The Sound Architect™ catches up with Pawel Blaszczak, Audio Director of the highly anticipated Dying Light!
Pawel Blaszczak is a soundtrack composer for videogames and movies. His first compositions were created on Commodore 64. Since 1997 he’s been composing videogame soundtracks professionally. His work includes music for Dead Island, Call of Juarez Trilogy, Chrome and Crime Cities. Together with Adam Skorupa, Pawel co-composed the widely acclaimed The Witcher OST winning the IGN Award – Best Soundtrack 2007 – RPG Game among others. Currently Pawel works as Audio Director at Techland, an independent game development studio based in Wroclaw, Poland.
Read the full interview below:
Firstly, I’d like to say a big thank you for speaking with us! We’re very excited about Dying Light and it’s a pleasure to have you on The Sound Architect.
It’s also my pleasure to be here and have this interview. Thank you so much.
Before we discuss the audio in Dying Light, tell us your story. How did you begin your career in game audio?
I’ve been playing games since I was a child. My first computer was Commodore 64 and I literally fell in love with its games and music. That was also the time when I began composing. With time, these two passions came together in a natural way. I would send my demoes to developers that made games for Amiga, and later also for the PC. It’s exactly how my adventure with Techland started. It was all the way back in 1998. I sent them a demo and portfolio and presto! Got the job!
What kind of equipment do you generally go for when recording and creating sound?
I mainly use a PC with Soundforge and Cubase, and a Mac with similar software. Add to that something like one million plug-ins, and high-quality preamps by IGS, a Polish manufacturer. I also use RME and Apogee sound cards.
Any favourite software/plug-ins?
It changes all the time. Recently I prefer PolyKBill synthesizer from XILS, Vertigo VSC2 compressor from Brainworx, and FabFilter Pro Q2 equalizer. The last one is indispensable to me. Generally speaking, I enjoy working with products by Soundtoys, Softube, WAVES, and PSP.
As far as hardware is concerned, I choose Clavia Nord Stage and Nord Wave, as well as Elektron Analog Four, Octatrack, and Arturia Microbrute.
OK, so let’s talk about the audio for Dying Light. With an amazing amount of source material, where did you draw your inspiration from for the music and sound design?
Inspirations came from a great number of sources. Actually, the game’s sound design was directed by Tomasz Gruszka, Senior Sound Designer at Techland. I only helped him. As a rule, we aimed for a balance between making the zombies scary and not overburdening players with unsettling noises. As far as sound is concerned, we used DPA mics supported by the IGS preamps, which let us achieve high dynamism and “readability” of sounds.
Speaking of music, I kept a reasonable distance from zombie movies from the 1990s. Their music was mainly rhythmic dissonances coming from distorted synthesizers, which was tiring to the viewer in the long run. Players will spend countless hours in the open-world of Dying Light and I didn’t want to make them listen to that kind of music all the time. Of course, we’ve got such tunes in the game, as well as typical horror music, but I mainly drew inspirations from zombie movies of the 70s and 80s, whose music was definitely sadder. Dying Light takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, after all.
I decided to use synthesizers to emphasize two things in particular. The first are feelings of abandonment, emptiness, and sadness. I achieved such an atmosphere using long sounds. Let’s not forget that Dying Light takes place in Harran – a dead city. Although you can see many silhouettes in the streets, these are not people but zombies. The living are few, the dead are many.
Another thing is that the protagonist is a parkour runner. I highlight this fact rhythmicity, using synthesizer arpeggios rather than percussion. Obviously, the percussion is also there, but mostly accompanies combat and the more intense escapes.
What was your first step in the process? Is there anything in particular you found most challenging?
The hardest part was to decide how to best present Dying Light’s night. It’s one the game’s prominent features, an experience that hasn’t been seen before in video games in such a way. Obviously, we wanted to highlight that with sounds as well.
The game features many horror movie-like sound effects and music. So if the night was to be even more frightening, we could simply use even more scary effects. However, this would make the player indifferent to our scares after some time.
