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Bringing Stories to Life: Sound Design

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The idea of using sound events to generate stronger immersion is by no means new. Let’s take a look at the fascinating history of sound design. Then, let us briefly tell you how we at WLA are trying to open a new chapter in this art.

By Matthias Wagner

Since time immemorial, music has been a part of religious ritual, dance and drama. It arouses emotions, describes moods, and draws us into the action.

This effect can be further enhanced by non-musical sounds such as those already used in the Kagura games in ancient Japan. Later examples would include the medieval Commedia dell'arte in Italy and Elizabethan theatre in England.

Nowadays, anyone who has seen films like "Apocalypse Now", "Star Wars", "Jurassic Park" or "The Matrix" will probably agree that the game of live or die becomes a thousand times more intense when the sound design is good.

Sound is the first sense that gets plugged in. It’s hearing your mother’s heartbeat, it’s hearing her breathe. It’s making sense of the world. You have emerged into a kind of consciousness, using only sound. And then you’re born.” - Walter Murch

The real era of sound design began at the end of the silent film years, and one of its greatest pioneers was Jack Foley. At the end of the 1920s, he adopted a technique that had previously been used in radio plays and he used it for film productions in Hollywood: the recreation of everyday sound effects in the sound studio. To this day, "Foley" is a procedure used in almost any major film production. Sounds of footsteps, knocking, chewing, door creaking etc., recorded in separate sessions at a studio, make a finished film sound much more lively.

The paradox is that although the process is decoupled from the actual filming work, the result seems more natural than if the untreated set sound could be heard. We, the viewers, notice nothing at all. Our ears may be hypersensitive but our minds love the illusion…

With the rapid evolution of sound technology in the 20th century, more and more possibilities have opened up for sound design. And there were creative geniuses on all sides who made their mark on the art.

The first to actually be called a "sound designer" was Hollywood legend Walter Murch. Director Francis Ford Coppola gave him this title in 1968 when they worked together on the film "The Rain People". Murch, a self-taught pioneer of experimental tape recording, was one of the first to use non-naturalistic sounds and the technique of deliberate alienation as known from musique concrète. By the way, he also did the sound on The Godfather II and III, and this icon of film history:

When we talk about legends of sound design, we can't forget Ben Burtt, of course. Burtt created, among other things, the futuristic sound universe of Star Wars:

It's almost unimaginable that all this happened before the digital audio revolution. Since the 80s, we have been working with digital samples and effects. We have learned to cut, manipulate and combine sounds in seconds, without limits. And an invention called the undo button gave us the illusion of complete freedom. Today, there are countless virtual studios out there that need no other equipment than freeware plugins and a cheap laptop.

What remains the same in the digital age is the central function of sound in film, but also in the world of games: to intensify immersion. Of course, at we do nothing else and we are happy that we can use our wonderful, analogue-equipped Green Lobster Studios as a laboratory.

Our man for sound design is Thomas Schröttner. He is currently working on a whole library of ambiences and sound effects for the TableTone app.

Tom actually comes from a music production background, but he has done numerous sound productions for films and documentaries over the years. "In film, you sometimes work with 250 or more audio tracks", he says. In the case of the ambiences and sound effects for TableTone, the projects are not quite as huge but nonetheless challenging.

"Normally you do the sound design for a film that is more or less finished. You have the plot, the dialogue, the music. When I design the ambiences and sound effects for TableTone, I have to think completely differently. In the beginning, I made the ambiences a bit too dense, so there wasn't much room for the music. So I started to reduce the elements. You now hear fewer birds in our mystical forest than in the first version. In essence, you have to think in registers: the music fills one level, the voices of the TTRPG gamers will fill a second level. And the ambiences and sound effects are a third. So you have to look at the whole thing like an orchestral composition. It doesn't make much sense for the cellos to play in the same register as the violins."

Eventually, the ambiences have to fit together with the different pieces of music in such a way that they are always perceptible but never get in the way acoustically. Ideally, Tom says, even timing will harmonize. "That is, the ambiences should breathe with the music."

All of our ambiences consist of several layers (up to 9), so that they - like the music - are also adaptive and can be reorchestrated. For the user, the app will then offer a combination of three to five mood presets, like “dark”, “neutral”, “bright” – plus an intensity slider.

Tom works with huge high-end sound libraries like those used in Hollywood films. But in contrast to film we don't have an existing set sound, so our ambiences have to be built from scratch.

"At the moment I'm producing the ambience for Cave Relaxed. There are bats, and there are layers with water drops, dark and light drops. There is also a basic sound for the cave. In a forest, of course, you’ll hear a lot of animal voices, which are fun to compose. I am using completely different sounds for relaxed situations than for mystical or threatening ones. It's also an interesting question how the birds will sound during a combat. Perhaps they will simply be silent?"

In Tom’s work on ambiences, spatial sound is also essential. “The human ear recognizes the space in which a sound occurs by the delay of the echo and the duration of the reverberation. Depending on how and when the sound is reflected back, you know exactly whether you are in a narrow tower or in a cathedral. We can work with that and create fascinating effects."

"Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.” - Steven Spielberg

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