Interview: Audio Director Kristofor Mellroth on the sounds of Crackdown 2

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Interview: Audio Director Kristofor Mellroth on the sounds of Crackdown 2
It's fair to say Crackdown was a surprise -- even if you didn't buy it for the Halo 3 beta key, odds are that you downloaded the demo and found a pretty impressive pre-GTA IV open-world shooter. That seems like a blessing and a curse for Audio Director Kristofor Mellroth and the rest of the dev team at Ruffian Games working on the sequel: on the one hand, we have fond memories of the original game, but on the other, there are more great open-world games out there now. Will we go back to Pacific City now that we've got a choice?

Mellroth is doing everything on his end to make sure that we do. From the music of the game (which features remixes from the likes of Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, as well as electronic beats by artists like Tokyo Black Star and Adam Freeland) to gunshots, explosions, and the ever-present tones of Michael McConnohie, he's put a lot of thought into what Crackdown 2 should sound like and why. Read on for an exclusive interview with the game's audio director.
The way that you approached the licensed music in the game is pretty interesting. Can you explain the plan for that and how it came together?

Absolutely. Because the structure of the world is very different than it was last time -- last time, there were the islands delineated by gangs, and the gangs were sort of based around nationality, and so the team who worked on the soundtrack for the last game took a lot of inspiration from that, and so on the Los Muertos island, you'd get some really cool cutting edge Mexican hip hop, and on the Volk island, you'd get Eastern European, techno industrial stuff. And then on Shai Gen, you'd get really clean, electronica, highly polished stuff.

"They'd be able to take music that inspired them, cut it up, make it their own, and then use it as a weapon against their enemies."

With this one, there were a few pillars that I wanted to do. Number one: I wanted to really contrast the Agency and the Cell, and I wanted to integrate an original score into an open world game like this, to give us heighted emotional responses during gameplay. I worked on the sound design of the last one, and I helped come in and mix and polish it up. And so I think I had really good perspective on the last one as to what our strengths and weaknesses were. Our strengths were that we had a really amazing sounding sandbox -- it was really finely tuned, it was really detailed. But there were emotional moments in the game that we weren't able to import because everything was sandbox, the entire game, as you know if you're a fan of Crackdown. The game was a completely nonlinear experience -- you could attack anything from any time in any order.


So as an audio director, you can't really predict what anyone's going to do, and you can't bottleneck them, which is how most people elicit an emotional response. And so on this one, I started with the licensed soundtrack, and I started brainstorming and running creative exercises against the motivations of both sides, how we can contrast both sides, and one of the ideas that really started sticking with me, that I started sort of widening the distribution group on, was the concept of classic protest music, reshaped in a generation where people don't have recording studios or infrastructure. All they have, they're like a ragtag group of rebels with laptops and Ableton, and they'd be able to take music that inspired them, cut it up, make it their own, and then use it as a weapon against their enemies, which would be the Agency.

So one of the things that I did was a deep dive with our music licensing team here, and my boss, Guy Whitmore, we did a really deep dive on protest music and anti-establishment music, going all the way back to the 30s. We wanted to have everything open. I have my own specific tastes, Ruffian has their own tastes, everybody has their own preferences. But I sort of set up a criteria range that would have to fit in for a song to be looked at. It had to be lyrically relevant, it had to have real credibility, it had to be remixable. And we came up with this big, best of list, and then we narrowed it down from there, targeting tracks that we'd want to hang the soundtrack quality bar on.

I have a few of them here -- Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Public Enemy, REM. These are big artists that you're remixing, right?

Yeah. And to be honest, I didn't know if any of this was going to work. It was pretty ambitious. Uncharted territory for us. To get original master tapes from these A-list artists, have them send those off to be remixed in a really cutting-edge and pretty edgy, and frankly pretty risky way, and then send it back and have them approve it, like have Bob Dylan approve the remix of "Masters of War" that we got? All that stuff, I just had faith that we'd be able to execute at a high level, and I'm really, really happy with the result, I hope people like it.

"We go from Bob Dylan to Atari Teenage Riot to all sorts of stuff."

I was going to say, it seems like you got what you wanted. Were there tracks that didn't make it through?

Yeah, there were a couple that didn't make the list, for various contract reasons, but we got a list of heavy hitters that I'm really proud of. The other thing was, being an American working with a UK-based developer, we sell a lot of copies of this in Europe, and I didn't want it to sound too American. And so we tried to also hit a wide variety of songs that guys over there would think are really cool, that maybe don't have the resonance over here. The Damned's "Smash it Up" wasn't really big over here, but in the UK it's a really important song. We looked at bands like Stiff Little Fingers and The Boomtown Rats, guys out of Ireland and stuff. We didn't get everyone in, but we got a really good cross-section of edgy music. Throughout time, too -- we go from Bob Dylan to Atari Teenage Riot to all sorts of stuff.

