Interview with Hazelight

As part of our Game Audio Week we took the opportunity to ask Swedish game devs, Hazelight, a few questions about their studio and sound design processes.

We got to know Hazelight after they got in touch to request Kilohearts plugin multiple licenses for their studio. When we discovered they were also Swedish we got talking and eventually got to pay a visit to their fantastic studios in Stockholm.

This was an eye-opening experience for us. Before we left, we agreed to carry out an interview to publish on our website so that we could let people know about Hazelight and how Kilohearts are supporting the game audio community. 

Q. Tell us about Hazelight and your roles.

Hazelight was founded by director Josef Fares in 2014, following the development of his debut game Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, which was published by Starbreeze. Following the release a few of the developers who worked on Brothers jumped on the opportunity to join Josef in creating Hazelight, which has since launched A Way Out and most recently the much acclaimed It Takes Two.

Joakim: My role at Hazelight is that of Senior Technical Sound Designer. In the simplest of terms this role is a hybrid between a Sound Designer and an Audio Programmer, which means that the allocation of my time is split between any tasks that could befall any of these two roles.

How this balancing of wildly different tasks actually pans out during a week will vary greatly, most notably so based on where on the timeline a current project is located - In the early stages of a new project I will likely spend 100% of my time programming and designing any tech that has been identified as integral to the game we are making, whereas later on in the project I might spend all of my time sound designing to make sure that we are now filling this game with sounds!

It is a very dynamic role, which Is what I love most about it - it is ever changing.

Philip: My role as the Audio Director is very much to have all my sausage fingers in all the sauce pots. I work with all of the various parts of the audio production including: voice-over, music, sound design, technical systems as well as planning and making sure that everything is running according to some type of plan.

We have a very flat hierarchy within the audio team, so everyone has a lot of creative freedom and ownership, so I come in as a guiding hand to help people with whatever I can to make them stay focused, creative and most importantly happy. I do want to emphasize that I am as much a Sound Designer as anyone else, so I work very hands-on with sound making everyday as well.

Q. What does the audio team look like at Hazelight?

This is the current roster of individuals of Hazelight audio.

  • Philip Eriksson, Audio Director
  • Joakim Enigk Sjöberg, Senior Technical Sound Designer
  • Göran Kristiansson, Senior Audio Programmer
  • Filip Järnmark, Sound Designer
  • Gustav Landerholm, Sound Designer
  • Gustaf Grefberg, Music Designer
  • Viktor Israelsson, Technical Voice-Over Designer
  • Johannes Karlebo, Voice-Over Designer

We’re also currently enlisting some fantastic external help.

  • Sebastian Pohle, Senior Sound Designer, Pole Position Production
  • Josh Smith, Senior Sound Designer, Respawn Entertainment
  • Jonathan Järpehag, Music Composer
  • David Silverin, Foley Artist, Silverin Film
  • Tormod Ringnes and Pål Baglo, Uhørt

Q. Take us through a normal working day at Hazelight.

Joakim: I always say that the most important job of the technical sound designer is to make sure that everyone else on the team is able to work to their full potential. During any given day the sound, voice-over and music designers will be working within the tools and pipelines created by myself and my programming colleagues and it is an ongoing task to make sure that they are able to do so in the best way possible.

This means that it is my job to take care of issues or bugs as they appear, but also to monitor the progress of the team as a whole to be able to identify ways to continuously improve on our toolkits. In many ways audio is a realm within a realm at Hazelight and we all work towards nurturing and improving our own little ecosystem!

In more specific terms my tasks include sound design, implementing sounds into the game, designing systems to correctly portray sounds as the game is running, building plugins and tools both within the game engine and within Reaper, as well as building pipelines that bridges and connects our audio systems to other departments such as animation or the narrative team - this is especially important for our motion capture processes in which we record movements, facial expressions and the voices of live actors.

