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Sounds Of The Snow

In one of the more unconventional Gamasutra articles we've ever published, Finnish game sound designer Tapio Liukkonen (Broken Alliance) writes passionately about the need for authentic winter sound recording in games.

[In this article, Finnish game sound designer Tapio Liukkonen (Broken Alliance) writes passionately about the need for authentic winter sound recording in games. While we're on the cusp of spring in North America, Western Europe and Asia, it's a good exercise to stop and think about how sound recording could be accomplished in games -- with field recording an invigorating technique.]

This article will focus on winter recording. You may ask why. I have lived almost all my life in Finland where we have four totally different seasons. Summer temperature can be as high as 104F (40C) and winter as low as -40F (-40C). Weather changes between these boundaries are huge. Snow, rain, slush, heat -- you name it.

To me, winter means a lot. I like winter and everything that you can do then. It also has extremely wide and specific soundscapes. Lots of things affect the soundscape, like temperature, quality of snow, location, etc.

I prefer the real sound of snow instead of Foley sounds, because you can't create as unique a sound with Foley as with real field recording. My goal is to explain why, and introduce general problems of winter field recording in this article.

Studio or Field?

There are two places to record sound effects -- the studio and the field. Both places have their own strengths. The studio is always quiet, easy to control and you can collect your Foley material near to you. Work can be done fast.

On the other hand, a studio can be too small, sometimes hard to control, and presents a lack of surprises. In the field you can try new things, and you always have space to do things -- but sometimes they can be too noisy, the location can be too remote, or work may happen too slowly.

Everybody talks a lot about Foley work. I feel that field recording is underestimated -- there are so many stories about the sound design of Hollywood blockbuster movies and how similar sounds have been created in big game studios.

Maybe it is more glamorous if you work in a nice, big studio -- but you can create quality sounds in the field, too. You can easily find realistic sounds and you don't have to find good material for the Foley. There is also something "extreme" about going to nature and recording things. It is more rewarding than just sitting in the studio with mic and recording.

tapio.JPG

Lots of games and movies try to be loudest product of the year. I have to admit that this is cool. You can crank your volume up and shoot those alien freaks back to space! But I also like soundtracks which have some kind of idea -- details in the sound, something unique. One way to create something unique is field recording. There are lots of sounds which wait for recording. They can be good as how they sound or something new when you edit them.

It is faster to work in a studio because everything is close and there aren't any unwanted noises. In the field things can go badly, and it can take time. But if you know how to record sounds and you are aware what you need, you can save time in the editing and mixing processes. Real sound can fit as it is -- but studio recordings probably need editing.

For example, if you record footsteps in 5F (-15C) weather, you can record it from the right distance, you get the right surface and quality of snow, and you'll have the natural ambience.

Creating the same sound in a studio environment can be tricky. You have to eliminate room tone, you have to have the right items to make a sound which sounds like snow, and you have to get the right ambience. By ambience I don't mean background noises and whatever -- I mean the ambience which characterizes the sound itself, so that it isn't too "dry".

So if you can't easily create it in the studio, or you can't find the sound in commercial sound effects libraries, then you have to go to field and record it! For that matter, why to bother to even check out libraries? Nobody can blame you repeating sounds or similarity to others' work, if you build your own sounds.

Of course there are money and timetable issues, but people should know that if they want something original and unique then they might have to be patient, and aware of the value of sounds.


Fake vs. Real

Lately, I have been working with winter sounds and especially with snow footsteps. A pretty typical mistake in movies and games is snow footstep sounds. You can create those in your studio. People use salt, cornstarch, potato flour, and other substances. They are great tools for snow footsteps, but not in as many cases as you'd like.

That stuff will work if you have to do something like dry and crunchy sounds -- many of movies use those. Believe me, there's a pretty big difference if weather is 32F (0C), 14F (-10C) or -22F (-30C). And that is not all. Different types of snow have their own sounds. New snow, old snow, powder, snow on the ice -- each has its own unique sound.

That's why it is hard to make good snow sounds in the studio. You have to have the right temperature and right quality of snow. If you want to make fresh snow sounds that you can't make in a typical studio, you have to have a really large studio because if you step in same place on fresh snow, it doesn't sound as good as it should the second time. And how you can collect fresh snow to studio?

"Normal Foley" snow footstep sounds will bluff people who don't know winter sounds. But people who have that knowledge will be pretty stunned if you make a mistake. Lately I watched a movie. It had scene where two people speak to each other outside. They are acting like they're freezing.

They also wore winter jackets and their breath is freezing. Amazingly, the footstep sounds were something that you'd expect to hear in 32F (0C) which sounds like it has snowed and it is still wet.

winter_landscape.JPG Temperature is everything. Snow changes with it, and it definitely will change surrounding sounds. For example in -4F (-20C) snow will be icy and hard. Footstep sounds are very bright and light. The ambience is very echoing. You can hear cars, planes, runners, dogs from far away. In 32F (0C) everything is different. Footsteps are crunchy, wet and heavy. The same goes with ambience -- there's not so much echoing. It seems that wet snow "sucks" all the sounds.

And you also have to remember that vegetation and other surfaces freeze too. Sand and gravel will get wet and freeze. They become crispy; the same happens to grass and leafs too. These will affect sounds when there isn't so much snow. You can hear snow and the surfaces under it. The possibilities are endless. When there is more snow things go a little easier because you don't have think surfaces -- just the quality of snow.

