The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: Horses

May 13th, 2021

One of the first decisions made on Ghost of Tsushima was that our main means of fast locomotion in the game would be horses. It made sense since that was what was used by both Mongols and Japanese warriors in the 13th century. There would be no grinding power lines or zipping through air vents or beaming from one radar dish to another. So of course we knew the horses needed to sound great.

Surprisingly I think the only other game I’ve worked on that almost had a horse was a Shrek game that got canceled. In that game, in a very on-the-nose homage to Monty Python, there were knight enemies that rode around on hobby horses. For the knights footsteps I recorded coconuts and the results were as hilarious as intended. So for fun, when we first got the horse working in game in Ghost, I re-recorded the same coconut shells and, while still hilarious, it didn’t quite fit tonally.

We began to research some places to record horses. The most important thing was we needed shoeless horses. While there was conflicting information about whether or not Mongols shoed their horses, we could find no information demonstrating the Japanese shoed their horses with metal in the 13th century, so we opted to keep things simpler and go for natural footsteps. After calling some places that fit the bill and driving around to check out their properties, assess noise levels, etc., we decided upon the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center out in Fall City, WA. The owner Jim Hutchins, was keen to work with us and seemed genuinely interested in our work.

Unfortunately between the time we agreed to record there and the date of the recording, my senior sound designer, Andy Martin, had left to pursue another position, so I was on my own for the session. One fewer person to operate microphones posed some problems, so I got creative: I followed the horse with a Sennheiser MKH8060 in a zeppelin and Sound Devices 702 and strapped a recorder and a pair of omni electret condenser mics (a Roland CS-10EM) to the saddle which we taped down (and taped all buckles on the saddle).

Horses are amazing animals and when the horse first saw my furry blimp, it was not happy. We got lots of great nervous vocalizations which ended up as the final assets in the game as it got used to the presence of the blimp. From there Jim guided the horse around on various surfaces in their property (grass, tall grass, dirt, mud, wood, gravel, stone/concrete, and asphalt) at trot, canter and occasionally gallop speeds and I chased after them with my mic. We got A LOT of horse grazing because when a horse is hungry and has the lay of the land, they eat when they feel like it. These assets too were eventually massaged by Rob Castro and Erik Buensuceso and made it into the game. In fact, the amount of grazing sounds we got and the frequency with which the horses naturally ate grass was the impetus for us adding the grazing animations into the game!

To get bigger whinnies and neighs, Jim put two of the horses together who were really good friends, and then separated them. Once one was led far enough away, the other would bellow out a very loud call for their friend. I inadvertently recorded a horse fart at one point, but was too far away so unfortunately it was not usable. Lastly, we went into their gear barn and recorded a bunch of sounds of various bridles and saddles, again taping down any metal parts since we wanted to avoid jangling components in the sound design.

Once I chopped up the assets and integrated them into the game I made this delightfully silly video to show at a company meeting:

But we were still a long way from being done. The horse had to sound great because it was used SO much in the game and we wanted to really push on the detail of everything about the horse from its footsteps to its saddle and bridle sounds to its vocalizations. I think when all was said and done the assets for the horse were probably touched by almost every sound designer on the project. I can think of at least 5 of us that did some work on the horse, tuning and improving and iterating to make them sound great.

The initial saddle and bridle work was augmented by Josh Lord with assistance by Rob Burns at the Sony San Diego team recording some more saddle foley for us. Rob Castro, Erik Buencsuceso, Adam Lidbetter, and Mike Neiderquell each did additional work to tweak and polish various aspects of the horse’s sounds from various surfaces to his adorable animations to his bridle and saddle movement to make everything sound great.

Josh Lord also implemented some mixing into the horse (and other repetitive sounds) to help make them sound impactful without getting fatiguing. We basically created RTPCs that tracked how long the horse had been galloping and slowly starting mixing certain layers down as the running continued to both reduce fatigue and allow other sounds to pop through the mix better.

When all was said and done, we ended up with sounds for our horses that matched the visuals and the fantasy of our samurai stealth adventure, but also matched the detail of the world, and I am so thrilled not just at how well the sound of the horses came out, but also just how collaborative an apporach this was and how well that paid off.

The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: the Mongol Warhorn

May 10th, 2021

Welcome to a series of short posts about some of the sound design we did for Ghost of Tsushima! The purpose of these posts will be to provide a small glimpse behind the curtain of some of the sound design choices we made, some happy accidents we stumbled upon and how we crafted some of the signature sounds from the game.

For this first post, a sound that we new we needed early on, was a war horn for the Mongols. It had to be iconic and immediately recognizable so that a player could hear it nearby or in the distance and know “uh oh, there are Mongols nearby, and they may already know about me.”

