#09: Interview with sound designer Andrew Dodds

This post was originally written in May 2020. At the time the game was still called Hook, Line and Thinker

I recently read an article called A Swimmer’s View of Abzû by Hannah Nicklin, published in Issue #1 of A Profound Waste of Time. As a game developer and avid swimmer Hannah had a unique experience playing Abzû and decided to interview friends and relatives who were also avid swimmers about their own experiences with the game. One part in particular stood out to me:

I ask him “what does swimming feel like?” and again, like my brother, Josh speaks in a way I’ve not quite heard him speak before. The article opens up a new space between us.

Opening a new avenue of communication in a relationship sounded exciting. As noted in devlog 1, my friend Andrew Dodds joined me early on in Hook’s development to create music and sound effects for what was, at the time, still a fairly small-scope PICO-8 game. We had spoken in the past about writing a devlog about his contributions and an interview seemed like a fun and engaging way to put words to paper. Through this interview I learnt a lot about Andrew’s process and about how a sound designer approaches a problem. I hope you find this as fascinating as I did!

Can you talk a little about who you are and what your background in audio is?

Hi, I’m Andrew Dodds and I’m a Sound Designer. My day to day involves creating sound effects and implementing them into games or syncing them with video.

I’d like to think I have a diverse background in audio. I worked my way through being a more engineering based sound person, working on stuff like the Commonwealth Games, BBC and STV productions as a freelancer. I then moved onto games at Abertay, where I met an incredibly talented programmer called Connor [editor’s note: I objected but he said I had to leave this in], which led me down the path of making some fun and interesting games. I’ve used different game engines, audio middleware, and countless other tools to make sound effects and music for games.

I currently work at a company called Krotos Audio where we make audio software. Our stuff has been used on Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and many others. I spend my time creating libraries of audio content (foley, swords, magic, weapons and many others) for use in the games and film/tv industries.

What do you do on the project? How did you come to join the team?

I create all the sound effects and music. I ended up joining the team when I saw Connor’s version of the game from a game jam. I’d played through it and thought it was really exciting, charming and fun. The whole time I seemed to have this sea shanty, chiptune music in my head and all these fun 8-bit style sound effects. The style and character of the game felt like it was already exuding the sound and I wanted to be the one to add it to the game. So I messaged Connor and told him all this, and he got me on the team as the sound designer.

I’d like to ask you about each of the 5 music tracks in turn. Let’s start with the title screen / menu song. What kind of feeling were you going for? Were there any particular inspirations? The use of white noise for ocean waves is really effective and pretty.

[A 30s clip from music_menu]

The whole song started around the waves and the idea of what a wave is. I liked the animation of the boat rocking up and down and the feel of the title screen as a whole, so thought some gentle wave sounds would be a good introduction to the game. I created this in PICO-8 using its noise generator and some filtering. As the sequencer steps through I increase and decrease the notes to get the rising and falling pitch. I do the same for the volume giving it that flowing sound.

With the gentle waves setting the mood I wanted the music to follow that. The title screen looks relaxing, so I kept the pace of notes slower. I faded in one layer of music at a time, building it up just like a wave rising. I liked the idea of falling and rising notes just like the waves, so I used some arpeggios to climb and descend the C major scale. It kept everything happy sounding and it was pleasant to loop.

At the end I added a lead so the song would go somewhere. I wanted it to rise all the way up the scale and then back down through a couple of octaves. This is just another extension of the same idea. Then the music fades out layer by layer until only the waves remain. This completes the full loop of the music in PICO-8 and from the waves, the song starts again.

Whenever a level is started the game will alternately play one of two songs (except boss levels, which we’ll get to later). Did knowing that these songs could potentially play on any level affect the design process?

Not really. Basically, I was just thinking about how all the songs I made for the game fitted the theme and style of the original title music. So as long as it stuck to the falling and rising arpeggios and it felt like the music fitted the style of the visuals, I was happy. Really though, I feel like all the music I made for Hook are melancholy sea shanties, which I really like since most of my music is quite melancholy. It feels like I made it, it comes from me but at the same time fits the game.

Both gameplay songs (known simply as game1 and game2) have some structural similarities: they feature strong melodies with accompanying harmonies, and are slightly over 1 minute long with a noticeable shift around the halfway mark. Players will hear these songs on loop longer than any other pieces since they play during the core gameplay, is this what led to the two-halves structure – a way to give the player some contrast and respite from each half?

[A 30s clip from music_game1]

Yeah that is exactly what it was! There were also the restrictions of PICO-8 and that I only had 64 blocks of 4 bars to create 5 tracks. It meant I needed to keep the songs short, but there also needed to be some kind of movement and change, instead of always repeating itself. So I made 2 distinct sections and ensured that they moved away from each other and back together at the end. Again, all because of that wave idea, I had the layers and the music ebb and flow.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about these songs? I particularly enjoy the tremolo at the end of the long notes in game1’s melody, and the bassline in game2.

