Sound Design for Star Atlas: Interview with Chapter Four

We spoke with Sarah Gibble-Laska and Karim Douaidy from Chapter Four, the company providing the sound effects and music for Star Atlas. We discuss the process they go through to design the audio for an online MMORPG space game based in the Metaverse.

chapter four with star atlas

JJ Lyon: Hi Both! Could you introduce yourselves?

Sarah Gibble-Laska: I’m CEO and partner of Chapter Four. We are a creative technology and post-production studio based in NYC with services in video, sound, and music. We offer our skill sets to brands, studios, artists and organizations around the world.

My craft is sound design, that’s also what I predominately lend to Star Atlas, in addition to overseeing the other sound designers on this project.

Karim Douaidy: I’m Creative Director and also a partner at Chapter Four. we are  a team of ten people, but we scale based on the needs of each project. We got our start in traditional media, doing post and music for film, TV and advertising.

Within our first year of business, we had started working on virtual reality projects involving spatial sound and ambisonics, which naturally progressed into more interactive spatial audio and music for video games.

I’m a composer by trade, so I mainly compose music for Star Atlas, and manage the day-to-day operations of the project as Audio Lead.

Let’s Talk about Star Atlas. You mentioned that the game is on the blockchain. Is working in this way different to other interactive projects you’ve done?

S: No, for our role it isn’t any different than working on other interactive projects. You need to consider how sounds behave in a three dimensional space, a process our Technical Audio Lead Paul Drauz-Brown has been an integral part of. Star Atlas is meant to be a metaverse multiplayer game, so we’re focusing on designing sound for many players at once, in a myriad of positions.

There are many games out there whose themes  are space exploration, combat, etc, and each one tries to market itself uniquely. In addition to being on the blockchain, Star Atlas is very ambitious in its scale and design. For example, we’re giving each ship and faction their own sonic identity and personality that players can align with.

K: As Sarah said, in the context of video games, the workflow is pretty standard. Star Atlas is at the intersection of various technologies, so from a conceptual perspective, it aims to accommodate how the community lives on the blockchain and what they’re expecting out of the soundscape. 

There is of course the NFT component as well, which brings some novel ideas and questions we must ask ourselves. The spaceships purchased in-game, for example, have their own unique signature sounds. Will a ship manufacturer have their own theme song which can also be its own NFT?

On a more global level beyond Star Atlas, will Web3 allow for gamers to customize and own unique versions of the sound associated with the digital assets they own? These are just a few new and fascinating considerations for sound designers and composers working in this medium, and certainly for us.

What has the approach been so far for the spaceship sound effects for Star Atlas?

S: The spaceships are visually striking and unique. We thought it was only appropriate that this also be represented sonically, so our core sound design team lead by myself, Paul Drauz-Brown, and George Bafaloukos, is designing and implementing sound assets that give each ship its own identity and highlight their distinctive features.

Our aim is to differ greatly with smaller details from ship to ship, as well as with overall engine character between ship manufacturers. Krotos has been very helpful in this process.
In our efforts to make every soundscape scalable, we create reliable base layers that can be modified according to the ship’s needs, and also to give them a little extra character.

K: We divide the spaceship sounds into separate categories: locomotion (engine, thrusters, air brakes, etc), ambiences (cockpits, corridors, etc.), interactables (doors, ramps, etc.), UI (both for menu and HUD layers), and so on. Most engine assets consist of two base components: an organic layer that highlights the motor based on the technology used, and the other a synth layer that introduces more suggestive tonal perception to the ship.

Beyond that, we typically have 1-3 more “character” layers based on the ship size, manufacturer and personality. As Sarah said, our goal is to guarantee a consistent sonic identity between models within the same ship manufacturer. That process starts with ensuring continuity at the level of the base engine sounds. But to guarantee that further, we also chose to make all Head-up Display (HUD) and UI sounds similar for all models within the same manufacturer.

Designing sounds for a living, breathing video game universe sounds like the ultimate creative playground for a sound designer or composer!

S: It absolutely is. The deconstruction of assets has been interesting to figure out. We need to assess what is the most re-creatable whilst being the least taxing on both the middleware and the game itself. It has been a great exercise for deciding which will be the most flexible sounds because every sound really must have a purpose. So that’s been really enjoyable to explore.

K: The philosophy behind the game is modularity, so you have the agency as a player to put eclectic components together. One very compelling feature of the game is that you will eventually be able to  buy a ship from one faction, and weapons from a different faction etc.. All of these abilities create a unique combination of sounds based on how the player decides to combine them.

How do you make each other’s sound and music work together in the game?

