Halo 2 Sound

A few words from Pete Parsons on…


The Sound of Halo 2

by Robert Valdes



Perhaps of all of the sounds associated with the Halo phenomenon, the most constantly heard is the "Cha-Ching" sound of the cash register. In-game "Halo 2" is offering a full aural experience with the addition of 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound. The master of all things that make noise at Bungie is Marty O' Donnell, but unfortunately, Marty was out the day of my visit, so instead we got a little info on the sound from studio manager Pete Parsons.

Pete: We do all our audio internally; Marty O' Donnell is both composer and audio director. He writes all the music for Halo and he also creates all the sound effects. We have over 20,000 lines of dialogue in 'Halo 2.' We have two of our own sound booths. These are both Dolby mixing booths. This is the most expensive part of the studio that we have. These guys aren't just making the funny sounds or the pretty sounds or the scary sounds, they are also working with our engineers to say, 'How do we do sound better?' This is a huge, enormous effort.

To give you an example, 'Halo 1' arguably won a lot of awards for sound. I think it was a pretty good effort on the sound front, whether it was music or sound effects but we really wanted to figure out how we could take the power of the X-box and spank that sound card and so we did.

"How do we create fully 3D positional sound as opposed to stereo sound that we had in Halo 1?" - Pete Parsons
"How do we create fully 3D positional sound as opposed to stereo sound that we had in Halo 1?" - Pete Parsons
Photo courtesy Bungie

So they sit down with the engineers and say, 'How do we create fully 3D positional sound as opposed to stereo sound that we had in Halo 1?' So now the example of that would be in Halo 1 I could hear the gun fire and then hear it impact behind me. In Halo 2 you can hear the gun fire, you can hear the bullet whistle by your head and you can hear it impact and then ricochet behind you. That may sound simple, but it really changes the way you play.

I remember the night we turned it on, it was actually in the multiplayer lab with multiplayer to test it out. You played the game differently. It's all about creating situational awareness or, from a marketing and PR standpoint, immersing you more into the game. But part of doing that is creating great situational awareness. All of the sudden when you heard needles [Pete mimics the sound of needles whipping by], it's like holy sh**! You sort of run and duck, and all of the sudden you start using the cover that we put there that you may not have used before. In the past, people just stood there and blazed away until they were dead or they ran away. Now it's more of a game of I'm going to crouch down, find cover and stand up shoot. It really changes the way you play the game.

I think it even surprised all of us to see how differently just these massively complex but seemingly simple tweaks made you play the game. They make you feel like you are more a part of the universe. So ultimately this unnatural fusion of the controller and the screen they all continue to melt away.

Robert: I got a 5.1 surround system just for "Halo 2."

Pete: Great, well then you're really going to enjoy it.

Robert: Being the big Halo nerd that I am, I'm thinking to myself as I hear you explain this, 'Now I can tell where the Grunts are coming from when I hear them chatter.'

Pete: That is absolutely the case. It's so funny that you say that. There's a scene on Mombassa where the Grunts in their unfortunately-awkward way are setting up an ambush for you. You know, before you'd hear them and you go, 'Ha ha, stupid Grunts.' Now you know where it's from; you essentially know what they are trying to do. So you immediately run to that position and you realize, 'Oh crap! They were doing because there are a ton of Elites behind them.' So we can even use the sound as a design tool to draw you into a trap.

And trapped I am (sorry for the Yoda speak). I can't seem to do anything with my free time but spend it in front of that cursed game. As I said, I did buy a 5.1 Surround Sound system to play "Halo 2" and I can honestly say it makes a difference, most notably with footsteps. If you're creeping up on me, I'll probably here you if you're not quiet enough. The craziest thing is that you instinctively turn in the direction of the sound without having to think about where it came from. Kudos to Marty O' Donnell and his team!