The Mix of Ghost of Tsushima

June 9th, 2021

It’s hard to believe Ghost of Tsushima is almost a year old already! It came out on July 17, 2020. We started planning for the final mix in February of that same year. Do you remember February of 2020? The only people that wore masks were superheroes, vaccines were for kids and traveling, and people felt totally comfortable crammed into enclosed spaces. With that mindset, we started planning. I would fly down to Sony San Mateo, other Sony sound folks would fly up from San Diego and Los Angeles and collectively we would spend a month packed into a studio mixing the game. I knew a month wouldn’t be enough to mix the game, but it’s all I could get. The thought of me being away from the office for that long was already daunting. The initial plan was for only 3 weeks, but I negotiated to 4. Because we weren’t going to have enough time, my strategy was to focus on what most players would experience: start with the core systemic gameplay, followed by the Golden Path missions, our main narrative, the special Legendary Item missions, and finish up with as many of the buddy chain Silver missions as we could get to. It was a solid plan.

As things got worse with the coronavirus, our mix plans became a bit more fluid. Maybe I could fly a small charter airline down to the Bay Area. Maybe we’d need to limit the number of people who came. Then the shelter-in-place orders came. Because the audio team needed special facilities to do our jobs we were initially given special consideration during this time. I kept working in the office with a skeleton crew of others, and there were a couple people at Sony doing the same. As the situation worsened, I was forced to move home, and our plans continued to change. We started floating every idea possible. Mixing at home was not ideal since I didn’t have a decent, quiet room. Would I need to seal myself off at work and mix alone in my non-calibrated studio? By early April things had solidified into what would promise to be the most unique mix experience I’d ever been a part of. I would drive down from Seattle to San Mateo (a 14 hour drive normally without traffic, yet only a 12 hour drive at peak pandemic time). I would stay in a hotel right across from the Sony campus. There would be one other member from each discipline joining me: Adam Lidbetter from sound design, Kyle Richards from dialogue, and Nick Mastroianni from the music team. Adam, Kyle, and myself would be situated a minimum of 10 feet apart from each other in Studio A, and Nick would be in the live room playing the game. It was not ideal, but it was a plan.

And surprisingly it worked exceptionally well. Part of the reason for that was that we asked the other folks who were supposed to be at the mix to play the game, and to play ahead of us. I maintained a google doc of mix notes, and every day as people played through they would add to the mix notes. The reason we had them play ahead of us was so we could address their notes as we made it through the game in the studio.

The unsung heroes of the entire pandemic were our IT department. They and a few programmers figured out how to get the entire studio and our proprietary toolchain working remotely in a matter of days. It was remarkable. Using this tech, I was able to download package builds from a devkit at the hotel I brought with me everyday and play them each night while I was in my hotel room ordering takeout and wearing a combination of N95 masks, bandannas and boxer shorts as facemasks (how far we’ve come).

About halfway through the mix we found out that our ship date was getting pushed slightly which gave us an extra week for mixing, which was a godsend. Somehow we managed to cover everything we’d planned in the initial 4 weeks, but that extra week gave us more time to polish and cover more of the game. We were so fortunate and that time really paid off.

I shot a ton of video while I was down there (though often not at the most opportune times), because I knew this was going to be a weird experience and such a strange mix process. The fact that it worked, and worked so well, is a testament to the entire team. The support I had from Sucker Punch and Sony was incredible and I still am in a daze over how lucky I’ve been to work with such a phenomenal team. So here’s a video showing some of the “highlights” of the mix. It’s long. It’s often boring. It’s sometimes funny. But it shows what the process of the mix really looked like, and I get honest about a lot of my personal and professional concerns, learnings and shortcomings. I don’t know that I would recommend watching it because it really is over a half hour of watching me talk with underwear covering my face or clicking a mouse in Wwise, but hopefully there will be some nuggets of interest to people getting a glimpse behind the curtain of a strange mix in a strange time.

The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: Bloopers

June 2nd, 2021

No five year long project would be complete without at least a few goofy bloopers. There were so many more that we just didn’t capture, but I hope this brings a smile to your face. For me, it is just a reminder of how lucky we are to do what we do day to day and that we’re able to be creative and have fun for a living is one of the treasures of my life. I feel exceptionally fortunate every day even when (or maybe especially because) I do stupid stuff like some of what you’ll see here:

The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: Fake Birds

May 28th, 2021

The natural world we built for Ghost of Tsushima is one of the sonic highlights for me. The world is lush and full of so many different species of birds, insects, amphibians and mammals, many of which were recorded in Japan and most of which are native to Japan. It really creates this wondrous natural beauty for the rest of the game to sit on top of.

We had our friends at Japan Studio in Tokyo record a lot of ambience for us and I was fortunate enough to travel around Japan for a couple weeks and capture all sorts of wildlife. The ambience was one of the more time consuming systems in the game, but it was also one of the first to get solidified. We had good variety of wildlife species and the world felt rich, but as I explain in the video below, getting towards the end of the project they decided to add a few new specific species. We didn’t have time or resources to fly halfway around the world and try to track these specific birds down, nor could I find a library with them.

