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30 October 2014

GameCity - The Sound of Nuclear Throne

For those of you who don't know, GameCity is a wonderful, week-long festival, dotted here and there throughout the historic drinking city of Nottingham. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days up there and thought I would report back some findings. I had actually intended this report to cover a range of topics and games, but being the audio freak that I am I've ended-up writing way too much about one talk in particular, so I guess I'll be splitting this out into a few separate articles covering things that have caught my eye/ear/assorted-face-holes.


The first talk I managed to see, moments after arriving at GameCity on the Monday afternoon, was sound designer and voice actor extraordinaire Joonas Turner's half-hour whistle-stop tour of the sound design of Nuclear Throne. Whilst Joonas did cover a lot of ground in the thirty minutes he had allotted, I'll just quickly recap some of the more important and interesting creative decisions he discussed.


Nuclear Throne



One of the most unexpected aspects of Joonas' approach was in creating a simple language for the games inhabitants. Actions and objects are deconstructed into single syllables and then mushed together into a single word. For instance, SHOOT ME/US THAT, becomes a simple three syllable word. Whilst the majority of players are unlikely to ever notice this consistency of approach it does, I think, have a number of benefits to Joonas himself as he works on the project. Firstly, it provides him with a script to work to when he's doing voice over. I know from my experience with Friendship Club that speaking nonsense is a surprisingly difficult thing to do well and voice actors can fall into repetition. Without a script you tend to end up with an enormous amount of takes of largely undifferentiated material, turning the editing process into a nightmare. Having words to work from, even if they might seem nonsensical is a good way of preventing this issue. An additional benefit of going to the lengths that Joonas has is that it helps him to submerge himself in the game world, which no doubt improves the consistency and quality of the sound design throughout the game. I'm a huge advocate of this 'method acting' approach, in which even the most abstract and unlikely of game worlds adhere to some form of inner logic. Not only does it make a project more enjoyable to work on, but it helps create an environment (either personal/mental or collaborative) in which the generation of original ideas is far more seamless.


Nice kit. I'm jealous.

Whilst recording the character VO Joonas also used a different recording chain (mic preamp combo) to help differentiate between the player and their adversaries. This is a common studio technique when recording music as it is a very effective means to give a varying sonic qualities to instruments, allowing them to be more easily distinguishable from one another in the mix. This simple if potentially financially expensive approach saves on post-processing (EQ etc.) as the various combinations have different spectral and dynamic characteristics. Indeed some respected recording engineers make it a matter of principle to not use the same mic twice within a recording.


Variations in mic placement was also used to simulate proximity. Thus the player character recordings were taken 'very' close to the VO artist, whilst enemies were recorded from further back, helping to give a sense of distance. Not only this, but it helps emphasise the gurgling throatiness of some of the protagonists voices. It should be noted that even when a game has a sophisticated 3D audio engine, employing these principles of microphone behaviour is still beneficial.


Nuclear Throne


Adding bang to your bangs!

Nuclear Throne, being the slug fest that is, requires impact. Guns need to be big, bosses even bigger. Traditionally gun processing requires quite a lot of post-production techniques in order to achieve the weight that we are used to. Layering of multiple sounds, sub-bass synthesis and so forth. Joonas stated that 'every' gun sound in Nuclear Throne has an additional click sound layered into its attack phase (the beginning of the sound). This is just a short, two or three cycle waveform which imitates the sound of clipping distortion that incredibly loud sounds create, whether through overdriving audio equipment or in the human ear when it is suddenly assaulted by something at high volume. Since the sample is very short it does chew-up all the available headroom, meaning that dynamic range can stay intact whilst adding a large amount of perceived loudness.


Perhaps the most vital aspect in creating loud sounds is ducking. This is the act of turning down certain sounds when other sounds are playing. The most common examples of this would be when you hear a radio DJ or television announcer begin talking over a piece of music. The volume of the music is brought down quite substantially to make room for the voice over. This is also a psychoacoustic effect that our ears do to some extent on their own. In the case of Nuclear Throne it is used almost in excess to provide super-loud gun sounds and add drama to the boss battles. At some point I might write a full piece on this technique because it's so important, but in layman's terms: if you want something to be loud, sometimes it's best to make other things quiet instead.


I'll spare you the smaller details of implementation that Joonas covered in his talk, but I hope this gives an idea of the obsessive lengths that a good sound designer goes to in order to immerse themselves in their work and achieve the best results that they can.


Joonas Turner


As you can tell from the photo above, Joonas is pretty good value on Twitter. He also occasionally live streams when working on Nuclear Throne, so maybe check that out too.


- Nick