Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
[ Game ]
Creating a Natural World During a Pandemic
I was brought into UsTwo Games to help with the audio for Alba back in October 2019. My task was to bring the idyllic island to life through the sound design as well as overseeing and mixing the music for the game. It's an absolute gem of a game - the perfect project to be working on during a global pandemic and a great antidote to lockdown!
A lot of time was spent fine-tuning the ambiences and sounds of nature in Alba as I wanted the island to feel alive, natural and peaceful to really elicit that sense of being on a summer holiday. Since the game's all about the wildlife I was keen from the start to ensure that there were no additional animals buried in the ambiences - most recordings had some birds dotted around them so I spent some time scrubbing them out from any source material I wanted to use with iZotope RX. To try and keep things simple from a development standpoint we used a system of audio 'biomes' spread around the map - forests, beaches, town, mountain, terraces, etc.
We used a system of two splines for the ocean - one for the shoreline for little nice splashy waves that you hear when you're right next to the shoreline and another for big ocean waves further out to sea so that you get that lovely low roar. I really wanted to make sure that the sea was really 'present' in the game and having two sets of splines meant that I could have individual attenuations and panning settings for both. The shoreline has quite a low attenuation and very obvious panning so that you can really hear it directionally to the side of you if you're running along the beach. At the same time, the Ocean Wave spline is audible from quite a long way away and is panned so that when you're by the shoreline the ocean sounds are all around you but when you're further away it's more directional.
A personal audio bugbear of mine is when sounds in games are panned with no 'spread', so that a sound directly to the left of you is sent to ONLY the left ear. Personally I find that this breaks immersion so I was keen to make sure that the natural world sounded as 'realistic' as possible, part of the reason why I wanted two shoreline splines. If it weren't for pesky things like "being able to run the game at a reasonable framerate" I wouldn't have objected to more!
Back at the start of 2020 I'd been working on Alba for a couple of months getting set up & familiar with the project. I had big dreams about buying a lovely new recording rig and a parabolic mic (essential for recording birds & wildlife) and jetting over to Spain in April or May for a few weeks to record authentic ambiences, birds, wildlife and anything else I could find... but all of that was brought to an abrupt halt in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit.
We all had to adapt to the new global situation and figuring out how to keep the project on track whilst working remotely was a big part of that. Rather than capturing authentic source material I had to rely on library samples. I spent a lot of time scouring audio libraries and sample websites for clean recordings of the 60-70 animals featured within Alba, which proved to be a challenge. Finding a perfect recording of a bird-type without too much background noise or other birds chirping over the top of it was incredibly rare and a LOT of clean-up work had to be done (mostly with iZotope RX) to salvage tweets and calls.
I pursued a few experimental routes as well - some worked, some didn't! One of the failures involved slowing a bird call down, mimicking it with my voice and then speeding it back up again to the correct pitch. If the calls were being bedded into a background ambience this would have worked fine but because you can play the individual bird calls back with Alba's Guidebook (and thus with a reasonable amount of scrutiny) the faked human bird calls just didn't stand up to the real deal. I also bought a bunch of bird callers (they're a bit like a kazoo but they only make a specific duck / bird sound) and some of these made it into the game, though occasionally they had to be helped out or layered with other birds as well.
From the conception of the game David Fernández Huerta had his heart set on bringing in Lorena Alvarez, a Spanish singer/songwriter, to help create the soundtrack for Alba and luckily we managed to make that happen! Lorena's original music adds a level of authenticity and originality to the game that really helps to bring it to life.
I had the great pleasure of working very closely with Lorena. It was her very first game project and the pandemic had just kicked in, so we had quite a few Zoom calls to figure out how to make it work. As she didn't know her way around Unity I screen-recorded all of the key gameplay moments so that she had something to work to. She recorded everything in her flat straight into Reaper and then I'd take those music stems, mix them and implement them into the project using Wwise. I ended up mixing the OST as well, which was a lot of fun!
Towards the end of development we spent a few long sessions playing the whole main story from start to finish, trying to spot places that needed a little extra emotional music push or areas where it might be better to strip things back a bit. We were keen to have plenty of space to let the environmental ambiences 'breath' so it was a conscious decision to keep the majority of the music related to the quest events.
I don't have a background in coding so I'm reliant on benevolent programmers to help me realise my audio dreams and I couldn't do a write-up about the audio work on this project without mentioning the wonderful Kirsty Keatch, who provided some incredible code (and moral) support throughout the entire process.
Kirsty helped to hook up Wwise events and set up audio systems and splines that made creating the biomes and environmental audio possible, as well as developing some incredibly handy tools. One tool in particular allowed me to spawn any animal and get them to play any of their animations with only a couple of clicks, meaning I could quickly iterate and check all of the animal audio through very quickly. Towards the end of a project when the deadline is looming handy tools like this are indispensable.
The UsTwo team were all fantastic to work with and I couldn't have hoped to go through a global pandemic with a better bunch of people!