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In this week's World of WarCrafts, the "dark and haunting tale" of Stratholme comes alive with a custom audio build from Ashram of Darksorrow-EU. Ashram paid a visit to the burning city, capturing it on video and then setting it to all-new audio - from spell effects to NPC voicing to birds cawing in the background, all set against an atmospheric soundtrack that injects an eerie edge of desperation to an instance that's become old hat.
Ashram brings a good bit of recording and audio experience to the project, having spent several years singing in a band and recording most of their material. "This is the first time I've ever attempted something like this with a full rebuild of a game's audio," he admitted. "This project was much more complex than anything I'd ever attempted before."
We visited with Ashram (thanks for the tip, Foulbourne!) to learn how he brought dread and despair back to old Stratholme.
World of WarCrafts: What overall effect were you aiming for in your rebuild? How is that different from what's in game currently?
Ashram: Aside from just rebuilding the audio "because I could," I was mainly aiming to increase the sense of atmosphere and foreboding you would experience entering a place like Stratholme. Stratholme's story is an extremely dark and haunting tale, if you really think about what went on there in the lore, but I felt that the audio didn't necessarily reflect that as much as it potentially could do. I wanted to make it scarier, darker, more brutal and dangerous sounding.
The audio in WoW generally is fantastic, but as an overall criticism I find it perhaps a bit meek and retiring compared to games like Diablo or Castlevania, where the audio really makes a massive contribution to the atmosphere. My goal was to shift that balance and use the audio to actually influence the player's perception of the instance.
Where did you find your audio effects?
There are only a few effects in the whole rebuild that weren't heavily edited. Those were sounds that it would have been very hard for me to record or obtain in my flat and with my current gear, things like the wind howling in the background or the stone door opening. It's easy enough to make a stone door -- just scrape a brick across concrete or stone a few times and pitch it down a little -- but I don't have a brick or concrete in my apartment and I don't have any portable recording gear, so I had to use someone else's sound for that.
Every sound I used that wasn't mine was taken from free sound and audio sites on the 'net. There were a lot of them and I didn't make a list at the time. I basically just ransacked Google until I found what I wanted. Ones I can remember are TheRecordist.com, Soundjay.com and some of the sites listed at Stonewashed.net. (My thanks to all those sites, by the way!)
I used a pair of heavy kitchen knives to make the source sounds for the sword-drawing and parry/impact noises. My girlfriend found me holed up in the bedroom that particular afternoon, holding the two biggest knives in the house and scraping and banging them together! I hadn't told her what I was doing, so she was a bit worried at first.
Apart from that, I recorded an oven door slamming and a toilet flushing, but I didn't *quite* have enough microphone cable to reach the kitchen or the bathroom. I was home alone that day, so I ended up holding the mic in one hand and trying to slam the oven/flush the toilet with a broomstick held in the other. I didn't even end up using the toilet sound!
The only other bizarre thing I can think of is when Ramstein the Gorger dies. I wanted a gargling, slimy kind of death growl, so I drank a whole bunch of soft drink and recorded a really nasty burp, then pitchshifted it down a few tones and overlaid it over a small section of a dog growling. Came out nicely, I think. :)
What sound or effect that you used are you most pleased with?
Probably the Black Guard Sentries' voices. I think they came out really well, really ghostly and evil.
Their arrival was something I was happy with, too. Anyone who's soloed Strath will tell you that there's normally a *long*, boring pause between Ramstein's death and the subsequent crowd of adds and the door opening so you can get to the Baron. I tried to think of a way to fill that gap with sound so we weren't just waiting around for the hell of it and came up with the idea of having the sound of heavy boots marching up to the gate, to herald the arrival of the Black Guard. In the original Strath run, nothing happened there at all; I was just waiting for the door to open. I was happy that I managed to use audio to fill that gap with something new instead.
Another sound I liked was the effect for Hammer of the Righteous. To me, it sounds like a very heavy, harsh and industrial magic spell, which isn't a combination you hear often.
Were there any sounds for which you were simply unable to get the effect you wanted?
At the time I was creating them, I'd have liked to get some of the other spells sounding a bit more "magic-like" and ethereal, but it's very hard to do that without making them sound twinkly and corny. In the end, I think a lot of people liked the slightly grittier tone of the Paladin's abilities, so I guess it turned out ok.
I also wanted to make the bits where the Paladin was fighting the crowds of Undead a bit more hectic -- more impact noises and growls -- but it was very difficult with so much going on at once: dodges, parries, blocks, four to five different spells, Undead moans, sword swings and hits ... There's an unbelievable amount of different elements that occur in WoW combat that you take for granted until you try to build the sound for them all. It would have required a lot of fine editing work, going over and over that bit of footage again and again, and I was doing this in my spare time, so some corners had to be cut if I was going to get the video out in any kind of reasonable timeframe. If I had more time and better gear, it would have been possible.
If you were to re-edit this project now, what would you add or change?
Apart from the above-mentioned crowd combat sections, I'd re-record the Baron's first sound bite so I don't mispronounce "Ramstein"! Bugs me every time I hear it. It was a good vocal take, and I didn't want to re-do it at the time, but now I wish I had!
I also accidentally missed out one of the Baron's speech bites after you kill the Black Guard ("Time to take matters into my own hands..."), so I'd add that in as well.
Game music is hugely important, in my opinion. It can do so much to subtly establish a mood and atmosphere and influence the player's emotions. It's also important to me that the music has a strong and memorable theme. I feel sometimes that game music is heading too far into the orchestral wash of generic, un-memorable movie-style scores, when what originally set it apart to begin with was a strong melody line that people remember for years. Most of the Castlevania music or the Final Fantasy Prelude are perfect examples. These pieces work and set a mood for the game even when played on very basic hardware, because of the strength of the writing.
The music in my rebuild is actually an original piece written and recorded by me just for this project, and I tried to keep those ideas in mind while writing it. I tried to build the piece around a strong and simple central theme and not overcomplicate things too much. I'm happy with it: it's foreboding and atmospheric but also (I feel) quite memorable.
How long did it take to put this project together?
Pretty much all of my spare time for two to three weeks. I had to stop raiding to get it done!
Tell us about the equipment you used.
I only had my own home studio available. I've got a Roland RS-5 synth running through a small four-channel Behringer Eurorack UB802 mixer, into an iMic USB audio interface. I trigger the keyboard via a Roland UM-1 USB MIDI interface. The computer is just a normal home PC, the same one I use for gaming. It's a 64-bit dual-core Athlon with 2GB of RAM.
All the sound recording was done with a vocal mic, a Sennheiser e865. It's a stage mic left over from my band days. It's pretty basic gear.
Are you working on a followup?
I'm definitely going to make another one, but it's only in the "thinking about it" stage at the moment. I'm wandering around WoW, looking at everything and trying to find a good candidate for the next rebuild. I'm not sure whether to go for something "epic" again or take a different direction with it and do something a bit different like a zeppelin ride or more ambient like an exploratory wander around Winterspring or something.
Of course, there are a lot of other tempting candidates as well (I'm looking at you, Ragnaros and Onyxia) ...
At last word, Ashram told us he had "almost certainly" decided on his next project, a popular old-world instance that should hold fond memories for plenty of players. We're looking forward to hearing more soon!