ILLFONIC

MEET THE DEVELOPER – STEVE WHETMAN

Hi Steve! So, first things first; what’s your role here at IllFonic?

I’m the Audio Director and so I oversee all audio that goes into Illfonic projects. This includes the Music, Dialogue, Sound Design, and Foley.

What types of media have you done sound and music for?

I’ve worked as an Audio Director on games such as Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Arkham Origins, Dirty Bomb, The Invisible Hours, and a bunch of others.

Outside of games I’ve also worked on some films; I did all the weapon sound design and recording for Angel Has Fallen, provided some weapon recordings for the Brad Pitt film, War Machine. Probably the most emotionally challenging project I’ve worked on was 22nd July, the Paul Greengrass film on Netflix about the 2011 terrorist attacks on a youth camp in Norway. I recorded weapons and separately, the crowd sessions, for that and it was pretty intense subject matter. The team was great though.

How did you get into this? Doing sound design for games is a dream career for some people.

I started out writing music a long time ago, and after about 10 years, several albums and tours I decided to go after the thing that I really wanted to do which was sound for games. I spent a couple of years doing just enough music to keep me going while I trained myself in the basics of sound design. I had some great mentorship and motivation from friends. After about 2 years, I started joining small indie dev teams doing mods with Unreal, most of them disbanded or lost momentum, a couple got finished, I used that work to get my first paid gig at Rebellion on AvP 2010.  

While I was Head of Audio at Splash Damage I developed a great relationship with the sound team at Pinewood Studios. They provided foley for me on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and some other games after I left Splash. At the same time they had some movie sound design and recording work so I did some of that as a freelancer and then joined the team full time. I loved working with that team. We had a lot of fun projects.

When you create content for games, what’s your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Anything and everything. Though I try to avoid just using other games as inspiration. I don’t want my work to sound like other people’s; I want my work to sound unique. I do play a lot of games, but it would be lazy if I didn’t look outside of our field for inspiration.  Of course if you’re working in an existing franchise you have to define where you are going to be authentic and where you need to expand. For Predator: Hunting Grounds I’ve tried to be as authentic as possible.  

Inspiration usually comes from how I would want to feel as a player for any particular moment or event, that might mean wanting to have a really big grin as I hear the distant explosions of a grenade launcher rattle around the environment, or an almost overwhelming amount of bass from firing a gun, or the nervousness from the dense, humid, and relentless sounds of the jungle. So you could say my inspiration comes from emotion and feeling.

From there, the first thing I consider is how I want the player to feel about this “thing” in the game and what their attitude would, or should, be while using it or hearing it. This then gets broken up into elements that come together to support that aesthetic. At this point in my experience this happens subconsciously now so I don’t write it down or go through a whole big process here. One example is timing and rhythm: Having a more complex string of sounds for a gadget or a special weapon firing can be more satisfying or make you feel more powerful, a simple rhythm can sometimes feel more brutal/animalistic, or in other cases could make a weapon feel less potent. Other elements I consider when I’m making sounds are how the spectrum changes over time, and rather than thinking literally about what sound sources I want to use, I think in terms of what source has the spectral content or rhythm that I need.  An example of this would be if I wanted a gun to feel more technologically advanced. For this I might want to add something with high frequencies for an ‘energy’ layer and something metallic and solid to hint at an advanced method of manufacturing.  The high frequency layer might be from a squirrel or coyote call, because I know they both are quite high, the metallic layer might be sampled from a punch press if it’s a large weapon, or a trowel if it’s a small weapon.  So I think in terms of objects, layers, and frequencies that all go to support the aesthetic of the thing in the game.

Steve’s setup for a weapon recording session.

When you started your career path, who were your inspirations or mentors?

I grew up watching films like Alien, Aliens, Predator, Star Wars, Robocop, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Tron, Ghostbusters, Goonies, Space 2001, Indiana Jones, Nightmare on Elm Street. So all of those wonderful sounding films had a huge impact on me.  Games of the time were things like Defender, Joust, Doom, Bubble Bobble, Carrier Command, Streetfighter 1/2, TMNT, Gauntlet, playing those back then my imagination made them sound like the movies I was into.

What’s some sound design that’s really impressed you?

The Mandolorian has some really awesome sound. I really like the foley of that series. The Wind Rises has an absolutely breathtaking destruction sequence where the sound is done in a beautiful way. The recent Godzilla films have really good monster sounds. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has very nice jungle ambiences in. The recent Doom games have great weapons in.

Ever wonder why the Minigun in Predator: Hunting Grounds sounds so real and good? This, and the work of Steve’s team, is literally why.

What kind of tools do you use on a daily basis?

