In this special interview we talk with sound designer Jonatan Crafoord, composer Elvira Björkman, music producer Henri Sorvali and Head of Audio Ilmari Hakkola about the sound of the freshly released mobile game Angry Birds 2 by Rovio Entertainment. To hear the great sounds of the game in action go grab the free game from Apple App Store or Google Play.
What was the sound design process like for Angry Birds 2? Where did you get inspiration from for the sounds?
Jonatan: Since we were only two people working on sound and didn’t have any dedicated studio facilities in the Stockholm office, we had to do what we could within those limitations. We did do some original recordings using our field recorder, but most of the sounds were composed, remixed and reworked using the Rovio sound libraries and back catalog. Toons, the TV-series, was an especially big inspiration, since it really embodied the look and feel we wanted for the game visually as well.
Did you do a lot of location recordings for the game? Any special stories you could share from those?
Jonatan: When we did our own recordings it was mostly in make-shift pillow forts in various meeting rooms. We recorded things like balloons, toots and horns, as well as placeholder voice samples – basically anything where the result was easier to produce inhouse than to rework from existing library sounds. Unfortunately we never really prioritized going outside for field recordings, though I have my own library of previous field recordings which I often used in the project.
There are some festive character vocalisations in the game – How were the character voices made and what was your approach with them?
Jonatan: Almost all of the samples are actually from various Angry Birds Toons episodes. We’d start with the action we wanted on screen, then I’d select and edit a number of voice sample variations that fit, and finally the animations were created based on the samples. Silver and Terence got new voice recordings that were performed by the Finnish audio team, since Silver was completely new to the series and Terence’s voice hadn’t been featured much in Toons.
What were the most challenging sounds to get right in AB2 – and what sounds are you most happy about?
Jonatan: The win screen sound was probably the most difficult, since it had to feel super rewarding and be played so many times. Elvira did a lot of iterations before we were finally happy with it. Another challenge was creating a custom sound for when big towers fall straight like tree trunks. I wanted a comical whistling experience when it happened, but it was very difficult to detect the event without getting false positives, and to time the sound correctly. When it is triggered at the right moment it is really satisfying!
I’m also especially happy with the sound experience when launching Terence. We wanted to make him feel extremely heavy and powerful, so we created a moment where the music and sounds slows down in anticipation for his huge, crashing impact.
Tazman Audio’s Fabric audio middleware is used heavily in the game. Can you tell us a bit more how you utilized it in the game and what kind of special tricks you did with it?
Jonatan: As for special tricks, the biggest thing was probably the mix presets. These both helped us set which types of sounds should be audible in a given situation, and allowed us to do slow motion, like with Terence, and speed-up effects. Apart from that we mostly used Fabric for the workflow benefits. It really helps to keep all the sounds in the same place and having them triggered by events, rather than having them all over the project. Fabric also made it a lot easier to do simple things like randomization, sequencing and basic mixing.
Any new approaches and techniques you applied to the sound design of the game?
Jonatan: The main innovations came from the way we had to deal with download size restrictions. The scope of the game is quite big, but everyone needs to be able to download it even with a bad internet connection. To accomplish this I put a lot of time into researching optimal ways of compressing the audio. I also programmed a realtime stereo spreader which allowed us to halve the size of all music and ambiences by keeping them in mono. In the end this allowed us to fit all of the audio – music, voice and sound effects – in just 10mb of disk space.
How much collaboration did you do with the music team? Did the music influence the sound design?
Jonatan: I worked very closely throughout the project with Elvira, who composed the music. She also did a lot of the sound design, and I provided feedback on the music and did much of the music implementation. We left the areas fairly separate, but I think the collaboration helped us think a lot about making everything work together and leaving room for both sound and music in the mix.
What was the composing process like for Angry Birds 2? Any special stories you could share from the process?
Elvira: The most special story, for me, is probably the one on how I started at Rovio. I started there as a sound design intern at Rovio Stockholm without any idea how it would be. Before I started, both Jonatan and our executives were very honest by telling me that there were no guarantees that I would get a job there after my internship was done. I had applied to many console-game focused studios, which I didn’t get any thumbs up from, while’s Rovio was the only one that focused on mobile. I knew Jonatan from before as he was my mentor at Future Games where I studied Game Design and I knew he was (and is) a great person and excellent sound designer that I absolutely wanted to work with. So I was pretty psyched when I got the good news!
Anyways, I had a great start and got to work immediately with the prototype of Angry Birds 2. At the end of the month the prototype was to be sent for green light from Rovio in Finland and I thought it was a bit of a bummer to send it in without any music in there. So with the blessing from Jonatan, that acted as my mentor during my internship, I spent some time making a song, the one you hear when you enter any level in the first chapter, and put it in. People seemed to like it and it was sent in like that. A month later Jonatan told me we were having a Skype meeting with Ilmari, the head of Audio at Rovio, to discuss the music in AB2. I distinctively remember thinking in the lines of “Dammit, this is the end of the road for me… oh well it was nice as long as it lasted”, and then the meeting came.
