Audio Deep Dives: 10 Crowns

Cantata has over 80 “interactables”: units or structures aligned with one of the game’s three (or, ahem, 3+) factions. Each of these interactables has its own set of sounds, which are especially rich for the commanding officers of each faction. I think 10 Crowns’ sounds were my favorite to make for this whole wide universe of a game.

Outside of my work on Cantata, I’m pretty obsessed with the human voice as an instrument, so the task of designing some kind of expressive vocalism for a creature whose ten consciousnesses exist in perpetual conversation with each other is about as exciting an assignment for sfx as I can imagine getting?? The vocal sounds for 10 Crowns, a hero of the Unified Spirit, are an amalgamation of recorded vocals from ten people: six whose voices I had previously recorded (and obtained the speakers’ permission to use,) three whose voices I found in public domain libraries, and my own.

I started by trawling through each of the ten sets of sounds, looking for expressive moments that might map onto the various emotional experiences that 10 Crowns might have in the course of their struggle for victory (and transcendence?) in Cantata. Those experiences all happen through actions you guide 10C through as you play the game:

  • BUILD: like other interactables, 10C can be placed on a map/in a scenario. They’re fresh on the scene, sizing things up!
  • SELECT: They’re eager to go!, and ready to receive orders from you, player.
  • DIALOGUE: They’re in conversation with another commander or unit, bringing all their confidence, doubt, and inquisitiveness.
  • MOVEMENT: They begin and then end a movement cycle, acknowledging and then proudly fulfilling your order.
  • ABILITIES: You, the player, select an ability of theirs to trigger, prompting a state of alertness, and then execute the ability, which in 10C’s case is a “heal” for nearby allies.
  • DAMAGE: even ten networked personalities, housed in an impossibly durable shell, can experience pain.
  • DEATH: do machines fear it? do they dream of electric sheep?

A brief demo of 10 Crowns’ sounds in action in Cantata:

After mining my ten actors’ recordings for expressions of joy, grief, assertiveness, hope, and more, I exported dozens of individual clips, giving me quick and easy access to these bursts of expression. I then brought each sound into an incredible tool called S-Layer, a plugin within Native Instruments’ REAKTOR synthesizer, itself a plugin for Logic, Apple’s popular and powerful digital audio workstation. I could have constructed these sounds without this Matryoshka Doll of audio tools, but S-Layer made it easy to further distill the emotional content of each of these sounds (with additional trimming and time-stretching) and combine them to produce a literal chorus of woe, elation, etc. I altered the pitch and inflection of the vocal sounds as I might in a musical arrangement for a choir: if everyone in a choir were asked to choose a pitch in their speaking range and sing loudly, we might hear an indistinct “wall of sound”, so instead, each of these ten voices needs its own timbre and frequency space to complement the others and be heard clearly.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of that process, and a closer look at the tool itself:

(can you tell there was a cup of coffee between the two takes)

So S-Layer’s great at randomization, creating chaos within the parameters I’ve set. The results aren’t instantly comprehensible as emotions though, or… maybe I mean that we can’t easily project one of those “feeling chart” feelings that we mere humans have words for. S-Layer’s knobs and buttons are very powerful, but the truth is that after a certain point I just hit record and produced who-knows-how-many of these chaotic gems, and then began another process of collating: I grouped these new, trippy sounds by their pitch and inflection, and then spliced them together to create, finally almost human vocalisms. Emphasis there on the “almost”; you’ll hear sounds that almost resemble words (“sure”; “yeah, chief?”) that I promise you are just bits of vocal pointillism strung together.

Hmm, there’s something here about the balance of order and chaos in the creative process, which feels very 10 Crowns:

Cantata audio deep dives: 10 CROWNS Soundboard