Behind the Footsteps of Arcan Chronicles – The Footstep Machine
A few months ago I got asked by Arcanite Studios if I wanted to do sound design for a series, Arcan Chronicles, shot entirely in Minecraft. I enjoyed playing Minecraft and would love to start some survival adventures again soon. Now, Minecraft has a pretty basic visual style, which is one of the immersive factors of the game in my opinion. However, when I saw what these guys did to their Minecraft screen recordings and what they planned for their episodes, I could only agree to be part of the project. With the deadline quickly approaching, the last week was extremely intense. One of the things I developed was a footstep machine and it helped me save hours and hours of work. So, sound geeks of all sorts, listen up :)
Heavy Planning And A 7 Day Deadline
A project of this magnitude requires a ton of planning to coordinate all the parallel efforts (acting, recording, editing, voice-over, visual effects, music, sound, website, anticipation-building videos and much more). Nevertheless, I got a rough cut only about a week before the deadline. This meant creating believable ambiences, specific foley sounds, doors, windmills, orcs, room reverbs, footsteps and much more for this first 17-minute episode of Arcan Chronicles in under 7 days. I prepared as much as I could based on the script and recorded as many raw sounds as I could. Several shots were at night, so I went out and recorded crickets at 2 o’clock in the morning. Crickets chirp differently at night. Also, frogs.
Take a look at the trailer, the sound needed to match the near-Hollywood quality visuals (post processing and visual effects done by Thomas of Uniblue Media).
Efficiency Is King
It’s clear that everything you do once you get hold of the footage should be done very efficiently if all you have are 7 days for a whopping 17 minute episode and you’re basically the only one. Also, I’m quite lazy so I’m constantly looking for ways to make my life easy.
A big part of any movie (if it doesn’t play in space suits in a no-gravity environment) are footsteps. Normally, footsteps are recorded in sync to the footage on a foley stage, but I don’t have such a thing. I recorded different shoes on several different grounds in the past: shoes on cement streets, on dirt roads, in low grass, in high grass, tapping in shallow water etc. But these footsteps are not in sync to any performance on screen. Bummer.
This meant chopping up the recording and placing individual steps manually to match the footage. That’s quite boring. And it’s inflexible. Once placed, any changes require a lot of fiddling around because suddenly there are a LOT of movable parts. See the screenshot to know what I mean. Click to enlarge.
The single red block in the picture above represents the continuous recording of a fast walk on a dirt road. It sounds like this.
If you wanted to make the character run fast, you needed to cut the recording in little pieces and lay out every step individually, getting the timing right to still sound natural. The chopped up recording is represented by the many orange blocks in the picture above. I tried to do this and getting the timing right is tricky. I needed about 5 minutes for something I can do with my footstep machine in seconds now. Here’s how it sounds.
Taking Games As Example
Doing sounds for games I knew there was a better way. There, I usually create about 3-5 simple footstep sounds and let the game engine randomize the sound’s parameters. That means every time a footstep sound is played, the volume and pitch are slightly varied to make no footstep sound exactly the same as another one. These small variations are usually sufficient to fool the ears. At least if the ears don’t concentrate 100% on the footstep sound ;)
It works even better if you tell the sound engine to always play 2 random sounds at once and vary their parameters, increasing the sonic combinations by several factors. This in my opinion yields quite realistic results.
Now I only needed to transfer this concept to my audio workstation. And there’s a solution: SAMPLERS! I remembered my good old drum sampler Battery by Native Instruments. It’s actually made for programming believable drums for rock, pop, electro and what have you and it sounds like this.
The nifty thing now is that it has a full-blown sampler under the hood that you can access. Nothing stops you from loading in your own recordings.
The Footstep Generator
And that’s what I did! I took the recordings I did of footsteps, loaded them into Battery, and assigned each individual step to a horizontal cell. You end up with about 6 individual step sounds for which Battery will happily randomize volume and pitch using LFOs. Each time you play a note, a single step is triggered with different volume and slightly different pitch. Basically you can now play footsteps with a MIDI keyboard like an instrument. With this system, it’s easy to switch sounds if footsteps sounds out of place or too loud. No chopping and no cumbersome re-arranging of individual bits are required anymore. Very flexible!
After spending a day figuring all this out and building my footstep machine, I basically just sat there, hit record, watched the movie and played footsteps on the keyboard. Voilà: FOOTSTEPS ALL THE WAY, AND QUICK :)