Under the Hood: Anatomy of Sound Design

Patch 5.2: The Thunder King brought us new and exotic locations to visit (if you don’t mind a few storms) and a slew of new creatures. One particularly memorable creature is the Zandalari Battlesaur, whose roar can have even the most stalwart heroes quaking in their boots. But, what exactly goes into crafting a voice for such a creature? The World of Warcraft sound team popped the hood and gave us an inside look at the anatomy of sound design.

The first thing we learned was that some elements of sound design aren’t always evident at the first listen. In this case, the Zandalari Battlesaur’s roar consists of several layers of sound that were integrated into one unified voice. These layers include:

  • A voice actor : We pulled in some of the best voice talent in the industry who excel at creating evocative creature sounds. In this case, we were able to bring in Jon Olson, who also did the non-voice over sounds for sha and hozen mobs. What you hear is an edit of two takes that form a base layer of performance and sound that other layers and effects are crafted around.
  • Bear : Early last year, Senior Sound Designer Chris Kowalski took his recording gear and his courage to Big Bear to gather some scary up-close source material from several of the wild animals at Predators in Action. We used the bear recordings from that visit to add size and embellish the actor's layer.
  • Tiger : While at Predators in Action, Chris also recorded the tiger that appeared in the movie Gladiator. (Don’t worry, he wasn’t really stabbed.) We came away with a ton of great material, including a lot of big cat chest rumbles and roars you may hear mixed into several creatures across Pandaria.
  • Final Sound : The final mix is comprised of all the layers above along with additional processing and mastering that make it fit within the world.

This brief video features the individual sounds before and after they’ve been mixed in.

Tell us More:

We spoke with the World of Warcraft Sound Supervisor (and the sound designer behind the Zandalari Battlesaur), Mike Johnson and Sound Producer Jay Maguire for a little more insight.

Q. How many team members do you have currently working on World of Warcraft sound design specifically?

[Jay Maguire] We currently have five sound designers working full-time on World of Warcraft. They are Mike Johnson, Jon Graves, Chris Kowalski, Eric LeBlanc, and Peter Steinbach. The soundscape of World of Warcraft is continually evolving along with the game and this talented group is always looking for ways to raise the bar and immerse players in the environment through ambient background sound, vocal post-processing, and spell, creature, and object sfx.

Q. How often do you get to go out into the field to do recordings for sound design?

[Mike Johnson] Not often enough unfortunately, so when we do have the ability to go out and record some new source material we really go after the big stuff that we need, like animals. One of the things that I wanted to accomplish for Mists of Pandaria was adding as much variation as possible to our creature kits, so getting enough material to work with was essential. Since we had so many new creatures to make in Mists we made it a top priority to get a wealth of new animal recordings to use in our design work at the studio here at Blizzard. Obviously you can’t go out into the wild and record a Battlesaur, or Mogu, or a Sha so we have to think of individual layers (both real and synthetic) that when mixed together make these creatures.

Q. What sorts of Foley work can you do at the studio itself?

[Mike Johnson] On Mists of Pandaria, we recorded a great deal of new source material for the new Monk class (mainly whooshes and impacts) and for various mounts and creatures as well. Everyone on the World of Warcraft Sound Team spent time in our recording booth recording what they felt they needed in order to bring their creations to life. For the Monk we had a whoosh recording session where Chris (Kowalski), Jon (Graves), and Peter (Steinbach) all took turns swinging around various objects tied onto the end of a rope at high speeds. Many of these whooshes were then processed by Chris and then utilized for all of the new abilities for the Monk class. We also did a big vegetable destruction recording session where we tore up ears of corn, smashed walnuts, hit cabbage, and twisted celery among other things to use for sweeteners. These sounds were used in various ambiences, Monk abilities, creature exertions, farming, doodads, spells and in many different quests.

Q. What’s the most satisfying part of working on sound designs such as these?

[Mike Johnson] The most rewarding part of creating sounds for World of Warcraft is experiencing the new expansion while it has little or no sound while in development and hearing it all come together in the final shipped version of the game.

There are so many other audio disciplines like Dialog, Music, and Cinematics in addition to sound design that are equally responsible for creating a believable soundscape to immerse our players into the game world.

Of course during production we’re aware of what each other is doing but something magical happens when it all comes together at the end and we get to hear everything together and it just works.