Our producer Kati, Jonatan, me and Ilmari were there. Maybe Salla was there too, another splendid composer at Rovio, but I can’t remember exactly. I thought I was there as courtesy of being an intern, not an important person for the meeting, so I stayed quiet when the discussions started. Ilmari sat pretty quietly as well as I can recall and then suddenly says, out of nowhere; “Actually, I think Elvira should do the music”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Was this person that crazy to entrust an intern of doing the music for the entire game? I couldn’t quite believe it for another month or so until I met them once again in Finland. I was just very sceptical I had heard it right, or that it would be some sort of prank or something, but I kept working on some more demos for that meeting.
However, it didn’t stop me from celebrating when the news came so on my way home to my boyfriend I bought a bottle of champagne and popped it at the doorstep, screaming it all out that I was making music at Rovio. You see, working with games and music has been my dream since I was a little kid and here I stood and people at Rovio were crazy enough putting that trust in me. That’s just something I’ll take with me my whole life… It must have been a hell of a good song!
Ilmari: We usually compose everything within our in-house music team in Espoo, as we are very picky when it comes to music. The Angry Birds music style is developed over the years and it’s hard to replicate (or so we think!). Initially the intention was to compose the music of AB2 also in Espoo, but when I heard Elvira’s demos, I thought there was potential. But more importantly, I thought the game would benefit from having a very excited composer working closely with the team. Elvira had great ideas about music implementation, and I really wanted her to influence the game production with these ideas. This is our main goal in the audio team – to make sounds and music an integral part of the production. So instead of having the music “outsourced” to our team in Espoo, the music was composed and implemented in the core of the production. We then had our Espoo music producer Henri Sorvali helping Elvira to bring that original “Angry Birds” sound to the music – to piggify it as we say! I was a little scared at first, having made the call of an intern composing the music, but Elvira and Henri did an amazing job and the end result is just magnificent.
How much work was it to nail down the music style and instrumentation for the game?
Elvira: In the start I went for something more movie-esque and grande with a lot of inspiration from soundtracks by John Powell (How to train your dragon, RIO) and Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away, Nausicaa and the valley of the wind, Princess Mononoke). I had already in the first demo I made, the one in the prototype, a strong idea that I wanted the songs to feel very alive and a bit progressive in its emotional curve. The game’s final download size was a big concern for the music so I wanted to make sure that the 2 -3 minutes long songs had an interesting journey to listen to before looping, so that the feeling of freshness for the player lasted longer even though we couldn’t cram in that many songs.
After the initial Skype call that I mentioned, I continued making some songs with that inspiration still intact. I was booked one month later to go to Finland meeting Ilmari, Salla and Henri (also a composer). I didn’t know exactly what to expect from that meeting, but I kept going in the direction I had. When I got there we listened to the demos and I got a lot of great feedback when it came to the sound of Angry Birds. The demos I had so far were not particularly bad but maybe not that much in the style of Angry Birds either. It didn’t have that same fun and quirkiness to it as the brand usually has. It had a bit of it there, but not there yet so to say. So I had a lot to re-think regarding the direction I was going when I got home.
I reworked the demos and put much more oompa-oompa balkan styled trumpets and instruments into it, I had some ideas of using weird voices, kazoos and changed my inspiration instead towards Christophe Heral’s ‘Rayman Origins’ soundtrack, which I love to death and that I find would fit AB2 very well together with a lot of Balkan music.
It had been decided that Henri, a very talented composer and producer at Rovio as well as composer in the band Finntroll and Moonsorrow, would act as my producer and that I would go back to Helsinki during the summer to work with him two weeks, improving the demo’s I had so far. So until then I did my best trying to evolve the demos I had into a style that was much more Angry Birds and during those two weeks Henri helped me immensely with nailing the style to its final form!
What aspects do you usually take in account when deciding the musical direction of a project?
Elvira: Despite starting as an intern at Rovio I’ve had some projects before. I worked with Nicklas, who I own a composer-company/band called ‘Two Feathers’ with, making the soundtrack for the indie game ‘Hammerwatch’ that got quite successful, as well as a lot of other game-projects that never left the ground, student projects and bands. Right before my internship we also started working with the Indie-game ‘Twin Souls: the Path of Shadows’ that is not yet released.
In all of those projects I’ve always tried to find something unique that vibrates well with the game. The style and direction doesn’t need to be nailed down immediately but I want the first song I do to feel that it fits in its own unique little way while playing. A palette that works to build upon. So I usually try to start with that. Then like everything else it will evolve and during the evolution the songs will pollute each other with inspirations that finally form themselves to something final and hopefully nice to listen to.
The interactive aspect is also very important for me. As I grew up with games and still play them and love them I know the importance the music has to the whole feeling of playing. At least it had a big impact on me and still does! I think of that a lot during the development and I want to play around with the prototype or alpha as fast as I can to make sure what you hear and what you do feels great together. Preferably I’m the one implementing most of my music, since I then don’t have to wait to try how my music feels in-game. Usually that always gives new inspirations on what to do better and I also feel like more a part of the team. It’s also important to know your technical limitations really early, and if it’s you or someone else who will implement the music. I want to take that into account when choosing my direction.
