Inside the Vault: Obsidian’s Scott Lawlor

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Hear that? It’s the sound of another Inside the Vault. This week we meet Scott Lawlor, Audio Director for Fallout: New Vegas at Obsidian Entertainment.

What’s your job at Obsidian?

I am the Audio Director at Obsidian Entertainment and I am in charge of the audio for all projects here at the company. This means that anything you hear in any Obsidian game – from music, to sound effects to dialogue comes through me at some point.

Can you give us a broad sense of what goes into the design of a New Vegas sound effect? How much original recording have you done?

We have done a ton of original recording for New Vegas. Some sounds end up being relatively easy to replicate. For example, the sounds of boxes and bottles bouncing on the ground are somewhat simple. We just search for an object that sounds like we want and throw it around in our recording studio for a while. Those recordings get edited into usable sound effects and pretty much go straight into the game.

On the other hand, some sounds are significantly more complex to recreate. Even something as simple as a footstep can be quite a process. We really wanted the footsteps on wood to have a very particular quality to them. They needed to be solid and strong, yet gritty and decayed at the same time. In order to achieve this we went to some pretty ridiculous lengths. We have brought in multiple types of wood and boards into the studio but it still felt like something was missing.

The final sound effect is actually a mix of a number of different wood footsteps. One is from a broken down wooden trailer from trip we all took to Paramount Ranch, an old movie set were they used to film westerns. Another layer of the sound comes from a ghost town called Panamint City on the edge of Death Valley National Park. After a six mile climb up waterfalls and rocky paths we came to the city and found a number of old cabins with decaying wood floors that had the perfect sound quality that we were looking for.

It may seem like a lot of work for a footstep but it all pays off when it is for a sound you hear thousands and thousands of times as you play the game.

What’s the coolest sound in the game right now?

I am a fan of subtlety so some of my favorite sounds in the game are all the small details in the ambiance as you walk around the wasteland — from the sounds of animals and bugs in the brush, to creaking electrical towers and distant screams and groans. These sounds all seamlessly blend with the music to create a very creepy and dynamic experience.

How involved are you in the music of New Vegas?

We have made a number of changes and improvements to how we approach music in this game. We want the music to flow freely and guide the experience for the player. Music in this game is tied to locations and is reactive to how the people in the locations feel about you. For example, in the first town in the game, the exploration music has a gentile, rustic feel. As you enter and leave the town you can hear layers of instruments beings added or removed from the soundscape. It even morphs the instruments subtly as it turns from day to night. However, if you decide to start shooting all of the innocent townsfolk, the music changes and becomes dark and disturbing and also seamlessly morphs into battle variations of the music.

The goal of the music in Fallout New Vegas is to score the experience that the player is having. If you are playing as a morally corrupt character, the music should reflect that with a dark, menacing score. If you ally with certain factions over others, the music in their camps and locations will reflect their attitudes toward you. As I had said before, I am a fan of the small details in sound and these changes in music should deeply affect the experience for the players without them ever even realizing it.

How did you get involved in the game industry?

It’s kind of an odd story, but to a certain degree I owe my place in this industry to a lost package. When I was finishing my degree in Audio Production at the University of Colorado at Denver, I applied for an internship with EA. After applying and getting the contact information for the University Relations Manager, Kriste Stull, I sent out my demo reel and resume as an overnight package.

That package ended up getting lost in the mailroom for a week or so. I have always been a rather persistent individual and I hounded her to get her to track it down. Little did I know, at the same time, the other primary candidate for the position decided to decline their offer just as Kriste managed to find my package. It was the perfect timing. She took it up and dropped it directly on the Audio Director’s desk on top of the other 200 or so applications. Not a bad turn of events.

Do you have any tips for breaking in?

