Audio design is an underrated part of a video game's soundscape, though you almost definitely have appreciated a particularly good noise at some point in your gaming career — whether it's the creak of a Resident Evil door or the sound of Sonic collecting a ring, audio design helps create the right mood for a game.
Our Nintendo Life Video Game Music Festival has largely focused on music so far, which makes sense — it's in the name — but we wanted to show our love and appreciation for the world of audio, too, which is intertwined with music in many ways.
With that in mind, we spoke to Kevin Regamey, Creative Director on the award-winning Vancouver-based game audio design team, Power Up Audio. Alongside four other talented sound designers — Craig Barnes, Jeff Tangsoc, Cole Verderber, and Joey Godard — Kevin has made noises and music for a huge variety of games, with credits including Celeste, Cadence of Hyrule, Darkest Dungeon, Super Meat Boy Forever, Subnautica: Below Zero, and Towerfall.
Read on to find out all of Kevin's secrets and favourite noises in games, how to make audio for monsters, and what it's like to create sounds from scratch...
Nintendo Life: How did you get into audio design?
Kevin Regamey: I trained in music my whole life (piano/trumpet), and after high school I thought I might get in to film scoring. I studied music composition at Grant MacEwan in Edmonton, followed by a course in Audio Engineering in Vancouver, which led to my realizing how awesome audio design was - it was all about bringing visuals to life through sound, and I could still use plenty of the knowledge I’d acquired throughout my musical training.
During my studies in audio engineering, I called up a game audio studio and notified them I’d be finished school in 6 months. Then I emailed them again at 3 months, then 2 months, then 1 month, and then I called them at 2 weeks out. I got an interview, which led to a short internship, which resulted in getting hired on for about 3 years. Presently, my co-founder Jeff Tangsoc and I will soon be entering the 10th year of our own studio, Power Up Audio.
Where do you usually begin when creating a game's soundscape?
The nature of the project itself can help to determine a general neighbourhood for how the sound should feel - sweet or dissonant, cozy or jarring, etc. - and these adjectives can serve to inform how I would approach any given sound the game might need.
But really, this is a question about Audio Direction, which is informed by a project’s overall Creative Direction. Just as the creative direction serves to define the creative boundaries within which the project should reside, the audio direction follows suit. And given that the entire role of sound design is to support and drive the narrative forward, we need to ensure that the choices we’re making are serving that purpose. Is the project gritty and realistic? Is it old-school and 8-bit? Is it a colourful comedy adventure? Is it a frightening horror story? And, if it IS a frightening horror story, how frightening exactly? Are we talking "Nightmare on Elm Street", or are we talking "Scooby Doo"? References like these can help keep everyone on the same page, and ensure that creative decisions across the project feel cohesive.
What do you love about your job?
I love the challenge of building out a world and supporting a story with a light touch - impacting players emotionally, and informing their decisions, ideally without them even realizing that it’s happening. If one of our studio’s projects receives a review score of 10/10, and sound isn’t mentioned a single time...we know we’ve done our job.
What inspires you — whether it's a person, a team, a particular movie or game, or just the natural world with all its weird noises?
There are a lot of incredibly talented folks in the games space. Joonas Turner (Nuclear Throne, Noita, Downwell, Tormentor X Punisher, Scourgebringer…) is a guy who repeatedly blows me away with his hard-hitting sound design and music.
The team at Sweet Justice is an industry leader (SOMA, Cuphead, The Ascent, tons of AAA support…), the team at Wabi Sabi is another great one (The Witness, Ori and the Blind Forest…). Also Darren Korb of Hades, Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion… Honestly there’s just way too much talent out there to name.
You work with a team at Power Up Audio — you must all have your strengths. What would you say is yours?
Sure, that’s very true. For me, I’m probably the details guy. I love digging in to all the minutiae, all the arguably unnecessary stuff that really makes a game special. That said, I’m lucky to have a co-founder and team who pushes me to deal with the broad strokes too - otherwise I'd never get anything done.
What's your favourite thing in games to make sounds for (i.e. swords, dialogue, laser guns)?
Tough one! …but probably doors. There’s so much creative freedom when it comes to designing the sound for a well-crafted Door Open animation.
I also love the narrative implications of opening a door. Often times a player has been adventuring for the past hour, trying to find a way to open this door, and in that case, the moment it opens is often a reward in of itself - and a precursor to something new and exciting! What’s through this door? We don’t know yet, but it’s probably awesome because that sound was crazy!