In researching both samurai and Mongols we found many musical instruments used by Samurai to both communicate on the battlefield and attempt to instill fear in their opponents. We were fortunate enough to record some of these instruments including the horagai, a conch shell horn, at Komodahama, Tsushima during their yearly festival commemorating the first Mongol invasion of 1274. In all the research we did on the Mongols, however, I couldn’t find much in the way of music used for war purposes. Most of their music practices were either for celebrations such as marriage, played at imperial court, or just to pass the time. The Mongols were a nomadic people and while their main instruments were stringed instruments like the morin khuur they did also have horns, including some that were made of either wood or animal horn.

With that knowledge, but a lack of access to traditional instruments, we opted to take some liberty in crafting a sound that we could tie to the Mongols, and would sound unique from the samurai horagai. In their native lands (and by extension the lands they conquered throughout China and the Korean peninsula) the Mongols used several domestic animals for food and drink. The horse was the most important delivering them everything from transportation to alcohol (airag, also known as kumis, is fermented horse milk), but they did also use yaks and cattle. Using this as a jumping off point, I found some steer horns and purchased one, hoping I could teach myself to blow through it and that it would make a sound unique from the conch shell. Fortunately it didn’t take long for the gasping breaths and pushed air to turn tonal and we recorded a bunch of variations on the war horns. We experimented with different calls to signify different enemy states, but in the end we opted to use it for a simpler enemy alert.

Josh Lord, our senior sound designer, processed the recordings to provide greater reflection and distance modeling the further away you go, and so we could fire off closer or more distant variants depending on what the in-game action called for. Here’s a short clip of recording some of those horns and then what they sounded like in-game:

Wwise Tour 2020: Sonic Storytelling

December 31st, 2020

I finally updated my website’s backend after being on PHP v5.6 (current version is something like 7.4) for far too long. Good news is now you can access the site via https for better security. Now that that is done I hope to post some articles soon about some of the specific sound design and recording we did on Ghost of Tsushima.

For now, here’s a talk we did in December about Sonic Storytelling and exploring some of the ways we use audio to tell our stories. It was a lot of fun to share some of the world with the audio community:

Ghost of Tsushima Shipped!!!!

July 24th, 2020

Apologies to the one and a half people that may actually check this blog frequently for new content. Needless to say, I’ve been busy for the past few years working on Ghost of Tsushima. I’m SO excited that it has shipped, is in player’s hands, and they seem to be loving it. It’s been especially humbling to see people calling out audio as something they love. We knew the music and voice acting was pretty top notch, but to see so many comments about the sound design and even the mix has been such a treat. I’ve got a handful of posts and videos I’ll be sharing over the next few months going into some of the detail of the sound design for the game, some of our recording practices and other fun stories from the field.

For now, here’s an interview I did with Jennifer Walden for A Sound Effect that talks a little bit about some of the fun we had creating sounds for this special project:

The Playstation 1 as you never heard it

December 30th, 2018

The Playstation 1 turned 25 this month, and I was just going through some old recordings when I stumbled upon this gem (warning: it’s a slow build, but it gets loud!):

For reference, here’s what that SHOULD sound like:

I have no idea how our Playstation made this sound, but here’s the story:

Travel back with me if you will to the year 1999. Y2K mania was sweeping the world as QA Managers were stockpiling canned goods and weapons (at least mine was). Cellphones were slowly creeping into peoples pockets, but were mainly used for talking. And a hot tech device, the Palm Pilot, was taking the way we wrote letters and transforming them in a stylus friendly way (R.I.P.).

I was a recent college graduate living with a house of fellow humans who were trying to find their way in a post-graduate life. One of my roommates had bought a Playstation back in 1995 or 1996, and it lived a rough life bouncing from house to house. Needless to say, by 1999, it was on its last legs. I remember popping in a disc sometimes and hearing the platter spin and wondering if it was melting. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t.

Often, when it wasn’t going to work, it went through its boot process at a glacial pace. The startup sound (and visual) would play at that crazy speed above turning a 15 second synth stinger into a 2 and a half minute opus that Vangelis himself would have considered composing on his latest album.

I thought it was the coolest thing and, as a newly minted sound designer, thought it would be a really fun thing to capture. I truthfully can’t remember how I recorded it, but with the amount of hiss on the original recording, I’m guessing I used a cassette recorder pointed directly at the TV speaker. Hi-tech solution, I know.

Obviously, I’ve never used the sound because it’s property of Sony (who is coincidentally now my boss), but I’ve kept the sound around because I love it as an example of what we do in our craft: take some sound and via trickery, design, tools, techniques, and happy accidents, turn it into something wholly new and unique.