What have been the major forces driving changes in the sound and tone over the course of the Mass Effect series? Advances in the technology used? I’m not just talking about the score, but the entire sound environment. Was it narrative or technology driven?
Naturally, video games are heavily influenced by technology. We narrow down our features for a very few factors, but they’re also our greatest tool. We’re always dependent and reliant on the technology. Generally, we try not to let our tools limit us in any way. The technology we built with Mass Effect 3 allows us to do the stuff we always wanted to do narratively. The changes in the audio are a different direction. The big change in Mass Effect 3 audio-wise was a focus on dynamics. This means dynamic range in audio levels, but also emotional dynamics. I wanted to make sure we had moments of real delicacy next to scenes of pure chaos to emphasize the importance of certain moments.
The material’s given us great opportunities there. That’s the biggest advance we’ve made in Mass Effect 3: It’s not actually the technology, it’s making sure the narrative is as reinforced as much as possible by the audio. We’ve done a great job with that, I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to the changes we’ve made.
Speaking of dynamics, one of the first concerts I went to was Slayer, at a small venue. I wasn’t very familiar with a lot of their music at the time, but going back to what you said about dynamics and pure chaos, it was an hour and a half of everything sounding the same to me. You have to have a spot where you can do full on chaos and then slow it down a bit so you can differentiate. Everything cranked to 11 all the time gets boring.
[Laughs] It becomes five, it becomes average.
Right. If you’re at 11, there’s no place to go higher than that.
You’ll notice for that reason we’ve actually added — and this is a technological thing, driven by a creative decision in Mass Effect 3 — a dynamic range feature in the audio settings.
We have such huge dynamic range, it’s massive. The game is actually very quiet compared to other games. In order for that to not be a problem on flatscreen TV speakers, which obviously some people play games on, we incorporated this dynamic range in the audio settings that changes a bunch of stuff in the mix. It prioritizes the voiceovers and keeps everything else not-so-loud, so you don’t miss anything. That was the result of a creative decision to have a way to hear everything.
What does someone who’s gaming using a surround headset or TV speakers miss out on compared to a player using a full multichannel surround sound system?
There are two answers, actually. One is that video games have volume sliders so the user can customize the mix to their own requirements. But, we also have this dynamic range setting that will allow them to modify the mix to make sure they’ll still hear what’s important in a less-than-ideal setting.
That’s always the challenge with mixing any complicated piece of audio. In fact, not everybody is going to catch everything. You have to make sure the lower quality the system a person has, it might not catch the high level frequency and detail we’ve got going on or the depth with the bass, but they’re still catching the important stuff. In Mass Effect, it’s obviously the voiceover, that’s the number one priority for us.
When I was doing the mix, I was mixing the game in the studio and I have a bunch of different speaker setups that I switch between to make sure everything still sounds clear. If people don’t hear the voiceover, they don’t know what they’re doing. At that point, they don’t care why they’re running around doing these things they’re asked to do – they don’t know the point of any of it. So it’s absolutely vital that the voiceover is clear and telling them what’s happening.
Was there any difference working between the three platforms simultaneously? Was there any difference working between PS3 and 360? Was one easier than the other was?
That’s an interesting question. We’re releasing for the PC as well, which is by far the easiest. Every console and every platform has its challenges and some are easier than others are. It depends on the nature of the game, too. I’ve worked on a few games outside of BioWare; the content can totally change how difficult the platforms are.
On Mass Effect 2 for example, we released on Xbox 360 and then PC. Then we ported to PS3 and we put the focus on that. Now with Mass Effect 3, we’re releasing simultaneously and that puts a lot more pressure on my team to make sure we’re testing on all the different formats and that everything sounds pretty good on every platform.
The common problem with the PlayStation 3 — for various reasons — is the memory. For example, we may have to make the quality of the audio lower because certain sounds have to be stored in memory. That can really suck because we’re putting in these great sounding assets that have to sound like crap because we have to compress them down to nothing to fit into memory. Then, on the flipside, for audio the PS3 is actually much better than the Xbox 360 for a lot of things. So, we’re able to use a higher quality codec like Ogg Vorbis, which actually sounds much nicer than Xbox’s own XNA format.
In terms of sheer quality, it ends up being the same. With PlayStation 3 you have less memory but a higher quality codec to work with within that small amount of memory. Everything is a bit of a balancing act. It’s interesting, I guess we’ll see how people respond when the game comes out. There weren’t too many problems, but it certainly was a challenge.
I’ll be interested in seeing how things change in the future. There’s a lot of talk about new consoles coming out over the next few years and maybe they’ll diverge even further and we’ll have a real nightmare making sure everything sounds the same across them all.
What makes a Mass Effect game sound like a Mass Effect game compared to other games? What are the key things that set the series apart from other games?
You touched on it earlier: the soundtrack is quite identifiable. It’s an iconic mix between orchestral and synthesizer stuff. That’s something we felt strongly about and made sure stood out in the franchise. Sound effect–wise we have some great stuff. The weapons, for example, have these very interesting elements of different types of technology. The foley sounds have a sort of pneumatic and mechanical quality to them, so they sound unique. The biotic powers use the same energy that powers the space ships and stuff like that which is a very interesting slant in what we’ve created; that’s become quite iconic. It’s a range of stuff, when I think of what makes something sound interesting is a whole bunch of stuff. It’s not one thing that stands out. Obviously, with audio it’s the weakest link that stands out the most, so we try to make everything sound as interesting and characterful as possible.
I’m a big fan of tangential sounds, so I’m always pushing the team here to make sounds as frequency focused as possible because it helps with the mix. But, it also helps make things more iconic and more memorable like you mentioned. That’s something I’ve been trying to push here and I think the teams are doing an awesome job making sounds that are memorable and iconic.
How different is the salarian singing voice from their speaking voice in terms of timbre and pitch?
[Hearty laugh]That’s a good question, I like that! Because of the amount of languages we do and the amount of voiceovers we record, who knows if someone will make a Mass Effect game that’s entirely salarian or whatever, but with every character or race we do processing for (for voice) we have to thoroughly document it. It could be going off to a studio somewhere in France where they’re recording the French actors. So we thoroughly document everything and have to be very clear and consistent about it. We have very strict guidelines for what each race needs to sound like.
As for salarians, [laughs] I don’t even know where to go with that! Speaking of which, there’s actually a little bit of salarian singing in the third game.
Oh, awesome. When I first saw that in Mass Effect 2 it kind of blew my mind, It was fantastic.
My favorite part about that scene was he does his little singing moment, I’m imagining a massive amount of people are just gobsmacked, totally didn’t see it coming. And there’s this little pause and he does this subtle [clears throat] “ahem” and it’s just that beautiful tone. I laughed so hard, it was so good.
Do the elcor preface the emotion of what they want during sex? For example, “Passionate plead: Harder. Faster.”
[Hearty laugh] Do you mean do we process their voices based on what they’re doing?
Well, yeah. One of the things that makes the elcor so unique is they preface each statement with emotional response so other races understand the context of their answer. Someone from Twitter wanted to know if that carried over to intercourse.
[Laughs] Well, I guess you’ll have to wait to see if there’s an elcor love interest in Mass Effect 3. I don’t think our publicist would let me tell you if there was. We certainly give voiceover a lot of thought and make sure we just perfectly nail it, if you will. You’ll have to wait and see to find out about that.