"Hi, this is Julian," says the fading voice on the phone. It's hard to hear him over the loud backdrop of machine guns and bullets ricocheting around his studio in San Rafael, California. As he finishes up his sound effects edits for America's Army, a highly realistic war-simulation video game, I seem to have interrupted his concentration at a critical moment.
"Hang on just one quick second . . . OK . . . there," he breathes out with a sigh and a click. "I needed to finish sending these ricochet sounds off so I can test the game's data footprint. This is a big project for us."
Julian Kwasneski and his staff of sound designers, composers, musicians, and engineers at Bay Area Sound (BAS) have worked on more big projects in the past ten years than most will in a lifetime. If you've played Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, James Bond, or any number of NBA, NFL, PGA, or NCCA console games, you've likely heard the music and sound effects of BAS. Even if you're not a gamer, you've probably heard one of the many film, TV commercial, public service announcement, and music soundtracks they've created along the way.
It's a somber sign of the times that Kwasneski's award-winning crew has been making more and more audio for war games in the past two years. But if anyone can keep an even keel when it comes to editing machine guns for a living, it's Kwasneski, who cut his teeth on Outlaws—one of the very first games with positional 3D audio—back in 1997. Somehow, every week, between his 60-plus hours at the studio, a very long commute, and his family, this affable Marin County creative finds time to jam with a "psychedelic rock meets Tears For Fears" band he's played with for the past 11 years.
"It's ridiculous that the U.S. ever thought of entering Iraq to 'win' anything," Kwasneski muses between bursts of the audio equivalent of molten shrapnel. "'Win' is a weird word that rarely applies to war."
With his ricochets muted and email delivered, Kwasneski—who honed his game audio skills at LucasArts for six years before cofounding Bay Area Sound with composer Clint Bajakian—has plenty to say about using computers to create realistic game audio.
When he's not recording gunshots, Julian Kwasneski is usually sitting right here—at his Digidesign Pro Tools and Control24 workstation.
Randy Alberts (RA): Tell me about working on America's Army.
Julian Kwasneski (JK): It's been a hugely successful multiplayer PC game the past two years, and we're working on the ported game-console version of it with 30 new missions added. I've been producing all the voiceover, sound, and music for the game, and the U.S. Army is officially involved with approving and shaping the audio and dialogue with us. We actually had Special Forces guys sitting in on our sessions, which was wild.
RA: They were actually in uniform in your studio?
JK: No, it wasn't that intense. But I must say working on America's Army has been a refreshing break from the exhausting amount of work we did on the Star Wars: Episode III game. It's great listening to these Army guys' stories over lunch because it really puts your own version of a bad day into a totally new perspective. One of the Special Forces guys is just in his early 30s, yet he's already fought in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Desert Storm. He recently returned for his second tour of duty in Iraq.
RA: Why were they sitting in on your sessions?
JK: Their whole reason for being there during our early developmental sessions was to listen to all the dialog in the game. They'd say, "Oh, no way, we would never say that . . . this is how you say that." Or, if I had a line of voiceover dialog like, "Hey, get me a medic!" or "I need a first-aid kit," they'd say, "No, no, no—it's called an 'aid bag.'" We learned a lot about military jargon on this project.
RA: Is America's Army so realistic that it's like a pretraining tool for gamers interested in joining the Armed Forces?
JK: Yes, it is. It's that real. To be honest, from the personal standpoint of, "Just what are we contributing to here?" it's been an interesting project for us all. Because this game is so realistic, it actually has a way of weeding out people who aren't really the best candidates to enlist. In the long run, that saves them a lot of time and taxpayers a lot of money.
A scene from America's Army, with audio by Bay Area Sound.
RA: Violence in games must be an old subject for BAS by now.
JK: Let's face it: The gaming world in general is always getting a lot of criticism for violence and potentially inciting violence. But after hearing these Army guys' stories, I think there's two sides to everything, including war. There are even positive benefits from those who buy and play games like these. It's really like the whole Night Stalker thing. It wasn't AC/DC's fault that one of their fans was a lunatic. If anything, I think a realistic video game will let some people, if not many, use a computer screen to safely get certain things out of their system without resorting to violence.
RA: Which came first for you: music or games?
JK: Oh, music, for sure. I was a kid playing around with two cassette decks dubbing back and forth and actually thinking I had invented multitrack recording! I thought, "God, if I could only just have four tape heads and four tapes, I could sync things together and then I'd have a multitrack recorder."