I know I mentioned above how I enjoy a light touch with sound design, but if ever there was a time for sound to be the hero, it’s when you open a door.
What's a recent example of a game's audio design that blew you away? (Bonus points if it's on Switch!)
Scourgebringer is a triumph. As I mentioned above, Joonas Turner is a master when it comes to hard-hitting game audio, and Scourgebringer is no exception. The peaks and valleys in the sound and music are one-to-one with the pacing of the gameplay - a continual tradeoff between tense adventuring and white-knuckle combat.
On the other side of the spectrum, A Monster’s Expedition is a masterclass in zen. You spend so much time sitting and staring at the puzzle in front of you…and when you do interact with the environment, the audio feedback is incredibly soothing and rewarding. The way the sound and music keep perfect pace with your thought process and actions is really something special.
How much of your process is messing around with dials and seeing what works, and how much of it is knowing EXACTLY what to do to create the sound effect you want?
There’s plenty of both.
It’s rare that I’m going in completely blind, but there’s definitely a lot of experimentation within a given creative neighbourhood. Often times something weird and unforeseen comes out, and then I’ll find a way to use that cool weird sound in the game - even if it isn’t used for what I was originally working on.
Other times, yes, I’ve got a very clear destination, and it’s just a matter of doing the work needed to get there.
How much of your process is walking around the house making weird sounds?
The weird sounds I’m making are often with my mouth, as I try to conceptualize what a given sound effect should sound like. I’d demonstrate, but I’m not sure it would translate in text…
But yes! I certainly record stuff around the house if need be. Often times it’s when I need something a little bit specific that isn’t in my existing library of sounds, or when I need a wide set of variations for that given sound. The player movement (the foley) in Celeste is a good example here - almost every walkable/grabbable surface in the game has its own suite of sound effects, so that meant plenty of banging stuff together and recording the results.
One of my favourite audio design secrets is that C418 recorded his weird-sounding cat for the Ghasts in Minecraft. What's your personal favourite sound secret that you've made?
In the Farewell DLC chapter for Celeste, the seemingly stock “applause.wav” sound effect at the end of the “Wavedashing And You” presentation was actually recorded at the speedrunning charity marathon, Summer Games Done Quick 2019 - specifically, at the moment we hit $3 Million raised for Doctors Without Borders.
It seemed appropriate source material, given the speedrunning techniques being taught in the presentation itself!
How on earth do you go about making noises for made-up monsters?
Monster vocalizations are TOUGH - probably one of the things I struggle with the most, honestly!
The process itself is generally a lot of experimentation with what kinds of sounds you can make with your mouth, and then further experimenting with how you can process those sounds to make them sound less human. Additionally, you can layer in recordings of real-world animals like sea lions or alligators, or you can even try pulling in recordings of inanimate things like zippers, balloon squeaks, or door creaks.
In the end, the goal is to provide character to the creature you’re designing, so anything dynamic enough to achieve a “personality” is probably worth exploring.
If you could eat one other audio designer to gain their powers, who would it be?
Honestly, hate to bring him up yet again, but Joonas Turner. There’s a certain controlled chaos to his work that I really admire. I think if you were to list all of my weaknesses, you might be looking at a list of his strengths. Haha!
And finally: how do you explain your job to people older than 60?
"Making a game is like building a house. You’ve got all the sub-trades with their respective responsibilities - the framing, drywall, plumbing, electric. Our studio handles the audio part of the game. We create the sound effects, write the music, record the voice actors, and help put all that stuff in the game so it sounds right."
If they have follow-up questions, I always just relate it back to building a house. While some people might not fully understand, “The door animation needs to be done before I can design the sound of it”, they can certainly understand, “The drywall needs to be up before we can paint it”.
Thank you so much to Kevin for answering these questions (right after coming back from vacation!) and for the wonderful noises you've provided us with in the ten billion games you and the Power Up Audio team have worked on.
If you want to find out more about Kevin and the work he does with Power Up Audio, he has a Twitter page where he posts lots of interesting tidbits, a personal Twitch page where he streams speedruns, and the official Power Up Audio Twitch page, where he does a weekly show called "Reel Talk", checking out people's game audio portfolios (you can catch the VODs on their YouTube channel). What a sweetheart!
Make sure to check out our other VGMFest features, interviews, and more, including a chat with Lena Raine, a composer that Kevin has worked with, and with Darren Korb, a sound designer (and composer) that Kevin mentions above!