Adaptive / interactive music in games has been evolving a lot during the past years. Can you tell us about the music system in Angry Birds 2 and how did you utilise it?
Elvira: Like I mentioned earlier I had quite a strong idea about different emotional curves I wanted the music to have. But something that evolved more and more as the project grew was the ideas of how to implement it. Mid-project I heard the graphical artists discussing ideas about different lightings in the game, like night, day, morning etc. I immediately jumped onboard on that and discussed the idea of having those feelings inside the music and that maybe when the player entered a level we could jump right into the part of the song that represented that particular setting in that level. I discussed this with Jonatan, who knows a lot about implementing music and sounds, if it was possible at all to implement and we brainstormed around it. The idea was solid and later on I also added some small unique intros to all the day-cycle-alternatives to make the soundtrack feel even more alive when playing.
The map is also a fun story. I’ll try to make it short, but we were very unsure, everyone was, how it would become in the end. I had one song for it, another version of the first chapter-song you hear today, pretty early on. Back then the map was an image of piggy island from above and not the different background settings you scroll through today. So we waited with finalising anything for the map. Around September it was finally decided on another type of map, which had the different chapters and background settings. Since we were going to record all music in the start of October I didn’t have much time to work with this, but I still wanted to have three different musical pieces, instead of just one. I came up with the idea of having them change into each other as you scroll by and Jonatan once again stepped in brainstorming in how we actually could do that and he came up with that the best way for us was to have all three songs in the same tempo, key and being in the exact same length. So I wrote the pieces just like that and I think it worked out great!
Any new approaches and techniques you applied to the music of the game?
Elvira: There was nothing groundbreaking in itself, a lot of the techniques we used has been used in other games, mostly in console- and PC-games development. However, for the mobile-platform most of the things we did, as I know, were very new and interesting! Jonatan has worked a lot with optimising our systems and making it possible for us to have so many sounds and music pieces in the game. Without him I’m 100% sure we wouldn’t have such a rich soundscape as I would say we have! One example of many of his magic-tricks is that he made a stereo spreader, enabling the music to be in mono but still get a stereo feeling out of it! This saves up half of the memory space the music would otherwise take! He built one himself that applies if you put in your headphones. Little-big things like that!
What was the post-production process for the music like?
Elvira: Henri took care of all the post-production! We recorded some of the instruments and voices together, and I also sat there with him during the pre-mix process getting a chance explaining what I wanted to achieve and also learn a lot about that process. We had a great contact over Skype during the mix and master process as well. It was very easy and super fun working with him. I was never afraid of voicing my opinion and he wasn’t either (I think!), which I believe strongly is very important in any great working team-work!
Henri: One of the most fun tasks I get at work sometimes is the “Here´s this nice music. Now please ruin it with weird stuff!”. So while Elvira was polishing her music stems at Stockholm according to what we had agreed earlier, I was busy Rovio-izing the music with everything we didn´t have caught on tape yet. From banjos to upright bass, harmonica and back, I had really fun working with the songs meanwhile, waiting for her to return so we could stir that chaos pot together. And what a stew did we boil indeed! I really enjoyed working with her as we both seemed enjoying both bad and absurd humour, needing coffee to maintain functionality and most importantly- being excited about pretty much everything related to music. And especially game music!
We spent two weeks in the post- production recording all sorts of thingamabobs and mixing the music like the Great Eagle himself was there waiting to peck our eyes out if we didn´t succeed. But despite of all the deadlines, hundred tracks, bugging compressors and traffic jams, we still made it…and liked it!
As usual, the hardest part was to decide what darlings we should kill in order to maintain even a tiny bit of order within the bubbling chaos but in the end we managed to squeeze quite a lot of things there. Most of that was achieved by using sidechain- compressing a lot, especially with the drums and bass. Keeping the mix rather dry was also a great deal to help a bit, and in the end we didn´t need to drop anything out for the sake of clarity, which is a rather rare case in a mix like this. Especially if there are vocals recorded with a laptop microphone, because a certain music producer loved that sound and insisted on keeping those supposed demo vocals in the mix. Ahem.
How much collaboration did you do with the rest of the audio team? Did the sound design influence the music?
Elvira: Well, since I started out as an intern in sound and also continued working with the sound during and after the music process was done; I felt that we basically were the same team rather than separate! For my own work the music rather influenced the sound design a lot more than the opposite. I focused quite much on UI sounds and in the start I made them quite plain and uninteresting. Just your basic type of swooshes. Then I started to work with more texture, I wanted them to sound much more rich, unique and interesting, and it got so much better. I took the same critique I got about the first music demos and thought about what that meant in sounds as well. I also added a lot of the quirky voice-ideas from the music to the sound effects, making them more musical and coherent with the background music. My goal there was to make the UI also feel like a part of the world and not just as a separate entity, just like the goal was for the music.
Then of course, Jonatan’s expertise in the technical aspects is worth more than gold. He could always answer on questions and brainstorm solutions on difficult ideas. Without him and that knowledge I don’t think the music nor the rest of the audio would have sounded like this at all since defeating our technical limitations always was the make it or break moment in any interactive or lengthy idea we had for the music!