Pro Tools for editing and layering, Reaper for batch processing and any meta data work, Soundminer for searching sounds and quick pitch effects and edits before hitting Pro Tools. I have a bunch of plugins, but actually I don’t use them much unless a sound really calls for it. I generally work with EQ, pitch, time and layers. If I really have to bundle a whole load of plugins to get something to work, then it usually means the source wasn’t right, so fix that first.

Other tools include light saturation to overdrive stuff that needs to be more aggressive. I have an Eventide H3000 permanently hooked up to my SSL mixer so I can quickly run audio through that and print back to Pro Tools for things like flange, phase, and special pitch type effects.

I use spreadsheets a lot haha!

I have a bunch of hardware synths, samplers and drum machines I use as source too, like an Arp 2600, Juno 6, Nord Drum 3, ASR10, a couple of Evolvers, OP1, Matrixbrute and some other bits. I use tape from time to time, I usually bring a Nagra 4S ¼” tape recorder when I do weapons recordings, arguably the best stereo tape machine ever, recording guns to tape sounds awesome.

The Dutch tapes in Predator Hunting Ground are all done with tape rather than plugins. Arnold recorded them the same as his barks, so to make the older recordings sound of the era of the film, I ran them into the Nagra and then put a mic next to the internal speaker and recorded that back into Pro Tools, including all the ambience to fake the environment he was in. Later tapes, I imagined that Dutch had access to cassette recorders so I did the same thing but with a walkman, then finally a handheld digital recorder as mp3. Stuff like that takes way more time than doing it all with plugins, but I was really happy with the quality and when I listen to them now, I feel like it really supports the story of Dutch’s character.

We won't leave you hanging on what the Dutch Tapes setup looked like.

What was the coolest thing you’ve done professionally?

OOhh not sure, Dutch smoking stogies in the tapes is actually me, I smoked out my studio recording puffs on a massive cigar ahaha. Either that or the time I spent a week with the SAS training in the Brecon Beacons, I recorded all sorts of training exercises including Mortars, Grenades, GPMGs, and nine NLAW Anti Tank Missiles being fired. Think myself and my colleague on that trip might be the only people to have ever recorded an NLAW, they sounded amazing and I learned a lot from the SAS that week..

For the dialogue for The Division 2, I assembled and trained a crack team of 6 Voice Directors, and we expanded that in the end. We sent 3 to Pinewood Atlanta and had the rest at Pinewood UK. We gave the actors prop weapons so they could get into character. One day we really wanted to get the actors hyped up so myself, some of the voice directors and actors ran around Pinewood studios with prop AK47s and other guns, acting out a big shootout. Pretty stupid thing to do when you have Disney shooting Star Wars and Fast and Furious on the lot, but it was awesome fun and got the actors really hyped.

Here’s an NLAW. They make a big whoosh, then a big bang.

What is a really challenging part about your job?

Working on a live title, gotta be agile and be ready to test audio and listen to the game as often as possible. Sometimes things slip through but that happens with many games, I just try and catch them quickly and work with the team to patch them.

What’s your average day look like as an Audio Director?

I make a lot of content still. I’m given a lot of freedom to make stuff how I feel is best so my meetings are generally about scheduling, tasks and such, and that makes up a small part of my day really. I spend a lot of time discussing sound and tech issues with the rest of the audio team and I really enjoy it.

What are some previous projects you’ve worked on?

AvP 2010 was fun, I did all the cinematics for it, the motion tracker, a bunch of Predator sounds and a few other things. Other highlights include The Division 2 and Watch Dogs: Legion where I did weapons recording and voice direction.  Shadow of the Tomb Raider was also a really fun project where I oversaw the Dolby Atmos mix and did some casting and voice directing.

What’s been your favorite game to design for?

Coming back to the Predator Franchise after 10 years was amazing, being able to dig really deep and try and be as authentic as possible for it. Either that or The Invisible Hours, which was a completely unique experience that I got to do some really detailed, quiet, suspenseful and dramatic work on, I’d recommend checking it out as a very unique way of experiencing a story.

What’s been your favorite game to play?

Wipeout 2097, Street Fighter 2 and Goldeneye I played a LOT, but I’d have to give it to Halo 3. I clocked many thousands of games in Halo 3.

And what game are you playing right now?

New Super Mario Deluxe.

If you didn’t get into your current field, what would your alternate dream career be?

Writing music.

What game, and what platform, were your first gaming experiences on?

A Pong clone on some Atari 2600 type machine.

What are your quarantine hobbies?

Making Ramen, chopping down bamboo in my yard with a chainsaw, and Lego building.

What’s your favorite part about working here with the IllFonic Team?

It’s a very friendly and fun team, it’s very open in terms of communication and I have a lot of freedom to really get in-depth into things.