[A 30s clip from music_game2]

Yeah, I think that they were really fun to make as it is not a medium I was used to. With everything being essentially 8 bit, I had very few tones to work with. I noticed very quickly that notes would clash a lot easier than on other instrumentation, so I had to be quite careful with how I did the harmonies. It ended up having a really nice effect where the different layers have some notes overlap. This results in them getting a little lost for a beat and then another layer will change revealing that other note. It seemed to make the sum of all the parts much richer than the component parts.

To add to what you are saying about the tremolo, PICO-8 has these minimal effects you can add to every note. They include things like fading, tremolo, slides, and a few others. They were a really nice way to make the music feel a little bit more alive, than just having static notes. Overall I enjoyed all the stuff I made, but my favourite to make was music_game2, as I feel that is the point I began to hit my stride with the music system in PICO-8.

The music that plays on boss levels is noticeably more up-beat and has a stronger driving rhythm compared to the other songs. It helps a lot in making the bosses feel special and stand out. Was it hard to balance this more intense music with the relaxed feel of the rest of the soundtrack, or was it a refreshing change of pace for you? The song feels very layered and complex, despite adhering to the same 4-channel restriction and ~1 minute runtime.

[A 30s clip from music_boss]

It was definitely a fun change of pace. I knew I wanted something different to stand out and show that this was a more difficult and important level. I made a real conscious effort to make it more engaging and brighter, as you may get stuck on these levels for a while. I didn’t want it to be too repetitive and annoying. The level may take as long as 10 mins to figure out and the track loops round every 1min 6s, meaning you were possibly going to hear it 10 times or more. It had to be fun. I also think this song reflected my mood after working on the game for a while. I was excited and happy to be working on the game and I’d got most of the other sounds done. This felt like the accumulation of work and it kind of came together really easily and naturally.

The layers compliment each other and harmonise well. The bass octave note pattern makes it feel upbeat, bouncy, and fuller than the other tracks. Also the low melody line is around the same notes as the bass, they are just using a different waveform in PICO-8. I noticed that if you combine the sine and organ waveforms it gives them a richer tonality that is greater than the individual parts. This makes the melody and bass feel like a chord at some stages rather than just a couple of layers of notes playing. Then with all of that mix going on with the low and mid notes, the highs kind of shine through, and feel like an extra bit on top of this fuller sound.

The fifth and final song in the game is for the credits sequence. The melody moves a lot here, becoming almost melancholic towards the end, like a goodbye. You make strong use of those arpeggios again here, too. How did your approach for this song differ compared to the others?

[A 30s clip from music_credits]

The method of approach was very similar to the other songs. I felt it was an important part of working in PICO-8 and the melodies and style I was working with to be considering everything around the arpeggios. The only thing that changed was the feeling and mood on this song. It was the end of the game and that was a good feeling to be able to finish it up and complete it, but also sad that we were done with it. That led to the more melancholic goodbye tone. A lot of the games I played when I was a child, with all the 8-bit music, always seemed to sign off on a rather sombre note. I think it was a portion of that and my mood that made it feel like a fitting way to end it.

As a sound designer, what’s your most desired audio feature that Defold is missing?

I would like to see more controls that people who work in audio are familiar with. Just now it is very bare bones and relies heavily on the programming. The system allows me to cue up and trigger sounds, but unless I write the code, or get a programmer to do it for me, adjustment of levels, real-time controls, and even sequential or random triggers of multiple sounds in a container, it’s all done through coding. Attaching some kind of simple audio UI and folder structuring system for the sounds you want in the game would be really helpful. Luckily in Hook, I was working with motifs and sounds that triggered with some form of repetition expected. Showing variety or audio depth, such as multiple footstep sounds and surfaces, with the tool would take more time from a programmer to set up how all these sounds will trigger, than the sound designer. It would make the team work smoother, like hooking up Wwise to Unity. It gives a lot more creative control to the sound designer, and they can focus on making the game sound, rather than trying to explain to the programmer how they want the sounds to trigger and fade in.

What’s your process for designing a new sound effect for Hook? Does that differ from how you create sound effects for other projects?

A lot of the general idea is the same for the way I’m thinking about it and dealing with feedback, but in PICO-8 my approach to making the SFX was a little different. The main thing was the brief. The goal was to make the SFX sound like they were underwater and fit the visuals and animations. With this in mind PICO-8 has 2 views where you can work with the sound, one where you can draw in the sound like a bar graph and another which is the same as the music chart. For SFX I would start with drawing them in as it felt very natural. If you started high and drew down to low, you would get a descending note chromatic progression, and vice versa if you drew low to high. This made it easy to get the character of the sound and make them fun and gestural. I could experiment with the rising and falling patterns, leave gaps to create stuttering effects, or be really random with the pattern and see what came out.