Game director Adrian Ciszewski found a great solution. Night was supposed to be quiet and we had to build that silence. And when it’s quiet, even a piece of paper carried by the wind can frighten you. After various discussions and tests, we agreed on that direction. What’s more, we added a single continuous sound that is present always when it’s night in the game. It’s hard to describe this sound, but you can feel it nonetheless. That’s right, you feel it rather than hear it. It’s a kind of wheezing or whistling, as if the night was wailing quietly. So, in that vein of silence we made the rest of night sounds. Thanks to it, your main enemy’s roar is much more frightening than if we had spammed night with typical, scary ambient sounds.
What was your main focus for the music?
I wanted to create a soundtrack that is based on the legacy of zombie movies to some extent, but in fact is its own original thing. I had two main objectives in my mind. Horror movies are usually dominated by a dissonant kind of music. While it’s present in Dying Light too, I didn’t want it to be the only kind of music in the game. I demanded melodies. However, melodies in the horror genre are usually depressing, which didn’t suit what I aimed for. At that time, I had already finished my album titled “bZombie”, which was used as soundtrack for our iOS game Hellraid: The Escape. Although such music is great for creating an appropriate atmosphere, I reckoned Dying Light players wouldn’t want to be depressed for dozens of hours. It would be tedious and exhausting.
After all, our protagonist and other characters has found their place in that world we created, which is typical for a post-apocalyptic setting. In such a situation, we couldn’t use depressing music because it’d misrepresent the spirit of the game and its events.
It took me quite some time to find an original melody that reflected the game’s world and wasn’t depressing at the same time. That’s why it’s not easy to filter out the main theme, although it’s in there, of course. However, it’s much easier to recognize the main atmosphere of the game, which depicts a vision of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic world.
Next, I was looking for best tools for my melody. I wanted more than just the orchestra. I wanted more than the guitar and piano. I knew I needed synthesizers, but I wanted to go further than so called sound programming or typical manipulations and distortions. I aimed to show the “tired and dead” side of synthesizers and thus convey the emptiness of a post-apocalyptic setting. If I succeeded is up to players to decide. J
Sound design is obviously key in survival horror games, what was your focus?
To frighten and not to make players bored with being frightened. Just as I said above when discussing night in Dying Light: You can take the scary and make it scarier only so many times before the player grows indifferent. So we worked hard to strike that perfect balance.
How did you approach the voice acting side of the audio for the characters?
Voice Acting is the single most important element of the game. Many people were involved in the process, including game designers and writers. We looked for voices that would best describe and reflect personalities of our characters. It was a challenge but I believe we did it and voice acting will be one of Dying Light’s strongest points. After all, most Techland’s games can have really great voice actors, for example Ray McCall from the Call of Juarez series.
Would you say there is a particularly unique sound we should listen out for that you are most proud of?
In my opinion, the best moment is when the player fires a gun and can then hear zombie cries echoing throughout the city. It was a challenge to do it right, but now when I’m playing the game, these cries send shivers down my spine every time!
Another sound I’m proud of is that piercing sound of night – its wailing. We created a sound that somehow doesn’t reach the player’s consciousness but scares them anyway on the subconscious level. I think we can be pretty satisfied with the final result.
There are a LOT of zombie games and movies out there. What did you try to do differently with the audio?
One of the recent zombie games embraced dubstep tunes. I didn’t want to imitate them at all. On the other hand, latest movies make use of orchestral music, which I believe to be the right direction. However, I didn’t want to rely solely on the orchestra, since it would’ve made the soundtrack one-sided. As I told you above, I used melody and synthesizer sounds to depict the emptiness and horror of Dying Light’s post-apocalyptic world.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers and sound designers?
First of all, you should be professional. You don’t have to be the best in everything, but you need to know a lot. What’s more, a composer should be original in the sense of being interesting. Games are meant to be entertaining – demanding alternative music might be highly artistic but fail to captivate players. On the other hand, music that’s too familiar will be simply boring.
Any major Dos and Don’ts?
DO’s: Always be open to new solutions and never limit yourself to set patterns. Sometimes you may think all good ideas have already been used, but you’re wrong – there’s always something new to invent. And you can do it, you just need to change your attitude and look for inspirations.
DON’T’s: Never let yourself believe you know everything there is to know. You can always learn something new.
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Interview by Sam Hughes