As you can tell from my previous answer, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of luck. But never forget, luck won’t get you anywhere on its own. If I had just submitted an average resume for the position, I would have never gotten the job. Make yourself stand out. My demo reel was a handmade, custom booklet filled with pictures, music, sound effects and video all of the highest possible quality. Attention to detail is key. When an employer looks at your demo reel or resume, it is all they have to go on to form their impression of you. If the package looks lazy or simple, that will be what they think of you.

A little luck never hurts when it comes to opening up the doors of opportunity. The trick is to make sure that when that door is open, you have something really special to show them.

What’s your all-time favorite sound effect?

Hmmm, I don’t think I can do just one. Off the top of my head…

Matrix — Falling into the rabbit hole, Jurrasic Park — T-Rex roar, Mario — jump, Dead Space — the whole game, Star Wars — “ The Pod Race, The new Star Trek — “ The insanely long, explosion at the end (just cause it never seems to end).

Least favorite sound?

Feedback from a microphone — I used to do a lot of live sound at concert theaters in Colorado and nothing is worse than out of control feedback as an entire audience looks back at the sound guy in disgust.

Which Fallout effect do you think is the most iconic?

There is no doubt about it, VATS. That sound has been with the series since the beginning. In FNV we want to remain true to that sound but at the same time we want to “kick it up a notch.”

Are you a fan of the infamous Wilhelm scream? Ever used it?

Sort of, back at a previous company, a couple of the sound designers decided they wanted to use the sound in the game. However, they didn’t want to get in trouble for using the sound illegally so they decided to record themselves doing their best impersonation of the scream. I’m not ever sure if it ever ended up in the final production but I still have the final edited file of one of my friends doing the Wilhelm scream over and over set to the background score of a children’s sing along. It’s pretty classic.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A lot! While working in the games industry does take up a lot of time, I try to do even more on my time off. I think I packed more adventure into the last couple of years than I had in the previous ten.

This was my 2009:

Ocean Kayaking, Paragliding, Bonfires at Dockweiler Beach, Scuba Certification, Colorado Ski Trips, Black Rock Canyon Canoe Trips (the same river in Fallout New Vegas), GDC in SF, Coachella, Advanced Scuba Certifications, Vegas Trip with a Sky Villa at the Palms, Burning Man Evolution, Backpacking in Honduras, Ensenada Mexico Camping, Desert Recording Session, Weapon Shoot in Piru, Thanksgiving Magic Show, Christmas in Chicago and finally, an amazing New Years at Leo Carrillo.

I loved every second and almost all of it is recorded.

Reader Comments

  1. [The goal of the music in Fallout New Vegas is to score the experience that the player is having. If you are playing as a morally corrupt character, the music should reflect that with a dark, menacing score. If you ally with certain factions over others, the music in their camps and locations will reflect their attitudes toward you. As I had said before, I am a fan of the small details in sound and these changes in music should deeply affect the experience for the players without them ever even realizing it. ]

    Wow this is stunning to hear uh i mean read :D Music that is based on ones character type. Truly revolutionary and the replay value it can add staggers the imagination.

    Thanks for the fantastic read and all the hard beyond knowing work you guys are doing. I noticed the other day in MORROWIND and OBLIVION how its the subtle things like the smooth changing of the intro screen to the still screen and how sounds play that really make a difference. I recently put on another intro screen which all it did was blink into a still intro screen which lacked complete harmony in the transition which made me appreciate how even something as a intro screen and the sounds to it etc make a big difference to creating a magical natural mood.

    By the way nice pic. Makes Scott Lawlor look all sci-fi futuristic or working some Elder Scrolls magical artifact in the Sumerset Isles.

  2. Well, according to Wikimedia, the Wilhelm Scream is in the public domain. Is it too late for it to make an appearance in FNV? We should be told…

    Excellent article, by the by!

  3. Hi Scott: I’m hoping when you arrive in OR for your short vacation that you will bring some of your sound effects along with you. I know the family is very interested in your career and achievements. Looking forward to visiting with you this summer.