And these remixes are all for the Cell faction, right? So when you jump in a Cell car, that's what's playing?

Well there are a couple of places. I wanted to draw some lines on where the music was used, so when we approach this sort of harder-edged, grittier, rebellious sound for the Cell, we wanted to contrast that with what the Agency would use in a world like this. If you look at the structure of the world, it's still a functioning city, but there are streets that are disputed and there's streetfighting. People still live there, and it's not just a warzone, but at night the Freaks come out. And so I thought what would the Agency do? They would probably commission their own music so they have control over it, because they'd want a very specific point of view, and they'd want to soothe the masses and give this specific sense of security and reassurance. So we targeted ambient music, very specific types of instrumentation on the Agency music.

Agency music comes from only specifically controlled areas, it comes from the world. Cell music comes from Cell controlled areas, and it's really loud, and it also comes from Cell cars, and everything down to how we EQ it coming out of their cars is very specific to being used as a weapon. So when a Cell car drives into an Agency controlled area, you have this soft pad of light ambient music, and then this dagger of harsh, aggressive, angry music, drives up in a car that's like a Mad Max car, it's got straight pipes and a really aggressive exhaust note. And two guys jump out with machine guns and start blowing things up and shooting the crap out of the place. So those kinds of scenarios from the conceptual phase all ended up happening in the game, and it worked out the way I expected. It's pretty effective.

Then there's the civilians, that are caught in the middle. And the civilians, stylistically, I wanted to find a playlist for them that fit in between the two, so it borrowed the clean tones and slick production of the Agency stuff, but it's got bigger beats and more uptempos from the Cell, and it's just right smack in the middle. There's no real way to confuse the two if you hear a civilian car drive by. Their music is EQ'd like it's almost trying to not be noticed, as if you were still rocking out in your car listening to music but trying not to be noticed. The radius on it is tighter, it's filtered to be more low-end, like it's coming through closed windows, whereas the Cell cars sound like they're coming through a metal grating, a lot harsher.

In the last game, when you finished it -- and this is a spoiler for anyone that didn't finish it -- you found out the Agency had kind of an edge to it, that they'd engineered this world and the way that it was, and it wasn't completely calming. Did you try to reflect that in the music design at all?

The Agency, as you know from the last one, does have that sort of edge to it. But at least from my perspective, if I were the Agency, I would want to put on the softest face possible for the populace, right? There is one easter egg in there as far as music goes that, when you find it, if you contrast the two, you might understand what we were going for. There is one piece that does hint at that sort of darker side of the Agency.

And then there's also the Freaks, which are the zombies that come out. Did you design music around them?

Yeah, those guys are sort of reinforced by original score. Weaving the original score into the game, you look for constants to try and tie the music to an emotional response. So one of those things is like every day when the sun sets and the Freaks come out, we sort of push the music crescendo up to the moment that the Freaks arrive. It's sort of a horror motif, and it builds tension and builds tension and then releases, and all of the Freaks come out. The streets are filled with them.

And then when the sun rises and they go away, we have this sort of hopeful set of stingers that come up and we release them. We have a specific score for the underground areas that's very Freak-centric, too. It's tied to the actions that you're doing in the underground lairs. So they have their own stuff, but they don't really have an identity in the world, they're sort of this unstoppable force.

Cool. You also did the sound effects design. In terms of effects like weapons and explosions, what's different in the second game than you did in the first game?

In the first game, I actually did all of the explosions, weapons, and then my teams here did all the physics stuff. And one thing that I knew I wanted to improve on this one was the fidelity and the punch. We had a very specific sound last time, and the way you would normally design weapons and explosions, we had a real-time reflection system, so it would cast rays out onto surfaces and then filter them off of those surfaces, and they gave it a real authentic, on the street sound, but it also made it so that you had to design your sound types in a very specific way. So one of the things we did this time is we switched to an all-new audio engine. Ripped everything out, and I wanted higher fidelity guns, and I wanted more punch out of everything. I'm a huge online gamer, I play a lot of Call of Duty, I play a lot of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 -- those were the games that I set my sights on as far as what I wanted to compete with. So we did a gun shoot, every weapon that you hear in the game is an original recording, all new, only for us. That's how you get your gun sound is you go to a location. We went to a couple of places -- we went to the desert once and got blown out by the wind, and then I had the guys that we were working with on that session go to a specific canyon and they recorded an arsenal, everything from belt-fed machine guns to 8 gauge sawed-off shotguns. And when we worked on the sound design for the weapons, I used almost the exact same design that I did last time, as far as structure.

We do some subtle things over time, so as you level up your weapon skill, the sound design changes. I don't know if you noticed that on the first one -- it stretches out over such a long time. But if you play a level 1 agent's firearms versus a level 5 agent's firearms, they sound very different. On this one, we did a few subtle tweaks to that, we added another layer of weapon, we were able to refine it a lot more.