Fortunately, the Slack field recording channel was doing a bird crowdsource around this time, and while discussing our recordings, Alex Barnhart asked if anyone had tried pitching down real bird recordings, performing them, and then pitching them back up to see if you could replicate birdsong in that way. We all thought it sounded fun and cool and it was very shortly after this moment, that they decided to add 3 new species to the game, so I took this knowledge and went for it.

I went onto which is a fantastic website for information and birdsong and found some decent quality samples that I could use as reference. From there I tried pitching them down to various ranges from an octave to four octaves and everywhere in between, trying to find that sweet spot where it was in my vocal range and performable. After performing, and looking and sounding appropriately goofy, I was pretty surprised and pleased when playbacking the results. Once I put them in game, I knew this was going to work!

They even added a couple more species (a cormorant and a Eurasian sparrowhawk) that I was able to perform adequately. The one place I failed was when trying to augment our existing Black-naped oriole recordings. This is a really important bird in the game, as he guides you to your various objectives. I had captured one while recording in Sri Lanka, but my recordings were limited, so I hoped to bolster our content with some faked versions, but when playing a fake bird against a real bird, it becomes VERY evident which one is fake, so I abandoned it.

The results were so surprisingly decent, we played a game at work where the team listened to bird samples and tried to identify whether they were a real bird or me, and it was hard. Even I got half of them wrong! So here’s a video that goes into more of these details and also shows the process in action:

The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: Dogs

May 24th, 2021

The dogs in Ghost of Tsushima are fun to talk about because, like so much of the soundscape of the game, we started with a lot of research and then recording them was a blast. Let’s just ignore the fact that Jin kills so many dogs in his journey and rewind a few years when we first started talking about having dogs in the game. The impetus for adding dogs was to have a unique enemy type that was also more adept at hunting Jin than the Mongols. Like everything else in the game, we did a bunch of research and found that Mongols did indeed use dogs and that from Genghis Khan on, their dogs were ancestors of the breed now known as the Tibetan Mastiff (which technically is not a mastiff, but I’m not here to get into a discussion about dog breeds). So the art team began working on models of Tibetan mastiffs, which meant we needed to find some sounds for them! We started looking online and these dogs looked and sounded fierce, but also fairly unique. So I started looking to see if there were any Tibetan Mastiff breeders in the area and I struck gold: there were actually a handful within a few hour drive from Seattle!

We ended up connecting with Debbie Parsons of Dreamcatcher Mastiffs. She mentioned they had several Tibetan Mastiffs and we were welcome to come record them. So Josh and I packed up our mics and recorders and headed out to Graham, WA, just an hour south of Seattle on the way to Mount Rainier. As soon as we showed up, we were greeted by 3 VERY large, scary and seemlingly angry dogs. We started recording immediately and got some terrific barks and growls (unfortunately interspersed with chain link fence rattle as they were pretty excited). Debbie was super helpful and started taking most of the dogs inside and allowing us to record each one individually. We got a good range of growls, snarls and barks. Debbie even ended up putting on a hooded sweatshirt and acting like a prowler to get them riled up. After getting all these great barks, we went into the property to record more and these dogs transformed into the cuddliest, sweetest bears (seriously they looked like bears in dog suits).

We were able to get panting and breathing and even chewing on bones as they had settled down and got used to us. From there Josh took the recordings, cleaned them up and got them in game. Rob Castro did a final polish pass towards the end of the project to make them even more terrifying. As you can hear from this video we created for a company meeting, the were already pretty scary before the sonic magic was applied.

The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima: Combat Impacts

May 19th, 2021

We knew as soon as we began working on Ghost of Tsushima that swordplay would be a major part of the game and that the swords had to sound dangerous. In moving to the world of feudal Japan, we wanted to approach combat from a grounded perspective but also really make the sound of the swords slicing through enemies feel razor like. Lots of games and films go for a really meaty, thuddy impact to make things feel powerful. We wanted to go against this trend and make our swords SOUND sharp.

To do this, we really focused our impact sounds on elements of slicing rather than hard impacts. But of course it took a lot of experimentation and a lot of recording. Josh Lord (our senior sound designer) and I amassed a collection of various blades and other sharp objects and applied them to myriad fruits and vegetables. There were some surprising results: digging into celery with the tip of a knife sounding like cutting through bone; a razor blade through an onion sounded like a gut being opened; a serrated bread knife created interesting zippered slicing tears.

Once we got all this source material together, we started experimenting with integration techniques, adapting a technique utilizing sound states in Wwise tied to our animations to trigger different impacts based on animation data. Towards the end of the project, we passed off our combat sounds to Mike Niederquell and Andres Herrera at Sony for some final polish and for them to work the magic they do. We ended up abandoning our state-based multi-impact approach and Mike and Andres made bespoke content largely from our recordings for many of the various impact types as the animations weren’t so excessive, and the state rigging introduced unnecessary complexity. Like most things in the game, this added layer of iteration and talent polished the sounds to a new level.

Here’s a short video of some of the props that sacrificed themselves for the greater combat good as well as how they ended up sounding in game: