Inside the Vault: Mark Lampert

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Today’s Inside the Vault is with Mark Lampert, our sound engineer. Mark actually wrote a team diary on Elderscrolls.com about the sound effects and voice recordings for Oblivion – a great read. Another fun fact: Mark was our first mocap stunt man – in early Fallout builds, it was Mark’s walk and crouch that were in the game.

What’s your job at Bethesda?

I’m the sound engineer, and I handle all aspects of the sound design for Bethesda Game Studios. In addition I do the voice casting, recording and editing, plus any post processing such as voice effects, and I share in directing, typically with the lead designer of a project. There’s also a little bit of music work in terms of mastering our chosen composer’s tracks for the game, and sometimes I end up writing little bits and pieces of things here and there as needed.

What other games have you worked on?
The first two games I worked on were at Ion Storm, which was my first gig. I was hired as a contractor to take care of voice recording and editing for ‘Deus Ex: Invisible War’, the sequel to ‘Deus Ex’. That job was originally slated to run about four or five months, but it was extended and then extended again as more material was being written and significant changes were still being made, so that worked out well for me. Eventually a year had gone by and there was still plenty of work to do, so I was hired on ‘officially’.

The other two sound designers there at Ion gave me the chance to delve more into sound design here and there with Deus Ex 2, and those opportunities expanded again with ‘Thief: Deadly Shadows’. That was a lot of fun as the other sound designer and myself were getting to work remotely with Eric Brosius, the main sound man for the game.

After Thief, I started work on another project with Ion, but the studio closed down a few months later. Things then moved very quickly for me as I was here at Bethesda only a few weeks later to start work on ‘Oblivion’ … a project that had already been underway for years before my arrival. There was an enormous amount of sound work to do in a relatively short time, and voice casting needed to start right away as well.

Clearly things worked out in the end, though, and Oblivion has been the most rewarding project I’ve worked on to date. Shortly afterward came the ‘Knights of the Nine’ expansion/download, and then we went straight into the big expansion, ‘Shivering Isles’. Now we’re all well into ‘Fallout 3,’ which is steadily coming together and gets more exciting week after week. On the surface it looks similar to previous work that I’ve done: an absolutely massive game, chock full of voice acting. But each project is always different and comes with new and unexpected challenges. I’m always learning.

I’ve also helped out in various capacities on other games produced under the roof of Bethesda Softworks, doing a good bit of voice recording and editing, sound to picture, some sound design and things like this. There are simply a lot of things going on around here and there’s no shortage of work to be done.

What is the best part about working in audio? The worst part?

My absolute favorite part of sound design is that there really are no rules, only guidelines. It doesn’t matter what I do or how I do it in order to create the sound of a game, though there may be prescribed and logical steps to reach a goal in particular situations that would make sense to follow. In the end, if it sounds good then it is good, period. Whether you were able to stick a mic in front of something to record it and it sounded great from the first take, or whether you had to go to elaborate lengths — combining a difficult-to-acquire natural recording with a synth thing that was then heavily edited and mangled — well, great. Whichever one sounds good in the game is the right way to go.

The ‘no rules’ idea can also present problems, though, in that it’s nice to have a starting point once in a while. If I need the sound of footsteps on rickety metal, well, I can think of a few good ways off the top of my head to come up with something fairly quickly. But if it’s something completely otherwordly for which we have no real everyday reference in our world, then I end up spending a lot of time digging around in libraries, messing with synths (turn all of the knobs and see what comes out!), trying out various recordings and things like this, then churning out version after version of a sound until something sticks. It can be frustrating when you feel like you’re flying blind, but when you finally discover what you were after the whole time, it’s extremely satisfying. Then you work up an elaborate story about the precise methodology you used along the wonderfully well thought out path you took to make the sound, just in case someone ever asks you about it in a fancy interview.

Another aspect to my job that really makes it special is that I end up working with just about every other discipline here in our studio. I get to talk at length with designers, all of the artists and animators, producers, folks from the QA team, many of the coders (our audio coder in particular, of course), and even the PR department when it comes time for sound to picture for a trailer that our video man has put together. I enjoy getting to see what everyone works on and learning a little bit about their job and what they specialize in.

What was the most challenging sound effect you had to create for Oblivion?
The most challenging sound was either the sound of taking a Sigil Stone from its tower, or the various sounds that were made for the big fight between Mehrunes Dagon and Akatosh at the end of the game (for those who haven’t finished the game, the whole thing about Dagon-is-really-Akatosh’s-father is just a red herring. Turns out it’s the reverse). The tricky thing about both of them was that there sort of wasn’t anywhere else to go, volume-wise. I’d set up the ambient environment of those areas to be fairly loud, then you’ve got handfuls of assorted bad things running about, attacking the player, yelling and generally making a lot of noise, something over here is on fire, lightning bolts are being shot at you, and somehow these big climactic sounds are supposed to stand out.

So both cases were made to work by using a silly little volume trick that you’ll often hear used in film such as when some poor sap gets punched in slow motion. Right before the big bang, the big send off or whatever it is, they’ll slowly drop the volume down for a moment, then ram it back up again very quickly. That way you’re given some sort of contrast that would otherwise be missing. I do this in the part where Dagon punches Akatosh in the chest in order to make the punch stand out a bit better.

With the Sigil Stone I just used outright silence. The sound builds and builds and then I just cut it off for a brief moment, then it all blasts out at once as the tower begins to come apart. Another thing I had fun with in putting that sound together was the low roar that you hear as the flame shoots out of the tower and brings the whole place down around you. It’s just me doing my best death metal vocal impression, then pitching it down a bit, adding a great deal of bass, then leaving it low enough in the mix so as not to stand out too much.

The designers sort of saved me with this sound as well in how the Sigil Stone/tower idea worked. The whole tower is being torn apart around you, and I was thinking about just how I was going to accomplish anything more dramatic than what was already taking place. But thankfully the design called for you to be teleported back to Cyrodiil at the moment of the tower’s destruction. So just as everything reaches a climax and the whole place floods with flame, you’re whisked away, and there’s this amazing contrast. My absolute favorite is when you’re teleported back to Cyrodiil and arrive at night or when it’s raining outside. It feels like a complete relief to be back in this very gentle, seemingly delicate environment, almost silent in comparison. You save your game, go fix a sandwich, then sit down and keep right on playing.

There are over 37,000 lines of spoken dialogue in Oblivion. Discuss.

Yes, it would seem that our designers know no bounds when it comes to writing for our games. Also, consider this: at one point in development, there was almost twice that much! A figure was calculated and we knew that we could never fit that much into the game, so they all worked hard to hone it all down and still have it turn out so wonderfully.

As far as how we managed to get that many lines of finished dialogue into the game, all I can say is that no man is an island. People spent a lot of time here playing the game and testing out the dialogue in the game, and that saved a lot of trouble during recording in that there weren’t too many things to change that couldn’t wait until the shorter ‘pick up’ sessions which would follow later on. We also recorded in two studios at the same time, with me directing in one and another designer directing in another. That way we could record the voice actors more quickly, and then turn the raw recordings over to two or three editors so that we could get everything turned around and into the game in a timely manner. I edited a bunch of it nonetheless as I always have little picky changes that I want to make, plus listening through each and every file toward the end for the sake of quality control, plus post effects, plus doing the same for localized versions … but it all got done in the end at the hands of many.

I think the most critical aspect of handling enormous amounts of recorded dialogue in a game is to be ridiculously organized from start to finish. The writers have to follow certain agreed upon guidelines in order to make the dialogue work in the game, and when the massive raw script is first exported, all of that data is more or less what I start with as I format and further organize it all into something usable in the studio … something that I usually spend a full day or two doing. I need it to be easily readable and as easy to understand as possible for the voice actors, and I also need a lot of extra data for each line to direct from. Somehow that all has to get crammed into each page for each line, and everyone’s copy of the script needs to match exactly to avoid confusion which might otherwise snowball into a larger problem. It should be easy for the editor to make sense of even if it’s a matter of weeks before they start, and it all has to make sense in the months that follow when the odd dialogue bug is popping up in the game here and there. When a problem comes up because some guard’s line which is supposed to be, “Hey, you!” is actually playing as, “Hey, stop!”, I need to be able to search that line and quickly figure out what’s going on, why the wrong line or take is playing and where the correct one is hiding.