S: After Karim had composed a few initial pieces, we discussed coordinating key signatures so that the ambiences for the space would be in a complementary key or in the same key that he was writing in. I tried not to step on his timbral toes too much! Karim wrote some really beautiful music, I think it was unique enough too that they were able to coexist…so far, at least!

K: From a sound design perspective, as we discussed, most engines include an organic base layer, with some synth layers added on. Those layers are often tonal components. So we think about that in combination with the music. Sometimes you want to be in harmony, and sometimes you want to have some dissonance, based on the identity of the ship and what it is meant to be communicating.

Another aspect that I think is unique , and is the first time I’ve personally done this, is writing the music in A 432Hz. Danny Floyd, The Chief Product Officer of ATMTA, Inc. the company developing Star Atlas, is very much attached to the philosophical elements behind it. It’s been an interesting process, both creatively, and technically. We went back and forth between using software to tune things but also recording in that tuning.

So there was some exploration on that front. Some acoustically recorded instruments like guitars and bass were physically re-tuned. The choir, which is called Khorikos, is accustomed to performing  in 440. It was thus decided by their artistic director Alec Galambos to record at A=440 and then pitch it down using a pitch shifting software. We are however considering re-recording the choir in 432 hz for future iterations.

The 432Hz thing is interesting. There are many skeptics, but it could open up a whole new mindset of where you could come from philosophically

K: True, and if it actually generates something physically, the mindset that it invites to the backstory behind the music helps convey the world of Star Atlas.  Plus the fact that the developers of the game are thinking this deeply is great.

For the readers who are not familiar with the reasoning behind using it, some theorists and musicians claim that the 432 Hz tuning has better effects on the human body, that it might be the natural frequency of the universe, with cosmic healing powers.

How are you applying the Krotos plug-ins to the sound universe of Star Atlas?

S: The first Krotos plug-in that I was excited to use in general was Dehumaniser 2. This was well before the Star Atlas work. I had used Dehumaniser on many projects, especially narrative sci-fi podcasts and films. One in particular was See You In Your Nightmares, by Einhorn’s Epic Productions which consequently also had original music by Karim.

Each episode featured a different nightmare and corresponding monster, so my familiarity with the plugin expanded on that show. By the time I started working on Star Atlas, years later, I was able to use Dehumanizer for more than just monsters but instead as more of a tool for synth modulation. 

I use Reformer Pro for Foley, including footsteps and clothing. Igniter is a big one that we were really excited to use for crafting our ships, and has been useful in giving us a better understanding of engine acceleration and deceleration cycles. Weaponiser has also been a very useful tool. There are a lot of weapons in this game, and this plugin allows for enough customization that we can incorporate standout features from the ships into weapon components for a truly unique identity within each brand.

For instance, I, like many other sound designers, love to include a layer of animal sounds where applicable but not always expected. This of course is also the case when designing certain ship assets. For some ships, I have uploaded a few isolated animal sounds and other less traditional source material into Weaponizer, producing some really fantastic results while staying true to the ship’s sonic identity. The Krotos plugins we use the most on Star Atlas are Weaponiser, DeHumaniser 2 and Igniter, which all lend efficiency and character to this project.

K: From a music perspective, I’m currently working on a really cool application that involves using Krotos. There is a species in Star Atlas called the Mierese, which doesn’t have a written language. They feel written words are too poor of a vessel to express the really important notions of life, like emotions and feelings. So instead, they share all their knowledge through stories and songs.

I’m currently collaborating with José Siqueira, the content writer for Star Atlas who wrote lyrics from the perspective of a Mierese individual disclosing the recipe of one of the species’ most common dishes. The approach is to use Dehumaniser on some of the vocals, which sound like they are sung by a member of this alien species. We will be exploring similar concepts for other species in the future. Danny Floyd has even designed a Universal Phonetic Alphabet (UPA) using a mix of custom and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols to transcribe and verbalize those languages.

I know for a fact that Dehumaniser 2 will come in handy to create all those crazy alien phonemes.

Dehumaniser is known for its monster voices, But it is just a modular suite of some really unique effects for the most part. It offers some really interesting approaches to sound design.

S: The modularity of it reminds me a bit of the Kyma software, by the company Symbolic Sound, albeit arguably a more affordable and user-friendly version. Dehumaniser 2 is a great plugin to start experimenting on, because it comes loaded with sound banks and presets, sparking inspiration if you aren’t sure where to start, and providing enough flexibility for those who are more experienced or have specific ideas to build on.  

Speaking of, I should add to that the sound packs we received with our purchase of the Sound Design Bundle have been so helpful, even as standalone assets. The cars, helicopters, the engines and the exhausts as separate recordings have all been really useful. So kudos to you guys for your sound effects libraries, they’re wonderful!


Chapter Four Website

Star Atlas Website