Philip: I usually get in a bit before everything kicks off, just to get some time to start preparing for the day. I read my emails, look through our chats and get a bunch of this so that I know what to bring up with my colleagues. At 9:30 every morning we always do a “stand-up” with the audio team. Everyone talks about what they did and what they will do during the day. To me this is super important, not only to get to know what people are planning and hear their questions or needs but to have a moment where we can say good morning to each other as well as check that everyone is doing alright. We usually mix things up with a few jokes but stay focused at the same time, a very nice mix if you ask me.

After this stand-up I usually do a few chats with individuals or a few people to answer questions or help them with various things. After these meetings I might have time to do some sound design or more hands-on tasks at least. I usually have time for that until after lunch or sometimes closer to 3 pm, depending on how lucky I am that day. During this sound design time I will still be interrupted by questions and written messages but those usually take less brain power.

After my sound design time we usually have play-throughs or other interdepartmental meetings of all sorts. We might play a part of the game or watch cutscenes and give and get feedback for example. After the later meetings during the day I usually check in with the audio team to see if anyone needs anything from me, usually it is feedback. We listen and play with their latest sound creation and I tell them my thoughts. To finish the day I might be able to finish the sound tasks that I started during the morning sound design time that I had. The End

Q. How do you approach sound design for a split screen game?

Joakim: Creating sound for split screen games where both sides of the screen are of equal importance is a fundamentally tricky task. What you are trying to do is to tell two stories at the same time, but have them both come through the same set of speakers! Sight is an active sense, and as such our eyes do not usually have any trouble focusing on the part of action that happens on our part of the screen.

In contrast, hearing is a passive sense, and it is far more strenuous to “choose” what we listen to in a bed of different sounds. As individuals of the current team sat down to start the design of It Takes Two back in 2019 we really started to face the many challenges of this premise.

One core concept that we would discuss during this time is something that we have later defined with a pretentious title (as is customary) - The Sonic Real-Estate.

The Sonic-Real Estate represents the notion that the screen on which a game is played is a frame. Within this frame, both the split parts and the shared sum, there is a finite space for sound. The parts that make it might change in distribution or even in shape, but the sum of the parts is always the same. To correctly tell the story of what is unfolding on the screen and deliver a clear and concise mix for the player we as designers of a split screen game must always be attuned to how to best place our sounds within this frame. How we choose to fill this allotted space with audio is how we define the Sonic Real-Estate!

If we do not design with these concepts in mind then our mix will be incomprehensible and the audio experience of the game would completely fall apart. If we instead succeed in living alongside these ideas then we can work towards the goal of a clear, concise and impactful mix where both players are indeed able to “choose” what to listen to - which is every sound that we as designers have deemed important for them to hear.

When we design we often talk about ownership - which player is this sound for? This thought process starts right within our DAW and is carried all the way through technical implementation until it comes out the speakers.

It is important to mention that there is no blueprint on how audio for split screen games is to be handled. For It Takes Two we established many philosophies that we felt were right for that particular game - these are bound to change and develop further if we were to tackle a similar project in the future.

Q. How do Kilohearts plugins help you with your work?

Joakim: For starters, Kilohearts Essentials is such a solid suite of plugins with virtually no barrier of entry. No matter what your DAW is this package alone will fit right into any collection of stock plugins and most likely you’ll end up with a few new effects that you previously didn’t have as part of your kit.

For a free package the range of tried and true effects that it covers is very impressive. The philosophy of these plugs are so easy to get into as well - it is simply ‘no bullshit’ interfaces with a very simplistic workflow, and they sound great. Not much to argue about really.

Furthermore, I am personally a fan of closed environments that contain the bulk needed to act as “one-stop-shops” for sound design. In a world where design is completely subjective and there are infinite ways to solve a task I am always looking to limit myself - I want to find the basket to put my eggs in.

The big reason why we wanted to audition Kilohearts for our warchest is, of course, Phase Plant - and from a personal perspective it has been pretty substantial. I could talk for hours about why Phase Plant is so fantastic, so I will stop myself right here. Trust everything you have heard - Phase Plant is very, very good. Finally a soft synth that puts sound design first.