Having actual paper copies of the script to work from is a big help, too, even if it does mean a pricey visit to a local printing store. It saves everyone’s eyes, you can make notes directly on the page, the designers can write in their line changes as we adjust dialogue on the fly during the session, it’s great to edit from, etc. In the end it’s worth having. You also get to keep a full copy on your shelf to show off, too. “Those five three-inch binders completely packed full of paper? Yeah, we recorded all of that. And at one time it would have been almost twice as much!”

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?

My own foot in the door started with a tip from a professor of mine back in school. There were a few of us who were gamers and particularly computer-saavy, so he was putting out the word that a local game studio, Ion Storm, was looking around for a contractor to do some voice recording and editing. As it turned out, one of the sound designers at Ion was also a graduate in the same major as myself, so I started by applying for the job and also contacting him. A good three or four months passed before the job materialized, though, and I just kept trying to stay in touch with this guy all during that time as I looked around for other first jobs. There were a few potential spots, but I felt like this one was going to be the best, and it was what I really wanted to do, so I held out for it. Luckily my persistence paid off as I got a surprise phone call one evening asking if I could come in the next morning. Ion Storm was in Austin, Texas, and I was a few hours away at my parents’ place in northeast Houston, so I grabbed a few things and hit the road, phoning a friend there in Austin during the drive to see about sleeping on his couch that night. The job was offered to me only a few days after returning home, and it was probably one of the biggest feelings of relief I can remember, because at that point I was letting other opportunities pass by in hopes of landing the Ion gig.

Getting a job in game audio with a studio can be tricky in that even studios large enough to have their own in-house audio department isn’t going to be employing that many audio engineers, so open seats don’t come available very often. But what will happen is that they might need help offloading tasks during crunch time (this was the case when I got my first job … remember it was originally intended to be only a few months in duration), and that could be your chance. Check their webpages, check the job listings at www.gamasutra.com, send resumes, call, and always, always follow up a couple of weeks afterward. The people you’re trying to get a job with are always busy, so you have to find a polite way to keep your name on the table without being annoying.

Some of the other folks here have mentioned this as well, but it bears repeating. Getting a job in Quality Assurance is a very good way to not only get a job in the game industry, but to get up close and learn more about the other disciplines here, including audio. I’ve now seen quite a few QA guys here move into design, art and production. QA is serious work, and it can serve as a nice proving ground.

When you are looking around and applying with a company, make sure to get any demo material you have up on a webpage where a potential employer can access it easily. Finding job openings at a company directly through their own website is very common (which is how I found out about Bethesda hiring a sound engineer, in fact), and some will even ask for a web address to a demo reel. Otherwise include your material via attachment or with a mailed in resume.

But keep it simple and straight to the point. I personally recommend skipping animated intros or anything that would make a prospective employer wait in any way before hearing your work. There are some good examples of this with some artists’ webpages on the internet, in fact. They put their best right there on the front page, the rest in thumbnails if you want to see more, and their resume link and contact info is right there in your face as well, easy to spot and easy to read. And if you’re just starting out and don’t yet have any game industry credits to your name, get creative and just make up a soundscape for an imaginary game, or even capture a length of video from an existing game and redo the sound from top to bottom. Provide individual examples of sounds used in the demo as well in case. Some studios will even send you a video test to create sound for. Include the individual sounds in case they wish to listen to them out of their context.

What are your audio tools of choice, hardware and software?

