating unique sci-fi sounds in video games

Players can only hear those same tired out sci-fi lightsaber sounds so many times before they lose effect. Here, 5th Cell audio director Tracy Bush tells us how he created the unique sounds for Hybrid.
Everyone has their own vision of what sci-fi should sound like. To some, it's Star Wars lightsaber sounds and juicy thumps of phaser blasts. To others, it's the steady electrical hums and tweets of Star Trek. To yet others, it's a theremin, a musical saw, and some well-placed Moog synth tones. With so much strong history in movies, games, and musical experiments, how does one go about creating a new sci-fi universe's aural landscape, especially when it's a shooter? We asked Tracy Bush, 5th Cell's audio director, who recently crafted the sonic style of the company's third person action shooter, Hybrid.

1. Start with the guns.

"Everybody has their own kind of approach," says Bush. "I started off with the guns; we wanted to get that solid, first of all. When you’re making a shooter, guns are your meat and potatoes. It took a little bit of iteration to get a lot of the guns where I wanted them, to have them have enough hit and power and, for those smaller guns that don’t do as much damage, to not sound like little pop cap guns." But you don't have to go sci-fi with it right away. "They all have their basis in real life guns because we’re still dealing with shotguns, and being not in the distant future we still haven’t evolved that much in terms of powders and cartridges and stuff like that." he says. But with the more unusual weapons, you have to look a bit further afield, which is where things get interesting. "There are a few weapons that are decidedly futuristic," says Bush. "The Swarm is one of them; it’s an area-of-effect that creates a little dome or sphere of annoying death, and that doesn’t sound like anything [in real life]. It's got a charge-up, so I play with a lot of electricity sounds and power kind of sounds. I did a lot of work with distortion tube effects on amplifiers because that gives you this crackle and weird kind of burbly energy that you can use."

2. Go analog.

That leads us to the second point - in a world where we're so used to digital sounds chiming around us all the time, oldschool analog electronics actually sound a bit otherworldly, and can link you to reality while also inspiring the fantastical. "For the sci-fi weapons, I just mic-ed them as you would a guitar amplifier," he says. "I did a lot of things where I took a couple of effects, recorded a version of it, then put it on my iPhone, then put that through a pedal board effects chain for guitars, and then put that through a tube amp and re-recorded it; it’s very convoluted, but it sounds crazy at the end." Bush says he doesn't like to rely simply on the standard sound design software programs for asset creation. "I try to think outside of those tools because you get a lot of character out of that," he adds. "One of the robots that I’m actually very proud of is the Preyon, the high-end assassin droid. That's the way I did that one, with a guitar amplifier and the tube filters and stuff like that. [In the original recording] I’m actually inhaling and screeching at the same time. I just did it as long as I could, recorded it, and then stretched it out; it's a freaky, freaky sound, and I’m very proud of it."

3. Integrate with the soundtrack early.

"I had a lot of input into [the soundtrack], at least as far as how we wanted the musical direction to go," he says. "We went through a lot of iteration trying to get the right tone for the instrumentation and what-have-you. Once we finally got all that, we were able to start writing all of the tracks—the main menu tracks, the in-game tracks, and all the wrap-around effects. Then, as the maps came online, we did map ambiences as well, and those were a lot more straightforward. You’re looking at a space, and you’re like, what should this sound like? We assign sounds based on things within the map, do those individually and set those to frames, and the world’s alive."

4. Give it the smell test.

What makes a sci-fi sound believable? What seems implausible? How do you link these sounds to our existing world, without straying too far from what people expect? "A lot of it is based on sound choices and how you make those sounds," says Bush. "I use a lot of old-school synthesizer type sounds like analog generators and things like that to make things sound sci-fi-like but not so strange that they're out of place." "That’s one of the tricky things about doing sound design: making sure it sounds right and that your brain doesn’t stop what it’s doing and say, 'Well, that's… that's not correct,'" he adds. "It's a kind of line that you have to thread there. But I like living in a sci-fi world and playing with sound within it, making dark matter lightning and things like that. There's a map that has big capital ships that fly in, destroy buildings, and fly away. It's fun playing with that and not using the same things that everyone else has done—making a big ship come in and land and use a laser that doesn’t sound like the same laser you’ve heard thousands of times before."

5. Don't use libraries!

That brings us to the final point, where our article began. There's such a cultural history of these kinds of sounds: lightsaber sounds, laser sounds, and phaser sounds that already exist. How do you avoid re-treading old ground? "You have to be very aware of it," asserts Bush. "I made a game several years ago, and I had a team working with me at the time. We had to do 40 or 50 weapons; it was a lot of weapons. On just one of them, one of my junior sound designers pulled a weapon from a sample library. I listened to all of them, and it sounded fine; I’m like, 'That sounds… Yeah, I’m okay with that.'" “When we shipped the game, I got calls from all of my other sound designers friends and audio directors, and they were like, 'Why would you use just that same gun? Here’s the other places where that gun has appeared.' That was definitely one of those moments where I realized you've got to pay attention to everything that you did, because you don’t want to use the same sounds that someone else did. Even that Wilhelm Scream that everybody seems to use; they’ve been putting that in games lately, and I won't do it." Now he's getting a bit worked up, when I mention the "man falling and screaming" sound that was in every game trailer in the early 2000s. "There's a fireball as well," he adds. "There's a lot of those that we know that we never use. There's a redtail hawk that they always use for an establishing shot for a desert. You see a desert and hear (screech sound); it's that same bird." Don't fall into that trap, he warns. "It's not hard to generate new content; as long as you've got your own microphone and ability to record something, you can come up with something new. It’s not impossible. And it's good, too! Our guns definitely have personality—I’m not saying that they have more personality, but they're definitely their own thing."

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