"Trust everything you have heard - Phase Plant is very, very good..."

Something that is pretty unique to working with audio for games is that we often need many different variations or colors of the same base sound, such as a range of weapons for different enemies or similar vocalizations for different creatures. When we sometimes need to come back to an old to an old design to make something new out of it or quickly create a new archetype the exchange between Phase Plant and Snap Heap really brings some great workflow opportunities, where core designs can be built as presets contained within these plugins and then used as starting points for quickly creating something that is new but still inherently speaks the same language as your previous sounds. Just like the Hazelight audio team, these plugins make their own ecosystem where you can make great returns of investment on time for every single sound you make.

Philip: I am actually not that fond of new tools, they really need to fit in my own workflow as well as giving me something that I really did not have before. These new tools need to sound better, be easier to work with as well as reach a high quality bar quickly. When I first got all the plugins from Kilohearts I was quite skeptical, I had heard that people were all crazy about Phase Plant, I had seen a few videos and I was impressed but still had my own reservations. I had already tested Disperser a bit before I got the other plugins, I thought it sounded good and was easy to use. This plugin is also an example of where a process was made easier and gave me a different flavor to work with, the interface of the plugin was also interesting to me since it was clear, easy and simple.

So the first time I opened Phase Plant, it kind of looked like a lot of other advanced complex plugins, lots of buttons and stuff. I was very curious to test the granulator, I have tried many but never found anything that was really to my taste. Phase Plant's granulator was extremely easy to use, it works well and it fitted into my work straight away. I actually did not touch any of the other features for at least 3 months. So to me Phase Plant was the grain tool. The good thing was that I learnt how to use that feature very well and slowly but steadily instead of going full extreme right away.

There are a few key features with the Phase Plant granulator that stick out, it is fast to get started, which is a very important feature because not every sound sounds good when you start “graining it up”. The copy-paste feature is also extremely useful, since only one grained sound might not work so well but a few will cover up the nasty side effects of granulating. Last, I have never felt so in control when using a granulator, I can very much shape the sound and not feell like the sound is being shaped for me - I know how to use Phase Plant and I know how to get to the result I want. Phase Plant is now one of my go to tools and for sure a very important part of my workflow, so I was without question caught by the power of this tool!

"Phase Plant is now one of my go to tools and for sure a very important part of my workflow..."

I do also like the other plugins that Kilohearts makes, to mention a few that have become part of my workflow: Dual Delay, Flanger, Ladder Filter, Nonlinear Filter and Transient Shaper. These plugins all sound really good, they also have features that are not so common in other similar plugins, they are very easy to use and have a nice simple interface to work with. I use them individually but also together with Phase Plant.

Q. Do you have any tips or tricks for people who are new to Kilohearts?

Joakim: Take your time with the Essentials suite. It is easy to imagine that these plugins just serve as the normal layout that any proper DAW already has and that that Is the end of it, but even the seemingly simple plugins have small quirks that separates them from more orthodox design, such as the different overdrive-modes of the Filter and the Diode-switch on the Moog-styled Ladder Filter. Look for these unique features and play around with them!

I am not saying that you will use all of them daily, but a few months in I am still trying out new places for Essential plugins here and there to great results. The bonus here is that you are also getting into the core design that runs as a red thread throughout all the Kilohearts plugins, so you will have a much easier time to get into whatever the next plugin you use ends of being.

Don’t waste any time getting into the habit of enclosing the Kilohearts plugins of your FX-chains within Snap Heap presets. By doing so open yourself up to so many new opportunities for creative design and modulation within the Kilohearts Ecosystem, and using Snap Heap or Multipass in this way also has the advantage of ensuring that a bigger part of your sounds processing will be in front of you at any one time as opposed to being delegated throughout many more separate FX, which is likely to make you approach your design in a more holistic way.

Also - save EVERYTHING as presets that you can come back to, make them granular and use nested instances when applicable. Saving your patches as presets has the hidden effect of making you feel safe to stop turning knobs and commit to your designs and it frees you up to bring your work outside of one specific DAW-project.