After this I would focus on getting the tonality to match the visual/animation more accurately. I did this by changing the waveforms for the different notes in the pattern. This created a richer and more designed feel for each of the SFX, and made them more unique for the visual. For example the crab breaking a debris block is a mixture of a couple of low sine notes to give the low end impact, then noise waveform starting from high pitch and descending to low pitch, and at the end another couple of sine notes descending in pitch as well. This allowed me to give it the crisp breaking sound that fitted the animation, but at the same time the sine waveform immediately after it dampens the harshness, making it feel more underwater.

[The break_debris sound effect]

[The break_debris sound effect in PICO-8's pitch mode and tracker modes]

After I had a pattern and tone I liked, I could then use the playback speed, same as the music BPM control, to change the pace and feel of the sound. This allowed me to sync the SFX with the visual better.

Lastly, I had to make sure the SFX didn’t clash with the music. Working with SFX that are more musical in tonality, since they are all still made with the same waveforms as the music, meant using notes that were dissonant could make a positive sound really jarring and off. I had to make sure all my positive SFX were in the key of C like the music. All my negative sound effects are either dissonant with C or if they were too harsh, some other notes that made it clear that something was wrong. This is quite fiddly to do in the SFX drawing section, so I did this the music editor view. Since all the notes in here are named, I could easily see which note was the wrong one and correct it.

How have you found dealing with the restrictions imposed by PICO-8? For instance the range of waveforms available, the 4-track limit for music, the tracker-style tooling.

I quite enjoyed the restrictions that PICO-8 has. It made me have to think a bit differently about my approach to the sound design as a whole. I think it also made me realise I could over-think my design at times, when I have unlimited tracks and sounds to play with. At the time I think it helped me progress and get more in tune with SFX and music working together, as well as thinking about pitches, tonality, and harmonies to make it all work as a cohesive whole. Also the limitation made it easier to embody the characteristic of the visual style and what we expect audibly from games of this genre. I think that the way PICO-8 does the visual graph for making SFX made it easier to do though. I didn’t need to know the code behind the scenes too deeply to get the results I wanted, so it was really fun to work with it. Lastly, it was nice to work with audio in an older style, it gave me appreciation for what I have and can make now.

What does the audio pipeline for Hook look like? Walk me through the process from needing a new sound effect to having it in the game.

Through other questions I have kind of answered the majority of this, the final part is how I get the sound out of PICO-8 and into Defold.

Once the sounds are all created I can render them to WAVE files out of PICO-8. I will then mix and master the effects in a DAW [Digital Audio Workstation]. My preference is Reaper here. Due to certain limitations with not being able to use Wwise or FMOD for this project, I actually do all the mixing in the DAW. This way I can get all the SFX and music lined up and see how they play together. I basically have a mock-up with the music and then simulating the process of the level and the order the sounds will typically play in. I then mix all the SFX and music to this and it seems to mimic the game pretty well.

After this, I render all the sounds out of the DAW and then I import them into Defold. From there Connor has set up code to trigger them in-game. I can then playtest the game and check to ensure all the SFX and music are working well together. If I make adjustments to the SFX or music, I just make sure to render them with the same name as the sound before. That way when I import them into Defold, it just overwrites the previous one.

How do you make something sound “aquatic”? Do you have any favourite techniques that you used in Hook? Are there any you wanted to use but couldn’t because of technical or aesthetic limitations?

It was all to do with using the sine waveform as it’s the most soft sounding of all the waveforms. I noticed in PICO-8 it has a very muted and muffled sound in general and if you combined it with different amounts of the other waveforms, it would make them seem less harsh. This became my go-to technique for the design. It was kind of similar to when you are layering in a Digital Audio Workstation doing more modern style sound effects. The combination of different elements makes different results, but in PICO-8 you cannot layer. As a result the closest you can get is changing the waveforms right after one another and adjusting the speed of the SFX playback. This yielded the best and most interesting sounding results. It’s like the layering was slightly syncopated, but by such a small amount your ears don’t realise. This gives the SFXs a bit more meat and allowed me to experiment and find ways to get a characteristic sound for an object, but then smooth it over with the sine wave to make it more underwater sounding.

As I mentioned above, the limitation came with not being able to layer several sounds together to achieve the effect you want. I needed to think more abstract and suggest elements of the sound that fit the object, or animation, in game. It works for the art style though and the limitation honestly helped keep me on track. I didn’t see it as I couldn’t make something, more how can I make it this way?

If you had to pick one, what would be your favourite sound effect and favourite piece of music in Hook?

Hard choice for both… I think for SFX, it is the sound as you hook a fish or creature and then that first part of the hook being reeled in. I just feel like the little bloop noises are quite satisfying. I know that is cheating on choosing but it’s the combination of those two sounds that set the tone for the rest of the game. And for music is a toss up between music_game2 and music_boss. I think music_boss just pips it.

From both of us, thank you very much for reading!

You can follow Andrew on Twitter @doddsy91

Follow me on itch or Twitter to see what I work on next

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