My absolute workhorse is Nuendo, made by Steinberg (at the time of this writing, version 4.0 is about to be released … oh, yes). It’s a very powerful post-production software package, and I spend the majority of my time working with this program for sound design, as well as voice recording and editing. I also use Sony’s Sound Forge for quick and simple edits and sometimes batch processing, and I’ve got a nice suite of plugins from WAVES and Native Instruments which give me all of the professional processing and mastering power I need, along with all of the endless combinations of sounds that softsynths and samplers can provide.

Other hardware includes an RME Fireface 800 interface, Edirol MIDI controller, Mackie 12-channel mixer, Big Knob monitor system, a stereo outboard EQ, and Mackie HR-824 monitors.

Our voice recording setup involves an AKG C414-B-XLII mic feeding a T.C. Electronic Gold Channel mic preamp, running into the RME interface mentioned above. The rest of the processing done to the voice signal is done via the WAVES plugins.

I’ve also got a very nice field recording setup here that centers around the Sound Devices 702T field recorder. Primary mics used in my field recordings are an AudioTechnica AT822 stereo mic and AT835b shotgun, plus the usual accessories like a boom pole and zeppelin wind screen.

Any favorite voice talent you’ve worked with?

There were a bunch from Austin during Deus Ex 2, a bunch up in Boston who I didn’t get to work with directly but had fun editing for Thief 3, and there have been plenty here at Bethesda. Each project means finding more new voices that you know you’ll want to call on again in the future, and also learning about new abilities from your known favorites with whom you’ve previously worked.

One of the best of the best around here is Wes Johnson. He sounds great on the mic and he’s just a lot of fun to work with, so I always look forward to those sessions. This is also true even when I’m not entirely sure about the voice of a character, yet. If I think that it’s something Wes will be able to handle, we can discuss the character and work out the vocal delivery once he’s here. Craig Sechler and Jonathan Bryce are also regulars on our projects around here. All three of those guys have a real knack for sculpting the lines as they see fit, injecting subtle nuance and insinuation … that really organic feel that makes a character or line particularly memorable.

Catherine Flye was another favorite from Oblivion. She really got into the dialogue and characters and had fun with it. She’s very polite and professional, too. Yet when she’s reading for a very assertive character she sounds downright commanding. It makes you sort of straight up in your seat, like you’d better pay attention. That’s fantastic.

I think professionals who’ve really honed their art often operate that way. They don’t flaunt or advertise it when speaking casually, but when it’s time to work, they really let you have it, and it’s almost intimidating if you’re not used to that, and often even when you are.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all-time?
I could name a few with which I’ve logged a particularly high number of hours. Civilization is a big one on my list, though I don’t know that I’ll ever play it as much as I did the original, simply because I was the right age at the time and got into it with a friend of mine. We’d go to his house several days a week after school and play for a few hours, with one of us playing the game and the other acting as advisor, then trading off.

Another big one was ‘Darklands’, from Microprose. That was probably one of the first RPG-inspired games I’ve played, so it sort of opened the door to others. I have fond memories of when I stumbled onto this big path of the game almost by accident, though I later figured out that it was sort of the main quest line. The same thing happened in Fallout, actually. I sort of wandered into the military base by accident and managed to escape off on my own, and I didn’t realize that was possible. I just figured I was going to hear a big monologue by my captor and then be killed, but I made a break for it and had a lot of fun exploring the whole base and ultimately figuring out what it was I needed to do. That was a huge moment for me in that game when I realized the kind of choice I had.

I also always loved flight sims, and ‘F-19 Stealth Fighter’, also from Microprose, was probably the one I played the most. In that game you would start a campaign by entering in a new pilot name for yourself, and you’d slowly make your way up the ranks as you completed missions. If you were killed, that data was then updated to your record and that pilot was done for. So I would keep a hand near the power switch of the computer in case things went south during the mission. Landing with damaged landing gear was risky, for example, so if I touched down and the plane exploded, I’d immediately shut off the computer before my pilot record could be updated. It was like my own ‘eject from reality’ button.

