On Sound Design and Goodwill


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Jon Hillman, That Dragon, Cancer sound designer, composer, programmer.
Jon Hillman, That Dragon, Cancer sound designer, composer, programmer.

While working on an upcoming scene, we discovered a need for a classic ‘Spin n’ Say’ toy to be created, with which the player will interact. It’s been a while since I played with this kind of toy, and after a brief search around the house I remembered how few of my sons’ toys make noise (you gotta do what you can to stay sane). A few seconds on the internet later, I was well-reminded of how this toy works: pull a lever, a dial spins, and delightful low-fi narration and animal noises ensue. In our toy’s case, there’s also some buttons and an extra lever.

Some of these sounds are simple to make, basically put a microphone in front of something and press record. A few edits and minimal processing, and there you have it. So, I figured I’d head to the thrift store and see what they had. At first I saw nothing like what I needed - almost everything was digital with very few mechanics (no buttons, no moving lever, etc). I was about to leave when I threw some toys to the side in frustration, and the perfect toy was revealed. Lever…check. Spinning dial…check. Unbelievably annoying sounds coming from a tiny speaker inside a cheap plastic case with a happy farmer on it…CHECK.

Recording Sound with Spin and Say toy.
Recording Sound with Spin and Say toy.

Once back at the studio, my first priority was to get the batteries out of this thing. I’d need to be able to pull the lever and isolate the mechanical sounds I wanted. A few minutes of recording and editing later, and that work was done. I then wondered how to approach making our own narration and animal sounds, and most importantly how to make them sound like the toy. I have lots of tricks up my sleeves (ie; effect plug-ins and hardware), but was concerned with the time it might take to mimic the toy via processing,  and my declining mental health over that course of time.

Glancing down at the toy, which was face down with its guts hanging out the back, I realized I could probably add an audio input without much fuss. Then, mimicking the toy would be as easy as pressing play and putting a microphone in front of it. Thanks to the general state of things in my studio, my soldering iron/hacking tools were already out and ready to go. About 10-15 minutes later, I sent out a recording of a team-favorite track made through the toy. After a few very silly late-night voiceover sessions with Mike, we had our toy fully-realized in the game.

Guts of a toy
Guts of a toy

With all the fancy tools we have these days, I often forget about more organic, natural approaches. I’d probably still be tweaking some knob on an EQ, or auditioning impulse responses, if I hadn’t have just hacked that toy. Now I have a new tool on the shelf for whenever I need that ‘awesome’ sound again, and the world can rejoice in having one less Farmer whatever-his-name-is toys in circulation.

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