“Man, I wish I hadn't made a preset out of this complex patch!” has never been said by anyone, but the opposite is said far to often…

Philip: You learn a lot from these cool Phase Plant videos and other people who share their processes, but I have always been speaking a lot about “flight hours” you need to do your 10,000 repetitions and it is exactly the same for sound design. I love getting inspired by other people but doing it yourself will be the best way to learn. Start by watching something that makes you wanna do sound, let's just say it is one of these Phase Plant synthesized vehicle patches, re-create a bit of that and then as you maybe do something wrong a “happy accident” it might lead you on a different path and then you follow that instead, you will learn a lot of cool stuff along the way, probably get super cool source that you can use to create other sounds, and then you have actually made something by yourself.

One thing that I would do a lot is to redesign trailers and other scenes, I wished I would have done that when I started out. But another thing that I did was that I remixed the same song like a 100 times, doing the same thing slightly different and testing things out was a very good process that made me understand things in a deeper way. So doing the same thing many times is not a bad thing, you will learn and do it differently every time.

Another thing that I have learned the hard way myself is that even though you are doing sound design it does not mean that you need to use every plugin in the entire Kilohearts library on that specific design. Use one or two and understand why you are using those flavors and what your intent is with this specific sound in the context that you are working in.

Q. What advice would you give to someone looking to work in game audio?

Joakim: Do not neglect practicing your design, as a professional it will be something you do everyday to keep your skills sharp, but before you have that natural stream of tasks to create sound for it is a good idea to make small assignments for yourself. While honing your sound design chops to stand well on their own is always great, if you are serious about designing the sound of an accompanying media such as films or games then you should try to spend as much time as possible applying your work to visual media. A well practiced approach is to do re-designs of other films or games to showcase your personal take on it, and while that absolutely is one way to do it I also think that it is good practice to make your own sounds for something that does not already have a huge footprint. In the end, any small clip or snippet can tell a million small stories, so do not be afraid of getting your feet wet with these types of exercises!

Use the plethora of online resources to educate yourself on what tools are found and used within the industry, familiarize yourself with concepts such as audio middlewares and game engines and start to build an understanding on how the sound designers work flow from DAW to output in a game to speakers. Now apply the workflows you are used to from linear (that is to say more conventional) audio production and start adjusting them to this new niché. Trust in whatever your process is - as always with social media there is this strong collective voice of what “the best” process is and what tools there are that you absolutely have to use to make it as a pro. Add to this are the many facets of game development and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the notion that you have to know how to do it all - from traditional sound editing to audio programming. This is not at all the case and it is exactly the reason why audio peers will work in teams to make a game - we complement each other's abilities.

Always remember that when we design sounds for any piece of accompanying media such as film, games or theater the goal should always be to tell the story just as it needs to be told, and let that be and end on its own. Our sound should live alongside the visual experience, elevate it whenever the opportunity arises, but never overtake it. In essence; don’t overdo your design, let it be exactly what it needs to be, but not more.

Philip: Find other like minded and do collaborate on game projects or film projects. Do redesigns of trailers and other linear videos, but not only trailers (I know they are cool but there are other more important skills). Record your own sounds and work with them in your projects. Play games and watch movies and if you like how they sound, then play them again or watch the film again to learn more about what they did. Be open to learn other things than just sound design, mix live music or help your friends to mix their recordings, take a course to learn more programming or math. Do a voice acting course, or learn game design. Do studies where you are offered to do an internship at a game studio. doing an internship connected to a course must statistically be the best thing to do, if you ask me but it is only a guess.

All knowledge is good knowledge and being interested in learning and progressing through life will make you a very interesting candidate for any game studio out there! Also do not be worried if your path is not perfectly straight towards your goal, you will probably be more happy later in life that you got to try various things rather than complaining that you did not get to do a few more years with in game developing or sound designing. Good luck to all of you!!

Kilohearts Press Team Tuesday, June 11, 2024

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