I thought the Syndicate series was also a blast, with the first still being my favorite. I’ve always held out hope that it’ll be picked up by some studio one day, though in a way ‘Crackdown’ was exactly that. What a fantastic game.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Outside of work I like to do a lot of reading. I park myself at one of several favorite coffee shops around DC and just read for hours … books from the library, the newspaper, something I’m interested in learning more about, whatever. I’ve been studying German on my own for a few years now, so that’s often a big part of my reading time. I get a big pot of tea and just read for hours. It’s cheap, and there are no software updates, no driver conflicts, nothing to plug in.

A good friend of mine got me interested in amateur radio about a year ago, so I studied up and got my license not long after (callsign: KB3OKS, in case there are any other hams out there). It’s a good excuse to learn more about electronics which I’d been wanting to do for a while, and I’ve built a few radio-related gadgets so far, some successful right off the bat, some not and requiring more tinkering. But that’s sort of the point in calling it ‘amateur’ radio, I suppose, as you’re doing it to learn on your own.

I’ve played guitar since I was about nine or so, and in college I started playing classical guitar in the guitar studio there, playing solo and in ensembles. While I’ve always kept playing, I recently started working on getting my music sight-reading skills back, and they’ve been returning in a hurry with practice.

I work out the gym, I go running, hiking and anything else that gets me outside and in the sun. My family did a lot of camping when I was younger, so I’ve always really liked the outdoors and being away far from our everyday technology.

Pitch your dream game.

Some sort of dramatic mystery that takes place in a very limited space, like all in a single house or small building. Instead of a massive game with tons of characters, you’re somehow confined to that building with whichever characters are there, and all of the development team’s energy goes into the writing and quality of the game. Extreme detail in both visuals and audio. There is no rocket launcher, no flamethrower … maybe there’s only a single handgun, because in the real world such as where you live or work, the presence of a handgun would be a pretty big deal (hopefully), and I’d like to see a game where that’s the case rather than a typical shooter where you end up running around with an invisible ox cart full of military hardware.

So lots of dialogue playing back through some sort of really slick system that allows the player to question and respond in just about any way, causing any number of seemlingly limitless reactions. A very small, very detailed sandbox with a puzzle-like goal to solve.

And now you can see why I’m not a game designer, because this game would only sell a single copy.

Reader Comments

  1. Once again a great interview, let it be no secret that we enjoy these.

    What about Jeff Baker? He did the Morrowind Dunmers right? Is there any chance he might return for a future Elder Scrolls game?

  2. Make that 4. Almost reminds me of the very old game ‘7th Guest’. It’d be nice to have more games not solely based on combat, more along the lines of Myst and how you describe it. Character development, the kind that books themselves get.

  3. Aside from a lack of detailed character interaction limited by the space available at the time, your “sandbox” game resembles “7th Guest” and its sequel “11th Hour”. They sold slightly more than one copy so don’t give up on being a game designer just yet. :)

  4. Great read :) Thanks to Lampert for this very extensive insight into his mind :)

    As for his dreamgame, it sound a lot like Condemned or the Lovecraft game Bethesda published or even Manhunt. In all games you need to claw, kick, etc. your way out of some confined space using what’s at hand. And I don’t guns, revolvers or pistols are easy to find.

    And it does sound a like the 7th Guest and the 11th hour, too. While they sold more than 1 copy, I doubt if these games sould be made to today with its focus on getting the investment money back as far as possible.

    So make it 5 copies, mr. Lampert :)

    Again, thank you for sharing your thoughs with us…

    /Karsten

  5. Six, though that game would require so much work: every small mistake will show. Maybe allow the player a bit of a bigger world, paralyzing them a little with the scale, but drawing them in with the story. Make endings hader to get if you spontaneously kill people,and lots of clever dialogue, I love the idea of one gun…

    I should make this game!

  6. Love ya’, sound guy. Get this – I did some foley work in regards to a couple of older games such as the “Tachyon: The Fringe” if you’ve ever heard of it. Keep up the good work, ’cause the Fallout 3 sounds are freakin’ great.