Meet the sound designer going to great lengths to capture sounds for games

Photo credit: Aaron Marks

This piece was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 328. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

When you pilot a yacht in Just Cause 3, you don’t think about the sound of the engine—at least consciously. Your brain acknowledges that, yes, this sounds like you’re behind the wheel of a yacht, and the illusion is created. But recording the sound of that boat’s rumbling engines, and the roar of the ocean as it moves through it, involved a real 60-foot yacht, a man named Watson Wu, multiple microphones and a lot of puke. 

“For the onboard yacht sounds, multiple microphones were rigged at the front, the side, in the engine room and at the helm and rear,” says Wu, a sound designer and field recordist who works in TV, film and videogames. “We had to leave the engine room door open to capture the audio, so I got seasick from the diesel fumes and from the swaying of the three-story boat. I’ve been on plenty of boats and never got sick, but every time I hit the record button I silently ran to the starboard side and vomited.” 

Wu was at sea for three hours, most of which was spent being sick. But when he returned to the studio and played the recordings back, none of his retching was audible. “I guess I can’t help but capture great sounds, no matter the situation,” he says. “And if needed, I can puke silently!” This enthusiasm is normal for Wu, and it’s clear from his work, his website and his entertaining Twitter feed that he loves what he does. Even if, most of the time, players won’t appreciate how much work goes into what he does on more than a subconscious level. 

“I’m used to working in the background,” he says. “Everything you play requires sound that someone has to record, edit, design and implement into the game. A gunshot sound that lasts only for a mere second may seem simple enough, but the process can take a day to correctly record, and a further day to edit and implement. As a sound designer my job is not just creating audio candy for your ears to enjoy, but emotions too.”

Photo credit: Tiffany Karamitsos

Sound on

After leaving university, where he studied music, Wu read a magazine article that led him to a book by Aaron Marks called The Complete Guide to Game Audio. “I read it twice and followed his advice,” says Wu. “I attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco multiple times, met developers and landed contract jobs.” Some of these contracts included Will Wright’s infamous Spore, Operation Flashpoint sequel Dragon Rising, and tactical shooter Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. 

Wu also provides audio for other media, from films such as Baby Driver and Transformers, to commercials for Lexus and the US Army. But of all the work he does, he finds videogames the most challenging. “In games you need to record and design sounds for all possible scenarios,” he says. “Movies and TV shows are linear, so I mostly work based on the picture. No matter how many times you watch the movie, it’ll sound the same. But when a first-person shooter game requires close and far perspective gunshots, we need to record multiple variations to excite your ear.” 

And, as that yacht incident illustrates, field recording also means getting your hands dirty. “This is one of the most difficult industries I’ve tapped into,” says Wu. “Some of the most exciting games I’ve been hired to work on involved recording an M1 Abrams battle tank and other armoured vehicles. It took a lot of phone calls and emails to acquire permission to record sounds on a US Marine Corps military base, but they eventually let me in, and I actually got to ride on, and record, a moving tank.” 

Wu also spent time at the Sebring International Raceway while working on audio for Project Cars 2. “I was asked to record the onboard and external sounds of Red Bull race cars,” he says. “The 600-horsepower Honda Civic rally car was so violent that it broke the battery cable powering my large multitrack field recorder.”

Photo credit: Seth Johnson

Go it alone

But of all the situations Wu’s job has landed him in, having an entire theme park to himself has to rank highly. For the game Planet Coaster, Frontier asked him to record a variety of coasters and rides without the ambient noise of a busy theme park. And so, after making a few phone calls, he found an out-of-season park in Indiana that let him and his many microphones in to do the job. 

“This was an incredible experience,” says Wu. “I still can’t believe I got to record on all those crazy rides without anyone else around. It took a lot of careful planning and rigging to capture clean sounds without wind noise and water smacking against the microphones.” 

Wu works remotely in his own studio, and I wonder what his working relationship with developers’ in-house sound designers is like. “It depends on the company I’m working with,” he says. “Some companies only want raw recordings because the audio team wants to do its own editing, while others want fully designed files. Phone calls are crucial, as sometimes I want the audio director or audio lead to give me examples of what they’re after, even if they have to make the sound with their mouth.” 

After talking to Wu, whose passion is infectious, I have a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into providing sound for videogames. It’s an aspect of development most people take for granted, but now whenever I pilot a boat in a game I’ll think of him retching over the side of that yacht. A small sacrifice, perhaps, but an example of how much of themselves developers put into the games they create. And if you ever need someone to vomit quietly, you know who to call.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.