Masters of Sound: an interview with dSonic

What should the experience of learning sound like?

Years ago games guru Dani Zuniga introduced dSonic to us as “absolutely the best video game sound designers”; after collaborating with them on four games since, we agree! Yet their magical methods remain mysterious. How exactly did they make our new game Questimate! sound so cool? We wanted to learn more so we recently spoke with dSonic co-founder Kemal Amarasingham and his teammate Nate Berla-Shulock about their process, corks, clarinets, and the meaning of “organic.”

Motion Math: Tell us about dSonic. What’s the history of the company?
Kemal: dSonic has been around since 2000 and we focus exclusively on games. The way that we create sounds for games is very different from sounds developed for movies and TV shows. An important part of what makes sound effects in games work is how the sounds play back and interact with each other. The process would be similar to making an album by recording drums, vocals and the guitar all separately and then handing off playing instructions to a producer – the producer in this case is the player!

Making sounds for games involves technology and problem solving that never gets boring. There are also limitations for these sound effects depending on the platform, so we embrace the challenge of experimenting with different compositional forms while still making the effects sound good. Another thing I like about what we do is this: you can make a soundtrack for a game and then use it to make a soundtrack for a movie or video, but you can’t take a linear soundtrack and turn that into the soundtrack of a game.

Motion Math: Was our first collaboration Motion Math: Hungry Fish the first kids’ game you worked on?
Kemal: It’s not, but it’s the coolest. (laughs) We’ve worked on many arcade games that are aimed for kids, but Hungry Fish is the first kids game we did that’s educational. We aimed to make sounds that engage with all human senses and signal some sort of feedback.

Questimate’s open app sound:

Motion Math
: Nate, how did you approach making the sound effects for Questimate?
Nate: Well as you guys said early in our process, Questimate! is intended to carry a light, fun and digital tone. We tried to make sounds that are organic – not necessarily synthesized by a computer – and take that as a starting point. Starting with organic material helps Questimate! carry a more accessible and playful nature. It also helps make the sounds sound a bit more human.

Motion Math: Very cool. Are there any other sounds in the game that were originally organic?
Nate: Many of the sounds we used originate from organic elements, but one of the most memorable sounds was a cork-popping effect used in the game. We created the original organic sample by recording a wine bottle being opened. Afterwards, I intertwined this element with synthetic sound waves. I also did some software processes on the organic sounds so that it disguises the actual wine-bottle-opening recording. Thus, most players won’t be able to recognize where the sound effect came from.

 Questimate!: Making a question

Motion Math: How did you create the entire sound for the moment in Questimate when a play finishes making a question?
Nate: Most of the sounds we made in the game are composed of many different layers. In this particular sound, there’s a synthetic element at the beginning that makes up the first chords. The next layer is the “whoosh” effect, and that came from a recording of an actual person moving an object in front of a microphone to create an airy sound. Finally, there is a synthetic element at the end that creates the conclusive tone.
Kemal: The key thing in this sound – and this is one of the things we pride ourselves on doing – is that we tried to make the effects sound as if it was generated by what you are visually seeing. Another challenging aspect was to ensure that the different layers sound like a cohesive whole. If that didn’t happen, then we would have gotten disjoint effects that sounded like a giant mess.
Nate: Because we tried to make all these different layers sound cohesive, we spent half the time creating effects that people don’t consciously notice.

Motion Math: Is that also true for musical sounds? For example — the countdown sound in Questimate?
Kemal: For these types of countdown sounds, it can be made by simply triggering multiple instruments at the same time. However, because this is a mixture of musical and sound effects, we edit these sounds by hand to create a more human feel.
Nate: In this process, we layered several glockenspiel-type instruments. By layering more instruments together near the end of the effect, we were able to create a more intense feeling.

Motion Math: What sound effect designs that inspire you?
Kemal: I tend to look at designs that successfully sounds like it is generated by the elements on the screen. In particular, we look at sounds that most people have never heard of before, but still seems to be generated by the visual elements. The very first Transformers and Star Wars movies did that very well.

Motion Math: What equipments did you guys use on Questimate?
Nate: Most of the equipment we use are software-based. I use AbSynth on a regular basis and I also use contact instruments to create the sounds that we need.
Kemal: We have developed a lot of sounds over the years, so we manipulated a lot of our old samples to fit to some of the newer game sound effects. We can be pretty much described as painters – we have developed lots of color palettes over the years, and we manipulate these palettes to create the painting we want for our clients. The main audio program we use to edit sounds is Reaper – it’s popular software in the game and tech industries. A lot of audio programs take more of an analog and hardware approach. Reaper doesn’t take that approach, which makes things a lot more efficient in my opinion. However, the equipment is not important as your own creativity – with more and more software programs available in the market, you can do anything that anyone does these days. Referring to the painter analogy again, all the possible color palettes are out there nowadays. Creativity is what distinguishes good sound effects from the rest.

Motion Math: Nate, any other sound effects in particular from Questimate that you’re proud of?
Nate: I also worked on the button-touching sound effects on the quest selection screen. It sounds digital, but it carries a warm and endearing tone at the same time. To create this warm sensation, we used a clarinet wave form from the software AbSynth.

Motion Math: And overall, was our collaboration on this last game different from your usual game effects experience?
Kemal: Questimate was definitely a fun game to work on, mainly because it required more original and abstract sounds. A lot of our clients ask us to make literal sounds such as a tiger roar, or a machine gun firing. For Questimate’s sounds, we had to make effects that invoked emotion, and that prompted us to ask very interesting questions. How do you invoke positivity? How do you portray something that’s flying through the air? These questions really challenged us, but it was definitely a fun process to be a part of.

Motion Math: A final question for you. Why gaming?
Kemal: I have been a fan of gaming because it always fascinates me how quickly the industry is changing — there’s something new popping up every two seconds! I had opportunities to make sound effects in the movie industry, but people in games are seriously passionate about the work that they do. They are into the art of making games rather than the prestige that comes with it. It will also be interesting to see where the mobile gaming industry goes in the next couple of years given its rising popularity.

Motion Math: Thank you so much for your time. It’s a pleasure to work with you guys.