I think that best way to record snow footsteps is record it in the real material. It will sound the best, and most realistic. I am aware that sounds don't have to be realistic, but they have to be unnoticeable. Of course, many people don't know how they should sound -- but to me it is pretty irritating. And why have to do everything same way every time?

Let's think about this another way. A nature film might have a night scene with a bird singing. To me, that is just a typical bird singing. To birdwatchers, that same song could mean something totally different. Maybe he or she knows that bird doesn't make that kind of sound in the night but it does it in the morning. Again, realistic sounds communicate more than fake ones do.


Preparation for the Field Recording

Preparation is everything in all work. That is where you save time, money, extra work and nerves. Harder and more demanding work needs more preparation. Preparation can be done in many different ways. Everyone has his own style, but I think it should include at least these:

  1. Check that you have all needed equipment
  2. Check that all equipment works
  3. Charge all batteries
  4. Make an organized and well-planned task list
  5. Eliminate all unwanted sound sources. For example, tape bag straps, shoelaces, etc.
  6. Double check!
  7. Take enough clothes and maybe some snack with you

It is good to make every little adjustment when you are still inside because, when you go to out in -40F (-40C) weather, I think you may want go to back inside and repair that broken cable in there... instead of outdoors.

Clothes

The most important thing in recording in winter is definitely clothing. There are two important things about your clothes, in fact. Firstly, clothes keep you warm. Usually best way is to wear three different layers which have their own important task to keep you warm and dry. You can read more about it from trekking websites or Wikipedia. I could easily write another article about it -- but let's stay focused.

Secondly, your clothes should be made of something which doesn't make unwanted rustling. It can affect your recordings. The bad news is that if you follow instructions on what your three layers of clothes should be, you may not get your desired results. Yes, you might keep warm and dry, but almost all technical winter clothes are really noisy.

Of course, what you're wearing should be fitted to what you're doing. If you are recording something which doesn't include moving, then you can wear whatever you want. But if you have to move at the same time as you record, then you have to think twice about what you wear. If you want to record natural snow footsteps, for example, then you have to wear clothes that don't rustle.

I have been using one or two layers of underwear -- something which fits perfectly and keeps you dry. Fleece is good mid-layer material. It keeps you warm. The important outer layer should be something which protects you from wind, because wind will multiply freezing situations.

ski_track_in_the_night.JPG I have been using a jogging suit because it doesn't make any unwanted sounds. It is not warm, but it will keep you warm if you move. It is important to keep in your mind that it is bad to wear too much clothing. You will get sweaty, and you will feel cold after a few minutes.

Equipment

New digital hi-tech equipment has lots of extra functions and looks fancy. Unfortunately most of them are not built for hard conditions, so technical problems might arise. For example, LCD screens freeze, memory cards don't work, or the battery goes low extremely quickly.

I solve this problem with a heat cable which works with a small battery. I wrap my recording equipment with towels and wrap this heating cable in it. This system keeps recording device warm for about three to five hours.

If you don't want to build your own heating system, then you can save your battery with the power button, though this may not work with all devices. Some of them will not restart before you have warmed them again. I'd rather keep power on all the time. Of course it depends what you're doing, but I think it is the better way. That's why you need extra batteries.

One of the most irritating things is that microphone cables will go stiff. If you coil your cable up, it will freeze in that shape. When you untie it, it will be hard to get straight. The easiest way to avoid this problem is take a few different lengths of extra cables to your bag. If you need a shorter cable, you can just change it.


Other Considerations

Changing weather can be tricky. If you go out to record some nice wet snow, be aware that the weather can change significantly in two hours. You may find that snow doesn't sound like it sounded two hours ago. It might be more crispy, because the temperature got lower.

Good recording locations may also be hard to find. It should be silent. No animals, traffic, or people can be near in the recording place. Freezing weather will make sounds audible from a longer distance. For example, I once thought that I found a perfect place.

It was near a lake, with no traffic, people or anything else near me. I started to record. It didn't take a long when I noticed that something weird was going on. It was the lake. It made a low frequency rumbling noise because it was 14F (-10C) and the ice was moving and changing its shape.

After Recording

Work is not done when you record your last sound. You have to take care of your equipment. When you bring your equipment back indoors they will get damp. It is very important to open all battery covers, cases, unplug cables, put wind shield to dry, etc. This will not take a long time but it will keep your equipment in good condition. I have seen too many people undervalue their equipment.

Conclusion

Everything doesn't have to be as loud as it can. More nuance, details, dynamics, crazy ideas, and hard work will raise the quality of game audio. Games get more interesting and unique soundtracks when you try novel techniques.

The play experience will be better, because the player won't hear typical snow sounds -- they'll hear real sounds with real surfaces. Suddenly, your games feel fresh. The player might never realize what's different, but the game will feel fresh and new.

After all, I think that winter sounds can be amazingly hard to get, but it's worth it. The versatility of winter sounds is huge, so I really think that they should be taken seriously. I'm not saying that I recommend field recording only for the winter sounds, either. Many things can be done in studio with Foley, but sometimes you have to go outside and make it real.

To me, winter is near to my heart, and I also really love to work in hard conditions. Is there anything more pleasant than coming from freezing weather to your home after four or eight hours, and making coffee? Nothing! And outdoor living is good for you anyway.

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