Our distant gun sounds last time worked out really well -- it's all simulated, we don't fake any of our battle ambiences, so that's all generated by the game.

But obviously you don't go out and record a bunch of rockets, though, right?

The rockets are a combination of original recordings and then we tweak that with other stuff. I would like to go out and record rockets sometime. We didn't get to on this one, but we did get to record explosives. On the last one, we learned a lot about how we record explosions, the locations, the gear. We upgraded all of our gear and went and did it again, and the explosions are just so much better this time -- they sound so much better.

We can do so much with these explosions. Up close, you want them to take over the scene, so we break them into a bunch of layers, we spread the stereo field when you're up close. As you go away, the stereo field collapses, we bring up different layers and we tuck other layers in, and then we filter it over a distance to a great huge distance, so if you fire a rocket from the Agency tower and you watch it fly for 45 seconds and it hits the ground, you'll hear a distant thud. And the art staff was able to weave in some cool ambient explosions in the night, to kind of give you the feel of being in a war zone.

"And we have fewer bugs this time, so that's better."

Of course the orb noises are awesome -- that's one of the best game "dings" I've ever heard. Majornelson even released it as an MP3, just because people wanted to hear it so much. What was the thinking behind those noises, and anything new with them in the second game?

We definitely did new stuff with those -- there are a bunch of new orbs, and each one will have its own unique sound design. That took some iteration. A guy named Stewart Ross at Realtime Worlds did that sound -- it's one of the signature sounds of the game, and we brought it back over on to this game. That's something that will always live, never ever change. That's our Mario coin, our double rupee.

And even compared to the Mario coin or the Zelda reward notes or the Final Fantasy battle win, it's almost iconic in the way that it fits into the game. Did you test different sounds, or how did you come across this sound that we crave as we play this thing?

We did a huge pass on all of the UI sounds for the first game, and we just considered that part of the UI. It's part of the HUD UI system, and all of those sounds are very tonal. We had this gritty, very live, reflective sound to the game, so we wanted something that contrasted really well, that you could hear over a distance. But fine-tuning that sound, weaving it into the world, and tuning how soon you hear it and how loud it is in the mix and that stuff was a very tricky thing. We ended up playing this game a ton during development, and fine-tuning that stuff. And because we switched to a whole new audio engine this time, it was pretty hard to get that level of tuning on those. I sort of went back and forth on it, and said, "oh, now it's too loud in this case and I'm hearing it too soon here." You can't just do it mathematically, it has to be specifically tailored to how the world unfolds and where they're placed, and even though we used just one setting for all of them, I can't tell you how hard it was to have these tonal sounds that loop all the time throughout the entire world and make it not annoying. There's no real magic to it, it was just a bit of trial and error. It was a little bit of a happy accident, and everyone who heard it -- well I shouldn't say everyone, some people didn't like it at first. But once we were able to tune it into the world, it became so iconic and so satisfying. Everything from the loop to getting it to receiving all of the little things, that whole sequence, I think, is really effective.

And finally, the voice. You've got Michael McConnohie doing the lines again. "Skills for kills" is still something that I hear constantly whenever Crackdown is brought up. I assume it's just the guy and his voice that's so effective, I can't think of what you might have done to make it that way. He just hits that tone, right?

Yeah, he's a super pro. The guy has a photographic memory. I supervised all of the VO for this one, and we were doing a session one time where we forgot to pick up a line, or someone wanted a rewrite on a line probably 20 pages back, and he goes, "oh, that was line 41." We flipped back, and sure enough, he remembered exactly what line it was. He's so multi-talented -- he used to work at Interplay, he used to work on game development. Voiceover was not his first gig.

I know he's got a long history of doing all that stuff. Can you maybe let us in on new catchphrases that we can look forward to in this game?

I will say that the guys at Ruffian wanted him to be a little bit more grizzled, have a little bit more bravado, so I would say that he's definitely back, he's funny. We do process his voice just a little bit -- it's juiced a little bit, just to sound dry, and I wanted that voice of God in your ear. I wanted him to sound not like he's in a location or in a space or through a walkie-talkie or something. He's in your ear, he's the voice of God, he's your conscience and your guide, and he's your only connection to humanity as an Agent. You have no friends, you're grown in a vat, you're an unstoppable killing machine. So it was important to have that relationship with him.

This time around, what's different about him, I would say that he's a little more demanding of you, as far as performance, and he's still funny. He's got lines in multiplayer that will make you laugh. Some of it's ad-libbed, some of it's great script. If you liked him last time, you'll like him this time.

And we have fewer bugs this time, so that's better.

That's always a plus. All right, cool, thanks very much!

Thank you!

[Update 5:11pm ET: Mistakenly listed The Rolling Stones in introduction, though they're not included in the Crackdown 2 soundtrack. We've removed the mention.]
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